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Stephen Lilley “Transhumanism and Society”

Lilley, Stephen 2013. Transhumanism and Society. The Social Debate over Human Enhancement. Dordrecht; Heidelberg; New York; London: Springer.


  1. Introduction to the Transhumanity Debate

I will be using the label, ‘‘transhumanists,’’ as a catchall for a variety of notable figures, many of whom accept this descriptor and all of whom advocate human enhancement. ‘‘Conservationists’’ is the term that I have chosen for their opponents because of their stand to conserve human nature and institutions. (2)


Transhumanists and their critics also understand these technologies to have the capacity to intervene or to interfere (depending on one’s perspective) in life at the most fundamental level. Most of us are familiar with this idea as it pertains to biotechnology. DNA and related genetic structures are regarded as the code of life, ‘‘cracked’’ by scientists and now open to manipulation through engineering techniques. Stem cells, basic in their pluripotency, have been coaxed from

embryos, placentas, and skin and are being primed to promote regeneration. (5)


In the Foreword to Brave New World, Aldous Huxley asserts that ‘‘It is only by means of the sciences of life that the quality of life can be radically changed…This really revolutionary revolution is to be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings’’ [(1932) 1969]. (7)


The conservationists contend that if liberal democracies go down the transhumanist path and allow free choice for enhancement technologies, consumers knowingly or unknowingly will suffer modifications that diminish free will. Governments would exploit them. According to the transhumanists, if liberal democracies take up the conservationists’ cause, the state would become more involved in the regulation and control of reproduction, the body, and parenting through banning enhancement technologies, and monitoring and policing illicit use. This would entail an increase in state power and loss of personal autonomy. (10)


At least in terms of political-economic leanings, transhumanism is not a radical ideology, not even a reform ideology. We need to keep in mind that all ideologies, including transhumanism, are designed to serve movement interests. Transhumanists keep their eyes on the prize. If there is every expectation that biotechnology, nanotechnology, neurotechnology, and computer technology will continue to flourish under the political economy of Western societies and the global system, it makes perfect sense to back these. (11-12)


  1. Transcend or transgress?

Whether or not scientists and engineers favor engineered transcendence is debatable, but we know for sure that the transhumanists explicitly propose it. They are the visionaries. This is evident right from the start with Julian Huxley’s coining of the term transhumanism: “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature” (1957:17). (14)


Cosmic Transcendence

In Kurzweil’s model, as humans pass through the technological singularity an accelerating evolutionary process working on intelligence will yield new beings. He makes it clear that there will be as little in common between posthumans with evolved intelligence and standard humans as there is between bacteria and Homo sapiens. He predicts that these super beings will harness stars and eventually operate on the scale of the universe or universes. Generations of humans that forego this evolution, in comparison, will be hopelessly primitive. (15)


Personal Transcendence

For More, transcendence is primarily a personal experience, a process of selftransformation. This is best expressed in his Principles of Extropy (2003) which he crafted while serving as chairman of the Extropy Institute. In defiance of entropy is experienced by individuals as disease and decline, he recommends the bold application of enhancement technologies for extropy: ‘‘seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an open-ended lifespan.’’ (2003) Essential to transcendence is one’s will to advance and one’s intolerance for passivity. One must embrace rational thinking over faith that constrains and one should challenge traditional notions of human limitations. Believing in perpetual progress and being proactive and optimistic vis-à-vis science and technology leads one ‘‘creatively and courageously to transcend ‘‘natural’’ but harmful, confining qualities derived from our biological heritage, culture, and environment.’’ (2003) He values an open society through which individuals may self-direct and voluntarily cooperate to secure advantages. (16)


