Trans-Human Expressway

Why libertarians will win the future


Here's a prediction.

Politics in the 21st century will cut across the traditional political left/right rift of the last two centuries. Instead, the chief ideological divide will be between transhumanists and bioconservatives/bioluddites.

James Hughes, the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, explores this future political order in his remarkably interesting yet wrongheaded, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Hughes, who lectures on health policy at Trinity College in Connecticut, defines transhumanism as "the idea that humans can use reason to transcend the limitation of the human condition." Specifically, transhumanists welcome the development of intimate technologies that will enable people to boost life spans, enhance intellectual capacities, augment athletic abilities, and choose their preferred emotional states.

Hughes does an excellent job of describing the transformative possibilities of biotech, nanotech, information systems and cognitive research. Citizen Cyborg is not just about the wonders of technology, but also about how Hughes thinks transhumanists can best persuade their fellow citizens to welcome the changes.

Hughes begins by offering a good history of the beginnings of transhumanist thinking and demonstrates that it is the legitimate heir of humanism. Humanism is the philosophy that humanity is the proper measure of all things; its practical manifestations include scientific inquiry and liberal politics. Transhumanism argues for the freedom of people to use technology to go beyond their naturally given capacities. In the late 20th century, transhumanism was chiefly celebrated and promoted by a group of libertarian techno-optimists. Among the chief leaders of this fledgling movement were philosopher Max More and Natasha Vita-More who founded the Extropy Institute in 1992.

Hughes makes it clear that he is uncomfortable with Extropian libertarianism and his project in Citizen Cyborg is to articulate a big tent transhumanism that can attract social democrats, tech-friendly political moderates, Greens and so forth. His preferred scenario is somehow to combine social democracy with the transhumanist goal of enabling people to use technology to transform their bodies, brains and progeny in ways they deem beneficial. As a self-described man of the Left, Hughes does recognize and effectively rebut the "left-wing bioluddite error" of "fighting individuals' free use of technology instead of power relations and prejudices."

Where Hughes goes wrong is in fetishizing democratic decision-making. He fails to recognize that the Enlightenment project that spawned modern liberal democracies began by trying to keep certain questions about the transcendent out of the public sphere. Questions about the ultimate meaning and destiny of humanity are private concerns. Worries about biotechnological progress must not to be used as excuses to breach the Enlightenment understanding of what belongs in the private sphere and what belongs in the public. Technologies dealing with the birth, death and the meaning of life need protection from meddling—even democratic meddling—by others who want to control them as a way to force their visions of right and wrong on the rest of us. Your fellow citizens shouldn't get to vote on whom you have sex with, what recreational drugs you ingest, what you read and watch on TV and so forth. Hughes understands that democratic authoritarianism is possible, but discounts the possibility that the majority may well vote to ban the technologies that promise a better world.

However, even as he extols social democracy as the best guarantor of our future biotechnological liberty, Hughes ignores that it is precisely those social democracies he praises, Germany, France, Sweden, and Britain, which now, not in the future, outlaw germinal choice, genetic modification, reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and stem cell research. For example, Germany, Austria and Norway ban the creation of human embryonic stem cell lines. Britain outlaws various types of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to enable parents to choose among embryos. (Despite worrisome bioconservative agitation against this type of biotech research, in the United States, private research in these areas remains legal.)

Hughes also favors not only social democracy but global governance centered on the United Nations with the "authority to tax corporations and nations," and a "permanent standing international army," and with UN agencies "expanded into a global infrastructure of technological and industrial regulation capable of controlling the health and environmental risks from new technologies." This is the same UN that just voted for an ambiguous resolution calling on nations to ban all forms of human cloning which are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life. Fortunately, the resolution leaves some wiggle, but the next time the UN makes one of these democratic decisions, transhumanists may not like the result.

Furthermore, Hughes's analysis is largely free of economics—he simply ignores the processes by which wealth is created and gets busy redistributing the wealth through government health care and government subsidized eugenics. After reading Citizen Cyborg, you might come away thinking that Hughes believes that corporations exist primarily to oppress people. While acknowledging that the last US government involvement in eugenics—a project that involved sterilizing tens of thousands of people—was a bad idea, Hughes fails to underscore that it was democratically elected representatives, not corporations, who ordered women's tubes tied and men's testicles snipped.

Although it clearly pains him, Hughes grudgingly recognizes that libertarian transhumanists still belong in his big tent. And why not? You will not find a more militantly open, tolerant bunch on the planet. Adam and Steve want get married? We'll be the groomsmen. Joan wants to contract with Jill for surrogacy services? We'll throw a baby shower. Bill and Jane want to use ecstasy for great sex? We'll leave them alone quietly. John wants to grow a new liver through therapeutic cloning? We'll bring over the scotch to help him break in the new one.

In a sense, Hughes himself has not transcended the left/right politics of the past two centuries; he hankers to graft old fashioned left-wing social democratic ideology onto transhumanism. That isn't necessary. The creative technologies that Hughes does an excellent job of describing will so scramble conventional political and economic thinking that his ideas about government health care and government guaranteed incomes will appear quaint. The good news is that if his social democratic transhumanism flounders, Hughes will reluctantly choose biotech progress. "Even if the rich do get more enhancements in the short term, it's probably still good for the rest of us in the long term," writes Hughes. "If the wealthy stay on the bleeding edge of life extension treatments, nano-implants and cryo-suspension, the result will be cheaper, higher-quality technology."

In the end, Citizen Cyborg is invaluable in sharpening the political issues that humanity will confront as the biotech revolution rolls on.