The Transhumanist Future: Amelioration or Extinction?
It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.HG Wells
Imagine a world in which disease, death and suffering no longer constitute part of the human experience; a world in which the physical, psychological and intellectual characteristics of a person can be determined before they are even born; a world inhabited by beings so vastly superior to us, that the fundamental notions of who and what we are form a shadowy remembrance of a distant past - welcome to the future, welcome to the world of the post-human.
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extreme strides made in medical and technological advancements over the past
two centuries enable us to envision such a future. And while these ideas have
long been the playthings of numerous authors and social theorists, now more
than ever does the likelihood of such a future not only seem possible but
Our progression towards and realization of such a future, however, unavoidably comes attached with unprecedented moral and ethical questions. The concept of transhumanism, which seeks to fundamentally transform the human condition by developing technologies that vastly enhance intellectual and physical capabilities, is in essence striving to free us from the limitations of our corporeal bodies - death, disease and all other types of human frailty are now regarded as limitations that can be overcome through the application of science. In overcoming these "limitations" however, we are edging towards an unprecedented moral and ethical precipice. While advocates on both sides of the debate disagree on whether or not transhumanism is the natural progression of evolution, it is clear that transhumanism seeks to change and redefine the fundamental concept of what it means to be human.
What is Transhumanism?
can broadly be defined as a philosophy that seeks to advocate the application
of biotechnology for the purpose of redesigning the boundaries of human
existence. "Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), radical life extension,
neuro-enhancements, genetic selectivity, cloning and bionic limbs constitute
only few instances of technologies that could potentially allow transcending
human biological limitations" (Jotterand, 619).
While these applications and
objectives reflect some of the core principles of transhumanism, the term
itself designates the social movement that embraces and advocates the
It is important to note, however, that transhumanism
is different from post-humanism; the latter essentially refers to the end result
of "future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present
humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards" (Humanity+). The
origins of the term are rooted in the works of Julian Huxley, brother of noted
science-fiction writer Aldous Huxley, who outlined some of the key concepts in
the 1950s. For Huxley, transhumanism was more about expanding the horizons of
intellectual and spiritual consciousness more than anything else, and during
these formative years, most of the biomedical applications that exist today
were yet to even be considered. Thus, the concept of transhumanism has
witnessed a steady evolution and has molded itself to include all subsequent
Though the term was coined in the 1950s, the fundamental tenets of the philosophy have their origin in the Enlightenment of the 19th century. It was during this century that humans began, "using science to achieve mastery over nature in order to improve the living condition of human beings" (Bostrom 119). Advancements in medicine coupled with the belief that understanding the physical world could be attained though rational thought and scientific enquiry resulted in the assumption that humankind was largely the master of its own destiny. It is interesting to note, however, that as Bostrom points out, "The human desire to acquire new capacities is as ancient as our species itself". In this respect, the notion of improving the human species is not as radical or dramatic as it would seem. Perhaps the most important development in this line of thought came with Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), at which point the idea of human evolution as a continual process supplanted the existing perception of human life as being static. Essentially, engendering the belief that the possibilities of our development are limitless was the idea that humankind is in a constant process of transformation.
These ideas gained serious momentum during the course of the next century. As scientists discovered cures for numerous diseases and physical afflictions that had previously been the cause of widespread suffering and mortality, the application of science to eradicate all forms of human frailty garnered widespread support. It is on the basis of this perspective that transhumanists contend, "...[their] agenda is a natural extension of the traditional aims of medicine and technology, and offers a great humanitarian opportunity to genuinely improve the human condition" ( Bostrom and Solomon 6). This reasoning is understandable - after all, as our collective understanding of how the human body functions and operates increases, we become more and more complacent as to the implications of our progress. In many ways, "transhumanism of a sort is implicit in much of the research agenda of contemporary bio-medicine. The new procedures and technologies...whether mood-altering drugs, substances to boost muscle mass or selectively erase memory, prenatal genetic screening, or genetic therapy...can easily be used to enhance the species as to ease or ameliorate illness" (Fukuyama, 35).
