Future Perfect: the transhumanist quest to defeat death
Transhumanists would like to cheat death and redesign genes. But Anita Silvers is not sure that would be wise
Imagine a world with no disease, no ageing, no pain – a world where you might even live forever. That is the vision of transhumanism, a relatively new movement inspired by the belief that science can be harnessed to alter the human condition and allow us to transcend our biological limits.
Advances in medicine and bioengineering, argue the transhumanists, will be able to do more than assist patients to function normally. Some may have the potential to catapult us into a new kind of being.
Though the term was coined by biologist Julian Huxley back in the late 50s, transhumanism as an organised movement is just a quarter-century old, conceived by a group of Californian academics, inventors, entrepreneurs and artists committed to the idea of engineering an improved human race. In opposition to those who are cautious about the rapid advance in science, fearing unforeseen consequences of unfettered innovation, they are all in favour of effecting radical changes in humankind, or, in the words of the WTA, the World Transhumanist Association, “redesigning the human condition”.
The WTA, founded less than a decade ago, is led from the UK and US, with strong affiliations in Canada, continental Europe, Latin America and Asia. There is even a Mormon Transhumanist Association whose members believe that transhumanism provides the means of realising “diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end”.
Transhumanists are not the only ones to speculate along these lines. Four years ago, for instance, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) issued a thick report, ‘Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance’, proposing vigorous application of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science to enhance individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, revolutionise healthcare and disabled people’s lives, improve individual and group creativity, perfect human-machine interfaces, provide for brain-to-brain communication, and ameliorate “the physical and cognitive decline that is common to the aging mind”.
The report also explored the new technology’s potential to “improve work and learning efficiency” and “enhance human capabilities for defense purposes”. But while this NSF report focused on the practicalities of achieving the best results, transhumanism is devoted to the more evangelical task of convincing people of the benefits of pursuing such results. Their method is more often to assert than to argue.
The Transhumanist Declaration, produced by the WTA in 2002, for example, asserts that we are on the brink of radical change of human life through technology, and forecasts “changes in the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth”.
Of course, the allure of the kind of future transhumanists invoke has always been strong. Humans are easily led to speculate about how technology might enhance human potential. In the 2nd century AD the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata imagined people who sprouted wings and flew to the Moon and for centures other novelists and fantasists have spun seductive futuristic tales about how might transcend human performance levels by applying biological science, or by manufacturing prosthetic aids. We humans aspire to better ourselves. Enhancing bodies and minds with the help of technology, challenging as this might be, somehow strikes us as less arduous than improving our characters.
But from ancient times humans have also understood that such human-enhancing technology can be a double-edged sword. Use it to fly too high – to try to become what we should not be – and nature may slam us back to the ground. Good characters are the necessary protection against such hubris: if only Icarus had practised self-discipline, he might have stayed aloft.
Transhumanism does not deny there are possible dangers, but asserts that “by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it.” On balance, transhumanists think it’s both fairer to individuals and a better bet for humanity generally to realise the benefits technology can bring rather than to suppress science because discoveries may have the capacity to harm.
This, though, glosses over some important questions. If, for example, we agree that our ethical behaviour is dependent on our biological vulnerability to each other, would the ‘perfecting’ of humanity weaken necessary social bonds? And would the end-products of enhancement technologies be marketed as luxury goods, thereby creating a market in biological superiority?
Certain versions of transhumanism do have something to say in this last regard. The WTA’s Executive Director James Hughes argues that the fairest approach is to reform the allocation of health and other beneficial technologies, so that priority is given to the poorest, sickest and most disabled. He would make available only intrinsically valuable improvements and would not tolerate biological interventions that might risk shrinking human powers. But transhumanism as a movement does not assign priority to Hughes’ concern about remedying inequality. Its strategy is to represent humanity’s intellectual and physical potential as virtually boundless and to talk up the benefits to all if technology is given its head.
A good example of this approach appers in the foreword to Simon Young’s Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto, in which Aubrey de Grey argues that we should reclaim faith in science by crafting proclamations that resonate with large numbers of people. De Grey heads the Methuselah Foundation, which recently received a multi-million-dollar start-up grant from California entrepreneur Peter A Thiel to support research aimed at radically postponing ageing, offering the promise of indefinite human lifespan.
This view is echoed by the philosopher Nick Bostrum, director of the Oxford-based Institute for the Future of Humanity. In the near future, Bostrum promises, increased control over our own biochemical processes can give us power to eliminate ageing and disease, greatly elongating our life span and enriching the cultural outputs of creative people. It’s not that Beethoven or Goethe might have produced a greater number of works had they lived longer, he suggests, but that, with many more decades to evolve their art, they might have made music or writing of a totally different kind and profoundly new quality.
So how will such post-human productivity come about? To achieve the results transhumanism so easily promises requires correlating changes in many biological properties at the same time, an enormously difficult and perhaps impossible technological feat. Rather than seeking radically to extend the human lifespan, a more feasible ambition would be to aim for a rise in life expectancy. Therapeutic interventions could address some of the causes of premature death, just as improving sanitation and nutrition increased life expectancy in the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, reshaping natural processes in even this minimal way entails hard choices. Gene management, for example, may enable some people to run faster, or eyes to read faster. But whether such enhanced performances ultimately count as benefit or harm depends on context. We cannot, should not, preemptively either court or condemn them.
Here is a specific example: the gene which helps regulate cell-division raises its production as individuals age, increasing about ten-fold from age 20 to age 70. Because of this gene, as we grow older, the process whereby adult stem cells renew tissues slows down radically. But while this halting produces the symptoms of ageing it can also be beneficial because it helps to inhibit the growth of cancer.
