[Paleopsych] Utne: (James Hughes) The Next Digital Divide
checker at panix.com
Fri Jan 28 16:02:50 UTC 2005
The Next Digital Divide
[Three part interview with James Hughes appended.]
By Alyssa Ford,
How biopolitics could reshape our understanding of left and right
Didn't think it was possible for the left to be anymore splintered?
Welcome to the world of biopolitics, a fledgling political movement
that promises to make mortal enemies out of one-time allies -- such as
back-to-nature environmentalists and technophile lefties -- and close
friends of traditional foes, such as anti-GMO activists and
Biopolitics, a term coined by Trinity College professor James Hughes,
places pro-technology transhumanists on one pole and people who are
suspicious of technology on the other. According to Hughes,
transhumanists are members of "an emergent philosophical movement
which says that humans can and should become more than human through
technological enhancements." The term transhuman is shorthand for
transitional human -- people who are in the process of becoming
"posthuman" or "cyborgs."
It may sound like a movement founded by people who argue over Star
Trek minutia on the Internet, but transhumanists are far more complex
and organized than one might imagine. They got their start in the
early 1980s as a small band of libertarian technophiles who advocated
for any advancement that could extend human life indefinitely or
eliminate disease and disability. Their members were some of the first
to sign up to be cryogenically frozen, for example.
As biotech and bioethics issues such as cloning and stem cell research
gained importance on the international agenda, the transhumanist
philosophy grew in popularity and became more diverse. For instance,
several neo-nazi groups who saw technological advancement as the way
to achieve eugenics embraced the transhumanist label. Transhumanism
pierced the popular culture when the Coalition of Artists and Life
Forms (CALF) formed in the 1990s. This small band of artists and
writers has a shared excitement for technology and a distrust of the
corporations that mishandle it.
In 1997, a group of American and European leftist-transhumanists
(including Dr. Hughes) formed the World Transhumanist Association
to advocate for technology not only as a means to improve the human
race and increase longevity, but as a tool for social justice. Unlike
their libertarian forebearers, these "democratic transhumanists"
advocate for moderate safeguards on new technology, such as drug
trials. In an exhaustive article about various factions under the
transhuman label, Hughes identifies 11 subgroups, including
"disability transhumanists" who argue for their right to technology
and "gay transhumanists" who want children conceived outside of the
opposite-sex paradigm (i.e., cloning).
By definition, social conservatives oppose the transhumanists, but the
new movement also has many enemies on the new age, environmental,
anti-GMO, and anti-biotech left. These progressive opponents have even
aligned with right wing factions in opposition to transhumanist goals.
In 2002, Jeremy Rifkin and other environmentalists joined with
anti-abortion groups to float an anti-cloning petition. Abortion
opponents again found themselves working with the left when a group
of feminists and civil libertarians began pressuring the Indian
government to restrict women's access to ultrasounds and abortions for
fear of female infanticide. The transhumanists, in turn, call these
anti-technology liberals "left luddites," "bioconservatives," and
"technophobes" -- a not-so-subtle linguistic clue that the new
biopolitical axis has the potential to completely reconfigure
* In Defense of Posthuman Dignity
* Cyborg Liberation Front
* Three-part interview with Dr. James Hughes:
* Part One
* Part Two
* Part Three
Jeremy Rifkin's Center for Genetics and Society
WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes
(part 1 of 3)
November 30, 2004
A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 1 of 3)
For many, the term "transhumanism" suggests a rejection of
humanity or a dismissal of the body of philosophy we call "humanism."
Some of the movement's proponents don't help matters, embracing an Ayn
Rand-style libertarian perspective and disdain for "unenhanced"
humanity. But not all transhumanists are the same. A growing number
see the drive to develop technologies to strengthen and extend human
capabilities as part and parcel of the push to improve global social
conditions, and recognize that there is a necessary role for society
and government in the safe development and fair distribution of new
technologies. They refer to themselves as "Democratic Transhumanists,"
and their founding philosopher is Dr. James Hughes.
Dr. Hughes is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in
Hartford Connecticut, where he teaches Health Policy, Drug Policy and
Research Methods in Trinity's Graduate Public Policy Studies program.
