IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what it feels like to wander into a Salvador Dali painting, try attending a conference of transhumanists. Case in point: the symposium “Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights” hosted May 26-28 by the Stanford Law School.
Transhumanism is a radical movement emanating from the universities that seeks to enhance human capacities via technology. The ultimate goal is a utopian world of “post-humans,” such as human/robot hybrids and human consciousnesses downloaded into computers that will live for thousands of years.
But getting from here to post-humanity will exact a steep moral price. James Hughes, a professor of health policy at Hartford’s Trinity College and author of the transhumanist manifesto Citizen Cyborg, insists that we must cast off “human racism,” the belief that humans possess unique moral status flowing from their humanity.
In place of humanness as the conveyor of rights, Hughes urges society to substitute “personhood”—a status earned upon achieving “brain birth” and becoming self-aware. Under personhood theory, some humans would be excluded, but all self-aware entities—whether human, post-human, machine, chimera, or robot—would qualify for the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship.
The conference was rife with such futuristic mumbo-jumbo. Nick Bostrom—cofounder of the World Transhumanist Association—wants to protect “post-human dignity.” Bostrom once taught at Yale but got promoted to Oxford, where he directs the Future of Humanity Institute. He is currently working out the ethical issues involved in the creation of artificial minds.
While his thoughts remain “a work in progress,” Bostrom stated that society must understand that discrimination “based on substrate”—the kind of material from which a being is made, whether organic, silicon, or other—is as odious as racism. Ditto discrimination based on “ontogeny,” that is, how a consciousness comes into existence, which I guess means whether it is born, assembled, or hatched.
Other presentations revealed transhumanism to be obsessively solipsistic. The Catman was held up as an example of early transhumanized recreationism. Catman—whose real name is Dennis Avner—has tattooed his face, sharpened his teeth, undergone cosmetic surgeries, had “whisker” implants, and reportedly wants a tail implant——all to make himself look like a cat.
Catman is weird, but of no real concern except for the harm he has done himself. His transhumanizing, after all, is merely skin deep. If he sired a son, the child wouldn’t be Kittenboy. But transhumanists ultimately want to do more than make Halloween costumes of their own bodies. Posthuman enhancements are meant to flow down the generations, including through the genetic design of offspring, resulting eventually in the yearned for, radically individualized posthuman species. (Of course, given the power of peer pressure, successful transhumanizing might well result in stultifying sameness, a concern acknowledged by at least one presenter at the conference. Indeed, many of the male transhumanist attendees looked a lot alike, with shaved heads and close-trimmed Vandyke beards.)
No gathering of radical academics would be complete without attacks on the patriarchy. Thus, Annalee Newitz, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, told conferees that a proper feminist transhumanism should “fix” female biology so that women can exert “better control over female evolution.” It will also permit “reimagining the family.” Posthuman women “will not have to rely on men for genetic material” if they want babies, and men will be able to become biological mothers by being surgically altered. Artificial wombs are a must so that gestation does not keep women from “important work.” Until that great day dawns, women can at least be freed from “unnecessary” menstruation through a new birth control pill that inhibits menses for up to three months.
A near-absolute right to be “enhanced”—even if it is physically harmful—was advocated by Susan Stryker, an expert in transgender studies, and Nikki Sullivan, an Australian college lecturer and author of books on tattooing and body modification. Their joint paper on “transsexual surgery and self-demand amputation” seemed to favor—though it was hard to figure out exactly what they were saying—allowing people to have healthy limbs removed if they want to, by analogy with transsexuals, who are permitted to surgically change their sex. The idea, Stryker told me later, is to allow people with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) to become “whole”—even if that means becoming a one-armed man or a legless woman.
