Still a cultural underground, transhumanism is a gradual churning of techno-genetic possibilities. As a social movement, transhumanism is still in the stages of fermentation. From the evolutionary standpoint, transhumanism is an attempt at self-guided evolution, a project of customizing the body to meet the needs of the mind.
But what does the mind fundamentally need from the body? Faster information processing would be nice. An extended health span would be nifty. Who wouldn’t like faster legs, sharper vision, or more acute hearing? Heck, having a functional pair of wings wouldn’t hurt either. Top all of this off with bulletproof skin, and it might seem as though this human dream of functional augmentation was complete. But it isn’t. It’s lacking the most fundamental piece: greater metabolic independence. Indeed, what minds seem to really like is sovereignty. And sovereignty is synonymous with greater energy independence. Of course, all metabolic independence is relative. No life is ultimately independent of its environment.
As I see it, a transhuman project of metabolic independence could take one of two general paths: that of direct human photosynthesis at a cellular level (let’s call it the path of Homo solaris) or the path of the Energizer Bunny. The former is a path of genetic modification and perhaps surgical augmentation or a wholesale nanosurgical alteration on a cellular level. The latter path might involve some sort of “future skin,” a kind of biotech chimera project of swapping elastic solar panels for patches of skin. The specifics are beyond me. In fact, it’s likely that there are solutions that lie beyond the capacity of my imagination. But one thing seems clear to me: Whether motivated by compassion (for the life that we consume) or by self-determination, we will—if we are fortunate to survive as a civilization—seek greater energy autonomy on an individual basis.
There can be a tendency to see transhumanism as a loss of humanity. It certainly may be. But it’s also possible to view transhumanism as an amplification of humanity—as the extension of our essence and a liberation of what is best in us from our evolutionary luggage. Understand that change in form is not the same as change in essence. You—the very you that is reading this—have never even been the same as yourself. You are evolving with each left-to-right scan of your eyes, with each inhalation of new air, with each exposure to new information. Swedish author and artist August Strindberg closed his autobiography, The Son of a Servant: The Story of the Evolution of a Human Being (written in the mid-1880s), with these lines:
“What did he [the author] possess…that was his in and by itself? Nothing… So he stepped out into the world! To evolve, change, develop—and yet to remain forever the same as he was” (1966, 243).
The same is true of you: You are a being in progress, transcending your human form with each pound you gain or lose, with haircut and with each new gray hair, yet you remain forever human in your essence. As I see it, we need not fear evolution, whether it occurs naturally or through self-design.
Life Reinvents Itself
In his book Biospheres, Dorion Sagan said, “We ourselves are a technology” (1990, 129). Life is a process of constant reinvention. And life is reinventing photosynthesis as we speak. In 2008, Russian microbiologists Ekaterina Dadachova and Arturo Casadevall reported that they discovered a slime (a fungus) inside the tomb of the Chernobyl reactor that has developed the ability to turn gamma radiation into a food source (World Time News Report 2007):
The fungi appear to use melanin, a chemical found in human skin as well, in the same fashion that plants use chlorophyll. Casadevall and his co-researchers then set about performing a variety of tests… ‘Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy that allows green plants to live and grow, our research suggests that melanin can use a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—ionizing radiation—to benefit the fungi containing it,’ said co-researcher Ekaterina Dadachova. Interestingly, the melanin in fungi is no different chemically from the melanin in our skin, leading Casadevall to speculate that melanin could be providing energy to skin cells.
Life is reinventing itself not just in the fungi kingdom but right in our relatives in the animal kingdom. In fact, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan reported that several animal species have acquired the ability to photosynthesize, including some species of sea slugs (2002, 13):
Slugs, the familiar shell-less mollusks eating your garden plants, have entirely green photosynthetic relatives. The ancestors of these slugs have eaten but not digested certain green algae, which years ago entered the tissues of the animal—and stayed there. All members of these species (for example Elysia viridis) are always green. These underwater slugs need not seek food. Rather they crawl near the shore. They never eat throughout their adult life. The slugs, newly evolved green animals, now sunbathe in the way plants sunbathe… At least four or five times different lineages of green animals have been documented in videos and scientific papers.
Homo photosyntheticus: Beyond Mouth
As we contemplate human photosynthesis, realize that we are not discussing the future; we’re discussing our past. Life invented photosynthesis not once, but many, many times. Photosynthesis is in life’s memory banks. We simply need to find a way to genetically recall this forgotten metabolic secret. Chances are it won’t come through meditative insight (although such cases have been claimed). It’s more likely that we’ll have to swallow some kind of pill or a handful of self-replicating nanorobots that will allow our melanin to function like energy-producing chlorophyll, one cell at a time. And it may be centuries, if not millennia, before we can equip humans with photosynthesis. But the point is, it seems at least theoretically possible. If life on the order of fungi can figure out how to live off radiation using nothing more than the intelligence of its genes, why can’t we? There’s no reason why we can’t. How can I claim that? Once again, life has done and is doing this, and we are…life. We are the very technology of evolution, self-growth, and self-improvement. As life, we are literally in the business of change. In the lingo of anthropologists, “techno-organic evolution” is upon us (Schick and Toth 1993, 314).
Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Somov, New Harbinger, 2012)