Human Upgrading

For a long time humans, sometimes more, sometimes less of them, had dreamt about being better than others. In early times this mainly was seen in relation to the difference in class between nobility and peasantry. In later times the difference was more often associated with the gap between being rich and poor. And then there was the ever present difference of origin or skin color.

Parents wanted their children to be better off than themselves, either by money, by knowledge or by power.

With Darwins Theory of Evolution and the discovery of Mendelian Inheritance, thoughts had appeared to actually create a better human. To use modern science to achieve much faster what Mother Nature was doing too slow.

At the same time, fear of those ‘better humans’ raised its head. What if the new humans decided they would no longer want to live alongside regular humans anymore? What if the regular human would become a threat to the improved human? What if normal humans would become obsolete?

These thoughts culminated in the tale of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. The ‘I told you so’ moment came with the rise of the Third Reich and its ideas about race and ‘better humans’ and the destruction of ‘lesser humans’ burned themselves into the minds of great parts of humanity after World War II. After the end of World War 2 the fears died down again because this would be the last time such ideas would surface, in other words, no human would ever make such mistakes anymore, according to humanity at that time.

The discovery of the DNA and the first fictional appearance of genetic engineering lead to a resurgence of fears and hopes and using genetic engineering to do what nature could not, fears of ‘better humans’ destroying the normals.

During the 1980s and the 1990s bioengineering became a hot topic. The bacteria Escherichia coli was genetically engineered to produce human insulin, making the production of insulin cheaper. In Edinburgh, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, for the first time successfully clone a mammal, the goat Dorothy.

The biggest topics however were related to the law.

Biological patents were a big issue. In the early 1980s the US Supreme Court had, in the case Diamond v. Chakrabarty, whether genetically modified organisms can be patented. The debate among the judges was heated and in the end the decision was 5 to 4 for Diamond, stating that no living creature, whether natural or manufactured was subject to patent laws. This lead to several other cases, including Johnson v. Monsanto in 1995, where the ruling had to be defended by the Supreme Court, with Monsanto losing the case.

Other nations were less effective in keeping living creatures from being patented. The clone goat Dorothy for example and the process to create it, had been patented under British patent laws.

The other big issue was pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, PGD, or genetic profiling of embryos prior to implantation on in vitro fertilization. One side saw it as a way to make sure that children of couples predisposed for specific genetic diseases from getting children without those diseases. It had the potential to make humanity as a whole more healthy. The other side saw it as an covert way of discrimination against people with disabilities and eugenics. What would begin with genetic diseases could be extended to gender, hair or eye color and intelligence.

With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2002 the discussion became more heated, as the results were used to correlate diseases to specific genes. Other genes were correlated to the risk of cancer, coronary problems or Alzheimers.

PGD remained a hot topic, even when more insight about the human genome was gained. Genetic markers for stronger musculature, quicker reflexes or a more efficient metabolism were found, as were ways to activate those markers.

At the same time therapeutic uses were found to combat various degenerative diseases. Several had practical uses outside of normal medicine. In space astronauts had to fight against muscular dystrophy or osteoporosis, which could be treated. By 2015 artificial gravity and the lower gravity of Moon and Mars were supplemented by the use of drugs, though more than one astronaut voiced the opinion that they wanted a more permanent solution.

With the arrival of the Quetzal and Turukal on Earth, the two groups, in favor of and against genetic engineering on humans, looked at the aliens intending to find out what they thought about genetic engineering. The aliens proved to be of no help, as even the low number of survivors were split on the debate.

By 2025 the technologies gained from the aliens also allowed a faster advance of bioengineering and human genetics. Methods to toggle genetic markers at will were discovered and developed.

In 2029 the Peoples Republic of China noted that they intended to use these methods to make their taikonauts immune to the degenerative effects of microgravity with retroviral treatments. Tests on human volunteers showed a success, but only during the taikonauts stay in space. After returning to Earth the taikonauts were quick to develop a much higher muscle mass and bone strength, with negative effects on their health. Human tests were immediately halted and the methods returned to the laboratories.

Human stem cells were another area of discussion, at least as long as the experiments were made with human embryonic stem cells. From 2015 on, methods to create stem cells from human liver cells allowed better methods of research.

This research lead to the first creation of a human liver in 2022, followed by human kidneys and skin in 2027. A beating heart was grown by 2035, reducing the need for donors for either of these organs, saving the lives of millions of people.

Actual permanent genetic engineering on a human remained a taboo however, though a Japanese geneticist, Dr. Takashi Nagata, and his wife Kimiko, broke it in 2032. After their first daughter, Ren, had been born with the Rett syndrome in 2025, Nagata worked on trying to make sure that none of his future children would get the disease. He also wanted to make sure that they would be more suitable for the future, with mankind’s expansion into space.

Using genetic engineering techniques formerly used on microbiotic life and other mammals, Nagata deactivated the genetic sequence responsible for the Rett syndrome and activated other genetic sequences as well as adding new ones, like from the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans.

