Viral Frankenstein Steering the evolution of Homo sapiens—but toward what destination?

Cenesthesia: Sight I, II, and III digital pigment prints on archival paper 96" x 40" by Patricia Olynyk.

“Thou art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer.”

—God to Adam, in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man (1486)


We live today in a Frankenstein moment, for humankind is acquiring the power to reshape the human body and mind in increasingly profound ways. Through the use of pharmaceuticals, we are learning how to control our moods, boost our physical and mental performance, increase our longevity and vitality. Through the application of prostheses, brain implants, and other bioelectronic devices, we are not only healing the blind and the paralyzed, but beginning to reconfigure our bodies, enhance our memories, and generate entirely new ways of interacting with machines. Through genetic interventions, we are not only neutralizing certain diseases long thought incurable, but opening up the very real possibility of taking evolution into our own hands—redesigning the human “platform” of body and mind in a thoroughgoing way.

These are Frankenstein powers: the capability to model human flesh and soul according to our wishes or whims. Go to a doctor, get a prescription, take a pill—and the familiar contours of our identity melt away. We become someone new, different, more closely aligned with our desires. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, as Mary Shelley envisioned him, was a solitary experiment, a unique exemplar of an engineered human being. But these Frankenstein powers of today will not just be applied to one person in isolation. They will be all around us, adopted by millions of people. For many among us, they will form part of our core selfhood. Here, therefore, lies the new “Frankenstein question,” updated for the 21st century: What happens when the majority of people in our society are partially-engineered beings?

As this process unfolds over the coming decades, people all over the planet will have to decide what (if anything) to do with these newfound powers. When it comes to bioenhancement technologies, we are no longer posing the age-old question raised by philosophers from Plato to Locke to Marx: What kind of society do we want to build for ourselves? Today we are asking something even deeper, a question that encroaches on the turf of Charles Darwin: What kind of creatures do we want to become? What do we want the human species to look like 500 years from now?

What happens when the majority of people in our society are partially-engineered beings?

It may seem the height of arrogance to attempt such a judgment. How are you and I to know what the people of the year 2200 or 2500 will want? Who are we to presume that we can affirm what will be good or bad for humankind a few hundred years in the future? Can we really say with any confidence, “We are willing to make this decision today, on behalf of all those people yet to be born a half millennium hence”?

We thus find ourselves in what might be described as a long-term, “species-shaping” dilemma. One option is to stand firmly by the performance profile of today’s humans, proclaiming its validity for all times and all generations: “Humans have survived perfectly well over the past millennia without 160-year health spans, bioelectronic telepathy, or genetically- boosted cognition. If the basic performance profile of humans—as bequeathed to us by evolution—was good enough for the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Mayans, and if it’s good enough for us today, then it should be good enough for the people of the year 2500 as well. Let’s stick with what we have and proclaim it sufficient!”

The problem with this bold prescription, however, is that it rests on an excessively rigid conception of human nature. Though it is certainly true, as the anthropologist Donald Brown has observed, that a core cluster of basic traits has characterized nearly all humans across the past few millennia, it is equally true that many of those key attributes have shifted considerably in quality as time went by. Consider for example the trait of average human IQ, which went up about 25 points between 1918 and 1978. If we were to take the average person from the year 1918 as the universal benchmark for human cognitive performance, would it be reasonable to impose a freeze on any further alterations of that performance? Had we done so in that year, then the considerable increase in average IQ that has actually taken place during the twentieth century would have been prevented from occurring. Do we really feel comfortable choosing an arbitrary temporal snapshot in this way and imposing it for all time as the be-all and end-all? For anyone arguing from a secular worldview, it is hard to see what basis one might find for making such a judgment.

This point becomes even clearer when we consider the ethical frameworks out of which any such judgment would unavoidably emerge—for these frameworks have not remained static across the centuries either. From the abolition of slavery to the empowerment of women, from the rise of individualism to the assertion of basic human rights, the fundamental ethical systems that structure human society have not remained immutable in the past, and there is no reason to expect that they will remain (or should remain) unchanged over the centuries to come. To affirm a specific, hard-and-fast set of values in the present, projecting them onto the society of the future, is to ignore the real moral progress and maturation that have taken place in the past and to place shackles on the progress that will no doubt occur over the centuries that lie ahead. This kind of moral absolutism is therefore deeply problematic, both because it denies the historical reality of gradual moral transformation and because it arrogantly imposes rigid constraints on the people of a distant tomorrow.

But the alternative position—historicist relativism—is just as bad. If we acknowledge the relativist implications of past moral change, this might lead us to conclude that we simply cannot presume to say what long-term trajectory the future evolution of our species should follow. Unfortunately, we are then left with no framework at all to guide our decisions regarding bioenhancement technologies in the present. The gradual reshaping of the human species over time is left to the contingency of market forces, cultural fads, and the vagaries of technological innovation: we humans surrender any right to decide what kind of beings we should (or should not) be making of ourselves.