Civitas Transcendence

James Hughes, a former secretary of the World Transhumanist Association, offers a vision of transhumanity in his book, Citizen Cyborg (2004), which is meant to be consistent with secular humanism and the Enlightenment project of using science and technology for the collective good. His training as a sociologist shows through with his attention to social and political systems. He advocates improvements to minimize social injustice, promote social solidarity, and safeguard human populations. Like Max More, he finds cosmic transcendence so abstract and future distant to be a distraction for immediate concerns, but he also finds fault with the libertarian streak of the extropians. Hughes distrusts the free market, opposes unchecked individualism, and believes that a safe passage to a transhuman civilization requires ethical standards, public oversight, and some regulation. (16)


I use the Latin term, civitas, which denotes citizenship and also planned settlement, to describe Hughes’ vision of transcendence. He foresees the progression to a more just, equitable, prosperous, and peaceful world through democracies that encourage citizens to utilize safe and effective enhancements. Because they are augmented by biotech, nanotech, and neurotech, cyborg citizens will be more capable and energetic citizens and be able to contribute more to community and society. A virtuous spiral develops such that as enhanced citizens become more socially productive, societal goods increase, as more individuals share in this bounty, their quality of life increases and, in turn, they contribute more to the common good. (17)


Whereas Kurzweil values science and technologies for the lift that they might provide for superior intelligences, and More values these as resources for the overman, I see Hughes following Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte and embracing science and technology for the purpose of social engineering. (17)


[…] conservationists warn of transgression, or a point of no return from which humanity will suffer a most grievous, irretrievable loss. (18)


Critics operating from faith traditions charge that Kurzweil’s model of cosmic transcendence lacks an accounting of God’s involvement with individuals and humankind. They take exception to the elevation of science and technology as the agents of history. Michael DeLashmutt (2006) writes: ‘‘Though a posthuman eschatology wrestles with similar themes present within Christian eschatology, a Christian eschatology is ever aware that the fulfillment of its hope lies in the hands of the God who is in control of history, in contrast to a posthuman eschatology that places the onus of control upon human technologies.’’ (19)


Elaine Graham (2003) warns of ‘‘hyper-humanism’’: “Such talk of humanity as in some degree self-constituting via its own technologies, of being capable of influencing the course of its own development is to fall prey to what we might term ‘hyper-humanism‘: a distortion of modernity‘s faith in the benevolence of human reason, producing the hubristic belief that humanity alone is in control of history” (2006). (19)


Whereas these critics see problems with transhumanism being insufficiently attuned to divine grace and God’s plan, secular critics find fault with it for being too influenced by Christian eschatology. David Noble, in particular, has advanced the thesis that Western science and technology were inspired by Christian millennialism and these institutions remain essentially religious endeavors directed today by men motivated by a quest for transcendence. (20)


Mark Hanson (1999) writes that ‘‘[w]ithin a Protestant understanding of our nature, the disvalue occasioned by enhancements might consist…in the loss of recognition of the providence of God working through the contingencies and weaknesses of our human form.’’ (21)


Although the following is a very simplified formula, excellence of character or proper living is said to be achieved through practicing virtue (which is self-effacing) and avoiding vice (selfishness). Is personal transcendence consistent with this formula? ‘‘No,’’ assert the critics of transhumanity. It is egotistical, too grasping, and may result in new forms of injustice. Living a good life accepting of human mortality, on the other hand, has intrinsic value and it helps promote the greater good. Worried about overpopulation that may occur with elongated life spans and increased demands placed on natural systems, Bill McKibben sees finite living as the choice consistent with conservationism. (22)


Transhumanists treat death and decline as major impediments to overcome. Simon Young (2006) bluntly states, ‘‘Death is, to me, an obscenity’’ (15) and he refers to illness, disability, and senescence as ‘‘biological slavery’’ (41) One’s existence, in his view, takes place only within life’s frame. There is no afterlife. Conquering death is a way to extend life’s frame. In terms of the overman, moreover, the will is strengthened through death’s conquest. (22)