Matters became even more surreal when George Dvorsky, deputy editor of the online transhumanist journal Betterhumans, asserted that people have a moral duty to use genetic and other enhancements to “uplift” animals to human levels of intelligence—at which point animals, too, are to achieve some sort of engagement with the Internet. “Nature causes suffering,” Dvorsky said. “The goal is to end all suffering,” including animal predation against other animals. Thus, all mammalian life—including us—must become “post-biological,” and so eliminate suffering by moving us all beyond the “hazards of nature.”
For all of its emphasis on enhancement, the emotional core of transhumanism is a yearning for immortality. This obsession with defeating death made the eccentric transhumanist anti-aging researcher, Cambridge professor Aubrey de Grey, the clear star of the conference. De Grey’s presentation was entitled “Our Right to Life.” It had to do not with abortion or euthanasia but with humans’ putative right never to die.
To actualize this right, de Grey—whose long, dark beard and ponytail make him look like a cross between ZZ Top and Rasputin—is working on a “cure” for human aging that will erase the “physiological differences between older and younger adults.” This effort, along with his cofounding of the Methuselah Mouse Prize that will award millions to scientists who break records for extending the lifespan of mice, has made de Grey something of an international media darling, in particular the subject of an admiring segment on 60 Minutes.
De Grey is obsessed with his work and believes we should be too. He told the conferees that inaction—society’s unwillingness to make the arresting of aging its top scientific funding priority—is really a form of action, akin to killing the people who would be saved if the research were bounteously supported. He even asserted that anti-aging research is more important than access to health care in Africa, and he likened the withholding of funds from anti-aging research to “killing with a time bomb in a car.”
We shouldn’t take all of this too seriously, of course. Transhumanism is mostly an intellectual game, a fantasy. The technological breakthroughs necessary to create a true post-humanity will almost surely never come.
But this doesn’t mean that transhumanism is benign—far from it. Dismissing the intrinsic value of human life is always dangerous, and presuming to determine which human traits are desirable and which not leads to very dark places. Thus, a new eugenics has arisen. About 90 percent of Down’s syndrome babies are aborted in the United States. In Brave New Britain, late-term babies with correctable conditions such as cleft palates and clubfeet are being aborted, while embryos are destroyed because they exhibit a genetic propensity to adult onset cancer. Meanwhile, many bioethicists urge that we redefine death to include a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state so that the organs of the cognitively devastated can be harvested.
Perhaps predictably, government is being seduced by transhumanist fantasies. In 2002, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Commerce issued a report—”Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance”—that recommended government spend billions pursuing technologies that transhumanists crave. Sounding a lot like Aubrey de Grey (and Al Gore), the report warns that success “is essential to the future of humanity.” If we but pursue the dream, it enthuses, “the twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment. . . . [H]umanity would become like a single, distributed and interconnected ‘brain’ based in new core pathways of society.”
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, a $773,000 down payment on those billions was just paid by the National Institutes of Health to Case Law School in Cleveland for a two-year project to determine whether and how “ethically acceptable rules” could “establish the safety and efficacy of genetic technologies intended for enhancement rather than therapy,” enhancement being defined as improving “form and function beyond the base-line of normalcy.” By paying bioethicists to contemplate and perhaps draft guidelines for future human enhancement research, NIH is encouraging scientists to embrace the transhumanist dream.
Transhumanists like to say that their movement cannot be stopped, that we are already on the slippery slope to the posthuman future, so we might as well enjoy the ride. And it is true: We increasingly use technologies and medications intended originally for therapeutic purposes to “enhance” ourselves. Cosmetic surgery is a growth industry, steroid use is rampant, and Viagra isn’t just used to treat impotence anymore. And medical advances will continue to increase life expectancy and health in old age.
But, as Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Even if cancer is eradicated and the aging process slows, other afflictions will do the job. Just read the headlines: After 25 years, we still can’t cure AIDS. Antibiotics are beginning to fail. That endlessly incipient bird flu pandemic could actually appear. All of the fantasizing about living forever and morphing into “post-biological units” won’t change the hard fact that we are born to die. Far better, then, to embrace our fully human lives than to seek in vain for a post-human future that will never come.