June 3, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Interview with transhumanism leader Maria Konovalenko

Transhumanism leader Maria Konovalenko
Transhumanism leader Maria Konovalenko.

The transhumanism movement has been garnering attention lately for a variety of views including embracing aspects of heritable human genetic modification. Earlier this year I interviewed geneticist and transhumanist, George Church.

In this post I interview molecular biophysicist and transhumanist Maria Konovalenko. She is the program coordinator at the Science for Life Extension Foundation. In addition she has a blog.

Paul: Where does transhumanism stand today? Is it a growing movement? Who would you say are the top leaders in the movement?

Konovalenko: If we separate transhumanism from scientific advances, then I don’t think I see any significant chances recently. Although, Zoltan Istvan’s work makes an amazing impression. Zoltan managed to get the most media attention transhumanism has ever seen by declaring his candidacy for the President of the US. He has enormous potential.

I also don’t see powerful resources on the topic on the internet. It’s as if transhumanism is spread all over all media that write about the future. I’ve recently done an AMA on Reddit and I was quite frankly surprised how well the audience knew the topic.

Speaking of the people who could be most useful – that’d be the young billionaires of the Silicon Valley, but they are only mentioning living forever. No one has yet stepped forward and said: «We will do this and that in particular to reach the goal».

Transhumanism hasn’t yet found neither its unique way to enroll new members, nor the intellectual core of the movement.

That’s why my answer is no, it’s not a growing movement. Let’s call a leader somebody who is capable of bringing 5000 people in the streets or to crowdfund a project. So far there is no such person in transhumanism.

Paul: Is anti-aging just one element or strategy of transhumanism?

Konovalenko: First of all, anti-aging is a discredited term. Too many frauds used it. We are talking about reaching radical life extension and physical immortality. Of course it is part of transhumanism, in fact it’s the most important part. Our first goal is to stay alive. The second one is to improve ourselves and expand our capabilities. That’s pretty much it. That’s basically all what transhumanism is about.

Paul: I’m a stem cell and genomics researcher myself. Do you think stem cell technology and regenerative medicine have a role in transhumanism and anti-aging?

Konovalenko: Regenerative medicine is an important part of human longevity research. Therefore it is part of transhumanism. I actually am also studying stem cells, putting a review together on the role of mTOR signaling during aging of stem cells. I think therapeutic cloning and genetically modified stem cell therapy have a lot of potential.

Paul: What’s your view of other self-editing and more specifically gene editing technology’s use in humans, such as CRISPR-Cas9, as a means of making a positive difference? Would you say this is likely reflective of the transhumanist view of human gene editing more generally?

Konovalenko:I am for using any kind of safe technology on humans as a means of making a positive difference. Of course, it is crucial to adjust CRISPR-Cas9 for medical use. Generally, the point of view of transhumanism on gene editing is the following: let’s do it every time when it can be useful for us.

I should add that there is a myriad of CRISPR-Cas9 and applications. For example, we could create new biological systems in deserts, using genetically modified organisms we can reach incredible biodiversity. We could grow whole cities. We will certainly terraform Mars using GMOs. The most unbelievable fact is that we can actually start implementing this task right away.

Paul: Some people like to draw a dividing line between human gene editing in adults (e.g. gene therapy) and germline human gene therapy that is heritable such as correction of a genetic disease in a 1-cell embryo that could grow up to be a healthier person. Do you advocate for both of these kinds of approaches and think that line is unnecessary?

Konovalenko: Yes, I advocate for all interventions that improve human well-being. Is it actually inaction, not providing the help when it is possible, these are the things that I consider unethical and criminal.

6. What about using gene editing to make improvements on the human condition? These would not necessarily be for preventing disease, but rather for conferring “better” traits?

A great idea. Aren’t we constantly trying to improve ourselves with education and physical exercise? It is also an attempt to impact gene expression. It would be great is we could do this directly. You add a gene and boom!, you have an increased motivation towards learning. I would love that.

Paul: Is there a difference between transhumanism and genetic self-editing versus say the Eugenics of the past?

Konovalenko: I don’t quite understand what you mean by “Eugenics of the past”. If this is in any way related to eliminating people, then transhumanism is on the opposite pole. If we are talking about improving human condition of those alive today, then yes, it’s transhumanism. We are saying: “Let’s look for more effective ways of improvements”.

Paul: What are you most excited about in science today in terms of specific projects and technologies that can aid transhumanism?

Konovalenko: All advances of the human mind, breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, and physics inspire us. Although, in the first place the tasks of transhumanism lie in the area of social changes, in the area of politics. I am dreaming of seeing 2,000 people who came in the street to protect their right to live with a demand to increase funding the experiments in longevity. That’s when we can count on acceleration.

Paul: Anything else you’d like to add?

Konovalenko: Generally speaking, scientific progress in the area of aging research is moving forward quite successfully. I have a feeling that in 10 years we will have the first drugs that extend longevity. However, we have problems of a different kind now. The threat of the 3rd world war is staring us in the face. At any moment Putin, who is an autocratic leader who seems to have lost his mind, can press the nuclear button. We have to be able to create the technologies that can neutralize weapons leading to the death of the civilization and we have to do this in time.

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