Chasing Captain America: How Advances in Science, Engineering, and Biotechnology Will Produce a Superhuman

Chasing Captain America: How Advances in Science, Engineering, and Biotechnology Will Produce a Superhuman


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Could we create a real-life superhero by changing human biology itself?

The form and function of the human body, once entirely delimited by nature, are now fluid concepts thanks to recent advances in biomedical science and engineering. Professor, author, and comic book enthusiast E. Paul Zehr uses Marvel’s Captain America — an ordinary man turned into an extraordinary hero, thanks to a military science experiment — as an entry-point to this brave new world of science, no longer limited to the realm of fiction. With our ever-expanding scientific and technological prowess, human biological adaptability is now in our fallible human hands. Thanks to the convergence of biology, engineering, and technology, we can now alter our abilities through surgery, pharmaceutical enhancement, technological fusion, and genetic engineering.

Written in an accessible manner, Chasing Captain America explores these areas and more, asking what the real limits of being human are, how far we should bend those limits, and how we may be forced to reshape human biology if we are to colonize planets like Mars.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770411999
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 177,857
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.13(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Paul Zehr, Ph.D. (neuroscience), is an award-winning science communicator, professor, author, and martial artist. He is the director of the Centre for Biomedical Research at the University of Victoria. His previous books — Becoming Batman, Inventing Iron Man, and Project Superhero— use superheroes as metaphors to explore the science of human potential. He writes for Psychology Todayand Scientific American, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt



Any hope of reproducing the program is locked in your genetic code ...

— Agent Peggy Carter to Steve Rogers, in Captain America: The First Avenger

Project Super Soldier is a success! I know it! I can feel it!

— Steve Rogers, minutes after growing into his newly enhanced body, in Captain America #1

One hundred trillion cells. One hundred thousand kilometers of blood vessels. Six hundred and forty muscles. Seventy kilometers of nerves. Eight meters of intestines. And at least five vital organs. These make a human. And they were all supercharged with the birth of Captain America.

Captain America came to be because of efforts to create an enhanced soldier during World War II. As Colonel Chester Phillips (played by Tommy Lee Jones) told us in the 2011 Marvel Studios film Captain America: The First Avenger, "The Strategic Science Reserve is an allied effort made up of the best brains the world. ... Our goal is to create the best army in history. ... It starts with one man. He will be the first of a new breed of super soldier."

Steve Rogers — the man who would become the first super soldier — was an unlikely candidate for super status. Colonel Phillips, speaking with the lead scientist on the project, Dr. Abraham Erskine (aka Professor Reinstein in many of the comics), remarks, "You're not really thinking about picking Rogers, are you? When you brought a 90-pound asthmatic onto my base I let it slide. ... Stick a needle in that arm, it's gonna go right through him ..." But Dr. Erskine argues that Rogers is "the clear choice. ... I am looking for qualities beyond the physical." Clearly Steve Rogers has some additional quality, which he demonstrates when he dives onto a grenade (part of a test) to save his platoon and everyone around him.

The qualities that set Rogers apart appealed to me when I started reading comic books as a kid. I wasn't the first comic book reader in the family. My mom loved them too, when she was growing up in the 1930s and '40s. I wish she had kept some of the Action and Detective Comics she must have had. Anyway, my mom would say, "reading is reading," and she would bring home a bunch of comics for me when she went grocery shopping. I grew up in a small, small town. So, yes, the grocery store was also the "book" store (I'm looking at you, Chesley, Ontario!).

There were many comic book characters that interested me back then. Batman, Iron Man, Daredevil, Thor, Nova, the Flash, and a host of others — including Aquaman (please don't judge me). Above all, though, I loved reading the "team-up" books like the Fantastic Four, the Justice League, the Justice Society, and even the Defenders. But the all-time team-up for me was always The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Most of all, I admired Captain America.

At first I was mostly captivated by his awesome blue, red, and white outfit and amazing indestructible shield. Only later did I learn something of his history. Captain America goes way back to the golden age of comics. He was created by the legendary duo of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and made his first appearance in Captain America Comics #1 in March 1941. Captain America was shown as a tactically savvy, strong, and smart fighter; an overall amazingly conditioned human; and a fearless and principled leader.

Like Batman, Captain America has had a long career as a superhero. Unlike Batman, who attained his abilities through long training, Captain America's powers came from a special Super Soldier Serum courtesy of Uncle Sam. With Captain America we take the idea of a human superhero and bend biology.

Also like Batman, Captain America had a noble mission. In Cap's case, it was to fight tyranny and oppression in the war. As the voice-over informed the audience in the 2014 Marvel Studios film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap is "a symbol to the nation, a hero to the world ... the story of Captain America is one of honor, bravery, and sacrifice." Professor Reinstein says that Cap represents "the crowning achievement of all my years of hard work! The first of a corps of super-agents whose mental and physical ability will make them a terror to spies and saboteurs!"