The gene offsets the increasing risk of tumours spreading by gradually reducing the ability of cells to proliferate. In teleological terms, we might say that nature makes our body choose why we will die, trading increased vulnerability to deterioration from old age for an increased defence against death from the cumulative cell damage that ends up with cancer. The same biological process responsible for wrinkles, grey hair and weak bones is the one that fights cancer.
So if we interfere in the ageing process we might, in some people, accelerate a different form of dying. This raises acute ethical questions. Should we encourage scientists to master this kind of intervention? If they succeed, should applying the resulting technology be left to the individual, to choose whether to risk early death in order to enjoy an extended youth? Or should public policy decide how much of an increase in early cancer deaths is acceptable in order to provide a better quality of life for others? Transhumanism has so far offered little guidance in this debate.
Such difficult choices are commonplace in the development of technology. But transhumanists fail to confront the question of whether it is acceptable to provide technologies that can benefit those with certain biological possibilities while harming others. And whether or not we buy the transhumanist line, it’s obvious that we are already on the path of technological enhancement.
Vaccination is an example. The ability to fight off infection is generally regarded as being unequivocally beneficial. But even here the multiple effects of magnifying a biological process demand decisions balancing benefit against risk.
When vaccination was first developed in the 18th century it was condemned as against God’s plan. And even now that it has achieved high levels of immunity and unprecedented levels of population healthiness, it is not without its hazards. Stimulating immunity may have unintended effects, which is why there has been such a fierce debate in the UK about the possible connection betwwen the MMR vaccine and autism. We do know about autoimmune disease, where a natural immune reaction can turn a person’s body against itself.
The highest mortality in the 1918 influenza epidemic was suffered by young adults (between 15 to 34) because their bodies could not survive the vehemence of their immune systems’ response to the virus. The self-same immune process that helped them overcome other infections fatal to weaker individuals completely shut down their respiratory systems with a biological effect known as a cytokine storm.
Seeming not to acknowledge the nature of this dilemma, transhumanists usually invoke either laissez-faire individualism or social democratic utopianism in response to legitimate worries. Almost all of them agree that enhancement technologies should be widely available.
To some this means free market development and distribution of the technology. Others call for some scheme of government-financed egalitarian distribution. Either way, the question remains: how can we become wise enough to create ourselves anew?
Faith rather than reason seems to make transhumanists suppose that post-human preferences will be suffused with reason. They hypothesise that humanity’s emotional capability is still in its infancy, which is the cause of social ills. Astute applications of pharmaceuticals, electronic implants or gene therapies could push rational happiness to unprecedented height and duration. But new species differ in kind rather than just in degree from their predecessors. To imagine post-humans will just be humans without the bad bits is implausible.
In Designer Evolution Simon Young sees the new technologies as potentially ‘curing’ timidity, anxiety, depression, aggression and low intelligence. This, in his view, would be a good in itself, as well as a way to remove the root causes of social stratification. But blaming inequality on timidity and stupidity, rather than, say, unequal access to opportunity, seems highly questionable. Moreover, timidity, anxiety, and even depression and aggression can be useful, even rational, responses. Timidity is a good thing in a forest full of tigers.It becomes debilitating only when excessively out of step with objective circumstance.
Equally Young doesn’t say where tigers and other dangers will go so humans can safely do without timidity; or give the details of how enhancing boldness, nonchalance and elation will do away with inequality, short of imposing biological homogeneity so that everyone thinks and feels alike.
Transhumanists usually insist they are not calling for this kind of brave new world, but without adequately explaining why their programme won’t lead to enhancing everyone to be alike.
And how should the ideals of transhumanism be framed to win public support, when the promise of human transformation needs to be balanced by the possible dangers? One drawback of the movement’s enthusiasm for unfettered advance is that the technologies being so eagerly advocated are still in their infancy. They are relatively untried, so there is not yet sufficiently extensive knowledge of their efficacy or their effects. By circulating seductive scenarios of our possible future, transhumanism is rushing too fast, bypassing the opportunity for deep understanding of the processes in a rush to reap the alleged benefits.
James Hughes, like Young, thinks he has identified what is wrong with us: compromised cognitive functions, psychopathologies and selfishness, all of which can be expunged, he thinks, by genetic, pharmaceutical and cybernetic technology. The same technologies can tweak positive counter-tendencies such as empathy and sociability, enlarging these to connect us to all sentient beings. And cybernetic prompts can advance everybody to the sophisticated moral stage of acting on principle.
But that each of the virtues Hughes mentions falters under challenging conditions is well-known, and a world in which at least some humans are evolving extraordinary powers would be fraught with unprecedented political as well as ethical challenges.
For all it’s references to robotics and genetics, transhumanism has an old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of a remodelled Victorian scientific evangelicalism, like the movement known as Meliorism.
Whether transhumanism’s melioristic message inspires or alarms may in the end be determined by personal and political temperament. Progressives are likely to be more hopeful about our trustworthiness to make such choices, and also about unforeseen outcomes of biological change, while conservatives are likely to be less optimistic about escaping its risks.
But without more detailed analysis of scientific possibilities, a fresh approach to politics and ethics, and the difficult conversation about what biological types should prevail, the utility of transhumanism to a proper solution of the social dilemmas that scientific and technological advancement poses for human identity is deeply problematic. ■
Professor Anita Silvers is Chair of the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University