Can a child have true autonomy if parents genetically design his or her capacities and proclivities? Maureen Junker-Kenney believes the answer is no: “Genetic enhancement exemplifies a total reversal of the preconditions for autonomy: The offer of pre-implantation enhancement and selection constitutes the victory of parents’ projections over the otherness of the child. In co-creating the specificities of its reality—sex, bodily features, character predispositions—it is being denied the singularity that is based on an unmanipulated originality” (2005:12). (23)


  1. Transformation of Body and Mind

They pose a bold, rhetorical question: If the very constitution of the human body is what makes us and our loved ones susceptible to disease, decline, and death, why not transform it? In the past there was no reason to expect that such a thing could be done. Now there is. (25)


Transhumanists disassociate their movement from religions and cults. They make it clear that they do not appeal to supernatural forces (or aliens). In some ways this makes building a case for their audacious idea that much harder. Transhumanists associate their movement with science and engineering and therefore must abide by scientific-secular norms of persuasion. (26)


Individuals who wish for restoration of mobility can find hope in Miguel Nicolelis’ statement that ‘‘The body does not have a monopoly for enacting the desires of the brain.’’ (Blakeslee 2008) Many transhumanists also take heart in new possibilities emerging from the confluence of neuroscience, computing, and robotics. They readily conceptualize the human body as one substrate for the mind, dispensable once better replacements are engineered. Prosthetic limbs, artificial hips and knees, cochlear implants, and pace makers are standard medical devices. Artificial bone, tendon, muscle, skin, blood, etc., are commercially available or are being developed. Each component may be seen as just one exception to an otherwise natural form, however taken together one is left with the impression that the organic body is replaceable. At the very least, it makes you wonder, ‘‘What is so special about human biology?’’ (27)


Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist, asserts that humans have always been cyborgs, in the sense of incorporating our best creations as a way to extend our reach. He identifies ‘‘cognitive hybridization’’ as the quintessential feature of our humanity: “[I]t is our special character, as human beings, to be forever driven to create, co-opt, annex, and exploit nonbiological props and scaffoldings. We have been designed, by Mother Nature, to exploit deep neural plasticity in order to become one with our best and most reliable tools. Minds like ours were made for mergers. Tools R-Us, and always have been” (2003:7). (28)


Warwick welcomes the therapeutic applications but he also imagines posthuman capabilities: “At present our method of communication, speech, is very slow, serial and error prone. The potential to communicate by means of thought signals alone is a very exciting one. We will probably have to learn how to communicate well in this way though, in particular how to send ideas to one another. It is not clear if I think about an ice cream are my thoughts roughly the same as yours – we will have to learn about each other’s thoughts. Maybe it will be easier than we think, maybe not. Certainly speech is an old fashioned, out dated means of communication – it’s on its way out!” (2008) (29)


Simon Young (2006) pronounces Homo cyberneticus to be the next stage in human evolution. He traces cyberneticus to the Greek, kubernetes, or steersman of a ship. He understands the mind to be the steersman and the body to be an unworthy vessel. He asserts, ‘‘The body may want to self-destruct—but does the mind? No. Yet our genes insist upon it, against our will.’’ (371) Freed from ‘‘genetic slavery,’’ minds will evolve, thereby setting the stage for these cognitivist triumphs: 1) the evolution of a cybermind emerging from the network of interdependent minds (318), 2) ‘‘the mind of evolution become conscious of itself’’ (39), and coming to know the ‘‘Mind of God.’’(367) (29)


Human intelligence is an evolutionary milestone that Kurzweil readily admits has a biological basis, nevertheless as its pattern is made known through neuroscience, informatics, etc., ways will be found to replicate it or reformat it to allow symbiosis or mergers with newly created forms of computation and artificial intelligence. The pattern that is intelligence will continue to evolve. Like Young, he foresees nothing, including the organic brain, getting in the way: ‘‘[I]ntelligence is the most powerful ‘‘force’’ in the universe. Intelligence, if sufficiently advanced, is, well, smart enough to anticipate and overcome any obstacles that stand in its path.’’ (2005:206). (30)


