[Paleopsych] Reason: Ron Bailey: Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea? (fwd)
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Ron Bailey: Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea?
August 25, 2004
Why striving to be more than human is human
"What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the
welfare of humanity?" That question was posed to eight prominent
policy intellectuals by the editors of Foreign Policy in its
September/October issue (not yet available online). One of the eight
savants consulted was Francis Fukuyama, professor of international
political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the
Biotechnology Revolution, and a member of the President's Council on
Bioethics. His choice for the world's most dangerous idea?
In his Foreign Policy article, Fukuyama identifies transhumanism as "a
strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate
the human race from its biological constraints." Sounds ominous, no?
But wait a minute, isn't human history (and prehistory) all about
liberating more and more people from their biological constraints?
After all, it's not as though most of us still live in our species'
"natural state" as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.
Human liberation from our biological constraints began when an
ancestor first sharpened a stick and used it to kill an animal for
food. Further liberation from biological constraints followed with
fire, the wheel, domesticating animals, agriculture, metallurgy, city
building, textiles, information storage by means of writing, the
internal combustion engine, electric power generation, antibiotics,
vaccines, transplants, and contraception. In a sense, the goal toward
which humanity has been striving for millennia has been to liberate
ourselves from more and more of our ancestors' biological constraints.
What is a human capacity anyway? Biologist Richard Dawkins has
propounded the notion of an extended phenotype. Genes not only
mold the bodies of organisms but also shape their behaviors. Some of
those behaviors result in the creation of inanimate objects that help
organisms to survive and reproduce, such as beaver dams and bird
Our ancestors had no wings; now we fly. Our ancient forebears could
not hear one another over 1,000 miles; now we phone. And our Stone Age
progenitors averaged 25 years of life; now we live 75. Thanks to our
knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest
extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be
more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from
But Fukuyama would undoubtedly respond that Pleistocene
hunter-gatherers are still recognizably human, no different in their
innate capacities than people living today. What transhumanists seek
is very different. They want to go beyond current innate human
capacities. They want to change human bodies and brains.
Of course, humans have been deliberately changing their bodies through
athletic training and their brains through schooling. Nevertheless,
Fukuyama has a point. Can one be so transformed by technology as to be
no longer human? "Our good characteristics are intimately connected to
our bad ones: If we weren't violent and aggressive, we wouldn't be
able to defend ourselves; if we didn't have feelings of exclusivity,
we wouldn't be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy,
we would also never feel love," asserts Fukuyama. He seems to be
arguing that to be a human being one must possess all of the emotional
capacities characteristic of our species. If biotechnological
manipulations removed our ability to feel emotions like anger, hate,
or violence, we would in some sense not be human beings any more.
Let's say that future genetic engineers discover a gene for suicidal
depression, and learn how to suppress the gene, or adjust it. Would
fixing it make subsequent generations non-human beings? After all,
most people today do not fall into suicidal depressions, and those
happy people are no less human than, say, Sylvia Plath.
Depression can already be fixed for many people by means of Prozac or
Paxil. Surely, taking serotonin re-uptake inhibitors does not make
people other or less than human. Sufferers of depression will tell you
that the drugs restore them to their true selves. It seems
unreasonable to claim that in order to qualify as human beings, we all
must have the capacity to succumb to berserker rage or religious
"The first victim of transhumanism might be equality," writes
Fukuyama. "If we start transforming ourselves into something superior,
what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will
they possess when compared to those left behind?" Fukuyama seems to be
entertaining an X-Men-like fantasy in which enhanced posthumans
seek to destroy unenhanced naturals. But where Fukuyama is a bit coy,
left-leaning bioethicists George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario
Isasi are brutally blunt:
The new species, or "posthuman," will likely view the old "normal"
humans as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter.
The normals, on the other hand, may see the posthumans as a threat
and if they can, may engage in a preemptive strike by killing the
posthumans before they themselves are killed or enslaved by them.
It is ultimately this predictable potential for genocide that makes
species-altering experiments potential weapons of mass destruction,
and makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential
Let's take their over-the-top scenario down a notch or two. The
enhancements that are likely to be available in the relatively near
term to people now living will be pharmacological--pills and shots to
increase strength, lighten moods, and improve memory. Consequently,
such interventions could be distributed to nearly everybody who wanted
them. Later in this century, when safe genetic engineering becomes
possible, it will enable parents to give their children beneficial
genes for improved health and intelligence that other children already
get naturally. Thus, safe genetic engineering in the long run is more
likely to ameliorate than to exacerbate human inequality.
In any case, political equality has never rested on the facts of human
biology. In prior centuries, when humans were all "naturals," tyranny,
slavery, and purdah were common social and political arrangements.
In fact, political liberalism is already the answer to Fukuyama's
question about human and posthuman rights. In liberal societies the
law is meant to apply equally to all, no matter how rich or poor,
powerful or powerless, brilliant or stupid, enhanced or unenhanced.
The crowning achievement of the Enlightenment is the principle of
tolerance, of putting up with people who look differently, talk
differently, worship differently, and live differently than we do. In
the future, our descendants may not all be natural homo sapiens, but
they will still be moral beings who can be held accountable for their
actions. There is no reason to think that the same liberal political
and moral principles that apply to diverse human beings today wouldn't
apply to relations among future humans and posthumans.
But what if enhanced posthumans took the Nietzschean superman option?
What if they really did see unenhanced people "as inferior, even
savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter"?
Let's face it, plenty of unenhanced humans have been quite capable of
believing that millions of their fellow unenhanced humans were
inferiors who needed to be eradicated. However, as liberal
political institutions have spread and strengthened, they have
increasingly restrained technologically superior groups from
automatically wiping out less advanced peoples (which was usual
throughout most of history). I suspect that this dynamic will continue
in the future as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computational
technologies progressively increase people's capabilities and widen
In his famous book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama
declared that we are witnessing "the end point of mankind's
ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal
democracy as the final form of human government." Fair enough. But for
Fukuyama, the end of history is a "sad time" because "daring, courage,
imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation."
Also, he claims, "in the post-historical period there will be neither
art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of
human history." How ironic that Fukuyama now spends his time
demonizing transhumanism, a nascent philosophical and political
movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and
idealistic aspirations of humanity.
"The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the
integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning
our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly
invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic
bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls," concludes Fukuyama. I
say, bring on those genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls
that help people to live healthier, smarter, and happier lives.
I have my own nomination for an "idea [that], if embraced, would pose
the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity": Banning technological
progress in the name of "humility."
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His new book,
Liberation Biology: A Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech
Revolution will be published in early 2005.
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