Printed: 2019-06-19

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/cascio20041201

A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes

Jamais Cascio


WorldChanging


http://www.worldchanging.com/

December 01, 2004

Part 1

For many, the term "transhumanism" suggests a rejection of humanity or a dismissal of the body of philosophy we call "humanism." Some of the movement's proponents don't help matters, embracing an Ayn Rand-style libertarian perspective and disdain for "unenhanced" humanity. But not all transhumanists are the same. A growing number see the drive to develop technologies to strengthen and extend human capabilities as part and parcel of the push to improve global social conditions, and recognize that there is a necessary role for society and government in the safe development and fair distribution of new technologies. They refer to themselves as "Democratic Transhumanists," and their founding philosopher is Dr. James Hughes.

jhx4440x.jpgDr. Hughes is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, where he teaches Health Policy, Drug Policy and Research Methods in Trinity's Graduate Public Policy Studies program. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, where he also taught bioethics. He is a member of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities, and the Working Group on Ethics and Technology at Yale University. He has been a longtime left activist, having founded EcoSocialist Review while in grad school, as well as working on systemic reform of health care organizations to empower patients.

He is also a Director of the World Transhumanist Association, and the author of the recently-published Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Dr. Hughes sees Democratic Transhumanism as existing in the space left fallow by both the libertarian transhumanist wing and the Luddite element of the left. As he put it in his lengthy and detailed treatise on the philosophy:

Democratic transhumanism stems from the assertion that human beings will generally be happier when they take rational control of the natural and social forces that control their lives. This fundamental humanistic assertion has led to two intertwined sets of Enlightenment values: the democratic tradition with its values of liberty, equality, solidarity and collective self-governance, and to the belief in reason and scientific progress, that human beings can use reason and technology to improve the conditions of life.

A recent manifestation of these principles is his founding of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), an organization at which I am a Fellow. Over the past month, I've had an extended email conversation with Dr. Hughes, discussing the sometimes-strained relationship between progressive principles and technological utopianism. Because of its length, I'll post the discussion in three parts. Today's focuses on the meaning of Democratic Transhumanism.

Cascio: Let's start with the basics: what does "Democratic Transhumanism" mean?
 

Hughes: To me, the democratic part is a bit redundant, since I see transhumanism as a natural conclusion of the democratic and humanist philosophical tradition: life is better when people are empowered to make decisions about their own lives, individually and collectively. The two basic ways we can be empowered are by pushing back social domination through equality, liberty and social solidarity, and by pushing back the domination of nature through science and technology. It seems a natural conclusion that we should help one another use emerging technologies to push back sickness, aging, suffering and death, which is the key goal of transhumanism.

However, there are variants of the humanist tradition - neo-liberal, libertarian and anarcho-capitalist philosophies - that prioritize liberty to the exclusion of equality and solidarity, and try to eliminate democratic oversight, regulation, redistribution and public provision. Although transhumanists like Condorcet and Haldane were most often advocates of radical egalitarianism, the 1960s brought an ascendance of the romantic, anti-technology wing of the Left and the ceding of narratives of progress to these champions of the free-market and corporate capitalism. So when transhumanism finally found its feet as a social movement in the early 1990s, many transhumanists were attracted to these neo-liberal philosophies, at least up till the dotcom bust.

I think that libertarian tilt to transhumanism is now turning around. Progressives are discovering that their natural allies are not the Christian Right with its anxieties about hubris, but women trying to defend their reproductive rights to use technology, the disabled like Christopher Reeve fighting for assistive and restorative technologies, and the world's poor who need new technologies to provide clean water and abundant food. Transhumanists, in turn, are realizing that our Big Pharma is too short-sighted to commit to risky, far-sighted research on things like "negligible senescence." These projects need funding through the National Institutes of Health, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and the Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno program. They also need to go through the Food and Drug Administration. Nothing is more disastrous for technology than a thalidomide-type disaster. We've already seen with estrogen replacement therapy that the public is ready to adopt technologies to try to forestall aging which they then find are actually killing them.

