Will we ever live in an age of superhumans? The Übermensch, the more-than-human, taps into the notion that “man is something that shall be overcome,” and though Friedrich Nietzsche first coined this idea in the nineteenth century, the goal of reaching a state of higher consciousness is nothing new among us humans.
Of course, I tend to lose track of this fact during my daily routine. However, every time I reach for that extra cup of coffee, I secretly hope that it will sharpen my wits and propel me through the day. I am sipping a piece of cognition-enhancing biotechnology unavailable to the Neanderthal man.
Caffeine represents one of the many cognitive-enhancing supplements out there for the average bloke and is one of many nootropic drugs—drugs that improve mental performance in one way or another. While caffeine is perhaps the most common non-prescription nootropic drug, several specially designed supplements are currently available that have rather different effects. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Ari Levaux recounts his experience with Alpha Brain, one such nootropic cocktail in which he experienced “quite long” and vivid dreams which left him awake in the morning “surprisingly refreshed.” Levaux went on a hunt later in the day, successfully bringing in four deer.
A hunter like Levaux could have opted for steroids or stimulants to increase his physical strength but decided to beef-up his mental strength and acuity instead. Whereas our poor Neanderthal might have been left with only one deer at the end of the day—due both to his poorly designed weapons and his lack of the Alpha Brain supplement—Levaux caught a handsome batch of four deer, which provide both more food and raw material for shelter and clothing. In the case of the hunter, this improvement in mental acuity relaxes the influence that forces in nature have on individuals like Levaux. Deer seem to move slower, dark areas appear more navigable, and fatigue becomes less noticeable.
It is no wonder that some researchers claim that this represents an example of how our human smarts have decreased evolution’s dominion over us. No drug we develop will ever make the human body faster than the cheetah, but cognitive improvements might make such a disadvantage a moot point evolutionarily. After all, our brains are our most valuable assets biologically: humans have an encephalisation quotient (EQ) of about 7.5, which is a ratio of actual brain size to expected brain size (based on body weight and other factors). The shrewd bottle-nose dolphin has an EQ of 4.1, while the more humble domestic cat clocks in at 1.0. Instead of giving us stronger muscles or nifty wings, nature endowed us with a particularly complex nervous system.
Ray Kurzweil envisions the possibility that “we can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.” If he is correct, then much of this spiritual undertaking has already begun in our daily cup of coffee, crossword puzzle, or nootropic supplement—items, however subtle, that were developed by a culture of rational human beings for the betterment of their own condition. Our own human nature essentially implies a post-human one: our capacity to know nature also contains a hidden capacity to develop technologies that make up for our deficiencies—a cognitive “two-for-one” deal. Perhaps being superhuman—being Übermensch—involves patterning one’s inner self in a way that would have come as quite a surprise to Nietzsche.