[Barbara] Becker asserts that the transhumanist vision of radical transformation is similarly seductive, promising many more degrees of freedom to play and self-experiment. She dismisses this for being ‘‘a reconstruction of old fantasies which are returning in new technological clothes and making a great deal of noise.’ (33)


One such ‘‘old fantasy,’’ according to John Sullins (2000), comes from Descartes’ philosophy. Rene Descartes treated the mind and body as being distinct. The body, but not the mind, is of the physical world, influenced by natural laws and operating in a similar fashion as machines. Through the body’s sensory receptors, information is presented for the mind’s perusal. In his famous thought experiment Descartes imagines a demon manipulating the senses. He also offers ordinary examples of sensory error. The lesson to be drawn is that the body is not to be trusted as a source for certainty regarding one’s existence. Only the action of the mind, or the ‘‘I’’ that is thinking, is certain. The primacy of the mind is clear in his epistemology that favors rational thought and deduction. (33)


Configurations that provide identity will emerge from a more extensive network of advanced processes just as surely as they have emerged from a more limited ‘‘ensemble of tools.’’ Kurzweil believes that we are sufficiently pliable to retain continuity of identity as we change. Hayles, however, does not preclude negative outcomes. She takes seriously a concern raised by Norbert Wiener, a principle architect of cybernetics, that the subject may be subsumed. Estrangement is very possible. Exploitation and manipulation need to be considered as well: ‘‘The ultimate horror for the individual is to remain trapped ‘‘inside’’ a world constructed by another being for the other’s own profit.’’ (162). (34)


Stock and others present moderate transformation as the means to bountiful longevity, but so-called ‘‘life cycle traditionalists,’’ such as Leon Kass, assert that there will be costs. He believes that the normal human lifespan promotes a more focused approach to life projects. He warns of ennui at the personal level and generational conflict over finite resources at the societal level. (36)


Andy Clark explains that not only has the species changed over time through biological evolution, it is unusually dynamic in other ways: “It is our natural proclivity for tool-based extension, and profound and repeated selftransformation, that explains how we humans can be so very special while at the same time being not so very different, biologically speaking, from the other animals with whom we share both the planet and most of our genes. What makes us distinctively human is our capacity to continually restructure and rebuild our own mental circuitry, courtesy of an empowering web of culture, education, technology, and artifacts” (2003:10). (38)


In his article, ‘‘In Defense of Posthuman Dignity,’’ Nick Bostrom (2005) questions whether human dignity is fostered through conservation by challenging an underlying premise that human nature is set or pinned down by the human genome. He insists, instead, that ours is a species that extends and transcends biology through social and technological constructions, and as these change, we change, generation after generation. There is no stable state to preserve: “What we are is not a function solely of our DNA but also of our technological and social context. Human nature in this broader sense is dynamic, partially human-made, and improvable. Our current extended phenotypes (and the lives that we lead) are markedly different from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors… Yet these radical extensions of human capabilities– some of them biological, others external – have not divested us of moral status or dehumanized us in the sense of making us generally unworthy and base. Similarly, should we or our descendants one day succeed in becoming what relative to current standards we may refer to as posthuman, this need not entail a loss dignity either” (213). (38)


  1. Rhetoric of Risk

Following Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellu, Leon Kass (2002:35) defines technology as ‘‘the disposition to rational mastery.’’ He asserts that commercial interests drive research and development and ‘‘soft dehumanization’’ will occur ‘‘unless we redeem ourselves by nontechnological ideas and practices, today both increasingly beleaguered.’’ (22). (45)


FINRRAGE (Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering) extends the critique to gene technologies: “The central technique aimed at achieving biological ‘‘quality control’’ today is genetic engineering, a method of analyzing and manipulating the hereditary substance of all life forms. Gene technology is inherently eugenic, because it treats all living beings – microorganisms, plants, animals and human – as inefficient or outright defective and in need of technical ‘‘optimization’’ to fit the interests of profit and power. Genetic engineering is already being applied to many different areas of our lives – in medicine, agriculture, the industrial production of food, chemicals and other products, by the police and the military. Women will increasingly be faced with the adverse effects, not only with regard to reproduction, but also as producers and consumers, in the areas of food, health care etc. Last but not least, we will all bear the brunt of future ecological disruption, while the profits of the ‘‘new genetic revolution’’ will flow to a few multinationals.” (46)