On the surface, therefore, to accept historicist relativism may seem laudably humble and open-minded, but in reality it amounts to an abdication of responsibility. Bioenhancement technologies will have tangible consequences with hard-hitting moral implications, and historicist relativism leaves us woefully ill-equipped to deal with them. For example, when we encounter a person who stays at home day after day, doing nothing but repeatedly zapping her brain’s pleasure centers through a bioelectronic device, we will have given up any basis on which to declare this an abomination. Hybrid human-gorillas, children genetically designed as organ donors, vast gaps between the gen-rich and gen-poor, swaying masses of men and women blissed-out on neuroceuticals—the moral relativist has no framework for evaluating such outcomes and rejecting them. All she is left with is, “Well, I wouldn’t choose that for myself, but if that’s what you want, you’re entitled to your choice!”

We need clear guidelines—however provisional in nature—to lend coherence and meaning to the “species-shaping” choices we make in the present.

How, then, should we proceed? Between the Scylla of rigid absolutism and the Charybdis of shapeless relativism, there is indeed a way forward: it is the path of incremental structured change, guided by value frameworks that are recognized as provisional in nature. This sounds rather abstract and complicated, but in fact it is a pragmatic strategy that most of us are already familiar with because we use something like it all the time in everyday life. Suppose you are a 17-year-old making plans for college. You know you are making decisions that will powerfully shape the trajectory of the rest of your life, yet you do not let the far-reaching implications of your choices paralyze you. You choose which colleges to apply to, which parts of the country you will be living in, what kinds of major you will probably be considering, and even what kinds of career you suspect you will eventually be taking up. In making these plans and choices, you realize full well that the values guiding your current decisions will probably change—perhaps significantly—as you go through your education. Still, you affirm certain preferences in the present moment as your  provisional value framework for orienting your decisions: I want X, Y, and Z; I do not want A, B, and C. You clearly understand that later on in your life, these parameters of choice will undoubtedly change, and you already accept in advance the likelihood of that happening. But you need principles and strategies to guide you now, in the present, and you therefore go forward confidently with your current best estimate of what kind of person you are and what kind of person you want to make of yourself over the years to come.

Our species finds itself today in an analogous position. Most of us realize that the contours of human identity will probably shift in significant ways over the coming centuries and many (though not all) accept this as part of the normal evolution and growth of our civilization. At the same time, however, we also recognize that we need clear guidelines—however provisional in nature—to lend coherence and meaning to the “speciesshaping” choices we make in the present.


A moral framework for modifying human beings

Over the past three decades, researchers in the fields of positive psychology and developmental economics have offered valuable insights for making such long-term choices, based on the concept of human flourishing. Taken together—for these two fields are complementary—they offer rich pragmatic grounds for ethical decision-making, because they lay out a framework for answering one of the fundamental questions at the heart of all ethics: What does it mean for a human being to live a good life? Positive psychology emerged during the 1990s as a reaction against the long-dominant tendency of most psychologists to focus primarily on the pathologies of the human mind. Among the scholars who launched this endeavor were Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, followed by a second wave that included Christopher Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Sonya Lyubomirsky (among many others). Since we know so much about what can go wrong with people, they ask, why not try to attain the same degree of rigor in figuring out what makes humans flourish?

At the same time, an equally significant new development was taking place in the field of economic theory. The economist Amartya Sen developed what came to be known as the Capabilities Approach out of frustration with the inadequacies of prevailing economic models for conceptualizing global poverty and underdevelopment. What was needed, in his view, was a focus on the actual opportunities available to people in concrete practice—not just the abstract right to vote, for example, but the availability of tangible economic, educational, and civic conditions that would allow people to exercise informed and meaningful political decision-making. Hence the emphasis was on real-life capabilities—or functionings, as he liked to term them—rather than mere statistics and theoretical rights.

The word “enhancement” points toward an improvement of some sort. What better way to assess such improvement than to ask: Does this specific biotechnological modification of the human body or mind contribute to human flourishing?

Sen’s writings have proved enormously influential, earning him the economics Nobel in 1998. His ideas have been formally adopted by the United Nations as the conceptual basis for its annual Human Development Report, which compares the world’s nations according to a complex series of variables affecting their citizens’ economic and human opportunities.

