[Paleopsych] Utne: Humanity: The Remix

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Humanity: The Remix

     May / June 2005
     By Alyssa Ford,
     Utne magazine

      Is building a better human the key to utopia or the world's most dangerous

     With new drugs and medical advances making it ever easier to alter our
     bodies and minds, many have begun to wonder where the trend could take
     us. The concern has created some unlikely political alliances as
     critics warn of the day when the modern mania for self-improvement
     reaches down into our very cells. Some say we should cling to our
     imperfections, that our rough edges are the source of our uniqueness.
     Others would redesign us from the genes up. Whatever the case, we
     might wish to revisit what it means to be human now that life as we
     know it could be about to change. -- The Editors

     Imagine that in the year 2100 the world has become a radically
     different place. The severely disabled, once totally isolated,
     communicate telepathically to their computers and other people over
     special brain implants. Others use the same devices to play CD-quality
     music in their heads, recall numbers 20 digits long, and relive good
     feelings from a beach vacation or a hot bath. Health supplements
     guarantee not only high IQs and low anxiety levels, but also profound
     spiritual experiences and increased compassion for all living things.
     Of course, these changes are provided to rich and poor alike -- at
     least since the outdated nation-state system gave way to a world
     government led by democratic socialists.

     This is the future envisioned by a group of tech-friendly liberal
     "transhumanists." Transhuman, short for transitional human, refers to
     the day when our species will be a blend of biology and machine. It's
     a step, some say, toward a "posthuman" era when we could become a
     different creature altogether. Since it emerged from the fringes of
     cyberculture in the late 1980s, the transhumanist movement has been
     known as much for its libertarian leanings as for its belief in the
     plugged-in, "four-arm" human of tomorrow. While today all the
     self-proclaimed liberal transhumanists could probably fit in the
     holodeck of the starship Enterprise, they count a number of
     influential scientists, bioethicists, and philosophers in their small
     but growing ranks.

     Unlike their libertarian peers, who tend to denounce all regulation,
     these "democratic transhumanists" view societal controls as crucial to
     realizing their openly utopian dreams. Some argue that the trend is
     irreversible: As with in vitro fertilization and other assisted
     reproduction techniques, the public demand for longer lives, prettier
     children, and better moods will override efforts to stop them. If
     these powerful new technologies are to be used justly, they say, the
     time to embrace them is now. Others go even further, heralding the
     redesigned human as the key to transforming the world along
     progressive lines.

     "Today human intelligence, in the form of technology, is about to make
     possible the elimination of pain and lives filled with unimaginable
     pleasure and contentment," writes James Hughes, author of Citizen
     Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human
     of the Future (Westview, 2004). The former editor of a zine called
     EcoSocialist Review who teaches health policy at Trinity College in
     Connecticut, Hughes, 44, is executive director of the World
     Transhumanist Association (WTA). His goal, he says, is to convince
     fellow liberals that a pro-technology, democratic form of
     transhumanism is the way of the "Next Left."

     Hughes says that Western radicals at least as far back as the 18th
     century saw science as a tool for advancing democracy. He argues that
     a pro-tech vision actually dominated the American and European left
     well into the 20th century, personified by the likes of the liberal
     British biologist J.B.S. Haldane and the writer H.G. Wells. After
     World War II, with its gas chambers and atomic bombs, a long-dormant
     "pastoral" left rose to prominence, closer in spirit to romantic
     thinkers like Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau. Since then, he adds, "any
     kind of narrative of a radically transformed life through new
     technologies is immediately dismissed."

     "Pastoralists are okay with a radically transformed life through yoga
     or organic gardening," Hughes says, "but once you start a discussion
     about using tech to end disease, death, poverty, or work, a wall goes
     up." As he noted in a recent phone interview, Hughes believes that the
     left must embrace a transcendent vision if it is to succeed. Along
     with calls for social equity and responsibility, he says, "we also
     need to give ourselves permission to be excited about new

     The author Jeremy Rifkin, a longtime critic of life patenting and the
     biotech industry, disagrees. "Transhumanism is the ultimate
     illustration of how Enlightenment rationalism can easily run amok and
     create extreme pathology," he says. In their faith that they can
     harness such powerful technologies to achieve their social ends, the
     transhumanists are falling victim to an old, misguided Western faith
     in human perfectibility. Rifkin's fear is that under the guise of
     progress, the public will be seduced by a new technology whose
     destructive power far exceeds its benefits.