He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago,
where he also taught bioethics. He is a member of the American Society
of Bioethics and Humanities, and the Working Group on Ethics and
Technology at Yale University. He has been a longtime left activist,
having founded EcoSocialist Review while in grad school, as well
as working on systemic reform of health care organizations to empower
He is also a Director of the World Transhumanist Association,
and the author of the recently-published Citizen Cyborg: Why
Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the
Future. Dr. Hughes sees Democratic Transhumanism as existing in the
space left fallow by both the libertarian transhumanist wing and the
Luddite element of the left. As he put it in his lengthy and
detailed treatise on the philosophy:
Democratic transhumanism stems from the assertion that human beings
will generally be happier when they take rational control of the
natural and social forces that control their lives. This
fundamental humanistic assertion has led to two intertwined sets of
Enlightenment values: the democratic tradition with its values of
liberty, equality, solidarity and collective self-governance, and
to the belief in reason and scientific progress, that human beings
can use reason and technology to improve the conditions of life.
A recent manifestation of these principles is his founding of the
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), an
organization at which I am a Fellow. Over the past month, I've had
an extended email conversation with Dr. Hughes, discussing the
sometimes-strained relationship between progressive principles and
technological utopianism. Because of its length, I'll post the
discussion in three parts. Today's focuses on the meaning of
Cascio: Let's start with the basics: what does "Democratic
Hughes: To me, the democratic part is a bit redundant, since I see
transhumanism as a natural conclusion of the democratic and humanist
philosophical tradition: life is better when people are empowered to
make decisions about their own lives, individually and collectively.
The two basic ways we can be empowered are by pushing back social
domination through equality, liberty and social solidarity, and by
pushing back the domination of nature through science and technology.
It seems a natural conclusion that we should help one another use
emerging technologies to push back sickness, aging, suffering and
death, which is the key goal of transhumanism.
However, there are variants of the humanist tradition - neo-liberal,
libertarian and anarcho-capitalist philosophies - that prioritize
liberty to the exclusion of equality and solidarity, and try to
eliminate democratic oversight, regulation, redistribution and public
provision. Although transhumanists like Condorcet and Haldane were
most often advocates of radical egalitarianism, the 1960s brought an
ascendance of the romantic, anti-technology wing of the Left and the
ceding of narratives of progress to these champions of the free-market
and corporate capitalism. So when transhumanism finally found its feet
as a social movement in the early 1990s, many transhumanists were
attracted to these neo-liberal philosophies, at least up till the
I think that libertarian tilt to transhumanism is now turning around.
Progressives are discovering that their natural allies are not the
Christian Right with its anxieties about hubris, but women trying to
defend their reproductive rights to use technology, the disabled like
Christopher Reeve fighting for assistive and restorative technologies,
and the world's poor who need new technologies to provide clean water
and abundant food. Transhumanists, in turn, are realizing that our Big
Pharma is too short-sighted to commit to risky, far-sighted research
on things like "negligible senescence." These projects need funding
through the National Institutes of Health, the National Nanotechnology
Initiative, and the Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno program. They also need to go
through the Food and Drug Administration. Nothing is more disastrous
for technology than a thalidomide-type disaster. We've already seen
with estrogen replacement therapy that the public is ready to adopt
technologies to try to forestall aging which they then find are
actually killing them.
So progressive or "democratic" transhumanists, unlike the free
marketeers, understand that strong oversight and social reform has to
accompany technology diffusion. Technologies need to be tested for
safety and made universally available. Hopefully as this perspective
becomes more common we can drop the redundant "democratic."
Cascio: I wonder how much of the negative reaction to transhumanism
comes from a reaction to the term itself, and its implied disdain for
being human. While you make a good argument that democratic
transhumanism is a natural evolution of humanist philosophies, some of
the ideas that transhumanism encompasses do include outcomes
(uploading, radical bioengineering to the point of speciation, etc.)
which discard "human-ness." How does democratic transhumanism speak to
those who find such a transition frightening?
Hughes: The first point is that transhumanism does not connote disdain
for humanity, but disagreement that the category of "human" is
meaningful. Take our newly discovered Hobbit cousins from Indonesia,
or Neanderthals. If they were still around would we consider them
human? What would it mean for our society if we were to deny modern
Hobbits or Neanderthals human rights on the grounds they weren't
"human" and treated them as pets or slaves? Are conjoined twins human?
Is someone in an intensive care unit with machines breathing for them,
pumping their blood, and maintaining their blood chemistry, are they
still human? "Human," "human dignity" are empty signifiers that have
crept into our language as proxies for "soul," and progressives need
to rethink their use of these categories.
Francis Fukuyama, in Our Posthuman Future, explicitly argues that
humanness is a "Factor X," a black box that combines some combination
of genetics, rationality and emotion. But he doesn't want to specify
it because if he did it would be clear that there are humans who don't
have those specifics, and that great apes probably do. Specifying what
it is that we value about humanness would also allow us to regulate
biotechnology to protect that, and allow individual choice on the
rest. Rationality and emotional complexity what makes us human? Great
- nobody will be allowed to make themselves developmentally disabled
or autistic. Remaining primarily organic what makes us human? OK, then
adding lion genes shouldn't be a problem.
