Welcome to the SuperHuman Sports League

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

What if athletes could voluntarily replace their limbs with prosthetics to make them faster and stronger?

This question was raised by Otutoa Afu, an STS major in my Intro to STS course. The class has been discussing what it means to be human in a world where technology can radically transform both the human body and the human experience. Some of these advancements have been tremendously positive, such as the blade runner prosthetic that allows amputees to compete in athletic events, but Otutoa’s question highlights the potential complexities that may arise if technological enhancements become more widespread.

As part of our discussion, the class read “Transhumanist Values” by Nick Bostrom and pitted it against Michael Sandel’s “The Case Against Perfection” to ask questions about where to draw the line – if we want to draw it – when it comes to technical enhancements of the human body. Sandel is firmly on the side of restricting the applications of technology, and specifically genetic engineering, to curing disease. He considers it hubris to engineer ourselves into more “perfect” states of being, especially when how we define “perfection” and who can afford to access it is so problematic. Bostrom, in contrast, sees overcoming our limitations with technology as a natural human desire. He envisions a world of immortality, unhindered intellectual capacity, and enhanced well-being as a start.  It’s an appealing argument. Who wouldn’t want to live longer, think faster, and feel happier? 

The debate weighs the ethic of giftedness against an ethic of willfully overcoming human shortcomings. Sandel believes we should embrace natural gifts and celebrate hard work and talent, which we would lose in a world of designer babies and genetically engineered superhumans. Sandel evokes our love of sports to make us question the applications of genetic engineering: if we don’t draw an ethical line when it comes to enhancing our bodies through technology, what’s to stop us from designing a whole new type of athlete, one who doesn’t need to struggle, face defeat, or have a disciplined work ethic to succeed? Sandel stresses that the “real problem with genetically altered athletes is that they corrupt athletic competition as a human activity that honors the cultivation and display of natural talents.”

But what counts as “natural talent” even now? Doping scandals suggest that we do want athletic competition to be rooted in something pure and unmodified, whether athletes are born predisposed to athleticism or put in the determined effort to earn it. But we also love to see records smashed and impressive displays of human achievement, so while some technologies are stigmatized, others are fair game. For instance, hypoxic chambers simulate high altitude environments to boost performance, and some athletes, such as Tiger Woods, have had cutting edge LASIK surgery to receive better than 20/20 vision. (If you’d like to read more on that, check out William Saletan’s article on the topic.) 

Technology is already complicating the essential meaning of sport and competition. Perhaps genetically engineered athletes aren’t such a bold move into the future. 

At the heart of this dilemma is a consideration of what it means to be human in a world of advancing technology. Does technology lessen or enhance our “humanness”? Whatever the answer, sports is a fascinating way to address this question. If we can identify what kind of athlete we value, we can begin to think about what kind of world we value. 

Screenshot from The Natural (1984, dir. Barry Levinson)

I remember watching The Natural as a kid, in awe as Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) ran the bases after knocking a ball into the stadium lights to send his team to the World Series. He’d been a “natural” his whole life, and that final scene celebrates the persistence of talent and dedication despite years of setbacks. What might define “natural” talent if genetic engineering becomes a mainstream option?

So, if we had a superhuman sports league, would you tune in to watch? Or better yet…would you want to be on the field yourself?

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