IEET > Directors > George Dvorsky > HealthLongevity > Enablement
Michael Phelps: ‘Naturally’ transhuman
George Dvorsky   Aug 19, 2008   Sentient Developments  

Watching Michael Phelps swim you quickly realize that he’s not like the others. He’s clearly in a league of his own.

Or more accurately, he’s swimming in a genetic pool of his own. Phelps has a number of fortuitous physical endowments that have enabled him to dominate like no other. Simply put, he is the perfect swimmer.

Here’s what Phelps has going for him:

  • Most people have a wingspan that matches their height. Not Phelps. He may be 6’4” tall, but his arms extend outward to a total of 6’7”.
  • The average shoe size for a person the size of Phelps is 12; he wears a size 14 which gives him a 10% advantage over the competition.
  • He also has a larger than average hand size which allows him to move more water.
  • Phelps is double-jointed in the chest area; this enables him to extend his arms higher above his head and pull down at an angle that increases his efficiency through the water by as much as 20%; this also allows him to have quicker starts and turns.
  • He has proportionately short legs relative to his long, powerful trunk; this large upper body is the engine that powers his long arms. Moreover, his unique physique reduces drag through the water and allows for maximum propulsion.
  • Phelps has a greater-than-average lung capacity allowing him to execute his underwater dolphin kicks longer than the competition.
  • He has a genetic advantage that cause his muscles to produce 50% less lactic acid than other athletes. This means he can work at higher work loads for longer periods.
  • With a low body fat of 4%, he is better able to convert his effort into speed.

Looking at this list it’s as if Phelps was designed to swim.

Which leads to an interesting question: Given the potential for genetic modification and gene doping, should it be acceptable for other athletes to acquire the same physiological endowments through artificial means?

If not, what makes it so acceptable to come by these traits ‘naturally?’ And how could the genetic lottery ever be construed as something that’s not arbitrary and unfair?

Read more about Phelps’s extraordinary physiology here and here.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


All these “transhuman attributes” are due to extensive training since his youth. Of course the genetics help, but only to a degree.

When you swim extensively your body changes. Shoulders get much bigger and pronounced, arms become longer, feet become bigger, lung capacity increases. Even more so if intense training is occurring during periods in which you are still growing. Phelps began swimming competitively at age 7, winning titles at 10.

Unfair? It’s called dedication to a craft. Anyone can be Michael Phelps with a small dose of genetic help and extensive training and desire. He’s worked his whole life for this ability, it was not unfairly bestowed upon him at the detriment of everyone else in some sort of cruel universal joke that begs the need for unlimited enhancement. And his gift should certainly not to be used as some sort of vague rallying cry for such.

The Olympics are for people who train and dedicate their whole lives to a certain event—sacrificing social lives and relationships. It’s ridiculous to think Phelps has an unfair advantage because of some genetic lottery as he could have just as easily turned out a fat, drunken, couch potato without the motivation and training that he clearly has. It IS NOT acceptable to give someone attributes that others spend their whole lives crafting, that is pure laziness hidden under the feel-good notion of “fairness.”

Stop looking for enhancement validations everywhere and realize that Phelps is a gifted athlete the same way Michael Jordan, Pele and Joe Montana were. They weren’t the biggest, strongest or fastest…but they were the best because they wanted to be the best—and most importantly, they worked for it. It wasn’t handed to them genetically.

That’s why only the best get to be in the Olympics, set records and win medals. You have to work for it, and it’s certainly not something that needs to handed out to everyone artificially just because some motivated people have enough determination to want to be the best and improve themselves through natural means.

I was a prodigy swimmer when I was a kid, that was back when I was fat. I sort of rested on my laurels; at age 7 I was winning meets by wide margins, at age 8 smaller margins, at age 9 it started to get tight. By the time I was 12 and I had to really apply myself I didn’t see the point anymore. I wish I had some sick genetic augmentations…

Michael Phelps may have very god genetics suited for swimming but I convinced he’s on something that is undectable ..too boots his performance. no swimmer can compete with that. he won 8 medals, that’s more medals than the entire medal tally for the Australian men. It’s Impossible.. and I recon if the rest of us could genetic dope and modify our bodys. It tha atleat would be fair…Give me a hugh jused up muscles and 8 feet long arms and feet like flippers then we see how can swim faster..Me I recon..not Michael Phelps the fucken cheat.

I really like the question you raise, George.  Several major columnists have latched onto this issue.  Your point is very much like the recently-published response the Science Advisor to the Secretary of State, Nina Federoff, gave when asked what you reply to someone who thinks advocating genetically modified foods sends a negative message.  Her reply was “There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.”  (
When it does become possible, this should make people stop and think:“Why should I tolerate someone else being provided the DNA giving them advantages I don’t have?”  Under our current mentality of “giving everything to everyone that doesn’t have it” and “everyone’s a winner”—it probably won’t be long before people begin to demand their government give them “their” corrected DNA.

Could you H+ fanatics be any more lazy? “Give me the augmentations, it’s not fair. Michael Phelps is a cheater cause he’s the best swimmer ever.” He didn’t just wake up one day and figure out he’s the best, he had to work on it for decades. Secondly, he’s not unbeatable—Chavic only lost by .01 seconds! Phelps has the best trainers, equipment and work ethic, not DNA.You people can’t be superman. Why the hell do you want to be perfect anyway? That would completely invalidate the Olympics and the whole concept of sporting events and music, art, poetry and intelligence for that matter. For people who put so much stock in evolution, you won’t really let it come naturally. Forced evolution…how natural. Also, are you really so naive to think that the government will make everyone perfect…because we demand it? These converging technologies are for military development and deployment, not for improving Joe Blow’s “human performance”. Get a clue, that’s not how government’s work, especially not one’s that are so dedicated to militaristic full spectrum dominance as the U.S clearly is. SAIC, NASA and the Army War College just want help us, right? Google “Joint Vision 2020”.You people blow me away with your logic. So desperate to validate your world view, that you’ll sink to this kind simplistic thinking.

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