Most Americans Are Still Wary Of Becoming Superhumans

Gene editing, brain implants, and synthetic blood transfusions all raise concerns in a new poll

The desire to enhance human beings past our mental and physical limits has a long history in science (and science fiction). But recent advances like the revolutionary genome editing tool CRISPR have brought the prospect of superhumans and designer babies into the spotlight.

A recent poll of Americans out today by the Pew Research Center shows that in light of these new tools, Americans as a whole are still fairly concerned and wary about the idea of permanently altering our genomes to enhance our capabilities.

The poll, which surveyed 4,700 Americans, narrowed in on three specific advancements that are looming in our future: Gene-editing to alter our genomes, brain chip implants, and the use of synthetic blood transfusions.

With some exceptions, most of these advances are still in very early stages. However, the implications could be great: altering our genes could prevent or significantly reduce the risks of genetic diseases, but could also potentially allow for designer babies and unforeseen genetic diseases. Brain chip implants could enhance our cognitive abilities allowing us to process more information for longer, and synthetic blood transfusions could provide athletes increased stamina; but the potential downsides and health risks of these technologies are still not fully understood.

The bulk of the survey suggests that despite biotechnology surging ahead, Americans are more likely to be concerned than to endorse these advancements.

The surveyed Americans were either ‘very’ worried or ‘somewhat’ worried about all three areas: 68 percent for gene editing, 69 percent for brain chips, and 63 percent for synthetic blood. When asked why these technologies worried them, a majority stated that these enhancements would only increase the inequality among the human race, with concerns that many of these advancements would only be accessible to wealthier people.

Pew research gene editing study
Pew Research Center

In the past year, as CRISPR research has leapt forward, a major concern at scientific gatherings has been the ethical issues surrounding the genome editing technology.

When polled, though, Americans were roughly split on this issue. In general, the more religious the respondents were, the more likely they were to not be okay with any human enhancements, agreeing that these treatments were “crossing the line that shouldn’t be crossed.” Those that identified as non-religious believed that these new enhancement technologies were no different than other ones that scientists and researchers had been experimenting with in the past.

Interestingly, Americans were more likely to be okay with brain implants as long as those implants were temporary and reversible. If the implant was permanent, 51 percent say that treatment would be unacceptable.

In a similar light, those polled were more accepting of gene editing on babies to prevent disease, as long as those changes didn’t affect the genetic makeup of the whole population. Right now, the use of gene editing in the United States is being used only for somatic cells–not embryos–but that is likely to change in the coming years.

In general, for both brain chips and blood transfusions, Americans were more likely to be okay with the technology if it only matched a person’s own abilities but did not exceed them. Similarly, people’s opinions of these new technologies tended to be in line with their opinions of enhancement procedures and technologies that are already being used, such as cosmetic surgery. If they were against those to a certain degree, they were more likely to be against these new technologies on a similar scale.

pew research poll for gene editing
Pew Research Center

In all three categories, women were more likely to be wary of the enhancements: 43 percent of women favored gene editing, while 54 percent of men did, 26 percent if women favored brain chips compared to 39 percent of men, and 28 percent of women favored synthetic blood transfusions, compared to 43 percent of men.

As research on these technologies brings them closer to reality, the results of this study, and future ones like it, are likely to play a key role in how the tech will be used. These advancements will only progress so far without the informed decision of the general public. This early poll could provide researchers and policy makers with crucial details about how best to inform the public so that everyone can make the most informed decisions about the future of human enhancements.

Claire Maldarelli

Claire Maldarelliis the Science Editor at Popular Science. She has a particular interest in brain science, the microbiome, and human physiology. In addition to Popular Science, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Scholastic’s Science World and Super Science magazines, among others. She has a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s in science journalism from New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Contact the author here.