Our ability to manipulate DNA is growing at a nearly-exponential rate. We are getting better at sequencing genomes, or mapping out new strands of DNA. One year ago, it cost about $10 million to sequence a human genome. Today it costs about $2 million. The hope is to reduce the cost to about $1000, making it feasible to sequence the genome of every hospital patient and make tailormade treatments possible. This is projected to happen within a decade at most.

At the same time, we are getting better at altering DNA. The most promising technique, using retroviruses, would ideally let doctors modify the DNA of every cell in your body with a single injection. We are years away from that stage, but moving closer all the time. Soon, we will need to decide what genetic modifications are ethical, and what modifications are monstrous.

Most people would agree that genetically-inherited conditions should be eliminated once we get the chance. Doing so would alleviate much misery in the world. But why stop there? The human body is not perfect, after all. Why not make a few tweaks that could make the world a much better place, even if we are messing with our basic makeup?

That's the basic idea behind Transhumanism, a movement built around the idea of using advancing technology to design a new and better human. This means not only genetics but nanotechnology and cybernetics as well; but genetic modification hits closer to home, being a fundamental alteration in the very stuff of our bodies. But the benefits of doing so could be tremendous.

One prominent work arising from Transhumanism is Edward Smith's Catalogue of Correctable Omnipresent Human Flaws. The first several entries all address the endless growth and replacement of human skin, nails, and hair. This wastes energy and organic material, produces dust and dead cells that are fertile soil for bacteria and microbes, and is the major cause of our need to constantly clean ourselves and our clothing. Smith proposes that these processes should be rewired so that they are controlled consciously by the frontal lobe, and can be turned on and off as needed. Doing so would save vast amounts of water now used for washing, ease the strain on our bodies, and make diseases much less common (as well as nearly eliminating problems of body odor).

What's not to like?

Of course, later entries in the Catalogue go off into more bizarre territory, such as altering the bone structure of the neck, shoulders, and fingers for greater range of motion. These and other categories represent not minor gains in efficiency but fundamental alterations to the human body. And to be honest, even the more extreme entries on the list are quite tame, compared to what we could do once we can manipulate the genetic code as well. As Smith himself states:
It is important to first focus on corrections rather than enhancements, the reason being that corrections are limited in their scope (there are most likely only 40-50 possible corrections) and mostly benefit an individual by themself, whereas enhancements are virtually unlimited in their scope, are mostly beneficial to an individual in competition with others, and/or are prone to abuse. Pursuing the latter traits may thus touch off a rash of socially mutually-destructive genetic competition if it is not clear that such enhancements must only be made with the most rightful and socially responsible of intentions, as characterized by the geneticly-determined character of the enhanced beings…The further a trait falls toward the enhancement end of the spectrum, particularly in the case of competitive enhancements, the more dangerous it is, and thus the more rightful it's bearer's temperament must be.
As frightening as it is, we are on the verge of entering a world in which we can redesign ourselves from the bottom up—or be redesigned. Yet this is not simply about physical traits; wherever you fall in the nature/nurture debate, it is clear that genetics play some role in the formation of our character. How long can it be before a loving parent decides to reengineer an unruly son to make him more managable? Or before a tyrannical government does the same to its populace?

How can we reap the benefits, while escaping the terrible dangers?

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