The basic argument between transhumanists and human-racists is a
debate about what is really important and valuable in the human
condition, self-aware existence, consciousness, emotionally rich
experience and rational thought, on the one hand, or having the modal
genome and body type of human beings circa 2000 (which is very
different from what it was even 20 years ago, but never mind that)?
The transhumanist position is known in bioethics as "personhood
theory": you can be a self-aware person and not be human (great apes
for instance) and you can be "human" and not be a person (such as
fetuses and the brain dead). Rights are for persons, not humans.
But there is a grain of truth to the critics' attack in that we are
very upset about the limitations of the human body and we think that,
using reason and technology, we can do much better. That's what
medicine is to begin with. Is it a lack of love for and faith in
"humanness" to get vaccinated, or have surgery, or take insulin or
vitamins? I think one of the thing most people consider core to
"humanity" is a desire to improve and progress, so in that sense human
enhancement technologies are quintessentially "human."
Since "human" is basically a tribal identity with no empirical
referent, what Kurt Vonnegut called a "granfalloon" , I fully
expect that in four hundred years there will be people with green
skin, four arms, wings, endless lives, and nanocomputer brain pans,
who proudly consider themselves "human" and who organize big family
reunions for all the people with their surname, or all the other
descendents of Civil War veterans, or whatever. And there are people
today who are ready to give up any claim to membership in the human
race because they have glasses or a pacemaker or are pissed off about
the persistent ubiquity of ignorance and cruelty in this race that
pretends to know better.
I understand that people do get frightened by the idea of a transhuman
society, with increasing diversity of persons. People were frightened
that the end of slavery and Jim Crow would unleash anarchy and
race-mixing, and people are still scared that legal gay marriage will
destroy Western civilization. We need to try to convince those who are
afraid of human enhancement that we can still have peace, prosperity
and tolerance of diversity in that future. And at the same time we
need to remember that the transhumanist claim is that people should
control their own bodies and minds, and other people don't get to tell
us to go to the back of the bus because of their vague anxieties and
yuck reactions to our choices.
Cascio: Say a little bit more about the "yuck reaction" -- it's a term
I see in use among the transhumanist circles, but doesn't have quite
the same impact in broader conversation.
Hughes: "Yuck factor" is bioethics shorthand for the many variants of
the argument that something must be unethical just because it freaks
people out. For instance people think consensual cannibalism is
self-evidently immoral even though the alleged ethical arguments
against it are very tenuous. Leon Kass, G.W.'s bioethics czar, is the
principal proponent of the theory that people should be guided by
their gut instincts in ethics. Don't like chocolate cake? Then there
is probably something unethical about chocolate cake. Most
bioethicists aren't as bold as Kass in jettisoning reason however, so
they have invented two variants on the uncontestable "God don't like
it": that something is "unnatural" and that it violates "human
dignity." Both of these arguments are just hand waving. As Love and
Rockets said "You cannot go against nature, Because when you do, Go
against nature, It's a part of nature too." As for violating human
dignity its in the eye of the beholder.
Yuck factor is also closely related to "future shock." When society
changes fast people get upset and try to slow things down. In
democratic societies they will be able to use quite a few brakes,
which is generally a good thing. But balance is provided by the
protection of individual liberty and minority rights. So, for
instance, when most Americans freaked out about the Massachusetts
Supreme Court's decision that gays should be able to marry they passed
referenda around the country to stop gay marriage. I think the state
courts and then the Supreme Court should overturn those referenda on
the grounds that gay marriage is a fundamental right. When we are
talking about basic rights, like the right to control your own body
and mind, or vote, or sit anywhere on the damn bus you feel like, or
marry your lover, those rights should trump other people's future
shock and yuck reactions.
Cascio: "We can do better" is at the core of what WorldChanging does
and what IEET represents. And the "we" is as important as the "do
better" -- it's not just atomistic individuals trying to compete for
greatest personal satisfaction, it's a social effort, which reflects
Hughes: That's absolutely important. Libertarian individualism is
completely self-defeating for the human enhancement movement. You want
to make yourself and your kids smarter? You can take a smart pill and
do your mental gymnastics, but you still need good books, stimulating
friends, a solid education, a free and independent press, and a
stable, well-regulated economy so your PDA keeps beaming Google
searches and email chat into your eyeball through that laser display.
And it might be nice to have a strong, independent Food and Drug
Administration to make sure that your smart pill doesn't cause
dementia in five years, and that that laser display doesn't blind you.
