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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Transhumanism at the Crossroads

Russell Blackford


October 15, 2004

To survive and thrive, transhumanism must become an inclusive social movement

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by prospects for the future of our society and our species. This has kept me actively involved in the science fiction field, which has likely provoked sighs and raised eyebrows from my staider colleagues in academia and legal practice.

Yet this is nothing compared to the social stigma of being involved in the transhumanist movement. Since about 1997, much of my thinking, reflected in my fiction and nonfiction writing, has focused on issues that concern transhumanists: the prospects of artificial intelligence and uploading; the rights and wrongs of reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and radical life extension; and the general merits of human enhancement technologies. My viewpoint has generally been sympathetic to transhumanist approaches and at least one commentator has labeled me a "transhumanist technophile," which is fair enough.

Even so, I have not identified strongly with the organized transhumanist movement. After a brief period of enthusiasm, I declined to apply the label "transhumanist" to myself, and still feel some residual discomfort with it. But I am now more actively associated with transhumanism, especially through this site, and my main project at the moment involves research on the social implications of enhancement technologies. With my working life centering around transhumanist issues, the time has come to take stock of where I stand, and of how I view transhumanism. One thing I know for sure is that transhumanism must become a far more inclusive, broadly based and mainstream social movement if it is to flourish.

Transhumanism and its discomforts

One good reason to feel slightly uncomfortable with transhumanism is its unmistakable nerdy aura, the sense that it appeals to a particular demographic, essentially young white males with computers. Its restricted demographic appeal is, indeed, part of the problem.

But the discomfort goes far beyond nerdiness or restricted appeal. It is one thing, I feel, to use science fiction to explore possible changes to human nature, and the prospects for enhanced human capabilities. (In any case, science fiction has often approached those possibilities and prospects with hostility.) It is another thing to use images of enhancement or cyborgification as metaphors for contemporary social reality, or for an agenda of political change. It is something else again, and something far more radical, to propose that we should quite literally upgrade our human biology. For many thoughtful, intelligent people in the professions and the academic world, this is a frightening idea. Now that transhumanism is getting media attention, it is not surprising some conservative commentators (such as Francis Fukuyama) are starting to brand it as dangerous.

To understand this reaction, we need to remember that the wider intellectual culture is still focused on the horrors perpetrated in the first half of the 20th century by those who carried out programs of racist eugenics. I cannot make the point any better than by quoting at some length from Walter Glannon's book Genes and Future People: Philosophical Issues in Human Genetics:

"Eugenics" is almost universally regarded as a dirty word, owing largely to its association with the evil practice of human experimentation in Nazi Germany and the widespread sterilization of certain groups of people in the United States and Canada, earlier in the twentieth century. One cannot help but attribute some eugenic aspects to genethical questions about the number and sort of people who should exist. But there is a broader conception of eugenics (literally "good creation" in Greek) that need not have the repugnant connotation of improving the human species.

Glannon goes on from here to discuss gene therapy, which he considers acceptable in principle because its aim is to prevent or treat disease in particular people. But he is implacably opposed to genetic engineering for the purpose of enhancement.

What strikes me as most remarkable is his unsupported assumption that improving the human species has a "repugnant connotation." It is symptomatic of something important in our intellectual culture that a reputable academic philosopher fails to put forward any argument at all for the supposed repugnance of species enhancement, contenting himself by referring to an "association" with the evil practices of the Nazis, and forced sterilizations in North America. After this point, Glannon's book simply assumes, still with no attempt at argument, that any proposal to improve human capabilities for a "perfectionist" reason is beyond the pale of respectful consideration.

Of course, it is worth reminding ourselves of the danger (not to mention irrationality) of guilt by association. To take the example of the Nazis, what made their practices so evil was their extreme prejudice, cruelty and violence. As Philip Kitcher has said, "The repeated comparison between Jews and vermin and the absurd - but monstrous - warnings about the threats to Nordic 'racial health' display the extent to which prejudice pervaded their division of human characteristics. Minor, by comparison, is the fact that much of their genetics was mistaken." None of this bears the slightest resemblance to what contemporary advocates of genetic enhancement have in mind.

But the point is not that Glannon can be debunked. Of course he can be. It is more important to understand that he is able to write in such a sloppy way because he can take for granted that his audience will start with similar assumptions. The situation may be changing, as more books and articles call for a sympathetic assessment of human enhancement. One straw in the wind is a new book from Nicholas Agar: Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. Still, until very recently, even the relatively modest idea of gene therapy has attracted expressions of concern. In this intellectual environment, the goals of transhumanism are ruled out of discussions from the start, except as targets for attack. To associate yourself with them is to be perceived as at best idiosyncratic and naive and at worst the sort of person who would happily consort with Nazi doctors and mad scientists. It is far easier to associate yourself with movements that project the picture of a caring person, dedicated to benevolence and justice.

Stand up and be counted

It would be nice if opponents of transhumanism were open to rational debate. However, I have gradually been learning some important, not terribly palatable lessons. One is this: We have moved beyond the point where liberal arguments about individual freedom and personal choice have much impact. I have argued in many forums that there is little intellectual basis for laws against innovations such as human cloning, which liberals should accept as a legitimate option for those who feel a need or preference for it. It is already too late to argue in that way, at least exclusively, for the cloning debate has demonstrated again and again that transhumanism's main opponents have abandoned traditional liberal ideals. John Stuart Mill's claim that experiments in living are to be welcomed now receives short shrift in public policy. The tone and content of the debate show that we are up against a scarcely disguised wish to impose certain moral ideals as legal norms, and a fear of strange directions that society might take in the future.

