Star Trek’s reactionary take on human enhancement

I’ve commented a couple on Twitter that reading transhumanist fiction makes Star Trek look reactionary. (As reactionary as Lord of the Rings, I think I may have once said.) This last time, James Croft asked that I blog about this, so here I am blogging about it.

Star Trek’s greatest villains are, almost without exception, the products of human (or whatever-the-original-species-was) enhancement. For example Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, universally regarded as the best Trek movie, has as its villain Khan Noonien Singh. (I’ve just discovered that Khan is also, as I’d previously suspected, the villain of J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness, which releases in the US at midnight tonight.)

Khan’s backstory lies in the Trek ‘verse’s alternate history of the 20th century. During the 1990s, Khan was one of a group of genetically-enhanced dictators who took over much of Earth (Khan’s share was a quarter of the Earth’s surface) and were then deposed in the “Eugenics Wars.” Khan and some of his fellow supermen escaped aboard a ship where they cryogenically froze themselves to be later revived by (and torment) Kirk in the 23rd century.

The Eugenics Wars provide the explanation for why, in spite of extraordinary advancements in every other area, human genetic engineering is nowhere to be seen in the Trek ‘verse. (At least in the first two series; more on that later.) Apparently, the experience of the Eugenics Wars was so awful that it led humanity to keep human genetic enhancement illegal for centuries.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course, we get the Borg, cyborgs from the other side of the galaxy who exist as part of a single collective consciousness which they continually seek to forcibly add other species to. And then, in Deep Space Nine, we get the Dominion, an empire composed of three main species, at least two of them enhanced.

At the top of the Dominion are the shape-shifting “Changelings” or “Founders.” Beneath them are the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar, who the Founders genetically engineered to make them better slaves. In the case of the Jem’Hadar, they were engineered to be addicted to the drug ketracel-white, making it easier for the Founders to control them. It’s briefly hinted that the Founders’ shape-shifting ability was itself the product of the Founders enhancing themselves.

(On the exceptions: Matt Yglesias’ list of greatest Trek villains has the godlike Q at the top, though I’ve always been puzzled by people who classify Q as a villain: if Q were really a villain, the Enterprise would be destroyed so fast there’d be no story. See here for an in-depth attempt to figure out how the heck to classify Q. The number two entry on Ygleasias’ list, the Cardassian leader Gul Dukat, is however a more plausible example of a great non-enhanced Trek villain.)

The one place where Trek treats enhancement as unproblematic is in the character of Geordi LaForge, the Next Gen chief engineer who was born blind but given the ability to see through a cybernetic VISOR that had some distinct advantages over normal human sight. But it seems unlikely that the Trek ‘verse would look kindly on giving a VISOR to a character who wasn’t blind.

Other enhanced heroes have a distinct Token Heroic Orc flavor to them. If Changelings count as enhanced we have Odo, the Changeling raised by Bajorans. And of course there’s Seven of Nine, Voyager’s de-borgified Borg. The most telling example, however, is DS9′s Julian Bashir, revealed mid-series to have been given illegal genetic enhancements by his parents when he was a child.

After Bashir’s enhanced status revealed we meet several other such illegally-enhanced 24th century humans; it turns out that Bashir is unique in not having been rendered a social cripple by the process. The other enhancees also become convinced that their superior intelligence allows them to know the Federation is doomed in its war against the Dominion. They decide the best thing for the Federation would be to lose quickly; therefore they conspire to betray the Federation to the Dominion. The message is clear: while Bashir may have turned out okay, the Federation is wise to keep genetic enhancement illegal.

In short, according to Star Trek human enhancement will lead to nothing good: egotistical supermen think they can take over the world (or at least betray their species for its own good), loss of individuality and free will, and engineered slave races. Exceptions can exist, but they are forever doomed to remain exceptions.

It’s worth seeing what’s going on here: the writers are convinced something is yucky, but rather than trying to mount any kind of argument against it, they just show it almost always having horrible consequences regardless of whether those consequences are necessary or even particularly likely. Obvious solutions to the problems portrayed (like “try to replicate whatever went right with Bashir’s enhancements”) are never even considered. See TVTropes articles on Space Whale Aesop and Fantastic Aesop; the current borderline-feasibility of human enhancement makes the case likewise borderline between the two tropes.