Hikaru and Hoshiko Nagata were born on November 13, 2032 as the first genetically modified humans. The two girls had been designed with defenses against bone and muscle degeneration in place, a theoretically higher intelligence, an immune system that was, also theoretically, better prepared to deal with cancer cells and a higher immunity against ionizing radiation.

The reaction on the birth of the twins was varied. Most were surprised that the girls looked like a normal, rather than like monsters. Some parts of the Japanese society shunned the Nagatas, while other openly embraced them, though reasons varied.

Elsewhere in the world religious groups began with protest against genetic engineering and desecrating the work of God, with a few attacks on companies and hospitals with known genetic labs. France saw open clashes between bioconservatives and post humanists in places and was one of the few nations to put laws into place to limit genetic modification to removing genetic diseases.

One thing was for sure however. The taboo was broken and Hikaru and Hoshiko Nagata would not remain the only genetically engineered humans for very long.

Bioengineering however was not the end to all needs, even if some enthusiasts claimed such. While it was possible to clone complex organs with the use of stem cells, larger and even more complex body parts, such as eyes or limbs could not yet be cloned. Spinal injuries were another area where bioengineering could not help yet.

Prosthetics had become more and more complex and advanced over time and with the 1980s and 1990s a massive increase was seen in the complexity of artificial limbs with advances in the field of bionics, applying biological methods to engineering problems.

Microcontrollers and other microelectronics allowed for the creation artificial legs that could passively mimic the movements of a natural leg. Experiments during the late 1990s showed the potential of using contraction of intact muscles to control the movement of arm prosthesis. By 2016 the field had advanced to implanting small microchips to the intact nerve endings of a severed arm or leg and allow the body to control the prosthesis to a growing degree of effectivity.

In 2031, Sergeant Jonathan Windham of Euroforce, who had lost his legs in Nigeria in 2027, was the first to receive a pair of robotic legs, fully controlled by the intact nerves of his lower body. Within only three months of physical therapy he was able to use his new legs without any problems and took part in the 2033 London Marathon. Windham complained about a lack of feeling within his new legs however, which was another problem altogether.

Windhams surgery, rehabilitation and training for the London Marathon was covered by the news and the BBC made a documentary about him, named ‘The 500.000 Pound Man’. While most of the new coverage was positive, the Sun and other newspapers questioned Windhams choice to run the Marathon. At first they asked whether people with artificial limbs should take part in fair sports events, even going as far as questioning their participation in the Paralympics. As Windham crossed the finishing line on the 231st rank, the Sun went as far as titling ‘Did the Cyborg loose on purpose?’

Humans as a species were dependent on sight and hearing and as such returning sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf was something that had been approached by bionics early on.

Again the microelectronic revolution of the 1980s and 1990s allowed for a massive advance in this field. Cochlear implants were the most visible of advances to allow deaf people to hear, though the technology required that their cochlear nerves were intact. The same was true with early instances of trying to allow blind people to see, using electrodes in the retina to transmit informations into the optic nerves.

There were attempts to use direct neural interfaces with the brain, but all these attempts failed to a certain degree. Only the arrival of the Turukal on Earth, with their own direct neural interface technology, used in their brain-controlled spacecraft, allowed human scientists to develop their own versions, though they were primitive compared to the Turukal technology.

In 2035, Jewgeni Sarakov, was the first human with a direct neural interface. It was implanted into the sight center of his brain, bypassing his heavily damaged optic nerves, which had been destroyed in a work accident. While it did only allowed a low resolution sight, it made his life much easier.

Spinal injuries however proved to be elusive in their treatment. Genetical modification and stem cell therapy yielded little results and tries to bridge the gap of a severed spinal cord were unsuccessful due to the sheer number and complexity of the nerve tissue.

People that had been rendered paraplegic by accidents or for other reasons had little chance to get out of their wheelchairs before 2010, until Ekso Bionics presented the eLEGS system, short for Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System. It was a computer controlled system that allowed paraplegics to stand or walk with crutches or a walker.

The eLEGS were the first primitive system of its kind and heralded an entire wave of powered exoskeletons for paraplegic people and those with other degenerative muscular and bone conditions, like osteogenesis imperfecta.

These systems saw a steady improvement and were also used in other fields, such as allowing workers to carry heavy loads. By 2037 these systems were widespread and showed their versatility in the immediate aftermath of the 8.5 magnitude San Rafael quake, where the use of powered exoskeletons by helpers most likely saved thousands of people.

The military was also interested in powered exoskeletons however, combining them with modern ballistic armor to create the first instances of powered armor.

The application of the exoskeleton in a military role opened the discussion to fears of using the new methods of human augmentation for military purposes. It had the potential to lead to genetically engineered super soldiers that bore an echo of the Third Reich. The use of cybernetic replacement limbs used to replace the limbs and senses of normal soldiers could lead to psychological trauma of losing a perfectly good limb to have it replaced with a weapon of war.

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