Biotechnology

Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea?

Why striving to be more than human is human

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"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? Transhumanism.

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 nests.

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 ecstasy.

"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 bioterrorist.

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 their choices.

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."