Star Trek is, strangely, much kinder to purely artificial beings, notably Next Gen’s Lieutenant Commander Data and Voyager’s The Doctor. The implications of Data and the Doctor are never fully explored; in Data’s case, this is justified by the fact that the colony where Data was created was attacked by the Crystalline Entity shortly after Data’s creation, putting a halt to his creator’s research, while Voyager simply doesn’t think very hard about the problem. Still, moral condemnation of Data and the Doctor is absent.

And yet… a central part of both characters’ arcs is their quest to become more human. Becoming more human is good; so perhaps the thought behind all of Trek’s anti-enhancement animus is that enhancement is seen as becoming less human. The obvious counterpoint is that it seems like enhancement could be used to give us more of what we value as humans; no reason is ever given for why we couldn’t work out the bugs in enhanced intelligence and avoid getting Khan.

Since James asked for recommendations for transhumanist fiction, I’d start with Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (mentioned in this post), about a world whose inhabitants haven’t stopped being human just because they’ve abolished death and scarcity. The transhuman technologies in Doctorow’s later novel Rapture of the Nerds, co-written with Charles Stross, o even further, though we’re introduced to them slowly because the story is told from the perspective a character who starts out a firm “rejectionist” in regards to such technologies.

Stross’ earlier novel Accelerando is less optimistic; a little after midway through the novel things have happened that lead one character to suggest that “the destiny of intelligent tool-using life was to be a stepping-stone in the evolution of corporate instruments,” but this is presented as a matter of cleverly worked-out unintended consequences and the heroes manage to use many transhuman technologies without problem.

All three novels are available as free downloads at the links provided. Some of the short fiction on the authors’ websites also explores transhumanist themes.

  • Steve

    While I don’t agree with a lot of Star Trek’s messages and ideology – far too much pie-in-the-sky idealism for my taste, I actually have to agree with their take on human enhancement. Naturally, the show would exaggerate the consequences greatly as it is a TV show, but it has generally the right idea.

    Human enhancement for the purposes of “getting ahead” is bound to merely solidify the privilege of the upper classes and make them more elitist, more exclusive, and more unequal compared to the lower classes that won’t be able to afford them. Let me ask you: do you think that you will be wealthy to get yourself or your children biological enhancements? If not, get ready to be screwed. Imagine trying to get into a good college, or get a good job, when all of the rich kids have enhancements to make them more intelligent then you, having better mental skills than you (focus, multitasking), healthier than you, and yes, even better looking than you. Social mobility will drop as differences between classes take on entirely new dimensions and the gulf between the rich and the poor grows much higher -and in case you didn’t know- it’s already growing quite fast.

    So when I hear people talk about how great human enhancement will be, what I hear is “Man, in the future being rich and privileged is going to be EVEN COOLER than it is now. I can’t wait”.

    There are a couple historical analogies with some similarities. Keep in mind, no analogy is perfect and neither is these comparisons. Nit-picking analogies never does any good, please just try to see what I am trying to say. First thing I would like to compare human enhancement to is slavery in the American South. Now, owning people as property is morally reprehensible, but I’d like to focus on an often overlooked, secondary evil. The southerners who didn’t own slaves were often quite poor because they had no way of competing with slave-owners. Slavery is free labor – you can’t compete with that. So if you weren’t rich enough to afford slaves, you were probably hosed. Second is Ivy League families. I’m not a fan of Ivy League schools because I think that like human enhancement, they are an engine of inequality. If you’re not rich enough to go into an Ivy League school, your kids will probably be the same. At the same time, rich parents will be able to keep their descendents in Ivy League schools, and their family can steadily grow in wealth while everyone else below them has no realistic chance to move up, but they do get front row seats to the deterioration of the American middle class.