This is where the debate becomes one that is more about ethics and morality than it is about science and technology. Currently, biomedical technology enables us to perform seemingly death defying procedures that would have been considered impossible only decades ago. Moreover, many of these applications were regarded as aberrations of natural and divine law; but as time progresses, and the extent of mankind's dominion over the physical world increases, society is forced to renegotiate its levels of consent and acceptance in terms of what it considers to be normative participation. Things like artificial organs, bionic limbs, organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries are just a few of the procedures that are available and commonly practised today. As the frequency and availability of these procedures swell, the line between what can be done and what - as a matter of ethics and morality- should be done, is continually readjusted in accordance with their benefits and "necessity". For transhumanists, however, nothing is outside the realm of ethical scrutiny; if a procedure, medication, or device, that may alleviate pain or serve to enhance the human species in any way, does exist, then it is a matter of moral duty to make sure they are implemented. Nick Bostrom, who is regarded as a preeminent advocate of transhumanism, articulates this in saying, "[transhumanism] holds great potential for alleviating unnecessary human suffering. Every day that the introduction of effective genetic enhancement is delayed is a day of lost individual and cultural potential, and a day of torment for...sufferers of diseases that could have been prevented". (Bostrom, 505)
Methods of Transhumanism
In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what transhumanists intend to accomplish, it is important to review some of the mechanisms by which they intend of realize the emergence of the post human.
The applications of nanotechnology are vast; one of the most popular future applications among transhumanists is the use of nanotechnology to scan the structure of our brains atom by atom, and to preserve all the neural patterns responsible for personal identities, in order to re-create those structures on artificial hardware. In effect, we could upload our minds to computers and make copies of ourselves down to every memory, personality quirk, hope, prejudice and desire. We could then design new and better bodies, or simply live on as information patterns in computer networks, like ghosts in a vast machine. (Carl, 17)
The idea behind cyronics is to preserve the human body in a state of suspended animation until a later point, at which time our benevolent, super intelligent descendants can resurrect them. Once reanimated they will be cured of their physical afflictions for which we currently have no cure. Already this technology is being used and cryonics services are available to the public at very high prices.
Elimination of all Diseases and Physical Frailty:
In eliminating all diseases it is estimated that it will be possible for us to live for two thousand years. When we get rid of all the other hazards of living, well be looking at a life span of seven thousand years. Transhumanists aim to accomplish this primarily through genetic screening and engineering. This may also be accomplished through the use of medication aimed at super-charging the human immune system.
Artificial Intelligence/Brain Chips:
A core tenet of the movement is to enhance the intellectual capabilities of the species. While there are many methods and procedures which transhumanists propose to use, the most popular are genetic engineering and human-robot interfacing
For decades we have entertained the idea of one day migrating to space with the intention of creating an new and better civilization. Part of the transhumanist agenda it to create the technologies needed to enable us to do so.
"No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding
back. The future belongs to post-humanity."
Implications of Transhumanism
One of the greatest concerns in regards to the emergence of the post human is that of biological compatibility. The application and realization of transhumanist objectives will likely result in the genesis of two distinct beings - humans and post-humans. These two beings will be so fundamentally different from each other, that interbreeding will become virtually impossible. Considering that humans will be markedly inferior both physiologically and intellectually to the their highly evolved counterparts, it is likely that from an evolutionary perspective, humans will be regarded as inferior and will thus face genetic marginalization. Additionally, there is also concern as to the anatomical composition of the post-humans. The incorporation of technology into the physiological makeup of such beings may ultimately render them more machine than human, thus making interbreeding phonically impossible. As Dyen's points out:
"Recruitment and deployment of these types of technology can produce people who are intelligent and immortal, but who are not members of the species homo sapiens...beings who are part machine represent a profound misalignment between existence and its manifestation...producing bodies so transformed, so dissociated, and so asynchronized, that there only out come is gross mutation...for they have no real attachment to any biological structure" (Dyens, 201).
