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An Epistle for the New Religion of Transhumanism

Original Article

James Hughes is a transhumanist evangelist, says Wesley J. Smith, and Citizen Cyborg urges followers to be true to their faith while revealing its nihilistic shortcomings

James Hughes may be a bioethicist and a professor of health policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, but his real calling is as an evangelist for the nascent materialist quasi-religion of transhumanism. In this sense, Hughes’ first book, Citizen Cyborg, is not merely a polemic; it is an epistle urging transhumanists to remain true to the tenets of their faith.

Transhumanists, Hughes tells us, plan to break the constraining chains of natural human existence through various genetic, computer and machine “enhancements.” But the underlying theme that permeates Hughes’ fervent advocacy is faith in science as the true savior of humankind. Indeed, his belief in our capacity to exert technological mastery over life is so wholehearted, he asserts that perhaps within this century, transhumanist tinkering will free us from most of the ravages of disease, disability and aging, make up for any inborn lack of talent or athletic ability, perhaps even lead to the defeat of death itself. Not only that, but eventually the transhumanized will become so superior to the merely human that some will evolve themselves into a super race of “posthumans.”

And here’s where transhumanism becomes a quasi-religion. The reality of human suffering and our knowledge that we are born to die, can cast a dark shadow over even our happiest hours. Historically, humans have sought succor—some would say escape—in religious teachings that posit a purpose behind it all and the hope of eventual eternal transcendence.

But Hughes and most of his fellow transhumanists, being good materialists, believe that what you see is all you get. Moreover, transhumanism is nihilistic at its core, holding that being merely human is wholly inadequate to attaining a truly fulfilled and happy life. For transhumanists, humans aren’t smart enough, strong enough, pretty enough or healthy enough for life to really be worth living. Besides, it is all over so soon. To put it crassly, life sucks and then you die.

Defeat the infidels!

But wait! Salvation is nigh! We may have rejected that old time religion, but the faith of transhumanism still offers us the eschatological hope of a new promised land. Through applied science, genetic engineering, biotech, nanotech, cybertech and every other kind of tech, we can eliminate suffering, enhance our inadequate capacities, become self-designing super beings with creative powers akin to gods, perhaps even attain immortality itself. And we don’t even have to pray.

But first, we must defeat the infidels! As with many high priests before him, Hughes spends almost as much time castigating unbelievers who threaten the holy project—the dreaded “bioLuddites”—as he does in promoting his own beliefs. And in the process he undercuts his arguments badly by engaging in rank caricature and hyperbole. Rather than grapple seriously with the sober and reasoned arguments of his philosophical opponents, Hughes instead casts verbal stones. Thus, early on he asserts that bioLuddites “have given up on the idea of progress guided by reason,” and that by opposing transhumanism, they are “rejecting liberal democracy, science and modernity.”

Nonsense. Public intellectuals such as Leon Kass, the chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics who Hughes makes a special point of repeatedly castigating, are not anti-science, destroyers of progress or lacking in reason. Indeed, if anything, they have an acute understanding of human nature, the dangers inherent in utopian projects—which transhumanism unquestionably is—as well as the historical evils caused by movements that discarded the intrinsic worth of all human life in search of a corporeal New Jerusalem.

The dangers of redefining people

Indeed, the dogma of transhumanism opens the door to the worst forms of oppression—although let me be clear that this is not Hughes’ intent.

First, there is personhood theory, which holds that being human is not morally relevant per se. Rather, what matters is whether an organism (or machine) possesses sufficient cognition, say being self-aware, to be deemed a “person.” But once we create subjective criteria for measuring the moral worth of people, once we say that some humans are persons and some are something less, the very concept of universal human rights is lost because moral value becomes a matter of who has the power to decide who matters more and who matters less—or not at all. Indeed, Hughes is so intent on destroying human exceptionalism in order to promote transhumanism that he wants to enhance animals genetically so that they can verbally communicate and, he thinks, thereby prove that the measurement of moral worth should not be human centric.

Illustrating the danger of personhood theory—and the stakes in the personhood debate—Hughes denigrates human embryos, fetuses, presumably infants who are, after all, not “self-aware” and those with profound cognitive disabilities to the status of “property” or “sentient property.” Just as African-American slaves were dehumanized to justify their oppression, Hughes’ invidious categories strip these human lives from any and all rights, except perhaps to the “right not to suffer unnecessarily.”

Since babies are not persons under Hughes’ self-aware personhood standard, this would presumably include permission for infanticide. (Adding heft to this concern, his favorite philosophers, oft referenced in Citizen Cyborg, appear to be infanticide proponents Peter Singer and Jonathan Glover.) This human non-person killing license could also be coupled with harvesting of cells or organs and/or non-therapeutic experimentation—ideas already proposed by many bioethicists—simply to benefit “persons.” If one believes that human life matters simply because it is human, these suggestions are clearly beyond the pale. But if one adheres to personhood theory, reducing the status of some human lives into mere natural resources makes logical sense.

“It’s all about me”

Another dogma of transhumanism could be summarized with the phrase, “It’s all about me.” As I read and pondered what Hughes proposes, I was struck by the sheer solipsism of it all. Transumanism is obsessed with me-me, I-I. If being part of a group consciousness rings my bell, I should be able to do it. If I want to download myself into a computer, so be it. Perhaps I could become part of a “Borg” collective, as imagined by the writers of Star Trek. Indeed, in transhumanistic belief, my individual yearnings over what I want my body to be, are elevated to the near-absolute right to make it so, even if that means my redesign will pass down the generations.

In this regard, Hughes asserts that the transhumanizing license should also include the right to absolutely control the genetic makeup of our children. But that would not free them to be what they wanted to be: It would pre-select and fabricate them to be driven by the power of biology to become what we wanted. And if transhumanizing parents would be individually fulfilled by creating, say, a disabled child, well that’s the cost of “choice”—although Hughes suggests that such parents pay to fabricate anti-enhanced children themselves.

Hughes is clearly an intelligent man as well as a very talented writer, and I have no doubt that Citizen Cyborg will be consumed whole by committed transhumanists. But I doubt whether the book will have much of a proselytizing impact. Hughes is far too facile in his faith in the power of technology to overcome all difficulties. (For example, he suggests that genetically designed children will simply be able to turn on and off their genes if they don’t like the transhumanized choices made by their parents.) His assumption that greater intelligence would ipso facto lead to happier lives is misguided. (Some of the happiest people I have ever met were developmentally disabled. Some of the unhappiest were intellectuals.) His assurance that the dark eugenic heart of transhumanism would result in more freedom rather than coercion and oppression is naïve. (Indeed, in a telling section, he suggests that “we are obliged not only to choose children without disabilities, but also to create enhanced children, so long as the enhancements are safe and available.” Would such a duty require parents of Down’s children to abort or that disabled babies be killed if they can’t be cured?) His prescription of “democratic transhumanism,” in which a future world government would pay everyone on the planet to genetically redesign themselves and their progeny to assure equal access to posthumanity, seems utterly ludicrous. (We do, after all, live in a world where war never ceases and millions of children die from malnutrition, measles, and malaria.)

As for wisdom: I didn’t find much in Citizen Cyborg. For that important human virtue, I’ll take Leon Kass.

Award winning author Wesley J. Smith, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant for the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is an international lecturer and in 2004 was named one of America’s foremost experts in bioengineering by the National Journal. His Website is www.wesleyjsmith.com.