    Furthermore, it will cause previously economic inequality to (potentially, I’m not really a biologist) take on aspects of physical inequality as well. Rich people won’t just be born rich, they’ll be necessarily different on some kind of physical or biological level as well. This will make discrimination of any kind much easier. Increasingly, Ivy League grads only want to marry other Ivy League grads -what better way to double your wealth and privilege-, well in a future with human enhancement, enhanced humans will probably only want to marry other enhanced humans, helping to keep everything they have in a nice little bubble away from the people who aren’t “good enough” to share. I doubt that this would be the only form of discrimination. If it isn’t illegalized to discriminate in favor of enhanced humans for job applications, it will certainly happen frequently, and even if it is banned employers, especially for more prestigious jobs, will still try to covertly discriminate as much as they can get away with.

    You call people who think this way “reactionary”. Please, put the silly name calling away so that people can have a real and genuine conversation. While I would say that I am conservative on this issue (I am liberal on many others, and I do not fit cleanly into any pigeonhole of “liberal” or “conservative”. I could probably qualify as “anti-elitist” though, and I think that both ends of the political spectrum are run by elitists), that is a distinct thing from being reactionary. Reactionaries merely hate something that is in the present. They have no plan, no tradition, no context, no understanding. Conservatives treasure something that happens to be old. I value the fact that people are all born as, well, people. I think that this is a good thing. I value the fact that humans are, when you get past the surface details, surprisingly enough, basically the same to each other. These are good things, and worth celebrating. Transhumanism will ruin this. People will not be born the same, not when Jimmy was engineered to be born with the brain of a hyper-aware rocket scientist who looks like Brad Pitt and Bobby didn’t get any of that stuff because his family was working-class. That’s a bunch of crap. People shouldn’t have biological/cybernetic/whatever advantages over each other that sets you up for life because your family could afford it. That’s going to make society worse. I don’t want society to become worse. I don’t want the equality of human beings to become empirically false. I don’t want more unnecessary wedges to be driven between people. So that is why I am against human enhacement/transhumanism.

    • Chris Hallquist

      This is a vastly more interesting worry than anything explored by Star Trek, but in the end it’s an argument for enhancement. We already have winners and losers in the genetic lottery, and it would take some re-engineering of humanity to change that. See here. Of course, if you’re sufficiently worried about this, you’ve got a reason to make ACA/NHS/{whatever your local socialized heathcare system is} coverage of enhancement a priority when the technology becomes available. Or have the government provide everyone with over the counter Modafinil right now.

      • Steve

        It’s true that some people have inherent genetic disadvantages. Let me clarify myself. I am against any sort of human enhancement done for the purposes of getting a leg up on the competition that won’t be able to afford it. I am not, as I seem to have neglected to mention, against genetic treatment or cybernetic implants or whatever for clearly therapeutic purposes. If you give robot eyes to a blind man, that’s just fine.

        However, I doubt that socialized healthcare will adequately be able to solve this problem. Now, for the record I am in favor of universal health care, but not always for the train wreck attempts at bringing it. Let’s see here, in the U.S. Medicare and Medicaid, if I am correct, are running dangerously low on funds to the point that some former governor of Colorado said that old people have a responsibility to die. The European welfare state is undergoing increasing burdens as there are fewer and fewer young people to work for all of the old people. Is socialized healthcare really going to be able to cover human enhancement, when we can’t even be sure that it can cover our basic needs? Will everyone actually be able to receive it, or merely the well-connected? What enhancements will be available to who. I’m a TVTropes fan like you, and saying that socialized healthcare can make human enhancement equal has a whiff of Voodoo Shark to it. ( When human enhancement is first available, it will be far too expensive and fantastical for socialized medicine to cover it.

        Even if socialized healthcare -could- control human enhancement responsibly, there is a question if it actually will. I believe, somewhat cynically, that the world is run by the rich for the rich (any one else notice that you can’t elected to the White House or other high positions anymore without a Harvard or Yale JD/MBA/Whatever), and I can’t see them hopping on board to give all their advantages to the rest of us. Not in this day and age especially, perhaps like me, you have also noticed that the world is becoming actually increasingly elitist and the wealthy are growing far more in wealth than the rest of the world. Humans are not entirely evil or good, but I think that people of all beliefs should be capable of realizing that humans, or at least, enough humans, are willing to step on others as stepping stones to the top. I don’t see that magically changing, and I don’t think that any government will do a thing about it.