While transhumanists advocate the amelioration of the human species through technology, the realization of their objectives will ironically result in its likely extinction. As Agar points out, "although change is essential to the evolutionary process, it is, paradoxically, antithetical to evolutionary success...one way to go extinct is to have no descendents. But another way to go extinct is to have descendents that are so different as to count as different species" (Baliey, 36).
Although these arguments take into account some of the physiological pitfalls that will occur if we are to "wrest [our] biological destiny from evolution's blind process of random variation and adaptation" (Kaebnick, 41), they fail to take into account the most important factor concerning human evolution which is its inherent complexity. The process of evolution is sacrosanct because, "for all our obvious faults, we humans are miraculously complex products of a long evolutionary process - products whose whole is much more than the sum of our parts" (Fukuyama, 43). If we are to regard evolution as a process that can be altered to suit our whims and desires, there is no telling what the consequences will be. Agar suggests, "every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures." (Agar, 15) Once we start altering the process by which we become "whole", we will ultimately be jeopardizing the fate of humanity.
A Matter of Inequality
At the core of the transhumanist dream is the idea of improving the species through various technological means, and in order to improve it, we must first determine which of the human species' qualities is most valuable. One of the most problematic aspects of this concept is the idea of assigning value to the physical and intellectual characteristics of living beings, specifically humans.
Removing this process from the natural course of evolution, "...leads to the questioning of what our current standards for humanity are and whether they should be trusted...one of history's lessons is that seeming different does suffice to make someone non human." (Elliot, 19) . From this perspective it is easy to see some of the potential problems that might arise if we try to determine which or whose qualities are considered desirable and worth enhancing. Favouring and enhancing the physical characteristics of one group over another will lead to process that is akin to genetic genocide.
Moreover, the concept of "improving" implies that something must be inferior and must be made better than it initially was. By suggesting that our current state in the evolutionary process leaves much to be desired in terms of improvement, transhumanists are essentially devaluing all the aspects of human nature that make it unique and worth preserving. If they are to succeed in improving the human species to the point whereby two distinct entities exist, it is likely that they will each possess entirely different value systems, likely resulting in the destruction of the basis of equal rights by enhancing only a select few and inherently altering the shared human essence. This is best described by Fukuyama as he says:
"...most serious political fights in the history of [humankind] have been over who qualifies as fully human...slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality...we have drawn a red line around the human being and have said that this is sacrosanct. The essence and view that individuals therefor have inherent value is at the heart of political liberalism. If we transform ourselves what right will post-humans claim? What rights will those left behind claim?" (Baliey, 22).
As it stands today, the world is rife with inequalities of all sorts; already issues of disparity in access to, and availability of, technology and biomedical procedures between developed and developing nations have become detrimental to our understanding of self-determination and social inclusion. When considered in relation to the applications of transhumanism, it is evident that the disparity will drastically increase. Bailey argues, "One much-discussed possible harm is an exacerbation of social inequalities. Opponents of enhancement predict war, slavery, and genocide as humans face off against their genetic superiors...like all utopian visions, transhumanism rests on some conception of the good...just as humanism if founded on the idea that humans are the measure of all things, who is to say what the post-human conception of the good will be?" (Solomon, 10). There is no telling what a post-human's conception of the good might be, but if humankind is no longer the measure of all things, then it is likely that it might not enjoy the same status that is does today. Because "a post-human may be thought to be beyond humanity and as beyond its right and obligations", there is not assurance that such beings would in any way value human life.
While many of the key tenets of transhumanism seem humane and even undeniably compassionate toward the human species, the moral and ethical implications of the ideology far out weigh its benefits. By altering the fundamental boundaries of human existence, transhumanists seek to remove our species from the safety of natural evolution, ultimately putting us at risk of extinction. The sad reality is, however, that most of the objectives of transhumanism are currently being realized in hospitals and laboratories all over the world. The majority unwittingly welcomes the coming of a post-human future through their complicity and reliance of biomedical science and, while there seems to be a general consensus as to the condemnation of the transhumanist philosophy, little or nothing is being done to curb its progress. If our experiences of the past have taught us anything, it is that human inquiry and our desire to improve and sustain ourselves will likely prove instrumental in the realization of a post-human future.
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