So progressive or "democratic" transhumanists, unlike the free marketeers, understand that strong oversight and social reform has to accompany technology diffusion. Technologies need to be tested for safety and made universally available. Hopefully as this perspective becomes more common we can drop the redundant "democratic."

Cascio: I wonder how much of the negative reaction to transhumanism comes from a reaction to the term itself, and its implied disdain for being human. While you make a good argument that democratic transhumanism is a natural evolution of humanist philosophies, some of the ideas that transhumanism encompasses do include outcomes (uploading, radical bioengineering to the point of speciation, etc.) which discard "human-ness." How does democratic transhumanism speak to those who find such a transition frightening?

Hughes: The first point is that transhumanism does not connote disdain for humanity, but disagreement that the category of "human" is meaningful. Take our newly discovered Hobbit cousins from Indonesia, or Neanderthals. If they were still around would we consider them human? What would it mean for our society if we were to deny modern Hobbits or Neanderthals human rights on the grounds they weren't "human" and treated them as pets or slaves? Are conjoined twins human? Is someone in an intensive care unit with machines breathing for them, pumping their blood, and maintaining their blood chemistry, are they still human? "Human," "human dignity" are empty signifiers that have crept into our language as proxies for "soul," and progressives need to rethink their use of these categories.

Francis Fukuyama, in Our Posthuman Future, explicitly argues that humanness is a "Factor X," a black box that combines some combination of genetics, rationality and emotion. But he doesn't want to specify it because if he did it would be clear that there are humans who don't have those specifics, and that great apes probably do. Specifying what it is that we value about humanness would also allow us to regulate biotechnology to protect that, and allow individual choice on the rest. Rationality and emotional complexity what makes us human? Great - nobody will be allowed to make themselves developmentally disabled or autistic. Remaining primarily organic what makes us human? OK, then adding lion genes shouldn't be a problem.

The basic argument between transhumanists and human-racists is a debate about what is really important and valuable in the human condition, self-aware existence, consciousness, emotionally rich experience and rational thought, on the one hand, or having the modal genome and body type of human beings circa 2000 (which is very different from what it was even 20 years ago, but never mind that)? The transhumanist position is known in bioethics as "personhood theory": you can be a self-aware person and not be human (great apes for instance) and you can be "human" and not be a person (such as fetuses and the brain dead). Rights are for persons, not humans.

But there is a grain of truth to the critics' attack in that we are very upset about the limitations of the human body and we think that, using reason and technology, we can do much better. That's what medicine is to begin with. Is it a lack of love for and faith in "humanness" to get vaccinated, or have surgery, or take insulin or vitamins? I think one of the thing most people consider core to "humanity" is a desire to improve and progress, so in that sense human enhancement technologies are quintessentially "human."

Since "human" is basically a tribal identity with no empirical referent, what Kurt Vonnegut called a "granfalloon" , I fully expect that in four hundred years there will be people with green skin, four arms, wings, endless lives, and nanocomputer brain pans, who proudly consider themselves "human" and who organize big family reunions for all the people with their surname, or all the other descendents of Civil War veterans, or whatever. And there are people today who are ready to give up any claim to membership in the human race because they have glasses or a pacemaker or are pissed off about the persistent ubiquity of ignorance and cruelty in this race that pretends to know better.

I understand that people do get frightened by the idea of a transhuman society, with increasing diversity of persons. People were frightened that the end of slavery and Jim Crow would unleash anarchy and race-mixing, and people are still scared that legal gay marriage will destroy Western civilization. We need to try to convince those who are afraid of human enhancement that we can still have peace, prosperity and tolerance of diversity in that future. And at the same time we need to remember that the transhumanist claim is that people should control their own bodies and minds, and other people don't get to tell us to go to the back of the bus because of their vague anxieties and yuck reactions to our choices.