Similarly, the principal determinants of longevity in the 20th century
have been improvements in social technology not medical technology,
e.g. getting people to suppress infectious diseases. Universal access
to safe, effective life extension and age-retardation technology in
the coming decades will require public investments into basic
research, reining in our out-of-control intellectual property system,
and the subsidizing of access for the uninsured and the world's poor.
The libertarian fantasies that atomistic individualism and an
unregulated free market will build an attractive future are just
Posted by Jamais Cascio at November 30, 2004 03:13 PM | TrackBack
I could add: It's necessary for a wide variety of humanists to chip in
in order for the face of the future to be *sane.* Don't leave it up to
the . . . well, apocalyptic oddballs who have invested religious
significance into the Singularity.
"I fully expect that in four hundred years . . ."
A couple of decades back, "The Space Gamer" ran a cute little story
set in a spaceport bar.
A guy wanders in before things get busy. He chats with people as the
after-work crowd wanders in. Various cyborgs, robots, an uplifted
dinosaur just in from shooting a monster movie, people adapted to
other planets, and so on.
At some point it's revealed that the protagonist is an _alien_.
The other patrons react with shock and horror. He's tossed out -- they
don't serve that kind here -- and the fellow he was sitting with feels
betrayed and scandalized.
Posted by: Stefan Jones at November 30, 2004 03:53 PM
I agree that a great deal of libertarian fantasies are simply stupid,
but I also think that too much regulation and public accountability
rhetoric can kill the movement in its infancy. Early technologies are
full of mistakes, bugs and problems. That's just how life is. And if
these technologies are used on the body, then people will suffer, too.
In order for the methods to become safe, the early pioneers will have
to make sacrifices -- and they will have to be _allowed_ to make those
sacrifices. While libertarian fantasies may be stupid, it is people
believing in them that are going to make the largest impact on
Posted by: Sergiy Grynko at November 30, 2004 05:49 PM
What a fine interview, Jamais. Worthy subject and good questions.
I felt my incipient Luddism coming to the fore as I read the articles.
We haven't been able to solve the many problems that can easily be
remedied with the technology we already have. And in the present
culture, I do not trust us to make wise decisions with the tricky
issues of biotechnology. GMOs are a case in point.
Perhaps in a social democracy with the corporations under control and
a much greater awareness of ecology -- maybe then I'd start to feel
enthusiasm rather than a sense of dread.
As it is, transhumanism sounds either like a costly irrelevance (e.g.,
space flight, artificial intelligence) or a Pandora's box (e.g.,
To his credit, Hughes seems aware of many of the potential problems.
Posted by: bart at December 3, 2004 01:27 AM
19. mailto:SeJ at aol.com
20. mailto:sgrynko at hotmail.com
21. mailto:bart at cwo.com
WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes
(part 2 of 3)
December 01, 2004
A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 2 of 3)
Continuing the conversation with Dr. James Hughes of Trinity College,
founder of the Democratic Transhumanism movement.
Democratic Transhumanism, despite its futuristic trappings, hearkens
back to an earlier manifestation of the liberal tradition. In the 19th
and early 20th century, scientific rationalism and technological
utopianism went hand-in-hand with socialism, feminism, and
progressivism. This changed in the post-WW2 era, as science and
technology seemed to many to be increasingly the tools of military and
corporate giants. The anti-technology perspective emerged most
strongly in the environmental movement, which often linked ecological
irresponsibility (industrial pollution, toxic waste dumps, unethical
animal and human experimentation, etc.) with technological
development. While many progressives and greens are more willing adopt
cleaner, better technologies today, some of the anti-technology biases
remain. From Dr. Hughes' essay on Democratic Transhumanism:
Today most bioethicists, informed by and contributing to the
growing Luddite orientation in left-leaning arts and humanities
faculties, start from the assumption that new biotechnologies are
being developed in unethical ways by a rapacious medical-industrial
complex, and will have myriad unpleasant consequences for society,
especially for women and the powerless. Rather than emphasizing the
liberty and autonomy of individuals who may want to adopt new
technologies, or arguing for increased equitable access to new
biotechnologies, balancing attention to the "right from" technology
with attention to the "right to" technology, most bioethicists see
it as their responsibility to slow the adoption of biotechnology
The tension between philosophies focused on for social justice and
environmental responsibility and the transhumanist movement is strong,
and the evident frustration and anger in Dr. Hughes' tone -- both in
the article linked above and in today's section of the interview --
reflects his belief that the human enhancement movement should be
considered an ally, not an opponent, of those who are trying to better
the human condition. He and I don't see eye-to-eye on many of the
topics discussed in today's section, but we do agree on an underlying
value: responsible technological development is critical for building
a better planet.
