Human beings that feel no pain and can do without food and sleep for days on end. Sounds improbable? Not to the people at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who already gave us Arpanet, the network of networks that we known of as the Internet. Their priority is to prevent human performance from becoming the weakest link on the future battlefield and they are likely to create super-humans in the process.
Until recently, Dr Joe Bielitzski, the manager of DARPA’s multi-billion dollar Metabolically Dominant Soldier program, measured the potential worth of his projects on whether or not the International Olympic Committee would ban them. Mitochondria for instance, they produce energy to power cells. He believed that by modifying the thirty-seven genes of cellular mitochondria and increasing their efficiency at creating energy, he could create soldiers with the endurance of sled dogs who could run as fast as Usain Bolt for fifteen minutes on one breath.
The mixture of bad press, post-crash budget cuts and hard reality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan did for the Metabolically Dominant Soldier program. Approximately $4billion in annual research funding was shifted away from blue-sky projects to better drones and defenses against roadside bombs. But the consensus amongst military futurists is that this is a temporary hiatus and we are kidding ourselves if we think that the military has lost its interest in human enhancement just because its been re-labeled as “optimization”.
Some projects continue but under different names: Regenesis is now Restorative Injury Repair. Ask yourself why it is that if you cut off the tail of a tadpole it will re-grow but if you cut off the leg of an adult frog it won’t? The answer is because certain genetic signals have been switched off. The challenge for scientists is to switch them back on – to reactivate a mass of undifferentiated cells called a blastema, also called a regeneration bud – and re-grow blown-off arms and legs. It shouldn’t be that difficult - after all we build human beings from a few cells in wombs all the time. The Paralympics may have to be cancelled.
When it comes to creating genetically enhanced humans, animals offer the clearest way ahead. As Dr Markoff, the DARPA funded scientist in my novel Rock Creek Park, says in his strangled syntax: “How come whales and dolphins don't sleep? If they sleep they drown. They switch off parts of their brain is answer. How come? What about infrared and ultraviolet vision of spiders and snakes, detection of magnetism of birds, sonar of bats and acute smell of dogs. How come? It's all because of genes.”
The long-term objective of genetic enhancement is germ-line engineering (the modification of egg or sperm) and the arrival of safe, reliable Germline technology will signal the beginning of human self-design. Pioneering work in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) is already paving the way. Procedures that influence the germline are routine in labs working on small mammals; we now have “super-muscled "Schwarzenegger rats”, that live longer and recover from injuries quicker. And mice aren’t so different to us; eighty-five per cent of their gene sequence is the same as ours. It’s only a matter of time before such technology is utilized by the military and inevitably it will then seep into the world of sport.
It’s not only DARPA that is at the forefront of such research; there are more than forty state-of-the-art IVF clinics in China, most of them built with military assistance – some have begun to wonder why China, with its teeming population and its aggressive control of family size, its eugenics and sterilization laws, is so concerned about human fertility. Are they putting in place the infrastructure of widespread genetic enhancement? The raised eyebrows over Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen’s stunning final lap in the 400m medley will be as nothing compared to what may be coming.
Sir Roger Bannister, who broke the four-minute-mile in 1954, has been sharply criticized for observing that: “black splinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain anatomical advantages”. It is a fact that all of world’s best hundred-meter sprinters and evrey world record holder since 1968 are of West African ancestry. If, as seems likely, a genetic link is established then it is only a matter of time before someone isolates the genes and then cuts and pastes them into an alternative germline. One day we may see Chinese sprinters enhanced with West African genes. As James Watson, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, famously put it: "No one really has the guts to say it, but if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we?"
In future games genetic testing may become as prevalent as drug testing and if the Olympics are to survive we may have to make some difficult decisions about what it means to be human.