Towards a posthuman sport, or a better world?

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Saturday, July 31, 2004

7.30pm IST - A dream of the future

Last night I dreamt I was Spiderman. I was just putting on my brand-new Slazenger web-enhanced batting gloves when my captain, Captain America, walked into the dressing room.

"Spidey," he said, "I'm afraid we can't play you. Conan will open with young Clark instead."

"Why on earth is that?" I asked, pedantically, as we were playing this match on Earth. He turned around. There was a man with him. It was Jagmohan Dalmiya, 108 years old, ICC President for the last 44 years.

"I'm afraid you've failed a doping test," Dalmiya said. "We've learnt that you're genetically enhanced. You lied about the radioactive spider."

Pandora's box

My last post, on gene doping, attracted a lot of replies, mostly in response to a question I raised, which I'll recap here to save you a click:

Great sportsmen are often born with some incredible talent that is a product of luck (ie, some genetic mutation or the other), though they do have to work hard, of course, to make this talent pay off. My question is: rather than leave sporting excellence to chance, what is wrong with engineering those genetic mutations ourselves, and taking our destiny into our own hands?

Ken Tinker from Sydney wrote in to say that he had nothing against the idea, and he "rather like[d] the circus." He wrote:

As soon as you start talking about allowing genetic mutations to improve athletes' performance at particular sports, you open a Pandora's Box of freakishness. Paul Adams is double-jointed in his shoulders, how about we see what happens if we take that mutation, combine it with the hyperflex/over-straightening of Shoaib Akhtar's elbow/arm, and give this combination of mutations to someone with the body of Maurice Greene. Oh look, I've just created a bowler capable of unleashing missiles straight over the shoulder at over 120mph.

The game will no longer have coaches. It will be comprised of teams of scientists wearing labcoats in team colours. No-one will be interested in the sport itself anymore, the really interesting struggle will take place in the lab, and the team who wins will be the one who creates the monster with the most fast-twitch muscles. Oh be still my beating heart.

Yes, I'm excited too, and I'd love to see Doc Ock play cricket as well, a bat in each metallic arm - for two Doc Ocks, running between the wickets would just be standing at the center of the pitch and swaying left and right. But seriously, I think that talk of either Doc Ock or Ken's monster with fast-twitch muscles just caricatures the issue, and it is not fair to judge anything by its parody.

There are really two issues at hand here:

One, is gene therapy wrong in itself, and should we really not fiddle with biology?

Two, whether it is wrong or right, it is inevitable; what does that imply for sport?

The objections to genetic engineering

We stand at a crossroads of human history today. The process of natural selection that has shaped our species has always been outside our control - it is only in recent times that we have been able to observe the forces that have shaped us, and we are just about learning how to take control of those processes. As EO Wilson put it, "genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life". This is, to put it simply, a Big Thing. And Big Things make a lot of people queasy.

Francis Fukuyama, in Our Posthuman Future, his polemic against genetic engineering, says:

The deepest fear that people express about technology is ... that, in the end, biotechnology will cause us in some way to lose our humanity - that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going, despite all of the evident changes that have taken place in the human condition through the course of history. Worse yet, we might make this change on the without recognizing that we had lost something of great value. We might thus emerge on the other side of a great divide between human and posthuman history and not even see that the watershed had been breached because we lost sight of what that essence was.

The latest frontier of protest against biotechnology is stem-cell research, which could lead to breakthrough cures for cancer, AIDS and a host of other diseases. Leon Kass, America's chief bioethicist, is at the forefront of the battle against stem-cell research, and has been the key mover behind some severe restrictions on stem cell research. Kass says that messing with biology undermines "the idea of humanness and of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment and our relation to ancestors and descendants".

Oh wait - I have quoted Kass out of context. He said the above words in opposition to in vitro fertilisation, not stem cell research.

Transcending biology, and a question of choices

The opposition to genetic engineering and stem-cell research today is identical in nature to the opposition to birth control and in virto fertilisation, and as misguided. If we went by the logic behind it - that we should accept our biological destiny and not try to control it - then we'd be against antibiotics and vaccination and angioplasty and vitamin pills as well. The average lifespan of humans has increased, in the US, from around 45 to around 78 in the 100 years of the 20th century, and this is all because of one reason - that, unique among species, to a gradually increasing extent, we have the ability to transcend biology.