Cascio: A concern many technologically-literate environmentalists have
about human bioengineering (and life extension, and the like) is that
it will inevitably be asymmetrically distributed, with the
already-rich and powerful getting the first shot at it.
Hughes: In first place there is no inevitability about the cost of
transhuman technologies. Depending on the type of technology and the
point in its innovation lifecycle, technologies can be cheap or
expensive. Just look at anti-retroviral therapy. For a decade
HIV-positive people in the affluent North were the guinea pigs and
underwriters of the enormous costs of these therapies.
Then the developing world threatened to produce the drugs themselves
and abrogate the intellectual property regime (and I wish they had).
In response to the threat and the political pressure from the global
public health lobby anti-retrovirals were licensed for less expensive
production, and then alternative versions were developed which cut
costs to less than a dollar day.
Now, less than a dollar a day is still more than a lot of HIV positive
people in Africa make, so is the answer of leftist Greens that we
should ban anti-retrovirals until everybody can afford them? Or do we
try to get them to as many people as possible, year by year? The same
logic will apply to every new technology, from those which save lives,
to those which allow us to improve memory and mood, to those which
enable radical body art. And some of these technologies will be cheap
at the outset, such as a cancer vaccine that sensitizes the immune
system to identify and destroy cancers.
Cascio: That's an interesting take -- that rather than thinking of the
early adopting rich countries as getting the goodies first, we should
think of them as being the guinea pigs (or beta testers) for the rest
of the world.
Hughes: I don't want to sound like I think its good for the poor and
developing world to wait a couple years for new tech. But there is a
life cycle to most tech that the Luddite left ignores - if a
technology develops a large enough market among the affluent they get
then cheap enough so that they become available to the poor. There is
a strong moral and practical case for using public monies to shorten
that cycle for technologies that dramatically improve people's lives,
as human enhancement technologies will. For Gameboys or McDonalds
equitable access isn't so urgent.
Cascio: Many left-greens, including me, worry that transhuman
technologies can result in conditions which would tend to further
concentrate power and wealth in the hands of those who already possess
it. Is that a legitimate concern?
Hughes: Yes, absolutely. There is probably a qualitative difference
between the feedback loop between wealth inequality and differential
access to cognitive enhancement, and the feedback loop between wealth
inequality and differential access to the Internet. In other words, we
do have to worry about the possible development of a widening gap
between an accelerating "posthuman" aristocracy and a majority of the
rest of the world moving ahead at a much slower pace. The best, and
probably the only way, to effectively reduce the risk of
GenRich/GenPoor bifurcation is the ensure broad as possible access to
cognitive, health and ability enhancements. I think this will be
perfectly obvious even to the most Luddite as these technologies
arrive. The world's poor are going to want life extension and very few
left Greens are going to campaign to save them from it.
The "forbid enhancement because it will only be available to the rich"
argument does, however, provide one more brick for the bioconservative
roadblock to funding research in human enhancement. So long as the
public thinks life extension and cognitive enhancement is "science
fiction," and will never happen, then the religious fundamentalist
zealots and their secular and progressive allies can deep six the
research programs which could bring them online all the sooner.
One hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, and if you are a
transhumanist, you see a day when they would not have to have died.
The profound immorality of the bioLuddite position is not that they
will be able to stop human enhancement technologies, but that they
will be able to delay them and kill many people who could otherwise
have lived. Yes, fresh water and more food and income could save
people as well. That's why I'm a democratic transhumanist.
Cascio: What do you think of the "precautionary principle?"
Hughes: The precautionary principle is a Luddite Trojan Horse. It
starts with the uncontroversial principle that technologies should be
assessed for their risks before they are deployed. That's no problem,
and we can argue about what kinds of approval processes and regulatory
agencies are adequate, and when we have sufficient information of the
risk/benefit ratios. But when the principle is applied by the
technophobic, to things like human genetic engineering, the
precautionary principle becomes a rationale for permanent bans. The
first thing the technophobic do is systematically rubbish the
potential benefits, and take seriously every hypothetical harm from
now until the end of time. Their second argument appeals to the virtue
of the known and the supposed inevitability that human efforts to
engineer the delicate, evolved mechanisms of nature are doomed to
disaster. On those grounds, no clinical trial or EPA assessment could
ever capture the real long-term risks of genetic engineering.
Nick Bostrom has just written a brilliant paper about the "status quo
bias" in everyday heuristics, and how it is expressed in bioethics.
