Remember Gattaca? The superb film describes the contrasting fates of two brothers, one of whom was genetically optimized at birth. A few years later, in another movie, The Island, a community of prisoners discovers one day they are nothing but clones of super-privileged people and that their sole purpose is to provide fresh organs as a guarantee of immortality.
Excellent science-fiction novels and films are there to illustrate mankindâ€™s secular dream of transcending the limits of body and mind. But yesterdayâ€™s science-fiction has become todayâ€™s science and tomorrowâ€™s medicine. Cell therapies, bioprostheses, artificial organs and neural implants are now bursting into labs and hospitals.
Meanwhile, the technology to edit our DNA keeps evolving at a breathtaking pace. After genetically modified organisms and animals, the inevitable next step will be GMH, genetically modified humans. After all, havenâ€™t half-a-dozen U.S. researchers recently called for a moratorium on the genetic manipulation of reproductive cells and human embryos that state-of-the-art labs are already working on?
Thereâ€™s cause to worry. Reality has indeed already outgrown fantasies, with the dazzling progress made in a small number of converging areas â€" nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, computer and cognitive sciences â€" making it possible to build an â€œupgradedâ€ human being. A homo sapiens 2.0. A stronger, more cognitively advanced human whose normal weaknesses have been righted.
Such is the dream of transhumanists. Whether body-hackers, extropians, cryogenics enthusiasts or tech progressives, they all share a resolutely positive vision of innovation. They all believe that science and technologies will improve human condition. Thus they defend the right to alter their bodies in whatever way they want.
â€œBut they disagree on the politics, especially on the consequences of technological advances for societies,â€ says French philosopher Gabriel Dorthe.
The French transhumanist association Technoprog, for example, places the social perspective at the heart of its reflections. Most of its U.S. counterparts, in contrast, are libertarian, meaning they place the right of the individual above that of the community.
Not surprisingly, transhumanism attracts fierce criticism. In France, associations such as TechnoLogos or Pièces et Main d'Oeuvre (parts and labor) are calling to "resist the power of technics." Behind ape masks, these bioconservative militants recently disturbed a symposium on synthetic biology, shouting, â€œWe are the chimps of the future!"
In the U.S., social science researcher Francis Fukuyama, famous for his theory on the end of History, believes transhumanism to be â€œthe worldâ€™s most dangerous idea.â€
Some see behind this movement the gloomy design of a totalitarian technocapitalism. Others simply believe itâ€™s stupid to wish for immortality. Wonâ€™t killing death also eradicate dreams, the act of passing something onto younger generations, enjoyment, desire? What if our weaknesses are the actual essence of what it means to be human?
Paradoxically, the transhumanist ideology has never had that much influence. Once a simple utopia supported by a handful of mad scientists, it has become over the past few years the ideological horizon of the innovation prophets supported by the GAFA leaders (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple). Transhumanism is now a fully-structured lobby, with its own gurus, its transnational organizations (the University of Oxfordâ€™s Future for Humanity Institute, Humanity+ in the U.S.) and its own magazine, H+.
Most importantly, scientific research related to transhumanism is mobilizing some of the planetâ€™s most brilliant minds, generously funded as they are by a handful of high-tech tycoons. â€œLibertarian, inequalitarian, transhumanistâ€ could be the new motto for the Silicon Valley, the proselyte of a post-human humankind promised to be forever young. Convinced that technology is all-powerful and owners of the arrogance that comes with making a fortune by destabilizing entire industries, Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal), Sergey Brin and Larry Page (co-founders of Google), Larry Ellison (Oracleâ€™s CEO) and the like firmly believe they will one day kill death.
â€œIt is a huge revolution in human thinking,â€ historian Yuval Noah Harari explained in a fascinating interview for The Edge. â€œThroughout history, old age and death were always treated as metaphysical problems, as something that the gods decreed, as something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and realityâ€¦ But the new attitude is to treat old age and death as technical problems, no different in essence than any other disease.â€
Bettering the species?
In the minds of these super-rich who finance foundations or companies dedicated to the transhumanist ideal â€" like Googleâ€™s Calico â€" â€œdeath is optional,â€ Harari says.
Nobody embodies this idea better than Ray Kurzweil. Recently recruited by Google, the inventor of the music-writing computer and of the reading machine for the blind popularized in one of his books the concept of â€œsingularityâ€ as the inflection point â€" in the 2040s â€" when artificial intelligence, which will be able to feel emotions, will surpass all human intelligence combined.
By that point, everyone will be able to boost their abilities with neural implants or even download their entire consciousness on a super-computer. "People like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions," says Harari. "These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria."
In any case, these people have the means to spread their beliefs. Ray Kurzweil, together with Peter Diamandis, confounded Singularity University, which is financed among others by Google and accommodated on a NASA site in the heart of the Silicon Valley. The Universityâ€™s creed is that â€œexponential technologiesâ€ will be able to solve all of humanityâ€™s pressing issues, from health, poverty and education to pollution as well as water, energy or food shortages. "Why," transhumanists ask, "would we want to erect ethical barriers in the way of bettering of the species?
They see a clear continuum between ancient Egyptâ€™s wooden toe prostheses, the glasses we wear now, exoskeletons developed for paraplegicsâ€¦ and â€œDNA scissorsâ€ that will create tomorrowâ€™s perfect babies. Why draw arbitrary borders to limit progress? Donâ€™t you want the best for those you love? Would you turn down the opportunity to make your children more beautiful, more intelligent and less vulnerable to diseases?
Are those the beliefs of â€œdisruptionâ€ wizards drunk on their own words, or the baloney of clever algorithm merchants eager to dominate new markets? It doesnâ€™t matter either way. Even though weâ€™re still far uncloaking all the mysteries of life, the unquestionable acceleration of tech-medicine is already placing our societies in front of difficult moral choices.
From the moment an unborn childâ€™s DNA can be analyzed with a simple blood sample from the mother-to-be, which diseases should we look for? Some would argue that it's okay to eliminate embryos of children carrying Downâ€™s syndrome. But what about other deadly monogenic diseases like cystic fibrosis? Laurent Alexandre, a doctor, entrepreneur and author, believes the transhumanists will definitely win this battle against the bioconservatives.
If that happens, the wealth gap could then quickly translate into a very significant longevity gap too. An intolerable thought. Will the rich be the only ones to benefit from â€œimmortality?â€ How can we adapt our health care systems and our society models to this future tech-medicine?
Europe needs to define a common â€œbiopolicyâ€ reflecting our values, and we need to do it quickly, warns Israel Nisand, founder of the Strasbourg-based European Forum of Bioethics. If not, we'll fall into the same trap as the Americans and the Chinese, who are already looking for the genes of superior intelligence.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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