Over the past two decades, moreover, Sen’s framework has been further developed and systematized by the political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who went one step further by producing an actual checklist of ten core human capabilities. These are: life; bodily health; bodily integrity (i.e., basic security); senses, imagination, and thought (i.e., literacy, education, free speech, etc.); emotions (i.e., interpersonal relationships and affective connections); practical reason (i.e., the ability to develop and pursue meaningful life-plans); affiliation (i.e., participation in groups and communities, in a manner compatible with one’s dignity); other species (i.e., concern for the environment); play; and control over one’s environment (i.e., political and civil rights, as well as property and labor rights). Taken together, the insights of positive psychology and the Capabilities Approach suggest a broad set of criteria by which we can evaluate human bioenhancement technologies. The word “enhancement” points toward an improvement of some sort. What better way to assess such improvement than to ask: Does this specific biotechnological modification of the human body or mind contribute to human flourishing? In making this assessment, of course, we need to take into account not just the direct impact of these technologies for individual persons, but also the more complex effects generated at the societal level, when large portions of a population adopt a particular enhancement.

I will now describe four basic dimensions of human flourishing and how they may each be affected by the widespread adoption of bioenhancement technologies over the coming decades and centuries. These, in other words, are the “danger zones” where it will behoove the coming generations to proceed with particular caution and critical self-awareness.

1. Radical inequality

One of the most obvious negative consequences of bioenhancement technologies would be the rise of a new kind of insurmountable socioeconomic inequality. This was not an issue that Mary Shelley’s novel explicitly addressed, because she was envisioning a single investigator conducting his experiment with a single human subject. But now imagine a world in which rich people are able to modify themselves and their offspring, acquiring ever-greater capabilities and powers, while the high cost of bioenhancement technologies shuts poor people out. The result could be a caste system inscribed into biology itself, a vertical hierarchy based on increasingly divergent performance profiles among various subsets of the population. If this form of “bio-stratification” were to occur, the principle of equality of opportunity—a key element of democracy—would become blatantly and permanently unworkable. Since such a dire outcome would probably prove unacceptable to a majority of the citizenry, our society would need to implement a system of universal access to a “basic package” of sophisticated enhancement technologies on a rigorously equal basis to all citizens. Under such a system, no one would be compelled to adopt enhancements, but every adult citizen would have the option of incorporating the full range of enhancements if she wanted them.

National governments would probably have to play a significant role, whether directly or indirectly, in establishing the system for universal access. They could either run the distribution of enhancement technologies directly, or regulate (and partially fund) the distribution mechanisms operating in a free market context.


2. Species fragmentation

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that humankind successfully meets the (immense) challenge of implementing a global system of subsidized equal access to sophisticated biotechnological modifications. Throughout the planet, millions of people begin exploring the thrills and challenges of the bioenhancement enterprise. One possible consequence is that enhanced humans would spontaneously sort themselves over time into discrete clusters based on particular trait ensembles and performance profiles. These clusters would tend eventually to become increasingly homogeneous internally and (at the same time) increasingly divergent in comparison with each other. Such groupings might start out as informal gatherings of loosely connected persons who have noticed a basic affinity in their chosen trait profiles. But with the passing of decades, it is possible that they will form increasingly self-conscious and explicit categories, bound together by common interests and values, as well as by a shared culture and ideology.

In the coming century or two, each of us will wield Frankenstein’s powers and be able to apply those powers voluntarily to our own bodies and minds. There will be millions of us doing this all over the world at the same time. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, we will not be able to recoil in revulsion and run away, for we ourselves will have been the objects of our own transmogrification


This clustering effect could pose a serious threat to the unity of the species because it would be grounded not just in the ethereal realm of cultural identity, but in tangible biological and functional differences. Persons belonging to separate categories would not only look very different from each other, but would possess significantly divergent capabilities and powers: they would use pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetic interventions to fashion themselves and their offspring in strikingly distinctive ways. The result could be a new and extreme form of “identity politics” resulting in gradual fragmentation of the species—a global society increasingly riven by negative stereotypes, resentments, rivalries, and outright conflict.

In the Frankenstein novel, the protagonist, a solitary engineered being, certainly does encounter a cruel form of isolation and social marginalization. But imagine how these vicious societal effects might be multiplied, if millions of engineered beings were to populate the planet, each one belonging to a wide range of clusters that differed from the others in fundamental ways.


3. Commodification

Victor Frankenstein’s creative act deliberately blurred the boundary between “person” and “product”—and so will the bioenhancement technologies of the coming century. A future in which millions of people are busily boosting their traits would be a world in which some persons (or groups) totally outclass others in performance and capability; everyone feels the pressure of a relentless race for ever-higher levels of functioning; parents have to choose how to shape their children’s traits, while children have to deal with their parents’ choices; and obsolescence looms perpetually over one’s performance profile like a sinister cloud. All these troubling qualities, it is worth noting, already exist to some degree in our life-world today: competition for productivity is a key element of our civilization. But the advent of widespread enhancement technologies would take it to a whole new level. In order to counteract this pernicious tendency, people would need to adopt a personal philosophy that actively and continually bolsters human dignity:


Wholeness. Resist any mode of thinking that reduces a person to a mere collection of traits. I am not the same as my performance profile, and my worth does not lie in my particular capabilities but rather in the ineffable totality of my personhood. Reject modes of thought that subordinate who you are to narrow instrumental purposes.

