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Brainstorming About the Law of Superhumans

The press of the end of the semester and a trip to attend a conference in France sapped my Law 2050 blogging energy the past several weeks, but that wouldn’t have been the case if I were I a superhuman. A what? Am I joking? Well, maybe for now, yes, but what about in 20 or 30 years? If Vanderbilt History Professor Michael Bess is right, in the not too distant future advances in genetics, pharmaceuticals, and bionics will make possible previously unimaginable configurations of human physical and mental enhancements. In short, it will not only be possible, but likely inevitable, that humanity will transform itself into what today we would consider a civilization of superhumans.

Bess has been working on a book project called Superhuman Civilization: Life in a Bioengineered Society, in which he meticulously documents and projects the path of human enhancement technology and explores its potential social impacts. Having heard about his research, I invited Bess to guest lecture in my Law 2050 class as a way of stimulating my students to think about how technological change is a force of legal change and, consequently, a source new legal practice issues. In what was a TED-quality presentation, Bess had the class spellbound as he laid out the current and emerging advancements in epigenetics, cognitive drugs, robotics, neuroscience, and other fields which, when combined, make it easy to envision the rise of a superhuman civilization. Drugs will make us stronger, faster, smarter…better at everything. Bionics will allow us not only to restore sight, but also to expand the normal spectrum of human sight, control our mood, and defy current physical limits. Genetics will allow us to go beyond playing with genes to alter physical traits to manipulating the epigenetic expressions of our DNA without changing our DNA. When you put it all together, the possibility of substantially enhanced humans becoming the norm does not seem like science fiction at all.

So what’s the connection to legal change? As Bess says on his website, “all these technologies – even the most apparently sensible and benign ones – will destabilize key aspects of our social order, as well as our understanding of what it means to be human.” He argues that “contemporary society is dangerously unprepared for the dramatic changes it is about to experience, down this road on which it is already advancing at an accelerating pace.” That sounds like a recipe for a swarm of legal issues.

Indeed, we had about 20 minutes to brainstorm with Bess about potential legal issues, and once we got rolling we could have gone on for hours. How will society regulate access to and use of these enhancements? Will some interests argue against allowing their development in the first place? How will the existence of superhuman enhancements affect employment discrimination, police practices, education, liability, insurance, damage calculations, and a host of legal questions. What will happen to the “reasonable person” standard of care? What is negligence in a world of superhumans? Intent? How will intellectual property in enhancement technology be handled? Will there be new forms of violence? Will the concept of “family” evolve as people live to be well over 100 as a routine and 150 becomes the new 40? How will society treat people who refuse enhancement for religious or other reasons?

It would take a superlawyer to anticipate all the potential legal issues that could emerge during the rise of superhumans. Indeed, that’s an interesting concept–the superlawyer! Or the superdoctor. Or the super anything. Will people design themselves for certain superhuman “packages,” leading to even greater differentiation in society?

And here’s the question most appropriate for the thrust of Law 2050: How many superlawyers will the world need, if the world consists of nothing but superhumans? That’s a good question! I plan to get a copy of Bess’s book the day it is off the presses to see what answers it might offer.


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