Cascio: Say a little bit more about the "yuck reaction" -- it's a term I see in use among the transhumanist circles, but doesn't have quite the same impact in broader conversation.

Hughes: "Yuck factor" is bioethics shorthand for the many variants of the argument that something must be unethical just because it freaks people out. For instance people think consensual cannibalism is self-evidently immoral even though the alleged ethical arguments against it are very tenuous. Leon Kass, G.W.'s bioethics czar, is the principal proponent of the theory that people should be guided by their gut instincts in ethics. Don't like chocolate cake? Then there is probably something unethical about chocolate cake. Most bioethicists aren't as bold as Kass in jettisoning reason however, so they have invented two variants on the uncontestable "God don't like it": that something is "unnatural" and that it violates "human dignity." Both of these arguments are just hand waving. As Love and Rockets said "You cannot go against nature, Because when you do, Go against nature, It's a part of nature too." As for violating human dignity its in the eye of the beholder.

Yuck factor is also closely related to "future shock." When society changes fast people get upset and try to slow things down. In democratic societies they will be able to use quite a few brakes, which is generally a good thing. But balance is provided by the protection of individual liberty and minority rights. So, for instance, when most Americans freaked out about the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision that gays should be able to marry they passed referenda around the country to stop gay marriage. I think the state courts and then the Supreme Court should overturn those referenda on the grounds that gay marriage is a fundamental right. When we are talking about basic rights, like the right to control your own body and mind, or vote, or sit anywhere on the damn bus you feel like, or marry your lover, those rights should trump other people's future shock and yuck reactions.

Cascio: "We can do better" is at the core of what WorldChanging does and what IEET represents. And the "we" is as important as the "do better" -- it's not just atomistic individuals trying to compete for greatest personal satisfaction, it's a social effort, which reflects social concerns.

Hughes: That's absolutely important. Libertarian individualism is completely self-defeating for the human enhancement movement. You want to make yourself and your kids smarter? You can take a smart pill and do your mental gymnastics, but you still need good books, stimulating friends, a solid education, a free and independent press, and a stable, well-regulated economy so your PDA keeps beaming Google searches and email chat into your eyeball through that laser display. And it might be nice to have a strong, independent Food and Drug Administration to make sure that your smart pill doesn't cause dementia in five years, and that that laser display doesn't blind you.

Similarly, the principal determinants of longevity in the 20th century have been improvements in social technology not medical technology, e.g. getting people to suppress infectious diseases. Universal access to safe, effective life extension and age-retardation technology in the coming decades will require public investments into basic research, reining in our out-of-control intellectual property system, and the subsidizing of access for the uninsured and the world's poor. The libertarian fantasies that atomistic individualism and an unregulated free market will build an attractive future are just stupid.

Part 2

Democratic Transhumanism, despite its futuristic trappings, hearkens back to an earlier manifestation of the liberal tradition. In the 19th and early 20th century, scientific rationalism and technological utopianism went hand-in-hand with socialism, feminism, and progressivism. This changed in the post-WW2 era, as science and technology seemed to many to be increasingly the tools of military and corporate giants. The anti-technology perspective emerged most strongly in the environmental movement, which often linked ecological irresponsibility (industrial pollution, toxic waste dumps, unethical animal and human experimentation, etc.) with technological development. While many progressives and greens are more willing adopt cleaner, better technologies today, some of the anti-technology biases remain. From Dr. Hughes' essay on Democratic Transhumanism:

Today most bioethicists, informed by and contributing to the growing Luddite orientation in left-leaning arts and humanities faculties, start from the assumption that new biotechnologies are being developed in unethical ways by a rapacious medical-industrial complex, and will have myriad unpleasant consequences for society, especially for women and the powerless. Rather than emphasizing the liberty and autonomy of individuals who may want to adopt new technologies, or arguing for increased equitable access to new biotechnologies, balancing attention to the right from technology with attention to the right to technology, most bioethicists see it as their responsibility to slow the adoption of biotechnology altogether.