Immeasurability. Enhancements inherently invite the quantification of features that should not be thought of as measurable. Although my strength, dexterity, and intelligence can be rated on a scale from high to low, the qualities that make up my worth as a person exist on a separate plane and cannot be approached through scalar logic.

Uniqueness. Comparison lies at the heart of commodification: it arises out of evaluative judgments such as, “This model is better than that one; this trait is less desirable than those.” But individuals are unique in nature, and can never be compared in this way. In a world of widespread bioenhancement technologies, one must be especially vigilant not to slip into comparative reasoning when thinking about the worth of persons.

Intrinsic value. The elements that make life worth living, such as friendship, love, honor, or the appreciation of beauty, can sometimes be indirectly affected by enhancement technologies. A bioelectronic implant, for example, may help you to communicate more effectively with your boyfriend. But unlike the implant device, these intrinsic goods cannot themselves be bought or sold and it is imperative not to allow them to be subtly instrumentalized or commercialized.


4. Mechanization of the self

Victor Frankenstein breathed life into his creation by zapping his inert body with a powerful jolt of electricity. He thereby illustrated a basic feature that applies to all other humans as well: even though we are not machines, we can sometimes treat ourselves as if we were machines and get astoundingly effective results. Take one pill and your sinus infection dissipates within a couple days. Take a different pill and thirty minutes later you earnestly believe you are having a conversation with Napoleon Bonaparte. By selectively manipulating the material substrate of our personhood—our cells and tissues—we have acquired the ability to modulate at will many of the most cherished aspects of our mental and emotional selfhood. This is a tantalizing power to possess, but it carries grievous  risks. If I hijack my mind-body process by taking a “happy pill,” I may feel good as a direct result, but the pleasant experience is morally problematic because it comes out of a linear, machinelike cause, rather than out of the rich, complex, unpredictable world of my life-struggles and interpersonal relationships. I am treating myself like a kind of automat for pleasant feelings, taking a shortcut past the very things that matter most in rendering a human life worth living. It amounts to a sort of ontological lie, which the philosopher Neil Levy calls “mechanization of the self.”

•  •  •

What are we to conclude from these observations? The Frankenstein story certainly did capture the pathos of a scenario in which a single human being undergoes radical bioengineering. But the story bears only limited relevance for a world like tomorrow’s, in which each of us will have the option to choose radical bioenhancement technologies, making a choice to sculpt our selfhood as we see fit. The moral horror of Frankenstein’s deed lay in the fact that he created a new life form, then turned away from his creation in disgust and abandoned it to its own fate. But in the coming century or two, each of us will wield Frankenstein’s powers and be able to apply those powers voluntarily to our own bodies and minds. There will be millions of us doing this all over the world at the same time. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, we will not be able to recoil in revulsion and run away, for we ourselves will have been the objects of our own transmogrification. These two moral factors make all the difference: we will be doing it to ourselves of our own volition, and we will be part of a social order in which such human redesign will be the new norm. What would Mary Shelley say?

1. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man, translated by Charles Wallis (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), 5.

2. See Michael Bess, Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future (Beacon, 2015); Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (London: Harvill Secker, 2015).

3. A pioneering work in this regard was Jonathan Glover, What Sort of People Should There Be? (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1984).

4. Freeman Dyson ponders such issues with his customary perspicacity in Imagined Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), ch. 4.

5. Donald Brown, Human Universals (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991).

6. James R. Flynn, “Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations: What IQ Tests Really Measure,” Psychological Bulletin 101:2 (1987), 171-91.

7. Friedrich Nietzsche still offers the most impressive articulation of this argument. See especially “On the Genealogy of Morals” in Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings, trans. Walter Kauffmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 437-600.

8. See Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998); James Harris, Against Relativism: A Philosophical Defense of Method (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1992); David Copp, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Hugh LaFollette, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000).

9. See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1984); Harris, Against Relativism; and the entries on relativism in Copp, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory; and in LaFollette, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Blackwell, 2000).

10. Kitcher, The Ethical Project; MacIntyre, After Virtue.

11. The poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault explicitly denies such a role of even provisional moral guidance for philosophy. See Michael Bess, “Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), 1-2 and 11-13. Available online at:

12. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), ch. 1.

13. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperPerennial, 2008); Christopher Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz, Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage, 2003); Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (New York: Penguin, 2008).

14. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009). Christopher W. Morris, ed., Amartya Sen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

15. See the Web site of the United Nations Development Program at:

16. Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

17. Bess, Our Grandchildren Redesigned, ch. 7.

18. Neil Levy, Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 78.