Cyborgs, self-mutilators, and the future of our race.

Science, technology, and life.
June 4 2006 11:18 PM

Among the Transhumanists

Cyborgs, self-mutilators, and the future of our race.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty. Click image to expand.
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

On a projection screen at Stanford Law School, an auditorium full of nerds stared at a picture of a guy who'd done himself up like a cat—not with makeup, but with tattoos and surgery. The guy's whiskers were implanted. His nose had been converted to a cat nose. His teeth had been filed into the shape of cat teeth. His head has been flattened, and he was looking for a doctor to implant a tail. And that's just the tip of the freakberg. Behind him, there's Lizard Man, Amputee Online, the Church of Body Modification, and Suspension.org, the Web site for people who like to be impaled on hooks.

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Our guide to the self-mutilators, professor Robert Schwartz of the University of New Mexico, wasn't trying to gross us out. He was trying to show us the irrationality of regulating body modification based on grossness. Why do we shrug at botox, liposuction, and circumcision? Why do we think it's no big deal if models, actors, and athletes have themselves cut open for professional advancement? Why did tattoos remain illegal in parts of the United States until three weeks ago? Why did we have "ugly laws" that ordered maimed people off the streets? Why did we operate on sexually ambiguous infants to "correct" their gender, often with disastrous results?

That's the curious thing about the folks at the Stanford conference. Some were from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, an offshoot of the World Transhumanist Association, which advocates the transformation of our species through drugs, "genetic engineering, information technology ... nanotechnology, machine intelligence, uploading, and space colonization." Others were from the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, which wants to use "neurotechnologies" to "foster the unlimited potential of the human mind." Lunch, featuring chicken, was provided by the ExtraLife Foundation. These are weird people with weird ideas. But sometimes it takes a weirdo to see what's odd about what the rest of us call normal.

Remember those kids who played Dungeons & Dragons and ran the science-fiction club in your high school? They've become transhumanists. Their resident immortalist, Aubrey de Grey, walks around in sneakers, a ponytail, and a 14-inch beard that he strokes like a cat. One of the CCLE officials at the conference calls herself Wrye Sententia; the other dresses like an LSD trip. This was the kind of conference where people talked about the Matrix the way Christians talk about the Bible, and where speakers apologized for their discomfort with piercings or tattoos.

A while back, I'm told, there was a left-right battle for the soul of transhumanism, and the left won. Libertarians got a few nods at the conference, but mostly for opposing drug laws and the draft. Speakers and attendees called themselves visionaries, futurists, or revolutionaries. They invoked Marcuse, Sartre, and Heidegger. They preached struggle and solidarity. They spoke of speciesism, morphological diversity, techno-progressive transhumanism, somatic epistemic technology, nonanthropocentric personhood ethics, and the "illusory distinction between self and cosmos." They called the United States a "bloated uberpower." They cheered calls for a worldwide guaranteed income, free lifelong therapy, and a universal right to art and paid vacations. "I'm a very pragmatic kind of anarchist-feminist," said one speaker.

The sessions were ... interesting. A panel on religious views consisted of a transhumanist Zen Buddhist priest, an advocate of human enhancement as divine healing, and a pro-cryonics "Christian immortalist." Another panel addressed "the self-demand amputation community." You've heard of a woman trapped in a man's body? Imagine being a one-legged person trapped in a two-legged body, said the speakers. A third panel brought up the "cyborg dialectic": thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prothesis. I have no idea what a prothesis is. I assumed the cyborg dialectic would culminate in a prosthesis.

De Grey, the guy with the beard, called for higher taxes and research funding to "end the slaughter" of human aging. He argued, incoherently, that our failure to do everything possible to stop aging this instant was tantamount to mass murder. He also floated the creepy idea that overpopulation might not become a problem because once we're immortal, we might realize children are no fun. Even so, he asked the kind of penetrating question only a big-thinking oddball would come up with. Are we stuck in a "trance" of fatalism about aging? If we realize it can be slowed or stopped, "will aging become repugnant," like any other disease?

My favorite panel began with the president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association. He runs a Web site called betterhumans. He and I share a moral objection to killing animals. But letting animals live isn't enough for him. Inspired by an experiment in which chimpanzees were given a kitchen and flush toilets, he wants to use cyber- and biotechnology to elevate all animals to human status. "Anything less than human-level capacity would be unacceptable," he declared—including the ability to operate tools remotely through the Internet.

He was followed by a transsexual transbemanist. Transhumanism, apparently, is too parochial. It's too focused on humans, too narrow for the "mindfiles," "mindware," and "virtuality" into which we're going to upload ourselves. According to the speaker—picture Willie Nelson with a shave—our identities can be broken down into units called bemes, in the same way that culture can be broken down into memes. These, in turn, can be "bemed up" and preserved in media outside our bodies. As examples, she suggested your smile, how lasagna tastes to you, and your memory of your first bike ride. The idea of extracting such plainly body-dependent things is ridiculous. But her basic point is right: Bemes, not genes, are what capture and preserve our essence.

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