Captain America's origin story has been tweaked, revised, and re-written numerous times over the decades. As seen in a number of movies, including Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, his backstory is heavily influenced by the plotlines found in the Ultimates Marvel Universe.

The initial run of Captain America ended with Captain America #78 in September 1954. Later, Stan Lee brought him back to with the Avengers. The original lineup in The Avengers #1 in September 1963 included Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp, Thor, and the Hulk. Although he has been heavily identified with them, Captain America didn't actually appear until issue #4. No offense to the Hulk, Ant-Man, or Wasp (all part of the "Founding Members" group), but they put the damper on how cool the Avengers could be. By adding Captain America to the fold, along with Iron Man and Thor as leads, Lee created a nearly perfect team. With this lineup, how could you go wrong?


This book is organized around the theme of human biological adaptability in light of our ever-expanding scientific and technological prowess. We explore the ability we now possess to change the natural function and capacity of the human body. How can we create a superhuman — something that's also been called metahuman, mutant, mutate, cyborg, posthuman, and so on in comic books, movies, and transhumanist literature?

The idea that there can, or might, be humans with extraordinary powers is not new. Popular models have always been with us. In days gone by, they were found in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, as in the exploits of Hercules, Mars, and Thor. They live on in the guise of modern-day superheroes. We read about them in comic books and see them in movies and television shows. We also see superhuman performances in the sports arena.

We will touch on this history while also taking an inside-out tour of the human body, from what we can see with the naked eye to the things we can change inside. We will delve deep down to the interior of our cells, into the nucleus, where lives the very fabric of who we are: our DNA.

Think of the human body as a garden. Think of the history of our species before we even had gardens and just foraged for plants and berries. Over time we learned to plant what we wanted and to trim away things we didn't want. Then we started using fertilizer, pesticides, and chemicals to make the things we wanted grow better and to inhibit the things we didn't want. Then we found ways to go into the plants themselves and change how they worked by changing the DNA of the cells. That's all going on in your garden and increasingly in your body. The thing is that now we are both garden and gardener — we can do these things to ourselves.

In Chasing Captain America we explore a number of mythological and pop culture icons, some ancient and some modern, including a few elite athletes. All of them possess a backstory related to the exploitation or manipulation of the human body.


Chasing Captain America explores the modern-day convergence of biology, engineering, and technology. We are moving rapidly toward a destination for our species that is not simply the result of natural selection. The ability to select for ourselves the traits we want is almost within our grasp.

This book completes my loose trilogy of popular science books that began with Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, which is all about the potential to train the biology of the body. It was followed by an exploration into how technology can be used to amplify biology, in Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine. Here the focus is on changing human biology itself.

In Chasing Captain America we look at how humans can alter our abilities through surgery, pharmaceutical enhancement, technological fusion, or genetic engineering. And we provide tentative answers to a number of intriguing questions: What are we and what can we become? What are the real limits of being human? How far can those limits bend before we are no longer human? And, probably most importantly, how far should we bend those limits?



... stem cell therapy, robotic prosthetics, face transplants — it's all the stuff of science fiction. "Impossible" is being phased out ...

Captain Marvel #12

Our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared ...

— Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future

The 1960s were a tumultuous period but also a time of renewal. Captain America was revived and brought out of the deep freeze — literally — by Stan Lee in Avengers #4 (March 1964). Later, on March 18, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke at the University of Kansas. In his speech he quoted George Bernard Shaw, saying, "Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?" This sounds like something that Stan Lee might have written for one of his many legendary comic book characters.

Captain America represents a blurring of the lines separating fact and fiction, dreams and reality. Currently our species is at a point where our dreams can scarcely compete with what's happening in the world. For our purposes, Captain America represents the extreme range of adaptability of our species: he represents the idea of actually changing what it means to be human.

Of course, we — as a species — are always changing. The only real constant in life is that constancy is a state of flux. In the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, from his book The Leopard, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

In physical anthropology, it is accepted that the divergence between hominids (that's us) and our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, occurred between five and seven million years ago. The famous Laetoli footprints near Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania provide fossil evidence for the emergence of the upright bipedal walking characteristic of our species within the past four million years.

Homo sapiens means "wise man" or "knowing man" in Latin. It's the term used to describe our species as it emerged from Africa some 200,000 years ago. We achieved our current set of characteristics about 50,000 years ago when we acquired complex language and the symbolic thought that goes with it. We have been mostly the same (at least compared to how we rate against other species) since that time. It has been said that it's what's inside that counts, and we've been the same inside for a long time.

Our species, like all others, has slowly and steadily been changing and adapting to our environment. Now, though, the freaky among us — those who are taller, quicker, stronger — are getting freakier faster. Consider "wingspan," a measure of your height compared with the distance between the fingertips of both your outstretched hands. It used to be that for most people wingspan was roughly equivalent to their height. Well, in 2011, a 16-year-old high school basketball superstar, BeeJay Anya, with a height of 6'8", was measured with a wingspan of '9". And in March 2017, Andy Staples wrote in Sports Illustrated about a high school football–playing giant of a man standing 6'9" tall and weighing in at 396 pounds.

