Debating Extreme Human Enhancement
This conversation is part of a Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State. On Thursday, Sept. 15, Future Tense will be hosting an event in Washington, D.C., on the boundaries between humans and machines. RSVP here to join us for "Is Our Techno-Human Marriage in Need of Counseling?"
Gentleman, start your exobrains.
Nick, Brad, thank you for joining me in this discussion about the future of human beings. On Sept. 15, Future Tense is hosting an event on the "Techno-Human Condition" in Washington, D.C. As such, it seems appropriate to spend the next few days discussing the convergence of human beings and technology. Brad, you and Daniel Sarewtiz address the associated ethical and moral dilemmas your book The Techno-Human Condition; Nick, the title of your most recent book, Humanity's End: Why We Should Reject Radical Life Enhancement, would seem to sum up your perspective pretty neatly. But then again, your previous book, Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement, suggest your view might not be so clear cut.
With our introductions out of the way, let's talk transhumanism.
First things first: What is transhumanism? Transhumanism as a philosophy argues we can become better than human through technology. Unguided, natural evolution has done all it could hope to do. Transhumanists believe that from here on out, humans should take up the reins and craft the evolution of our species using nanotech, genetics, pharmaceuticals, and augmentations to go above and beyond our biology.
Transhumanism was everywhere this summer, from the cyborg anti-hero in the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution to the ill-fated brain-boosting drug experiments of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The promise and peril of radical enhancement seems to be weighing on our collective minds.
But the big question is: Do humans want to be transhuman? That is, presuming that genetic engineering, cybernetic augmentation, cognitive enhancement, and the cure for aging are all technologically possible in the next 50, 100, or 200 years, are they something people will want to use? And is enhancement something people should want?
Short answer: Yes, absolutely. I think humans do want to transcend biological limitations and become better than our bodies and genetics currently allow.
The long answer is, well, longer and more complex. Were the question "Does the average person want to be transhuman, right now?" I would answer, "Probably not." The phrase "human enhancement" conjures Gattaca, Frankenstein's creature, and the social engineering of Huxley's Brave New World. The religious have their hells and their demons, while those of us with a more scientific disposition have our dystopias and Big Brothers. Popular entertainment argues for us to be exceedingly wary of anyone promising bigger brains, longer lives, and stronger bodies. Western Civilization, as a whole, has trained itself to fear the Promethean hubris of stealing our evolutionary fire from the gods of nature.
Or perhaps this isn't fear of technology or progress but instead a recognition of the value of our current human experience. Our caution toward transhumanism is an act of self-preservation against alienation. It's not that we don't want to be transhuman; it's that we know better than to succumb to those temptations. Nick, in Humanity's End, you argued in favor of moderate enhancement, wherein people can be enhanced up to the species' typical best but no further. That is, through enhancement, everyone would be about as smart as the smartest people usually are or live to be as old as the oldest people usually live—a species composed of Albert Einsteins, Michael Jordans, and William Shakespeares. Still human, but to the maximum.
Why shouldn't we want to go further? Is the pursuit of thousand-year youthful life spans, of genetic profiles allowing IQs above 200, and of prosthetics for every possible purpose something that we can responsibly want for humanity?
The argument against transhumanism is that limits and restrictions create meaning but are also liberating. Nick, you argue that those with extended life spans would become more fearful of death, because they would have so much more to lose. As a result, people would opt for safe but shallow digital experiences, leading to long, ultimately empty lives. You also argue that those who would be enhanced beyond human capacity would no longer be demonstrably human. Transhumans would be capable of experiences far beyond those of the average human, such that to describe those who are enhanced as human would be a misnomer. The threat there is that those who are human would feel pressure to no longer be human—and, in the end, society may no longer value humanness itself. In short, the loss of human biological limits is the loss of our humanity.
I don't doubt that moving beyond mere humanity is a fundamental shift in our values. However, I don't see why humanism as a philosophy is the be-all-end-all of secular values. I don't think transcending our biology through enhancement would be any more ethically disorienting than maximizing our biology through enhancement. I find it difficult to believe the argument against radical enhancement for three reasons.
First, I simply don't see the difference extending a person's 70-year life span to 115 or 150. One is human, as you define it, and the other is transhuman. What is it about the first number that makes it less alienating and more desirable?
Second, there is no reason to believe transhumanism will happen at a flick of a switch. It is far more likely that we'll see slow, piecemeal progress in which enhancement first inches toward human biological limits and then, just as slowly, breaks through those limitations into transhuman ability. Why wouldn't a slow, incremental process of enhancement over generations allow for our human ethics and culture to shift and grow with the technology?
Third, and finally, I don't believe human meaning is created by having limits but by breaking limits. We are at our most human when we are being better; humanity was better for our breaking the hold of Earth's gravity to orbit the moon. Humans want to go beyond ourselves. So, I ask, what exempts the limits of human biology from our human drive to exceed them?
I think people want transhumanism, but not without some time to get acquainted with their new selves.
I must say, I am quite excited for this discussion.