The tension between philosophies focused on for social justice and environmental responsibility and the transhumanist movement is strong, and the evident frustration and anger in Dr. Hughes' tone -- both in the article linked above and in today's section of the interview -- reflects his belief that the human enhancement movement should be considered an ally, not an opponent, of those who are trying to better the human condition. He and I don't see eye-to-eye on many of the topics discussed in today's section, but we do agree on an underlying value: responsible technological development is critical for building a better planet.

Cascio: A concern many technologically-literate environmentalists have about human bioengineering (and life extension, and the like) is that it will inevitably be asymmetrically distributed, with the already-rich and powerful getting the first shot at it.

Hughes: In first place there is no inevitability about the cost of transhuman technologies. Depending on the type of technology and the point in its innovation lifecycle, technologies can be cheap or expensive. Just look at anti-retroviral therapy. For a decade HIV-positive people in the affluent North were the guinea pigs and underwriters of the enormous costs of these therapies.

Then the developing world threatened to produce the drugs themselves and abrogate the intellectual property regime (and I wish they had). In response to the threat and the political pressure from the global public health lobby anti-retrovirals were licensed for less expensive production, and then alternative versions were developed which cut costs to less than a dollar day.

Now, less than a dollar a day is still more than a lot of HIV positive people in Africa make, so is the answer of leftist Greens that we should ban anti-retrovirals until everybody can afford them? Or do we try to get them to as many people as possible, year by year? The same logic will apply to every new technology, from those which save lives, to those which allow us to improve memory and mood, to those which enable radical body art. And some of these technologies will be cheap at the outset, such as a cancer vaccine that sensitizes the immune system to identify and destroy cancers.

Cascio: That's an interesting take -- that rather than thinking of the early adopting rich countries as getting the goodies first, we should think of them as being the guinea pigs (or beta testers) for the rest of the world.

Hughes: I don't want to sound like I think its good for the poor and developing world to wait a couple years for new tech. But there is a life cycle to most tech that the Luddite left ignores - if a technology develops a large enough market among the affluent they get then cheap enough so that they become available to the poor. There is a strong moral and practical case for using public monies to shorten that cycle for technologies that dramatically improve people's lives, as human enhancement technologies will. For Gameboys or McDonalds equitable access isn't so urgent.

Cascio: Many left-greens, including me, worry that transhuman technologies can result in conditions which would tend to further concentrate power and wealth in the hands of those who already possess it. Is that a legitimate concern?

Hughes: Yes, absolutely. There is probably a qualitative difference between the feedback loop between wealth inequality and differential access to cognitive enhancement, and the feedback loop between wealth inequality and differential access to the Internet. In other words, we do have to worry about the possible development of a widening gap between an accelerating "posthuman" aristocracy and a majority of the rest of the world moving ahead at a much slower pace. The best, and probably the only way, to effectively reduce the risk of GenRich/GenPoor bifurcation is the ensure broad as possible access to cognitive, health and ability enhancements. I think this will be perfectly obvious even to the most Luddite as these technologies arrive. The world's poor are going to want life extension and very few left Greens are going to campaign to save them from it.

The "forbid enhancement because it will only be available to the rich" argument does, however, provide one more brick for the bioconservative roadblock to funding research in human enhancement. So long as the public thinks life extension and cognitive enhancement is "science fiction," and will never happen, then the religious fundamentalist zealots and their secular and progressive allies can deep six the research programs which could bring them online all the sooner.

One hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, and if you are a transhumanist, you see a day when they would not have to have died. The profound immorality of the bioLuddite position is not that they will be able to stop human enhancement technologies, but that they will be able to delay them and kill many people who could otherwise have lived. Yes, fresh water and more food and income could save people as well. That's why I'm a democratic transhumanist.

Cascio: What do you think of the "precautionary principle?"