     Thinkers across the political spectrum share similar concerns. Last
     year, the conservative scholar Francis Fukuyama, author of Our
     Posthuman Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), spoke out against
     trans-humanism when the journal Foreign Policy asked him and several
     other thinkers to list "the world's most dangerous ideas." Fukuyama
     argues that modern society must learn to respect human nature in the
     way it now respects the rest of nature. If we don't, he warns, "we may
     unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their
     genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls."

     On the left, Bill McKibben has argued just as passionately against
     human bioengineering in his book Enough (Henry Holt, 2003). In recent
     years, he and other ecologically minded progressives, including
     Rifkin, have found themselves in agreement with Fukuyama and Leon R.
     Kass, a conservative appointed by George W. Bush to head the
     President's Council on Bioethics. All have warned of the social
     dangers posed by human cloning, whether for making babies or for
     creating embryos for research purposes. Critics see cloning and
     embryo-based stem cell science as today's key gateway technologies
     leading us toward a posthuman world. Better to confront the biotech
     juggernaut now, they say, before it gets even more menacing.

     This concern has led to other unexpected alliances and conflicts,
     presaging the many ethical showdowns we'll face in the years ahead. If
     we have the know-how to safely cure spinal cord injuries, cheat death,
     and tint your skin green, why keep it off the market? On the other
     hand, how do we balance individual desire and freedom against the
     needs of others, including other creatures? Defining life and death,
     already touchy issues, will become even more volatile in coming
     decades. Finally, there's the question that seems destined to haunt
     the 21st century: Will we control our technologies, or will they
     control us?

     THE WISH TO EXCEED our bodily limits is as old and varied as human
     myth. Transhumanism in its recent form is often traced back to the
     curious circle of thinkers who gathered around a guy named Max More, a
     British cryogenics advocate turned philosophy student who changed his
     name from Max O'Connor to reflect his personal quest for perfection.
     More was in graduate school at the University of Southern California
     in 1988 when he and a fellow student, T.O. Morrow, founded the journal
     Extropy. (Its title is an invented word that's meant to be the
     opposite of entropy.) The Extropy Institute followed in 1992. By then,
     their call for building sleeker, quicker, sexier humans had begun to
     catch on, especially among young males. Heavily influenced by the
     writings of Ayn Rand, among others, More decreed that the institute
     would be virulently libertarian, and it remains so today, even as he
     himself is said to have become somewhat more moderate.

     Other groups have sprung up as well. By 1998 a handful of European and
     American thinkers had coalesced into the kinder, gentler World
     Transhumanism Association. In contrast to the Extropians, WTA
     officials like the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, now at Oxford
     University in England, acknowledged that corruption, accidents, and
     other forces could thwart their futurist visions and needed to be
     addressed. In particular, they were concerned about equalizing access
     to technology across borders and classes. The WTA appears to have
     veered even more to the left since James Hughes took over as director
     in 2001.

     Getting mainstream liberals excited enough to join is perhaps
     complicated by the fact that there's a little too much excitement
     among those already on board. Chats about curing cancer, Alzheimer's
     disease, and mental illness can quickly become fantasies about
     millennial life spans, eternally youthful bodies, and average
     intelligence levels that push Stephen Hawking into the bottom 10
     percent. There's a grain of truth to Mark Dery's quip in his 1996 book
     Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove) that
     transhumanists view their bodies as loathsome "meat puppets" to be
     shed in their bid to become immortal. The movement's eccentric
     subchapters include the body-modification transhumanists, who have
     implanted silicon-based magnets under their skin to create a
     computer-human chimera effect. The Singularitarians believe we're
     heading for a genetic point of no return -- the Singularity -- when
     change in the species will be so great as to make us virtual gods.

     Nevertheless, the WTA keeps growing. Hughes says it has 3,000 members
     worldwide and welcomes about 80 new members a month. One possible
     reason why: Transhumanism's pet technologies have begun crossing over
     from sci-fi to the lab.

