What Doctor Who Can Teach Us About the Dangers of Enhancing the Human Body

Futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson, a man with an 85% accuracy rating when it comes to predicting future technological developments, made some bold claims about upcoming innovations in an interview last August. Most striking were his predictions about the future of the human body – all of which sounded like tropes from science fiction films.

He stated his view that in the future, our brains will be replicated allowing them to be transplanted in to a new host should our body be damaged or destroyed. He also, most interestingly, stated that “A lot of people are very enthusiastic about using technology to make their bodies better in a lot of different ways.”

And whilst the prospect of replicable brains, bionic eyes, and mechanical hearts might seem like something from a sci-fi fan’s dreams, there are some very obvious examples of this technology turning into a horrific nightmare. The use of machinery to enhance and recreate the body, to make it stronger, immune to disease, and more powerful is a common concept in tv shows, books, and films. But there is one particularly poignant example of this technology in science fiction that is a cautionary tale to us all about the quest to best nature, to augment ourselves, and to attempt to override the way things are meant to be. This is the example of the Cybermen from Doctor Who.

The Cybermen

Doctor Who, as we all know, is one of the most successful science fiction shows in the world, first airing on November 23rd 1963. The show ran for 26 consecutive years before being cancelled in 1989. It was then rebooted by Russell T. Davies in 2005, and has been running since – celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. But the wildly popular series has also spawned an uncountable number of books, audio plays, comics, and other mediums. In 1999, company Big Finish began producing full cast audio dramas featuring some of the original actors from the show’s 1963-1989 run, to fill the gap, and they continue to expand the Doctor Who universe to this day.

One of the Doctor’s prolific villains are the Cybermen. The term encapsulates an array of species who have converted themselves from biological, natural beings, into a robotic creature, devoid of any emotion or feeling. There are various factions of Cybermen, all with different designs, which are the numerous different races who have decided to augment themselves to survive.

What the Cybermen warn us about bionics

The Cybermen occur across species, wherever there are people, developing as a survival mechanism, or as part of a desire to live forever. Humanoids, in a bid to be more than nature allows them to be, transplant bits of their body with machinery, eventually losing everything that made them human, or human-like, even their deep and complex emotions – the most human of feature – replaced by a desire to convert all similar species to be like them, almost as a sort of mercy mission.

Whilst this all seems rather far-fetched, and it certainly would have been when they first appeared in 1966, we’re starting to see some of these ideas play out in reality. People are beginning to supplant their natural features with enhancements and augmentations to increase their lifespan and overcome traditional biological weaknesses. We are dangerously close to seeing the Cybermen become a reality. We are on the brink of being able to iron out any natural weaknesses with machinery and technology, and it is the desire to do just that which leads to the creation of Cybermen. First, the vulnerability to natural catastrophes is removed, and then perviousness to disease, and finally emotions.

Not to use a cliche, but the Cybermen show us that the quest to enhance our bodies with mechanical elements is a slippery slope to losing everything that makes us human. Whilst we might start down this path with good intentions to improve the quality of living for humanity, and to increase life expectancy, by removing anything that might hinder us, the question is inevitably posed, when will it stop? If we’re doing it to defeat the scourge of disease, where do we draw the line? At the common cold? At cancer? Or even at depression and mental illness? These are deep ethical issues that it seems have not been considered, and that is deeply troubling. The Cybermen tell us that however noble the cause of bionic research might be, it is likely to do far more harm than good.

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