        Could regulation use human enhancement to reduce social inequality? It is possible. Will it? I really doubt it.

        Another point I should have brought up, that occurred after reading the link about the wakefulness pills, is that we have no idea what the consequences or implications are socially if we distribute means of modifying human nature or condition. What would happen if people only needed 2-3 hours of sleep? Are we to assume that they will use all this time to learn, work more, and spend more time with loved ones, or could they become increasingly bored and restless, with people resorting to whatever kind of degenerate behavior to cope with boredom. Another, more likely problem: people today are more stressed, not less, because of all the networking technology and transportation and industrialization. As we can do more, people will demand that we use our abilities to do that much more and be more efficient. (I remember a Calvin and Hobbes comic where the dad was complaining about this) If we no longer need to sleep -or at least, need much less-, is there a chance that we will be expected to use this and face far more demanding and stressful lives as before?

        Of course, I don’t really know the answers to the questions above. I just feel like we should be more slow and careful about introducing such things, as opposed to bringing the stuff in “right now”, as you said. That’s just asking to drive society into some wall we didn’t see coming.

        How do you do italics?

        • Chris Hallquist

          What about genetic modification to give people who’d otherwise be in the middle of the intelligence curve the abilities of people who are currently at the top of the curve? Or what about people who are merely a little bit below average? Giving them the opportunity to become doctors and lawyers and engineers?

          • jflcroft

            Intelligence is not a generally well understood concept nor an uncontroversial one/ I’d say we would need to know an awful lot more than we know currently about how human cognition works before we can even speculate as to what might be a desirable use of any enhancement technology of this sort we might develop.

          • eric

            “I am against any sort of human enhancement done for the purposes of getting a leg up on the competition that won’t be able to afford it.”

            This specific issue bothers me a lot. I had a boss that gave his son an ADHD treatment drug (can’t remember which one) because it raised the kid’s scores from C’s to B’s. In his opinion, there must be something biologically wrong if his kid was getting C’s but was capable of getting B’s and A’s. And no doubt he was able to do this in part because of his social status/wealth: a poor parent would be unlikely to be able to physician-shop to find a doctor friendly to this idea, and unlikely to be able to afford the drugs if they did.

            Now, I found that horrible. Getting C’s because you can’t concentrate on your school work is not abnormal; its well within the range of normal human performance. He is not ‘fixing a biological problem’ here; this is the brain equivalent of an already healthy baseball player taking steroids.
            But at the same time, I can see Chris’ point: when we turn average performers into above-average performers, doesn’t everybody (including the kid) win? After all, this is just an extreme version of drinking coffee in the morning – its a stimulant. Putting aside the questions of side effects and access inequity, why should I be bothered by the idea of giving perfectly normal kids mind-enhancing drugs?
            Yet, I find that I am. Maybe because I cannot entirely put aside those two things. At some point we have to put our philosophizing into practice. The rubber must meet the road. And in this case, it is fair to say that there will likely always be access inequities and almost always be uncertainties in the potential side-effects, so much so that a more conservative adage of ‘don’t fix what ain’t broken’ looks like a much wiser option to me.

          • Reginald Selkirk

            Sounds like Lake Wobegon. “All of the children are above average.”

      • TheodoreSeeber

        It was explored in Star Trek; check out the 5th season Enterprise arc on the guy who played Data as “Dr. Arik Soong”, a rich playboy who got himself into trouble with enhanced humans (with the normal Star Trek results, including the creation of non-crested Klingons)

  • jflcroft

    Would you distinguish for me your take on the difference between “cautionary” and “reactionary”?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Well, to be honest, the first is complimentary, the second is usually pejorative But come to think of it, it’s hard to think of well done cautionary tales in science fiction.