Once we take account of real, proximate risks and benefits of human
enhancement technologies in a balanced way there certainly will be a
case for banning some until they are safer. For instance, the World
Transhumanist Association has taken the position that experiments with
human reproductive cloning are currently unethical since the animal
research suggests a very high risk of birth defects. Once the animal
research has got the success rate up and birth defects low, then there
the risk-benefit would pass the threshold for permitting the technique
for parents who have genetic or infertility problems and want a child
related to one of the parents. Then, when the risk of birth defects in
these first clones has been assessed, and the technique demonstrated
to be safe, we should permit all would be parents to use it.
This process suggests the other huge problem with applying the
precautionary principle to human enhancement. Banning a new industrial
chemical on precautionary principle grounds doesn't step on an
individual's self-determination, but stopping them from exercising
control over their own body, brain and reproduction does. For
instance, Western feminists are delighted to encourage India and China
to restrict women's access to ultrasound and abortion, restrictions
most American women would never accept, all to prevent largely
hypothetical future social consequences of imbalanced gender ratios
from sex selection. As a consequence these laws not only harm the
women who lose some of their reproductive choices, but also the girls
born into families that don't want them, and who at best are given up
for adoption. The way people use the precautionary principle is to
argue that the difficulties that boys in the class of 2020 will have
in getting a date to the prom trump all other concerns. I don't think
Cascio: Our *current* understanding of biological and environmental
systems is more limited than we often like to admit, particularly
regarding subtle cross-system interactions. It seems to me that some
degree of a precautionary structure, one designed to consider very
carefully the implications (both biological and social) would be a
useful tool for making certain that the enhancements end up being that
and not long-term degradations.
Hughes: Anything involving the release of genetically modified
organisms in the environment and I completely agree. But in regards
human genetic enhancement I think the right to self-determination
trumps a lot of those vaguer, long-term concerns. What would the
approval process have looked like for the precautionary approval of
organ transplantation back in the 1970s? We might be getting around to
trying some transplants about now, and untold hundreds of thousands of
people would have died unnecessarily.
Cascio: But don't some self-determination choices have broader results
for society at large? As a simplistic example, wouldn't a society
already near the breaking point for pension support have a legitimate
say in the implementation of life-extension technologies?
Hughes: You want to live in a society that tells people they have to
die because we can't figure out how to keep them housed and fed? We
are already living well-beyond the average 65 years that Social
Security and Medicare estimated at their founding, and they are facing
crisis as a consequence; so should we now deny medical treatment to
everybody over 70? Yes, every society has to set priorities, and
pensions and medical research and treatments can't be allowed to
consume everything. But my preference is that we try to keep everyone
healthy and alive first, and then figure out how to adjust.
Cascio: At the same time, as the recent Vioxx situation demonstrates,
the current mechanism for assessment (in this case, FDA) isn't nearly
as effective as one would hope it to be. One could easily imagine
thousands (millions?) of people adopting an enhancement technology
that looked good in computer models and fast-tracked trials, only to
discover a decade or two down the road that it has some pretty
unpleasant long-term side-effects, perhaps even shortening lives that
they had expected to be lengthened. How long of a test would you
consider appropriate for human enhancement biotech?
Hughes: I don't think enhancement medicine should be subject to a more
stringent approval process than medical therapies. The calculations
will be the same. Every medical treatment is a rapidly evolving mix of
information and unknowns about risks, side-effects and benefits. When
the FDA approved the weight loss drug Meridia it was controversial,
and continues to be, because there were minor benefits and
occasionally serious cardiac side effects. But then morbid obesity is
a much bigger killer. Why not let people make that calculation with
their doctor? If we were to come up with a gene tweak that doubles the
life span of mice, but it had a 1% risk of earlier mortality, I think
we would want to make it available to the public and let them decide.
The question is when the possible risks outweigh the possible benefits
so far that no one should be using it.
Posted by Jamais Cascio at December 1, 2004 10:08 AM | TrackBack
WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes
(part 3 of 3)
December 02, 2004
A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 3 of 3)
Concluding the conversation with Dr. James Hughes of Trinity College,
founder of the Democratic Transhumanism movement.