And when we can use that ability to improve, and prolong, our lives, as we have done for decades now to such conspicuous effect, then it is not right to prevent us from doing so. Gregory Stock, the author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, wrote, in the course of a fascinating debate with Fukuyama:

The best reason not to curb interventions that many people see as safe and beneficial, however, is not that such a ban would be dangerous, but that it would be wrong. A ban would prevent people from making choices that are intended to improve their lives and would hurt no one. Such choices should be allowed. It is hard for me to see how a society that pushes us to work at staying healthy and vital could justify, for instance, trying to stop people from undergoing a genetic therapy or consuming a drug cocktail aimed at retarding aging. Imposing such a ban requires far more compelling logic than the assertion that we should not play God.

Matt Ridley makes much the same assertion in Genome when he writes that "my genome is my property and not the state's". Why should the government decide what you are I choose to do with our genes?

Genetic engineering and sport

Is it okay for someone who has muscular dystrophy to seek treatment through gene therapy? Clearly, yes. Is it okay, then, for someone to use the same therapy for cosmetic purposes? Well, if you can get a boobjob or a facelift, surely it is. In that case, is it wrong for the same therapy to be used for sporting purposes? If we can strive to improve our bodies for any other purpose, why not to win medals or excel in sport? And why should sportsmen not have access to the same tools that non-sportsmen do?

The moment we begin to talk about gene doping, we are beginning with a bias - after all, we never talk about gym doping, or nutrition doping. If pumping iron in a gym and taking protien supplements is acceptable, why isn't the genetic enhancement of muscles, which achieves the same end? Why should gene therapy carry connotations any more negative than, say, interval training?

Most of us who are against doping in sport feel that way because of our belief in a level playing field. But the level playing field is an illusion, because sportspeople who excel do so not only because of the hard work they put in (after all, so many people work hard) but also because of some special talents that they are born with - and those talents come from their genes. Eero Mäntyranta was clearly one of them; so is Lance Armstrong: his heart is one-third larger than normal, his aerobic capacity twice that of you or me, and his lactic acid production (lactic acid is what causes that burning sensation in our muscles when we over-exert ourselves) far less than average. (Being born with such physical gifts, who needs drugs?) The level playing field, thus, is not impacted so much by the diligent efforts of sincere people, but by luck - the special skills that you happen to be born with.

Harish Kondapalli has written in to me arguing that chance will continue to play the deciding factor in sporting excellence. He feels that genetic enhancements, if universal, will only raise the bar - "If you improve everyone to a higher set of standards, the one who is going to win will do [so] because he takes advantage of some other factor which has an influence on the decision." A sportsman who excels, thus, will still do so because of an advantage that goes beyond any gene therapy he might have access to, just as sportsmen who excel today do say because of factors beyond their fitness and training and nutritional regimes.

Harish also gives an example of a sporting success that is entirely the result of genetic engineering: "Secretariat, the horse which won the Triple Crown and holds the records for all the 3 races for the best times. Its like someone running the 100 metres dash in 7 seconds. He was [a] freak of nature - they have not been able to breed another like him ... horse breeding is the biggest example of legal genetic engineering."

But would gene therapy, then, start an arms race that only the richer countries can win? Dhruv Bhargava writes in to me saying, "over time, it will be sportspersons from richer nations who will be at an advantage and, in [the] case of cricket, countries like Bangladesh and Kenya will never be able to compete. Perhaps, this would be another reason for continued US dominance in the Olympics?" Dhruv's in good company - as Fukuyama says, "the most common fear expressed by present-day bioethicists is that only the wealthy will have access to this kind of genetic technology."

Stock points out, however, that such inequalities would arise if the technologies were restricted, because the rich would then find a way to get around it, and access the biotechnology black market. The poor would not, and "genetic disease could gradually be relegated to society's disadvantaged". If gene therapy became common, it is fair to assume that its medical applications would reach the third world before its cosmetic applications, but in the big-money world of sport, there wouldn't be such a lag.

Not a Brave New World, but a better one

Lifespans grow longer, people get healthier, the quality of our lives improves - what could be wrong with that? One hundred years from now, the humans of today will appear hopelessly primitive, and our sporting accomplishments will be meaningless. And there will be no firm boundary that separates then and now, but a gradual constant line of progress similar to, if steeper than, the paths of progress that we have taken over the last 100 years. Fukuyama speaks of our posthuman future - well, compared to the humans of 1900, we are already posthuman. Humanity is a work in progress, and we should celebrate that, instead of waiting for the paint to dry.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He also writes the blog, The Middle Stage.

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