[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 [11]Francis Fukuyama, professor of international
    political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
    Studies, author of [12]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 [13]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
    biological constraints.

    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 [14]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 [15]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 [16]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 [17]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
    their choices.

    In his famous book [18]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.


   11. http://reason.com/debate/eh-debate1.shtml
   12. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0374236437/reasonmagazine/
   13. http://www.world-of-dawkins.com/Dawkins/Work/Books/extend.shtml
   14. http://www.x2-movie.com/splash.html
   15. http://www.reason.com/rb/www.genetics-and-society.org/%20resources/items/2002_ajlm_annasetal.pdf
   16. http://www.kings.edu/womens_history/purdah.html
   17. http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/NOTE1.HTM
   18. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/10/feb92/fukuyama.htm

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