While it may be difficult to see in the aftermath of last month's
election, the compositions of the post-World War II coalitions on both
the Left and the Right are changing. Emerging issues, from
globalization to climate disruption to intellectual property rights on
the Internet, are starting to push some traditional allies apart and
traditional opponents together. For Dr. Hughes, human enhancement
technologies will likely prove to be another axis for new political
friction. From his democratic transhumanism treatise:
The biopolitical spectrum is still emerging, starting first among
intellectuals and activists. Self-described "transhumanists" and
"Luddites" are the most advanced and self-conscious of an emerging
wave of the public's ideological crystallization. We are at the
same place in the crystallization of biopolitics as left-right
economic politics was when Marx helped found the International
Workingmen's Association in 1864, or when the Fabian Society was
founded in England in 1884: intellectuals and activists struggling
to make explicit the battle lines that are already emerging, before
popular parties have been organized and masses rallied to their
Will transhumanism -- or human enhancement technology -- be a key line
of conflict for the 21st century? It's possible, although I suspect it
will be part of a larger struggle both over the direction of human
technology and the nature of "personhood." If the core philosophical
struggle of the 20th century was over "how we live," the core
philosophical struggle of the 21st may be "who we are."
I also suspect, moreover profoundly hope, that the "transhuman" meme
falls to the wayside, and that tools and techniques that help us live
healthier, longer, happier lives are seen as human technologies,
something rightly available to us all, not something that implicitly
divides us. Progressives are thinking a lot about "framing" these
days, and rightly so: how we describe something imparts a great deal
of meaning. Just as Dr. Hughes wishes (as said in Part I of the
interview) that, in due time, "democratic transhumanism" will shed
"democratic" in the name because the need for equitable, fair, and
full distribution of enhancement technologies will be obvious to all,
I hope that "democratic transhumanism" will shed "transhumanism,"
because the realization that enhancement technologies are simply part
of our cultural birthright as humans will be equally obvious.
In the final installment of my interview with James Hughes, we talk a
bit about what the future may hold for the democratic transhumanist
movement and humankind in general.
Cascio: How do you see the politics of transhuman technologies playing
out over the next few decades?
Hughes: I'm convinced that politics will become more complex in the
next decades as new coalitions form along the emerging biopolitical
axis, an axis with transhumanists at one end and bioconservatives at
the other. Biopolitics will divide traditional progressives and
conservatives, and the outcomes of struggles will be partly determined
by whether progressive or conservative voices are louder at each end
of debate. I would much prefer that the policy debate be framed
between democratic transhumanists and left-wing bioconservatives
like the Center for Genetics and Society, for instance, so that
whatever the outcome our concerns for safety and equity are reflected.
The fight over embryonic stem cell research is the current hot
biopolitical struggle. Some of the issues likely to force a
crystallization and polarization along the biopolitical axis in the
Demands of the growing senior population for anti-aging research and
therapies, in the context of increasing conflict over generational
equity and the tax burdens of retiree pensions and health care.
FDA approval of gene therapies, psychopharmaceuticals and
nanocybernetics for "enhancement" purposes, such as improving memory,
mood, senses, life extension and athletic performance.
Perfection of neonatal intensive care and artificial uteruses which
will erode the current political compromise on fetal rights,
predicated on "viability" as a moral dividing line.
The intellectual enhancement of animals, which will force a
clarification of the citizenship status of intelligent non-humans.
The regulation of the potentially apocalyptic risks of
nanomaterials, nanomachines, genetically engineered organisms, and
The fight over parental rights to use germinal choice technologies
to choose enhancements and aesthetic characteristics of their
Cascio: How may "bioconservatives" react as they see people starting
to use these technologies?
I think social conservatives and bioconservatives will all use the
latest enhancement technologies at the same rate as the rest of us,
and religious Right and neocon leaders will scramble to keep the goal
post one step ahead of the latest life extending technology. They no
longer oppose autopsies, condoms, organ transplantation or IVF because
they can't win those battles.
Cascio: Cloning as a hot-button issue has died down a bit, at least
for now. I've always been a bit confused by the fervor of opposition.
While the opponents seem to assume that there would be a huge
groundswell of desire for cloning if it was allowed, I just can't see
that many people actually wanting a time-delayed twin. Or not even
that close! Identical twins are closer in many respects than clones.
Hughes: The use of donor eggs for nuclear transfer introduces the egg
donor's mitochondrial DNA; twinning produces a much cleaner copy.