When we think of what "human" superheroes like Batman and Captain America can do, modern-day athletes come to mind. The size and skills of elite athletes are well beyond anything that can be considered "normal." The media provides us with many instances like these of extreme human performance. At the same time, there is an explosion of interest in genetics, technology, and medicine, with significant implications for human life and society — and especially for the future of our species.

The Super Soldier Serum and Vita-Ray treatments employed in the making of Captain America have their modern analogues. We hear a lot about new and more complex surgeries, technological implants, drug therapies, and genetic manipulations. Concern about the possible negative side effects of these innovations is balanced against our age-old impulse to push beyond the normal biological limits of the body. Until recently, these new treatments were mostly things like so-called dietary supplements or steroids. Nowadays, however, drug doping has met gene doping while saying hello to synthetic biology. Entirely new powers for modifying life have been harnessed.

The fantasy worlds of ancient mythology and modern comic book superheroes have all been about exceeding conventional human limitations. Now, however, the line between fantasy and reality is blurring and, in some cases, being erased all together. The form and function of the human body are now fluid.


Biological determinism is a scientific term with a simple meaning. You — I, we, they, all biological organisms — grow and develop based on the natural biological material we're born with. The biological material that produced the spindly army reject Steve Rogers is the deoxyribonucleic acid — the DNA — he got from his parents, Sarah and Joseph.

The environment you grow up in and the experiences you have had, are having, and will have shape the expression of that DNA — meaning who you are, what you can do, and how you react in the environment. But you still just get a certain set of genetic material when you are born. That's your body and you don't get another. In the case of Steve Rogers, that should have been it. He never would have made it into the army. He certainly wouldn't have evolved into a super soldier.

As it turned out, Steve Rogers had access to the full-on Super Soldier Serum treatment. In reality, it isn't that simple anymore — we even have XNA. That stands for xeno nucleic acid, a synthetic alternative to the naturally occurring DNA and RNA (ribonucleic acid) you have in your own body. We may not, after all, be stuck with the body we were born with.

Back in 1974, Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz demonstrated that DNA could be transferred from one species to another. They created the first genetically modified animal when they inserted a DNA virus into a mouse. More than 30 years later, in July 2010, a U.S. genetics team took the concept a giant step further by creating synthetic DNA. The team, headed by maverick molecular biologist Craig Venter, inserted synthetic DNA into a bacterial cell that subsequently grew and multiplied. In other words, it worked. And this, in terms of the potential for genetic modification, changes everything.

The importance of this success lies in the fact that the DNA was synthetic — created by human hand. Venter and his team combined the approaches of molecular biology and nanotechnology to deliver a sledgehammer blow to biological determinism. Then, as a further testament to our increasing ability to modify living organisms, in March 2016 Ventor's group created a truly minimalist cell — fully functional with only 473 genes.


Recent advances in biomedical science and engineering have fundamentally altered the potential role we can play in shaping our own biology. It puts into our frail human hands powers — superpowers — that previously we could not hope to possess or harness. This is a staggering, beautiful, elegant scientific result.

It is also Frankenstein as reality if you prefer Mary Shelley, the island of Dr. Moreau if you are an H.G. Wells aficionado, or the Incredible Hulk if you are a fan of Stan Lee. Those imagined creatures and worlds are the metaphors we will use here to explore how science fiction and science fantasy are converging on new science fact.

As an instance of fantasy merging with reality, consider the case of Thomas Beatie, the first father to become a mother. The transgender Beatie made headlines around the world when his son was born on July 25, 2010. How long will it be before we see the world's first born-as-male pregnant man? The current state of science and the endlessly expanding power of biomedical engineering have the potential to fundamentally alter the future of the human species. What superheroic powers lie within our grasp? There may be no limits beyond what we can imagine.


Excerpted from "Chasing Captain America"
by .
Copyright © 2018 E. Paul Zehr.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Simon Whitfield

Introduction: The Start of the Star-Spangled Avenger

1: Newsflash: Captain America Comes in from the Cold

2: Superhero Science Project: Sowing the Seeds for a Super Soldier Serum

3: Human! Can Captain America Overcome the Endangered Species inside Each of Us?

4: Shape! Can We A.I.M. to Make the Star Spangled Avenger?

5: Muscles in Motion! Stem Cells, Steroids and the Sentinel of Liberty

6: Think! Putting Kapow and Know-How into Cap’s Cranium

7: Longevity! The Steve Rogers Regeneration and Retirement Project

8: Creating Captain America: Engineering a Super Soldier with Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll

9: Behold the Future! What’s to Come for Captain America?

10: Pre-Evolving Humanity for Future Frontiers: Bioengineered Superheroes in Space

11: The Ethical Implications of Captain America: Are We Obliged to Enhance Our Species?

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