  • eric

    The one place where Trek treats enhancement as unproblematic is in the character of Geordi LaForge

    I think Spock was the first star trek example of what one might call ‘enhancement wish fulfillment’ – while presented as an alien, this character was initially Roddenberry saying “oh, if only we could all be more rational.”* Very similar to the way that the federation itself was Roddenberry saying “oh, if only society were more liberally utopian.”

    I would slightly caveat your point by saying that Star Trek seems to take a very grim view of artificial or technology-driven enhancement. It has no problem at all using aliens, human characters, social systems, and other plot devices to support the idea that we can “self-enhance” if we just try hard enough. Wesley Crusher is probably the most obvious example of this.

    • Ryan Jean

      … while presented as an alien, this character was initially Roddenberry saying “oh, if only we could all be more rational.”

      I’m going to have to disagree. One of the most common dynamics set up in the original Trek was the clash between analytic (represented by Spock) and emotional (represented by McCoy). The back-and-forth between them was constant, and usually was resolved with Kirk taking a distinctly third approach that combined bits of both column A and B with his own flair for adventure and risk-taking (as well as his code of ethics).

      There’s also the fact that the half-human, half-vulcan nature of Spock presented its own challenges as emotional overrides of his unemotional mask crept in. I’d also point out that I chose the word “analytic” very deliberately; Spock was not rational (or, to use his own words, logical) in any coherent sense, but was the far-edge of overly-analytic and emotionally detached. There’s even a trope about it, the “Straw Vulcan.”

      Very similar to the way that the federation itself was Roddenberry saying “oh, if only society were more liberally utopian.”

      Roddenberry was a Humanist, and he put that forward in his work. He was engaged in social commentary hidden as science fiction. Humanist philosophy, even only that seen within Star Trek, cannot be boiled down to “liberally utopian.” He envisioned a world where humanity would reach a natural consensus on certain Humanist ethical values after a series of hard trials (the near-destruction of the Eugenics Wars being one example), and the advances in technology would enable those values to be more actively embraced. That the Federation has no formal currency, for example, is not a rising of communism over capitalist ideas, but a refocusing of our efforts toward greater things once the base levels of the “hierarchy of needs” pyramid are met.

  • JohnH2

    Having bad eyesight is well within the range of human experience but for some reason no one has a problem with glasses (or corrective eye surgery). There are charities to get the poor and the third world glasses, because glasses are a “rich” person item (“rich” being highly relative in this case). Likewise no one seems to have a problem with wheelchairs, prosthetics, or hearing aids even though all of those are “rich” person items, relative to human experience.

    Even more so no one seems to have a problem with cell phones which can help enhance ones memory, allow for (the appearance of) a better sense of direction, allow for the ability to tell what is a good deal and what is not, allow for communication over long distances, and provide other benefits. They already allow for students who have no idea what the class is about to meet or exceed performance of the best students in the class, subject to getting caught cheating on exams and guaranteed failure if they don’t cheat on the exams.

    I will be highly surprised if any enhancement provides anything close to the benefit of a cell phone to the average user any time in the near future. Like a cell phone though I fully expect any beneficial enhancement to be subject to market forces which drive down the price so that everyone benefits. Between my experience in foreign countries with socialized medicine, my experience in this country with government run medical care, my experience in this country with the DMV, and my experiences with more market based medicine I completely oppose socialized medicine and realize that what we currently have isn’t even close to being able to pretend to be a market in medicine. When I can walk into a doctors office and know before hand exactly how much the visit will cost and exactly how much any additional tests may cost and when I can visit the emergency room with a relative knowledge of how much basic service will be and some knowledge of what further treatment may cost (more then oh crap I am now bankrupt) then we can say we have a market in medicine and then we can expect the price of treatment to drop subject to market forces. Now we clearly have a messed up system of socialism, oligopolies (in multiple segments), and perverse incentives none of which has the average consumers best interest even remotely entering into their calculations.

    • Kristen inDallas

      JohnH2 • 3 days ago
      “Having bad eyesight is well within the range of human experience but for some reason no one has a problem with glasses (or corrective eye surgery).”
      …. because glasses, and Jody’s visor, are technological enhancements. That is a world different from a genetic enhancement, which boils down to changing DNA structures and fundamentally altering who a person is before he/she is even born.

