In a universe where cybernetics, genetic engineering, alien tech and thousands of worlds exist, why are the humans of the Federation so human? Let’s take a look at the limited, ethical transhumanism of “Star Trek”.

 

Genetic Engineering

The “Star Trek” universe has an in-universe reason for not tolerating genetic engineering – the Eugenics Wars. Khan and his lab-mates divided the world into many warring states. Khan and his group fled Earth in a sleeper ship, the one Captain Kirk discovered in TOS. There are several books that discuss the hidden nature of the Eugenic Wars, tying these events to various real events in history from the 1970s to the 1990s. The TV show presented the Eugenic Wars as bad as World War 3. Either way, the genetically engineered elite were seen as such a threat that the species as a whole said never again.

The rejection of genetic engineering is so complete that it is not even tolerated for medical reasons. Commander Chakotay admitted in “Voyager” he had a family tendency to mental illness that was biochemically suppressed so he didn’t end up like his delusional grandfather. Notice that the genetic disorder wasn’t corrected, the known defective gene removed and replaced with a correct healthy gene. It was simply suppressed. The same apparently happened with Captain Picard with a hearing disorder his clone inherited. Generations on a high tech planet, and you’re not allowed to tweak the defective gene to put in a functional version. You are only allowed to fix it in the person to restore normal function.

Doctor Bashir in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” was genetically upgraded. It is interesting that his parents had to find an alien doctor to do it. One explanation is that his parents were afraid a human doctor would be discovered by investigators. The fact they had to go before a Star Fleet tribunal for punishment despite the revelation that their son was clearly mentally impaired without the treatment is proof they were right to be afraid.

Another explanation is that human doctors either didn’t have the skill and expertise to do it right or would choose not to do it exactly as requested. Doctor Bashir went from borderline retarded to genius, thanks to the upgrades. In the later seasons of DS9, he meets other genetically enhanced individuals being kept in a comfortable prison. They range from nearly comatose to equal parts brilliant and hyper. That implies that human doctors who can do genetic engineering aren’t good at it. I can’t rule out the possibility that they poisoned the well, so to speak, intentionally adding flaws to offset the improvements they made. If this sounds insane, remember that the U.S. government during Prohibition poisoned alcohol, killing thousands. Fixing the child’s specific defects while handicapping them in another way in order to prevent a potential Khan might be the doctor’s “ethical” solution. You get a genius, but you won’t get a criminal mastermind.

I wonder if the same total rejection of genetic engineering – and anything related to it – explains why we see a colony that had to move off-world to have its controlled breeding project implemented. That was in the TNG episode “The Masterpiece Society”.

 

Cybernetics and Artificial Organs

Humanity suffered World War 3 and decades of “post-war troubles” that drove many groups into space instead of staying on the post-apocalyptic planet. Yet we don’t see any human society that adopted cybernetic implants on a wide scale or went cyber-punk. The Federation clearly has artificial organs. Captain Picard has an artificial heart. Bareil Antos, Major Kira’s love interest at the start of the show, suffered an injury that slowly destroyed his brain. Doctor Bashir was able to install a positronic implant. He had both the expertise to perform such a procedure and items on hand, so this technology is clearly part of Star Fleet’s medical toolkit. Yet no one in this society seems to be upgraded via such technology. (I’m going to ignore Detmer in “Star Trek: Discovery” because they crap on canon across the board. In short, STD doesn’t count in this discussion.)

One possible answer is that we’re back to a balanced post-human technological view. Maybe the only people with such implants are suffering severe brain damage from injuries and infections or advanced dementia. You’re allowed such an implant if it restores you to prior healthy function, but you aren’t allowed to be “upgraded”. You can get artificial limbs to restore lost ones, but no one has healthy limbs altered or replaced with synthetic though theoretically better ones. The ethos of Star Trek demonstrates this in another way – the horror of the Borg.

The Borg Collective seems to remove the eye and arm of every new drone so that a better, Collective approved organ can be installed. This is rightfully seen as horrifying. Yet we don’t see the equivalent technology used by anyone in the Federation who may choose to do so. It isn’t even implied among aliens except the Bynar. They apparently put a synaptic processor in every newborn’s brain. The episode “11001001” demonstrates both the pros and cons of this lifestyle. Yet we don’t see any other race in the TV shows with anything similar but the Borg. I wonder if humanity’s hatred of artificial upgrades, perhaps forbidden as unfair, is imposed on Federation member worlds.

 

Cloning

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” gives us a few hints as to why the advanced Federation is very much against the post-human future. In “Up the Long Ladder”, we meet two colonies that came on one ship. One has a bunch of Irish settlers from a return-to-nature movement. They’re neo-Amish on an alien world. The other colony featured scientists and researchers, and when they lose most of their population, they resort to cloning.

This episode discusses the back to nature movement the Bringloid colonists were members of. Yet the same naturalist views are clearly present in modern humans, proving that major tenets of the belief system took hold on Earth around the same time. The behavior of the modern Federation crew demonstrates it, as well. The scientifically advanced colony reproduces via cloning. The Federation crew is repelled by this and horrified at the offer to contribute DNA to the colony. Commander Riker says the only acceptable option is the traditional one – have children.

Cloning is so simple in this universe that Phlox cloned Trip with standard equipment and know-how generations before “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. You’d think that at least a few people would decide their future heir should be their genetic copy, but it isn’t even presented as an option. The only clones we see are political pawns. One example is Picard’s clone, created by the enemy Romulans. Another is Elizabeth, the cloned offspring of Trip and T’Pol, born to die in order to discourage inter-species mingling. The third canon example is Ibudan’s clone, created to be killed for the sake of a plot. In this story arc, the analysis of the unknown sample by Bashir grows quickly into a full-fledged adult clone that we’re told goes to make a new life for itself. If you can go from cell sample to walking, talking adult with your DNA, you’d expect more such entities… unless it is forbidden. Replacement leg? Sure. Replacing dead son with his clone? No.

 

Summary

“Star Trek” presents a realistic representation of how we could balance technology that can radically alter the human mind and body with human nature. What we need to decide is how we can balance these things in our own society without it being a reaction to some sort of worldwide cataclysm.

*****

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