More than 50 years ago Tomas Nagel 1 challenged us in a philosophical paper to think about “what is it like to be bat”. The paper had an enormous impact and is frequently cited and reprinted. An answer to some of his questions may be in the works!
Science recently published a joint report from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, University of Mississippi, the Department of Artificial Intelligence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology , and the Darwin Laboratories, University of Cambridge (UK), about a series of discoveries made over the last 19 years. The report is dated 15th January 2049 and covers research completed under joint grants of NASA, The Institute of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, The Templeton Foundation and the Medical Research Foundation, UK on new genetic modifications of Humans in an effort to enhance and extend their sensory capacities.
Briefly, the research followed a suggestion by Professor Joshua Zangmeyer of Cambridge, head of the Gregory Research Laboratories, that it may be possible to genetically engineer a human embryo so as to add sensory capacities which would enhance its visual and auditory sensory range and competencies throughout life. The idea was to develop two separate mechanisms: the first, a neural switching element which would increase sensitivity to infrared radiation, during periods of low illumination, specifically during dusk and night periods, and concurrently reduce sensitivity to strong illumination. One proposal investigated was whether in addition to rods and cones new neural receptors could be developed well as a central selector device or processor which would “read” illuminations in the environment before switching from one set to another.
During daytime conditions the individual would be tuned as now, whereas during dusk-to-dawn periods the individual’s sensitivity to illumination and hue conditions would be decreased. The current proposal is that during “night time” conditions the perception of color is relatively unimportant and could be sacrificed.
Sensory adjustments to sound are also being explored. One proposal is to develop echo-location mechanisms which become operative during dusk-to-dawn period so that humans would be programmed like bats. Dr. Umberto Gabrielli of the Baroque Hearing Labs at the University of Padova is exploring the possibility of developing ear-posturing central mechanisms which would facilitate humans to automatically cup ears to monitor sound sources during low illumination periods. The idea came to Dr Gabrielli watching his grandparents as they were chatting with their hearing-impaired fellow residents in the local infirmary in Padua.The research is at an advanced stage.
There are now five exemplars of humans who have undergone these genetic transformations; two young men and three young women. Outward appearances belie the genetic transformations achieved! As explained in Professor Zangmeyer’s brief report, the five subjects of these experiments – whose names are being withheld – are leading normal lives despite their superior sensory equipment.
The laboratories are currently testing five subjects by extensively mapping brain-activity following a suggestion that presently under-used areas of the sensory areas of the brain could become empowered to achieve these sensory enhancements. Also, a group of Cambridge and IT philosophers are currently studying the effects of sensory enhancements on the development of language and on what is known as the emergence of “epistemological lexicons “ that is, on how these new versions of “Homo Sapiens” will modify their language to reflect the fact that they have developed additional sensory inputs with which to construct their knowledge of the external world (see B. Russell2)
These “new” artificially produced members of Homo Sapiens have been given the sub-species name of Homo Seymor, or simply Seymors, in honor of an early pioneer (c.1948) of the long term effects of sensory deprivation.
(1) Thomas Nagel: “What is it like to be a Bat,” Philosophical Review (1974). See also Block Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology, 1980. Cambridge.
(2) Bertrand Russell: Our Knowledge of the External World(1914), Routledge Classics, 2012.