Although transhumanists defend cloning as an eventual reproductive
option once its safe, it is not an enhancement technique. I would go
so far as to say that once we have enhancement gene therapies it would
be unethical for parents to make a copy of themselves. It would be
like insisting that your kid use your grade school textbooks. OK,
Cascio: I've noticed over the course of our conversation something
that I've seen in other transhumanist speculations: a subtle mixture
of medical technologies implemented to protect or restore some measure
of normative health (e.g., insulin injections or vaccinations) and
technologies implemented to enhance the human biology beyond what is
considered a standard part of human biology (e.g., endless lives or
four arms). It's a very slick slope, of course; is a technology which
gives what amounts to an IQ of 250 -- vanishingly rare, but definitely
a part of broader human experience -- an enhancement beyond the norm
or a restoration of what's possible? How about not an endless
lifespan, but healthy life to (say) 140? Nonetheless, I suspect it's
these transhumanist musings about radical divergences that sets some
Hughes: The problem is that that is precisely the slope we want to
slip down. There is no practical or ethical distinction between
therapy and enhancement. We're living in an unnatural, enhanced human
state already. I don't see many people going back to foraging and
chipping stone tools in caves, or more to the point, giving up aspirin
and vaccines. The average IQ of the citizens of the industrialized
countries has already risen by 30 points in the last century, a
phenomenon called the "Flynn effect." What we are saying is that
its good for people to be able to live another day, whether they are
70, 100 or 150. Its good for people to learn more, faster, whether
they have IQs of 80, 120 or 200. Its good for people to have more
acuity to their vision, whether they are legally blind or 20/20.
Moreover, the therapies will not be clearly therapeutic or
enhancement. If I give you an anti-aging vaccination that reduces your
likelihood of contracting all aging-related diseases and extends your
life span to 120, was that therapy for prevention of those diseases or
an enhancement? We think it doesn't matter.
Cascio: In a world of limited research resources, which should receive
a greater priority: research into technologies to enhance human
biology, or research into technologies to improve social conditions?
What's the appropriate balance between "democracy" and
Hughes: As I've said before, I think the two go hand-in-hand, although
we do have to allocate resources. But take the example of obesity,
which is growing worldwide. There is very little evidence that public
health education or diet program interventions have any long-term
effect for the majority of the obese. The reason people are getting
fat is that we are programmed to eat good-tasting food when we can,
and we live increasingly sedentary lives. So, by all means let's
educate people to eat right, and set up community activity centers,
and get sodas out of the schools, and tax high fructose corn syrup.
But let's also pursue research on drugs and gene tweaks to prevent
obesity in the first place, to be slim and healthy no matter what we
eat and how much exercise we get, because if we really want to save
the people's lives that's where the answer will come from. And then
let's make sure those treatments are available to everybody worldwide.
Investing in technological obesity prevention will not only be more
cost-effective than social-behavioral weight control, but will
dramatically reduce overall health costs. If people want to find some
spurious social account they can empty out and put into their favorite
social reforms let's start with professional football not medical
Cascio: One aspect of your work which I greatly appreciate is that you
think about transformative technologies as social technologies, which
while they may directly change the lives of individuals, also affect
us at the level of social relationships.
Hughes: One of the books that I was deeply influenced by as an
undergraduate Buddhist Sociology major was Trevor Ling's The Buddha.
Ling was a Marxist scholar, and he drew out of early Buddhism a
radical message of integrated social and individual change. The monks
weren't just told to go meditate in caves, they were instructed that
their liberation was an interdependent process involving psychological
change, behavioral change, a certain kind of community and a certain
kind of engagement with the world. The Wheel of Dharma, turned by
these interlocking processes, countervailed against the Wheel of
Karma, with its characteristic greed, hatred and ignorance and
attendant behaviors and social systems (e.g. patriarchy, capitalism,
militarism, the Repuglican Party). I think I bring pretty much he same
perspective to transhumanism. The core demand of transhumanism is that
we all should be given the means to reach our fullest potentials. But
helping people achieve their full potential is a matter of social
reform as much as individual technological empowerment.
Cascio: Do you expect that, once radical life extension
technologies are available, the majority of people will adopt them?
Hughes: In a gene-tweaked heart-beat.
Posted by Jamais Cascio at December 2, 2004 10:59 AM | TrackBack
On the whole I agree with Mr. Hughes. I've been following these areas
(longevity research, nanotechnology, neurotechnology and others.) for
nearly twenty years now and he is a refreshing change from the
libertarian-tinged thought that used to dominate these topics.
On the other hand, I think he's too worried about the power that
luddites (And I use that term very vaguely.) have to slow things down.
Change is happening in too many areas and synergizing in too many
complex ways for anyone to stop it now.
That's both good and bad.
Look our current circumstance. We are living in a world almost beyond
the imagining of the participants of the 1938 World's Fair in New York
City. We have the superhighways, fast food, cheap telecommunications
and spaceflight they dreamed of back then. Did their grand utopia come
Upon solving one problem, we always seem to find another to worry
These transhuman technologies are coming to pass. They will become
commonplace and even cheap.
But I am pretty sure that the transhumans and posthumans will find
something else to complain about.
Posted by: Mr. Farlops at December 4, 2004 03:46 AM
More information about the paleopsych