     Nanotechnology -- manipulating matter on the atomic level -- was
     far-out stuff back in 1986 when Eric Drexler made it the crucial tool
     in his cryonics manifesto, Engines of Creation (Anchor).While nobody's
     using it to "reanimate" frozen heads and bodies just yet, nanotech is
     now real enough to be used in various products (even as super-tiny
     particles raise unexpected health concerns). Researchers have
     engineered mice that are super strong and fast, and live so long that
     a human equivalent would be at least 200. In Portugal, scientists have
     implanted cameras connected to electrodes in the brains of blind
     people. The result? Not only could the subjects see, but they could
     beam images to each other's minds. In 1998 a neurosurgeon implanted a
     device into the brain of a "locked-in" patient who couldn't eat,
     drink, or talk on his own. Before the surgery, the patient could
     communicate only by blinking his eyes; afterward he could send
     messages via a computer simply by thinking them out.

     Over the past decade, the startling advances in nanoscience,
     bioengineering, information technology, and cognitive science --
     referred to collectively as NBIC -- have mainstream researchers
     sounding more and more like Singularitarians themselves. In 2002 the
     U.S. National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce
     released a massive report that said, in effect, these converging
     technologies "for improving human performance" were both inevitable
     and beneficial. Hughes says the so-called NBIC papers "are
     essentially, though not explicitly, transhuman documents."

     A similar spirit pervades the growing popular literature on the topic
     -- books like Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future
     (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) by UCLA biophysicist Gregory Stock and
     Remaking Eden (Avon, 1997) by Princeton biologist Lee M. Silver. In
     More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
     (Broadway, 2005), Ramez Naam, a software engineer turned futurist,
     catalogs the new developments that could soon put designer bodies,
     minds, and children within our reach. He sees them as our next step in
     the human journey from cave art to the stars. "This hunger, this reach
     that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something 'which
     cannot be attained in earthly life' is the force that has built our
     world," he writes. "Never to say enough, always to want more -- that
     is what it means to be human."

     Curiously, Bill McKibben and Francis Fukuyama list the same
     enhancements in their books to argue against the posthuman future.
     They also assert a radically different view of human nature. "What
     makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves," McKibben writes.
     "We can decide not do something that we are able to do. We can set
     limits on our desires. We can say 'Enough.' "

     TRANSHUMANISTS LIKE HUGHES dismiss what he calls "bio-Luddite"
     concerns as just another case of future shock. At any major shift,
     they say, the change-fearing masses first rebel and then get over it.
     What's more, with our contact lenses, artificial heart valves, and
     cell phones, we're already cyborgs anyway. Smallpox vaccine and
     anesthetics for childbirth pain were once both renounced as insults to
     God. How is Bush's effort to limit federal funding for stem cell
     research, and the wider crusade against cloning, any different?

     Some liberals as well as conservatives insist that these issues are
     different. In The Biotech Century (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998), Jeremy
     Rifkin has suggested that modern molecular biology is creating a
     political order that's beyond left and right. As he noted in a phone
     interview, the new divide, in his view, falls between those who
     believe life has "instrinsic" value and those who see it in purely
     utilitarian terms as "reducible to material for manipulation." Citing
     respect for life as his motivation, Rifkin says he parts company with
     many liberals by opposing embryo cloning in all forms, even the
     "therapeutic" cloning that can be used to generate stem cells. (He is
     not opposed to research involving adult stem cells, which can be drawn
     from bone marrow.)

     Researchers first reported finding stem cells in human embryos in
     1998, noting their chameleon-like ability to become any number of the
     body's specialized cells as they matured. Since then, stem cells have
     been touted as a source of possible regenerative treatments for spinal
     cord injuries and many diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer's, and

     "Therapeutic" cloning is one among several ways to produce stem cells
     for research. In both therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning --
     the technique that could lead to cloned babies -- the nucleus of a
     human egg is removed and replaced with the genetic material from
     another cell. But instead of implanting the doctored egg in a womb and
     letting it grow, researchers harvest the newly formed stem cells that
     bud within it after just four or five days. In theory, therapeutic
     cloning could provide tissues and whole organs for transplant
     patients, in a sense turning them into their own donors: Stem cells
     derived from their genetic material could be coaxed to grow into spare
     parts their bodies wouldn't reject.

