Stephen Hawking predicted race of superhumans
Late physicist feared abuse of genetic modification technology may lead to two-tiered society
One of Stephen Hawking’s final pieces of writing predicted that a breed of superhumans will dominate the future of the planet by using genetic modification.
In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, due to be released on 16 October and part-published by The Times, the theoretical physicist, who died in March this year, suggested an elite class of physically and intellectually powerful superhumans could arise from rich people who use their wealth to make use of gene editing technology on their children.
“I am sure that during this century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence and instincts such as aggression,” he wrote.
“Laws will probably be passed against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won’t be able to resist the temptation to improve human characteristics, such as memory, resistance to disease and length of life.”
Hawking suggests that recent advancements in gene editing may have social consequences for what he calls “unimproved humans” - those who did not have access to the technology - and may create a “two-tier system of humans”.
“Once such superhumans appear, there will be significant political problems with unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete,” he wrote. “Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving at an ever-increasing rate.
“If the human race manages to redesign itself, it will probably spread out and colonise other planets and stars.”
In the essays, he references a recently developed technology known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (Crispr), which allows scientists to “modify harmful genes or add new ones”, The Guardian reports. The newspaper adds that Great Ormond Street hospital for children in London has “used gene editing to treat children with an otherwise incurable form of leukaemia”.
The Times suggests that Hawking’s vision of the future “will horrify some because of their superficial similarity to last century’s eugenics movement - the idea that humanity could be ‘improved’ by encouraging people with supposedly superior characteristics to have more children, while discouraging or even sterilising those seen as inferior”.
But the newspaper adds that Hawking may have been simply suggesting that “breakthroughs in genetics will make it attractive for people to try to improve themselves”.