While there will be different outcomes in different societies, anti-cloning laws have created the precedent to abandon liberalism in areas of legislative policy relating to bioethics. We can go on complaining about this - and I believe that we should - but our complaints have a small likelihood of success.

What else can we do? The main thing is simply to stand up and be counted. Transhumanist ideas cannot be suppressed forever, since they appeal to deep-seated urges to improve our own capabilities and those of the people we love or identify with. But the movement can be frustrated for years or decades. The only answer I see is that transhumanism must develop rapidly into a movement of committed people in large numbers, including many articulate, prominent people who are prepared to identify with transhumanism in public. We must grow to the point where it would not merely be illiberal but also irrational for the state to try suppressing activities of which we approve or that we wish to try, whether we are talking about longevity research, technological methods of cognitive enhancement, or anything else that falls into the category of distinctively transhumanist acts.

As John Locke pointed out in his call for religious toleration more than 300 years ago, the state cannot coerce people's beliefs, as opposed to their outward actions. Doubtless, censorship and propaganda can accomplish much, probably far more than Locke realized. But, to adapt a point that Susan Mendus has made in her writings, it is still irrational for the state to buy into this, because popular belief systems get too strong a hold on too many minds. Once the state starts trying to suppress belief systems with wide appeal, it takes on tasks beyond even its vast resources. There is no limit to what might be needed to suppress beliefs, and it is not rational to try.

Mendus herself might confine her point to religious belief, which is sustained by powerful irrational forces. But the same argument applies beyond the area of freedom of religion. It is difficult to believe that the state could ever suppress the entirety of modern science or philosophy, for example, and it would be foolishness to try. As for social movements, the gay rights movement is a good example of one that has mobilized in recent decades and become so strong, visible and mainstream that it would simply be irrational for any Western state to attempt to stigmatize and destroy it. While some conservative governments continue to resist the idea of gay marriage, the actual persecution of people for homosexual practices is now almost unthinkable in Western societies. Now and then, Western governments will indeed take on missions that are completely irrational because they are destructive, never-ending and futile (the War on Drugs in the US is a deplorable example), but they usually know better.

The transhumanist movement now has a competent formal organization, which is increasingly active in pushing its message. It is getting media coverage, and there is the opportunity to gain increasing mainstream social acceptance. That's what we must do. We must go mainstream. We need to create a culture that is visible, proud and energetic. This is one lesson.

Arguing for equality

But this is not the only lesson. Are we sometimes our own worst enemies? It is all very well wanting to stand up for the transhumanist movement, but what will the movement be like in 10 years' time, or 20, or 50? How can I be sure that it will develop in a way that will make it a movement with which I am still pleased to be linked?

If transhumanism is to deserve our support, it must flourish as something that is humane and philosophically plausible. This does not mean that we should abandon any key ideas - at least not yet - but it does mean that we must accept that the availability of transhumanist technologies could have downsides.

I do believe that the overall effects will be positive. Consider, for example, the first great transhumanist technology that our society has embraced: the contraceptive pill, a biomedical innovation that alters bodily functioning in a way that is clearly enhancing rather than therapeutic. The pill's social impact has been far-reaching, and mainly for the better. Few of us would dream of going back to a time when there was no powerful technology available for women to control the fertility of their own bodies.

I expect we will come to feel the same way about technologies that help us increase our lifespan or our cognitive abilities. But the issue of social justice looms larger here than it does with the pill, since there are more obvious competitive advantages. Even if we do not accept a thoroughgoing egalitarian approach to questions of distributive justice - and I don't - we must avoid the exacerbation of existing social divisions that might arise if enhancement technologies became differentially available to the rich and the poor. Likewise we must avoid the alternative scenario of a mollycoddled, superficially "happy" genetic underclass whose ambitions and social contributions would be stunted.

As George Dvorsky argues, benefits are likely to trickle down even if enhancement technologies are initially taken up only by the wealthy. But we need to make sure it turns out that way. I've come to believe that transhumanists should go beyond arguing that enhancement technologies should be widely available. I now think that we should support political reforms to society itself, to make it more an association of equals. I am not planning to give away my own modest wealth, and I am only prepared to give two cheers for egalitarian political theory, but we have to find ways to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Of late, I've seen more and more acknowledgments that transhumanism must be inclusive, both for our sake and for the sake of society. Nick Bostrom has recently emphasized that transhumanism must "ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible." I would go even further. We should actively promote a more egalitarian society, and a more equal world order.

This might not be a popular message for some people who identify with transhumanism. To date, part of the appeal has been to techno-libertarians who oppose regulating the market. If transhumanism became a more inclusive movement, it might actually alienate some of its current support base - people whose ideas are in many ways of great value. I hope this can be avoided, but we must become an inclusive, mainstream movement even if it leads to more fragmentation between "Left" and "Right" transhumanists. The forging of a humane and socially aware transhumanism is not only intellectually justified, it is necessary for transhumanism to survive and flourish.

Count me in.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


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