Critics of transhumanity are skeptical of reason (instrumental rationality devalues life), progress (a myth used to justify exploitation), and science (effectively under corporate control). Transhumanists, on the other hand, uphold reason, progress, and the virtue of science. Elaine Graham (2003:38) calls transhumanism the ‘‘high-tech heir to Enlightenment humanism’’ and I believe that is a fair characterization in that transhumanists cherish these Enlightenment values. They firmly believe in the Enlightenment project of using reason to improve the human condition. Progress is unabashedly proclaimed and, as Simon Young states, the ‘‘new technologies are joyously celebrated as the wonders of the modern world.’’ (2006:20) Gregory Stock evokes Benjamin Franklin’s enthusiasm for industry, innovation, and science. (46)


Urlich Beck (1992:19) asserts that advanced modernity is characterized by ‘‘the social production of risks’’ in at least two ways: 1) the economic production of hazards such as pollutants and toxins, and 2) sociopolitical enterprise built around the promise of security and ‘‘discovering, administering, acknowledging, avoiding or concealing’’ risks (20). Beck criticizes this oversight system for being too reactive and permissive of the production factors that generate hazards. Most importantly, burden of proof is placed on consumers or advocacy groups to precisely identify hazards, establish cause and effect, and calculate future risks—a task that Beck (1995) asserts is made nearly impossible by the complexities of global production. (49)


Transhumanists utilize a systems approach when they describe the risks associated with new technologies as a necessary condition of progress. Max More (2005) asserts that the advancement of civilization could not have happened without taking risk: “If the precautionary principle had been widely applied in the past, technological and cultural progress would have ground to a halt. Human suffering would have persisted without relief, and life would have remained poor, nasty, brutish, and short: No chlorination and no pathogen-free water; no electricity generation or transmission; no X-rays; no travel beyond the range of walking.” (52)


Transhumanists could charge that their adversaries exaggerate, however this might appear inconsistent with their own claims in the power of these technologies. Instead they utilize an interesting counter strategy of embracing the risk object. They assert that GNR research is taking place around the globe and that there is no way to return to a period of innocence. Even if nations agreed to relinquishment, clandestine operations would continue. Gregory Stock (2002) warns that rogue regimes or terrorists would develop weapons against which peaceful nations would be helpless to defend. The risk of mass destruction would increase, rather than decrease. The safest policy for democracies is to always stay ahead in the advancement of technologies in order to provide effective countermeasures. (55)


Always thinking one step ahead, they imagine that new drugs or other neurotechnologies will not only target pathologies but extend the upper range of emotional and cognitive functioning. For instance, David Pearce (1998) foresees a time when nanotechnology and genetic technology will be used to promote a higher state of well being: “Over the next thousand years or so, the biological substrates of suffering will be eradicated completely. ‘‘Physical’’ and ‘‘mental’’ pain alike are destined to disappear into evolutionary history. The biochemistry of everyday discontents will be genetically phased out too. Malaise will be replaced by the biochemistry of bliss…. This feeling of absolute well-being will surpass anything contemporary human neurochemistry can imagine, let alone sustain. The story gets better. Post-human states of magical joy will be biologically refined, multiplied and intensified indefinitely. Notions of what now passes for tolerably good mental health are likely to be superseded. They will be written off as mood-congruent pathologies of the primordial Darwinian psyche. (58)


  1. Inevitability

Whereas the conservationists often take the offensive in the rhetoric of risk, the transhumanists clearly are the aggressors in this contest. First, the transhumanists convey a sense of inevitability through their sweeping account of technological innovation. This is most effective when describing human history in terms of successive waves of beneficial technologies used to alter, control, or bypass nature, for example, fire-building, agriculture, vitamins, and vaccines. According to proponents, transtechnologies represent the next step in progress. (63)