     Any tampering with the human embryo is a problem for many abortion
     foes like Bush, but it's also an issue for those hoping to thwart a
     posthuman future. They particularly dread the idea of "germline
     genetic engineering" -- that is, giving humans new genetic traits
     they're able to pass on to future generations. To block that, they
     hope to stop the nascent technology today with a ban or a moratorium
     on therapeutic cloning. That means breaking ranks with the many
     liberals who support such research. It can also mean parting with
     those who worry about altering the human species but who see the
     campaign against abortion as a more immediate fear. Indeed, for some
     liberals, the stem cell debate has triggered a very real philosophical
     struggle -- with others, and with themselves.

     "What we can all agree on, whether we're pro-life or pro-choice, is
     that embryos are potential unique human beings at the early stages of
     development," Rifkin says. "Nobody can say that's not true. To my
     mind, the idea that we would propose legislation in the U.S. Congress
     to clone embryos specifically for the purpose of experimentation, or
     as research models, or to harvest spare parts and then destroy them,
     opens the door to a commercial eugenics era."

     In late 2001 a Massachusetts biotech company announced it had been the
     first to clone a human embryo. Around that time, Rifkin floated a
     petition, signed by Fukuyama and other conservatives as well as
     liberals, in support of a law that would ban all cloning. In 2002
     McKibben and others signed a different petition that called for a ban
     on reproductive cloning and a moratorium on cloning for research
     purposes. Other unlikely alliances emerged. In Chicago, for instance,
     progressive tech skeptic Lori Andrews and conservative tech skeptic
     Nigel Cameron founded the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human
     Future. Together they hoped to forge new ties between the anti-biotech
     left, the Christian right, and secular conservatives.

     Still others backed away from a cloning ban, fearing their support
     would be exploited by pro-lifers.

     "This is where the situation gets very, very complicated for the deep
     ecologists," says Hughes. "Roe v. Wade made the issue 'viability' and
     set an arbitrary standard at six months, a position that the deep
     ecologists have felt comfortable accepting. But how will they respond
     when we have developed artificial wombs that can gestate an embryo all
     the way to term, and viability officially becomes conception? It's a
     very real conflict for them."

     His answer is what he calls "personhood theory," a concept from
     bioethics that would grant rights to self-aware "persons," not humans
     per se. Babies, adults, the great apes, whales, dolphins, artificial
     intelligence, and perhaps extraterrestrials are among the entities
     that deserve personhood rights, he says. Embryos, fetuses, the brain
     dead -- these beings may be human in terms of DNA, but in this view
     they are not persons. Hughes uses such concepts to articulate a new
     political axis of his own -- between what he calls the new
     "biopolitical right" and people in favor of technological exploration.
     In September, prominent transhumanists will meet with
     reproduction-rights advocates, disability-rights advocates,
     drug-policy reformers, and transgendered activists at a seminar in
     Berkeley to discuss a possible coalition of their own. Hughes credits
     transgendered people with "fighting some of the first battles to
     define their own bodies and lives."

     "Ultimately, we're working to create a world where people have control
     over their own bodies and minds," he says. "We want a socially
     responsible world, a sexy, high-tech, radically democratic world."

     It's worth noting that efforts in Congress to control cloning in
     recent years have failed. The conflict over abortion is said to be the
     major reason why. President Bush's limit on federal funding for stem
     cell research remains in place, but its effect could be eroding.
     California, birthplace of the Extropians, has begun building its own
     stem cell industry with $3 billion in development funds that voters
     approved last fall. One researcher there says he plans to start human
     tests on a stem cell therapy for damaged spinal nerves next year. Even
     as advocates for the ill laud the California initiative, various
     pro-choice groups recently called for more controls on harvesting
     human eggs, warning that a market for them could threaten women's
     health. But that hasn't quelled the public demand for cures or the
     biotech sector's hope of profit. Driven by such forces, other states
     are planning research programs of their own.

     Amid the debate over whether these powerful new tools should be
     controlled, or even can be, one thing is sure: If we ever find
     ourselves stepping into a posthuman future, it will be for all the
     usual human reasons.

     Alyssa Ford is an intern at Utne.

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