Transhumanism was for the better part of its existence a philosophy built around computers, robotics, A.I, and nanotech. Extropianism, one of the most impressive and potent iterations of transhumanism, was born out of Silicon Valley. Many transhumanist research institutes still operate out of the lovely southern California epicenter of futurist dreaming. Only in the past decade have we started to realize that transhumanism won’t realize its dreams through mechanization and computerization. Though seminal authors on transhumanism, like Kurzweil, Morovac, Drexler, and More focus on nanotechnology and cybernetics, those technologies haven’t seen real progress since the 70’s.
But genetics and biotech has. Starting in the 1950’s with the Pill, vaccines, and antibiotics, our knowledge of medicine and biology radically improved throughout the second half of the twentieth century with assisted reproduction technologies like IVF, not to mention genomic sequencing, stem cell research, organ transplantation, and neural mapping, advances in biology and medicine are what are driving the transhumanist revolution. When someone like Mark Gubrud starts arguing transhumanism won’t work because we can’t upload our minds into robot bodies, one has to gawk for a moment in awe at the irrelevance of the argument. It’s like arguing we can’t ever cure cancer because cold fusion is impossible. Transhumanism is the idea of guiding and improving human evolution with intention through the use of technologies and culture. If those technologies are not robotic and cybernetic but, instead, genetic and organic, then so be it. And that seems to be the way things are going.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment of change, but 2001 seems to be a good year as any. Before that you have an engineer’s perspective on how to improve humanity, as with the above authors. After that, you have writers like Bostrom, Pearce, Hughes, Agar, and Bailey nodding to the older, mechanical ideas, but instead choosing to focus on pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, senescence, cognition enhancing drugs, growth hormones, eugenics, mood control, suffering, sentience, sexuality and neurodiversity. The clone has replaced the cyborg, and the only engineering that matters has the words “genetic” or “chemical” as a prefix.
Cryonics, A.I., and nanotech remain points of interest, but of significantly reduced importance. One of our best and most amazing cybernetic devices, a cochlear implant, is rudimentary compared to the fantastic goals of syncing a mind, a thing we can’t even define, with circuitry. Yet our efforts to sequence the very instructions from which a mind is grown, DNA, has been a smashing success. Genetics and biotechnology is currently where electronics and computing were in the 1960’s: the very basics have been established and we don’t even know what we’re going to do with the technology. We don’t even know what we have yet: biology is in a liminal space.
And it is because of that liminality that we as transhumanists must not focus on technologies, on possibilities or guesses as to what may come, but rights and responsibilities. No one, and I mean no one, predicted the iPhone and everything it entails (cellular communication, hand-held computing, the internet, digital music and video, mass affordability) at the dawn of the computing era. No one even predicted it during the Dot Com Boom. To guess as to where biotech might go in the next 50 years is an equally huge exercise in futility.
The critical difference is, of course, that the human body is biological. Unlike technology, which mediates our interaction with the world, whatever advances occur in biology will mediate how we are embodied and will directly effect our state of existence. It is this existential threat to the “human” that is triggering the backlash and why opponents of transhumanism are no longer Luddites, but bioconservatives. Technology is no longer the enemy, but the very nature of humanity itself.
To be a bioconservative is to pick a moment in time and choose it as the appropriate point for human beings to remain in evolutionary stasis. That we have gone from a pre-sapiens, hunter/gatherer, small tribe, nomadic, raw food processing, species that lacked language/culture/and higher reasoning to a sprawling, urban, technological, language based, culture ruled, rational, super species is irrelevant. The cry of the bioconservative is, to paraphrase McKibben, “Enough! this far, but no further, in the name of “humanity” as we have retroactively defined it!”
But their movement will fail as bioconservatives oppose the very essence of the thing they claim to love: human nature. If there is one thing humans do, it is change, learn, and evolve. We are the apotheosis of evolution, because for the first time in the universe the process has a conscious agent. Like a confused and frightened Urizin stumbling along with the love and wisdom of Sophia as our guide, we desperately seeking to live up to our potential and the racking weight of the knowledge that we may fall short. As with computers and the digital revolution, we do not know where biotech and the genetic revolution will take us. But we know it will take humanity somewhere else, somewhere new.
One can reject that change, concede to fear and in doing so reject one’s humanity; or one can take hold of the brighter burning flame of science and philosophy and, in doing so, dare to believe we can ethically and boldly bring our species out of the biological Dark Ages and into a future of unexpected wonders and challenges.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
popbioethics [at] gmail [dot] com
Long Form ArticlesWhy Mass Effect is the most Important Science Fiction Universe of our Generation