Gould’s take on human evolution is not shared by the general public. The common understanding is that humans are the most evolved species with regard to thinking, language, and sociality. For many it is a source of pride to think that nature selects for these capacities and our species has come out on top. Transhumanists tend to utilize this flattering interpretation but add the caveat that the selection process continues and that humans will not be the pinnacle of evolution. Kurzweil (2005) argues that intelligence provides a competitive advantage because ‘‘[i]ntelligence, if sufficiently advanced, is, well, smart enough to anticipate and overcome any obstacles that stand in its path.’’ (206) Modifications that increase computation power tend to be retained, and in the long run the trajectory is ever upward. Humans are on the high end of the continuum of smart species but we will evolve in synergy with our most advanced technology to become higher-order computation beings. (64)


The transhumanists, in contrast, do not anticipate that humanity will remain idle. Young’s (2006) model of ‘‘harmonious complexification’’ (366) portrays life as moving toward increasing order, complexity, and self-organization and he sees humans as both producer and product of this process. Our species will initiate and ride the transhuman and posthuman wave. Kurzweil emphasizes the inevitability of this progression: “[W]e are a product of evolution, indeed its cutting edge. But extending our intelligence by reverse engineering it, modeling it, simulating it, reinstantiating it on more capable substrates, and modifying and extending it is the next step in evolution. It was the fate of bacteria to evolve into a technology-creating species. And it’s our destiny now to evolve into the vast intelligence of the Singularity” (298). (64-65)


Evolution may be harsh and unforgiving but, according to the transhumanists, evolution has produced one species, homo sapiens, that is equipped and prepared to direct it. We are ‘‘steersmen,’’ Homo cyberneticus, proclaims Simon Young. This is a bold declaration meant to inspire confidence and forward-thinking. Clark (2003) explains thatweare the creative project. In other words, because we are essentially dynamic and self-constructing and have the ability to expand with our technologies, we will continue to be the most innovative species. “Our self-image as a species should not be that of ancient biological minds in colorful young technological clothes. Instead, ours are chameleon minds, factory-primed to merge with what they find and with what they themselves create (141). Our cognitive machinery is now intrinsically geared to self-transformation, artifactbased expansion, and a snowballing/bootstrapping process of computational and representational growth…Plasticity and multiplicity are our true constants” (8). (65)


According to Kurzweil’s (2001) ‘‘law of accelerating returns,’’ the rate of technological change is greater than commonly understood because “technological change is exponential. In exponential growth, we find that a key measurement such as computational power is multiplied by a constant factor for each unit of time (e.g., doubling every year) rather than just being added to incrementally. Exponential growth is a feature of any evolutionary process, of which technology is a primary example. One can examine the data in different ways, on different time scales, and for a wide variety of technologies ranging from electronic to biological, and the acceleration of progress and growth applies. Indeed, we find not just simple exponential growth, but ‘‘double’’ exponential growth, meaning that the rate of exponential growth is itself growing exponentially. These observations do not rely merely on an assumption of the continuation of Moore’s law (i.e., the exponential shrinking of transistor sizes on an integrated circuit), but is based on a rich model of diverse technological processes.” (66)


In his seminal work, Risk Society (1992), Beck points out that modernization represents in the minds of its recipients a tradeoff between comfort and risks. For example, to have air conditioning, suburban enclaves, and economic growth we consume more energy and in the process run the risk of global warming. Mass transportation and international travel increase the risk of terrorist attacks and viral epidemics. Mass production of food entails the passage of pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics into our diet. Civilization has come to be associated with a level of endangerment. Many people accept that progress has a price, and it is worth paying. If enhancement technologies are understood in terms of progress, and not in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the case for relinquishment will be a hard sell. (71)

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