  • b33bl3br0x

    There’s a reason why genetic enhancement is considered bad that I don’t think you’ve addressed, but I think it goes directly to one of your points.

    Human experimentation is iffy in most circumstances but from the standpoint of testing genetic modifications it is morally abhorrent.

    Any modifications would need to be made at (or near) the zygote stage, or possibly pre-puberty, though I think that would be iffy, there’s just too much to change. As we see in creating mouse transgenics and knock-outs, a large number of modifications made will be embryonic lethal or infant lethal. Another large number will lead to significant lifelong morbidity. Further, there can be no justification for the deaths as there is no way that the subjects of the experimentation could consent.

    try to replicate whatever went right with Bashir’s enhancements

    In practice this experimentation would be morally indefensible.

    Modifications for targeted tissue types could be carried out post birth, but they also carry a high risk of causing cancer (you can see this in the results of the limited gene therapy trials that have been approved). The only development that can be ethically continued in this area is as compassionate care (experimental procedures that can only be carried out on patients who are at imminent risk of death), and that’s usually too late.

    Genetic enhancements are bad because the process of getting them functional leads to death, disfigurement, and pain of defenseless individuals, who in most cases are unable to consent.

    This would have been more in the mind of the show’s creators in the early 60s as well. Human experimentation and eugenic would be fairly fresh in mind to them.

  • stanz2reason

    Jesus Christ Chris… the New Star Trek came out this weekend… thanks for the spoiler dick.

  • MargueriteF

    Star Trek is mostly about the Wonder That Is Humanity; this is why “improvements” are frowned upon. Even Data, who is awesome just as he is, is constantly striving to become “more human,” as if that is something anyone should strive for. When Spock gets in touch with his human side, that’s often presented as “growth,” too. (A Vulcan would probably see it differently.) But Star Trek is at its heart a metaphor about humanity becoming better while still being entirely human, so it’s not surprising that unadulterated, unimproved humans are depicted as the very best of all possibilities.

    And I must agree (more politely) with stanz2reason– I could have done without the spoiler. I suspected as much, but was *trying* to avoid confirming spoilers till I got to see the movie. I glanced at this last night and figured it was safe to read. Alas, it wasn’t, and I wound up spoiled before I got to see the movie today. If you must disclose big spoilers on a brand-new movie, you could at least put ****SPOILERS**** at the top of your post.

    • stanz2reason

      I normally would excercise more control, but that was a pretty serious party foul. Months of staying away from discussions to have it ruined hours before the move.

  • John Alexander Harman

    Re: recommendations for transhumanist fiction, I’d highly recommend Peter F. Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn” trilogy (The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God) and “Starflyer” duology (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained). Lots of interesting exploration of various kinds of enhancement, including, in the first series, a divergence and some cultural (though generally not violent) conflict between the genetically enhanced Edenists, who make extensive use of biotechnology controlled through a kind of telepathic connection, and Adamists, who eschew Edenist “bitek” but use neural nanonics to enhance memory, perception, and other cognitive functions, and various other kinds of cybernetic implants or prosthetics to enhance their bodies, with some even going to the extreme of transferring their central nervous systems into cybernetic bodies designed for combat or engineering work in extreme environments (vacuum, deep-sea, etc.).

    The “Starflyer” books don’t delve quite as deep into those sorts of enhancements, but they feature practical immortality through rejuvenation and, for those who die in accidents, cloning adult bodies in vitro and restoring the person’s memories from a backup copy. They also feature one of the most terrifyingly alien extraterrestrial menaces I’ve ever seen in any science fiction. No expy of any familiar human culture here, nor even of pack hunting animals or social insects; the Prime resemble, more than anything else earthly, a sentient coral colony or slime mold, implacably seeking to convert all organic matter and habitable space within its reach into more of itself.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Only one quibble, and this puts me solidly in old school trek nerdia- when the Doctor Mark I was replaced with the Mark II, all the other “copies” from other starships ended up dilithium mine slaves.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this spectacular tour of the Trek world.