Debating Extreme Human Enhancement

Should We Use Nanotech, Genetics, Pharmaceuticals, and Augmentations To Go Above and Beyond Our Biology?
What's to come?
Sept. 13 2011 5:38 AM

Debating Extreme Human Enhancement


The Techno-Human Condition.

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.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.