Since 1956 New Scientist has been keeping its readers up to date with the latest science and technology news from around the world. In this week’s 50th anniversary issue, available as a digital download, New Scientist decided to tackle eight of the deepest challenges faced by science - from reality and consciousness, to free will and death, in The Big Questions special features, with “the help of some of the leading lights in science.” In this essay James Hughes addresses What Comes After Homo sapiens?
IN 1957, biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, coined the term “transhumanism” for the idea that we should use technology to transcend the limitations of our bodies and brains. Huxley believed that “the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself” through “evolutionary humanism”.
Almost half a century on, transhumanism has become a real possibility, pointing the way to an unbelievably transcendent future that would have been unimaginable even to Huxley. The choices we make today are deciding an answer to the question “What comes after human civilisation?”....
In the pre-enlightenment worldview, human beings were the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s image to dwell on an Earth that was at the centre of the Universe. Enlightenment thinking—particularly science—gradually eroded that belief. By Huxley’s time it was clear that our existence was almost certainly an accidental blip in an unimaginably vast, old and uncaring universe.
In that respect, the enlightenment project has been somewhat humbling. But there is an important consolation: the idea of progress, that we can build a better future for ourselves, with religious tolerance, freedom scientific enquiry, democratic government and individual liberty. That idea is still young, and the battle for it is still being fought. Now, with transhumanism, the frontline has reached our gametes and neurons.
The term “transhumanism” may be only 50 years old but it was implicit in the Enlightenment from its beginning. In 1769, French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote three essays known as “D’Alembert’s Dream” recounting imaginary dialogues between himself, his friend d’Alembert, a cultured lady friend Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse, and a physician. In these dialogues Diderot prefigures many transhumanist ideas, arguing, for instance, that since consciousness is a product of brain matter, the conscious mind can be deconstructed and put back together; that science will bring the dead back to life and redesign animals and machines into intelligent creatures. Diderot also expounds the idea that humanity can redesign itself into a great variety of types “whose future and final organic structure it’s impossible to predict.”
It seems likely that this century will see Diderot’s prescience confirmed. In the next 50 years the convergence of pharmacology, AI, nanotechnology, and biotechnology will give us power over our own evolution. Life spans will extend well beyond a century. Our senses will perceive sights, sounds and sensations beyond our natural abilities. We will remember more of our lives, with greater fidelity. We will master fatigue, arousal and attention, give ourselves more intelligence, have greater control over our emotions and be less subject to depression, compulsion and mental illness. Our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power which itself will become as, or more, powerful than our brains. As we merge machines into our minds we will indeed be deconstructed and put back together. We will use technology to redesign ourselves, our children and animals, into varieties of intelligent life impossible to predict.
The idea that humans should take responsibility for improving upon nature (or creation, depending on your point of view) has long been resisted by religious conservatives, authoritarians and romantic defenders of an imaginary idyllic past. Today’s debate over transhumanism is no different. Voices from the left and right have joined in a bioconservative alliance. For these critics, attempts to become more than human are doomed to disaster, largely because they threaten “human dignity”: only humans can have rights, and our culture and polity depends on human-racial unity and purity.
Central to this emerging biopolitics is the debate over whether “mind” is unique to human beings and whether “human” is a meaningful moral category. For defenders of the enlightenment mind is an emergent property of matter, and human is a constantly evolving category with indistinct borders. If we make ourselves more than human, wherever that line might lie, and if our society is joined by intelligent animals or machines, this would not be an abomination. It would be an enrichment of our diversity.
There are, of course, legitimate questions about the wisdom of intervening in our own evolution. One challenge is to ensure that access to enhancement technologies is fairly distributed. Universal access to enhancement may seem impossible in our grossly unequal world. But there are grounds for optimism.
Some enhancement technologies will probably be cheap. Therapies to suppress aging and repair the body and brain could be as inexpensive to distribute as condoms, mosquito nets and vaccines. Of course, the world’s poor don’t yet have all the condoms, mosquito nets and vaccines they need, so it can seem foolish to propose that they have a right to life extension and brain boosters. Yet, ten years ago, when anti-retrovirals for HIV cost $40,000 a year, it was inconceivable that we would now have billions of dollars in a Global Fund to make those therapies available to people living on a dollar a day. The response to the challenge of global access to HIV treatment was not to ban antiretrovirals in the developed world, but to persuade pharmaceutical companies to develop cheaper therapies and invest in the health systems of the South. The same policies can ensure access to enhancement technologies, from $100 laptops to gene therapies and cybernetic implants.
The technologies themselves also have grave risks. In Diderot’s dialogues, d’Alembert muses that human beings could devolve into “large, inert, and immobile sediment.” In other words we could, through accident or intention, lose faculties we value, such as our capacities for empathy, creativity, awe or reflection. We need guidelines and policies to steer human evolution away from the dead ends of selfishness and addictive absorption, and towards greater sociability, self-awareness and reason.
Of all the risks posed by emerging technologies, emergent machine minds are perhaps the greatest. The capacity for apocalyptic chaos from intelligence rising out of our exponentially accumulating web of machines arguably trumps the risks from climate change and bioterrorism. Staying ahead of this potentially apocalyptic “singularity” actually requires us to embrace transhumanism, to collectively enhance human intelligence. To remain the web’s weavers and not its ensnared victims, we must merge with our electronic exocortex, wiring greater memory, thought processing and communication abilities directly into our brains.
If we defend liberal society and use science, democracy and prudent regulation to navigate these challenges, we have a shot at an inconceivably transcendent future, where we leave behind this pupal stage of humanity. D’Alembert imagines humanity splitting apart into separate “cocoons”, each distilling particular human traits - magistrates, philosophers, poets - and each birthing its own distinct butterflies. “Who knows what new race could result some day?”, he asks. We can become a new species of great diversity, united by our shared appreciation of the preciousness of self-awareness in a vast, dark universe. This is the positive vision of the Enlightenment, each of us reaching our fullest technologically enabled potentials while living as one tolerant democratic society.
If we take the enlightenment path, what projects would we pursue with our immortal bodies, boundless minds, and sublime senses? Just as our Palaeolithic ancestors could not have anticipated our great cities, our arts and machines, or our spiritual traditions, so we cannot imagine the grandeur of the accomplishments of posthuman civilisation. Perhaps our descendents will use nanotechnology to turn whole planets into intelligent, living stuff, each atom a processor in a planet-sized mind, conscious of the fall of every sparrow and capable of preserving the memories of every life. In such a world our personal identities could continue for millions or even billions of years. Perhaps they will reach out to find other far-scattered forms of intelligence in our galaxy, and begin engineering the universe to stop its racing expansion to heat death. Or, as Michio Kaku has suggested, perhaps they will build a new, more congenial universe and migrate there.
Whatever our descendents’ projects they – and perhaps even some of us - will look back on our lives today with the wonder, pity and gratitude that we feel for our Palaeolithic ancestors. Just as they left their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to build farms and cities, we must now take conscious rational control of our biological destiny and reach for the stars.