Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Natasha Vita-More > Nano's Neo Normal
MSc, MPhil, PhD Researcher, University of Plymouth
Would a person whose immune system starts declining after puberty, and finally gives up before 123, be normal? This statement largely sums up my transhumanist view that "normal" is misunderstood. The physiological (cognitive and the somatic) state of human existence "normality" ought to be a state of enhancement.
September 19th, 2009
Nano's Neo Normal
In the book, Liberation Biology, Ronald Bailey writes, "What if a biomedical researcher discovered that our lives were being cut short because every human being was infected in the womb by a disease organism that eventually wears down the human immune system's ability to protect us?" (Bailey 2005, p. 49) In other words, would a person whose immune system starts declining after puberty, and finally gives up before 123, be normal? This statement largely sums up my transhumanist view that "normal" is misunderstood. The physiological (cognitive and the somatic) state of human existence "normality" ought to be a state of enhancement.
Yet, at the center of the unrest about human enhancement is the issue of human nature and normality for humanity's aggregate. As meaningful as this might appear, it is not based on sound reasoning.
For example, it is argued that human DNA defines us, and that our values are a result of genetic commonality. However, the minutest altercation between genes can cause a vast difference in what we become. This makes it difficult to agree that intervening with the human germ-line is wrong. If an essential element of human nature, which is the foundation for humanity's social and political system, is based upon our genetic makeup, why would altering it destruct this system? Such Western world thinking seems odd because it ignores the fact that our genes actually alter themselves, it neglects to include global cultures and practices, it assumes that the Western state-of-the art system is correct and natural while ignoring the social and political canons which are evidentiary unethical, and it assumes that we are incapable of developing something better -- an improved natural.
Looking at human physiology, is it natural that some viruses exist within the body and cannot be eradicated? For example once infected with the shingles virus, Varicella zoster virus (VZV), it has permanent residency in the body and hides, in nerve cells in the base of the spine. Usually, but not always, the virus becomes active if the immune system is stressed. If you have had chicken pox, you may also have the Varicella zoster virus dormant in your spine, and one day it may strike, especially if you are over 50.
|Varicella zoster virus. Image courtesy of Dr. Erskine Palmer and B.G. Partin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention|
After primary infection resulting in chickenpox, the virus, also known as the Varicella-zoster virus (VZV), migrates along the sensory axons towards the dorsal horn, where it can lie dormant in the dorsal root ganglion for decades. During this time it is asymptomatic, and the patient will be unaware it is there. 
The entire human body is filled with swarms of living entities, some helpful and many harmful. Those, like the Varicella zoster virus, cannot be eradicated. Currently, the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic has caused us to be aware of the importance of having an effective immune system and that we need continued immunization.
"Like a sleeper agent, the flu virus causes its damage from within, turning an organism's cells against itself. A single virus can hijack a healthy cell and transform it into a virus factory, making thousands of copies in a couple of hours. The cell then bursts, allowing the copies to infect other healthy cells and start the process anew. The body fights back by launching a self-sacrificing counterattack: molecules designed to kill the hijacked cells before the virus does." 
When hostile viruses or bacteria invade our bodies, the immune system organizes and builds a defense. Unfortunately, the production of antibodies is slow and the battle of antibody against invader is not always favorable for the human. Whether it is the shingles or the flu, the proactive development of molecular agents, such as nanorobots, to combat these and other protagonist viruses is the right thing to do.
Consider the most precious environment for our earliest beginnings—-our mother's womb. How do we know that the womb does not naturally contain a genetic sub-immunological mutation which populates only at the moment the sperm enters the egg? Or is triggered later, during gestation or even as a molecular defense as the baby's umbilical cord is severed? This may be far-fetched, but our bodies break down, and sometimes it is a chain reaction—like the Varicella zoster virus which can trigger a number of very serious illnesses. Is this normal?
"The term 'normal' is, according to André Lalande (37), 'very ambiguous and misleading'. It has, indeed, two meanings which are frequently confused and which are therefore often the subject of imperceptible transitions from one to the other. As Lalande explains, on the one hand, that 'is normal which occurs in the majority of cases, or that which constitutes either the mean or the mode of a measurable characteristic' (statistical normality), and, on the other hand, 'that which is such as it should be' (normative normality). It is true that, when the physician uses the word, he usually does so in the normative sense; but as he is not always aware of the logical difficulties which beset the term, he is constantly running the risk of arriving at paradoxical conclusions (for instance that it is 'normal' for people inhabiting certain regions to suffer from malaria or to be neurotic)." (Krapf 1961) 
If our bodies are not able to eradicate the hostile and uninvited, human enhancement medicine and technology ought to be building equally matched nanocombatants. It is not enough that investments in nanotechnology for health and life sciences increased in 2008 to approximately $300 million out of the total $1.2 billion (according to Lux Research). Simply put, we are ill-equipped to fight attacks on our immune systems.
If normal represents the mass majority, then we are all disabled because the human immune system is naturally disabled. If it is normal to undertake "that which is such as it should be", then building a strong defense through nanomedicine to combat viruses is a worthy undertaking. The first step is to disavow the historical "normal" state of existence and introduce a neo-normal state of enhanced existence.
 Shuttleworth, Ann. (2003) "Varicella-zoster virus, shingles and postherpetic neuralgia" in Nursing Times
. Available: http://www.nursingtimes.net/nursing-practice-clinical-research/varicella-zoster-virus-shingles-and-postherpetic-neuralgia/199786.article
 Mitchum, Robert and Tsouderos, Trine. 2009) "H1N1 Virus" Invasion Sets off Battle Inside the Body" in Chicago Tribune
. Available: http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2009/may/01/virus-invasion-sets-battle-inside-body/
 Krapf, E.E. (1961) "The Concepts of Normality and Mental Health in Psycho-Analysis". Available: http://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=IJP.042.0439A