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Building A Transhuman: Aquatic Apes April 28, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As of today I am officially certified as a scuba diver.  Though ostensibly I’m doing scuba for school work and career preparation there are very important secondary reasons for I have pursued this cert; namely because scuba diving is a fucking awesome experience.  The first time you experience the sensation of breathing underwater is a moment on par with you first kiss and the first time you read Kurt Vonnegut; it will stay with you for the rest of your life.  The science of scuba has progressed quite a bit over the past 50 years to the point where anyone who is in relatively good shape can, with a simple training course, know what it feels like to be an aquatic mammal.

That being said as I was sitting on the sea floor today about 5 meters below the surface waiting for my fellow trainee’s to complete their skills testing I began to wonder about the limitations of scuba.  At that depth I had barely 30 minutes of air before I had to be at the surface.  Even with my suit, gloves, boots and hood I was freezing after only a few minutes on the bottom.  Though my fins and BCD allowed me to move far more easily then I otherwise would have I was still about as graceful as an elephant seal on an ice rink.

So how can this be improved?  How might humans redesign themselves to be more adept under the water?  In other words how might we begin to build a transhuman?

And so begins what I hope will be a continuing series on this blog: Building a Transhuman, asking the question of how might we use coming technologies to expand the boundaries of human ability?  Before we get to much farther lets define some terms.  A transhuman is generally defined as a being that possess abilities, whether mental or physical, which exceed even the most highly trained human.  In addition I will add that a transhuman must not possess an ability that is less than the most highly trained human.  In other words any enhancements that offer great ability in a certain area but are detrimental to other areas, such as fins which make it easier to swim but harder to run, will not be considered.  Finally, I will be focusing only on biological enhancements for the purposes of this blog.

So how might we build an aquatic human?  First and foremost lets talk about air.  Obviously any discussion of aquatic lifestyles must being with the question of how we are to breath.  Other mammals on returning to the water have evolved enhanced lung capacity and flourish by simply holding their breath for long periods of time.  This would certainly be the easiest solution as it would require no new parts, only needing to increase lung volume and efficiency, and holding your breath is something everyone knows how to do anyway.  The other option of course is gills which offer benefits and disadvantages of their own.  Being able to breath under water would allow for increased depth and duration of dives and of course eliminate the possibility of drowning.  Of course it would also require an entirely new set of equipment that would need to be worked into both the current respiratory system and the cardiovascular system.  In addition if we desired to go swimming in salt water we would have to contend with problems of water loss due to the concentration gradient created by the difference in salt ions.   Both options are going to have trade offs and which you prefer probably comes down to personal taste.  I myself favor gills both for the advantages stated and because of the second thing we need to discuss: buoyancy.

Any diver can tell you that controlling your buoyancy in the water is the most important skill you can master as proper buoyancy allows you to maintain or alter your position without expending energy.  Most fish achieve this through the use of a swim bladder; a gas filled organ that they can inflate or deflate much in the same way a diver does their BCD.  Animals which lack this often get by with large fat deposits such as lipid heavily livers (in sharks) or large amounts of blubber (marine mammals).

Without a doubt I believe that a swim bladder is the way to go if we want to build an aquatic transhuman.  Large stores of fat do have uses beyond buoyancy such as maintaining energy reserves and providing insulation but out of the water they do little more than weigh us down.  As I said at the beginning any enhancement that causes an ability to become worse than the average human defeats the purpose and won’t be considered.  It wouldn’t even be that difficult (relatively speaking) since our bodies already have a couple of organs designed to be filled with gas; our lungs.   This is the other reason I suggested gills in the section above.  Filling our lungs with air creates positive buoyancy and having to hold our breath while underwater is going to affect our ability to maintain our position in the water column.

Finally we come to locomotion.  There are two main ways we could go about this; lets call them the dolphin way and the frog way.  In the dolphin way we would fuse the leg bones into a single structure, forming a tail, while our arms could either be left alone or developed into flippers.  In the frog way the limbs would more or less retain their current shape except for the hand and feet, which would be designed to be larger and webbed to maximize surface area.

Both of these shapes have advantages.  The dolphin way clearly has the advantage in speed, endurance and pretty much every other physical trait while under the water.  There’s a reason the vast majority of free swimming ocean life all have roughly the same shape (compare fish, cetaceans and the extinct Icthyosaurs to see three different evolutionary lines of more or less the same shape.)  However this body type is really only of use in the water and becomes a significant burden on land.  As such you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I favor the frog way.

So there you have it.  I intend to make this sort of thought exercise a regular event so be sure to check in periodically to see what’s up.  In the mean time while I think I’ve sketched a pretty good outline of how to build an aquatic transhuman I know I’ve left a lot out and there’s probably lots of things I haven’t even considered.  Feel free to add your own ideas and musings.

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