Hughes: The precautionary principle is a Luddite Trojan Horse. It starts with the uncontroversial principle that technologies should be assessed for their risks before they are deployed. That's no problem, and we can argue about what kinds of approval processes and regulatory agencies are adequate, and when we have sufficient information of the risk/benefit ratios. But when the principle is applied by the technophobic, to things like human genetic engineering, the precautionary principle becomes a rationale for permanent bans. The first thing the technophobic do is systematically rubbish the potential benefits, and take seriously every hypothetical harm from now until the end of time. Their second argument appeals the virtue of the known and the supposed inevitability that human efforts to engineer the delicate, evolved mechanisms of nature are doomed to disaster. On those grounds, no clinical trial or EPA assessment could ever capture the real long-term risk of genetic engineering.

Nick Bostrom has just written a brilliant paper about the "status quo bias" in everyday heuristics, and how it is expressed in bioethics. Once we take account of real, proximate risks and benefits of human enhancement technologies in a balanced way there certainly will be a case for banning some until they are safer. For instance, the World Transhumanist Association has taken the position that experiments with human reproductive cloning are currently unethical since the animal research suggests a very high risks of birth defects. Once the animal research has got the success rate up and birth defects low, then there the risk-benefit would pass the threshold for permitting the technique for parents who have genetic or infertility problems and want a child related to one of the parents. Then, when the risk of birth defects in these first clones has been assessed, and the technique demonstrated to be safe, we should permit all would be parents to use it.

This process suggests the other huge problem with applying the precautionary principle to human enhancement. Banning a new industrial chemical on precautionary principle grounds doesn't step on an individual's self-determination, but stopping them from exercising control over their own body, brain and reproduction does. For instance, Western feminists are delighted to encourage India and China to restrict women's access to ultrasound and abortion, restrictions most American women would never accept, all to prevent largely hypothetical future social consequences of imbalanced gender ratios from sex selection. As a consequence these laws not only harm the women who lose some of their reproductive choices, but also the girls born into families that don't want them, and who at best are given up for adoption. The way people use the precautionary principle is to argue that the difficulties that boys in the class of 2020 will have in getting a date to the prom trump all other concerns. I don't think so.

Cascio: Our *current* understanding of biological and environmental systems is more limited than we often like to admit, particularly regarding subtle cross-system interactions. It seems to me that some degree of a precautionary structure, one designed to consider very carefully the implications (both biological and social) would be a useful tool for making certain that the enhancements end up being that and not long-term degradations.

Hughes: Anything involving the release of genetically modified organisms in the environment and I completely agree. But in regards human genetic enhancement I think the right to self-determination trumps a lot of those vaguer, long-term concerns. What would the approval process have looked like for the precautionary approval of organ transplantation back in the 1970s? We might be getting around to trying some transplants about now, and untold hundreds of thousands of people would have died unnecessarily.

Cascio: But don't some self-determination choices have broader results for society at large? As a simplistic example, wouldn't a society already near the breaking point for pension support have a legitimate say in the implementation of life-extension technologies?

Hughes: You want to live in a society that tells people they have to die because we can't figure out how to keep them housed and fed? We are already living well-beyond the average 65 years that Social Security and Medicare estimated at their founding, and they are facing crisis as a consequence; so should we now deny medical treatment to everybody over 70? Yes, every society has to set priorities, and pensions and medical research and treatments can't be allowed to consume everything. But my preference is that we try to keep everyone healthy and alive first, and then figure out how to adjust.

Cascio: At the same time, as the recent Vioxx situation demonstrates, the current mechanism for assessment (in this case, FDA) isn't nearly as effective as one would hope it to be. One could easily imagine thousands (millions?) of people adopting an enhancement technology that looked good in computer models and fast-tracked trials, only to discover a decade or two down the road that it has some pretty unpleasant long-term side-effects, perhaps even shortening lives that they had expected to be lengthened. How long of a test would you consider appropriate for human enhancement biotech?

Hughes: I don't think enhancement medicine should be subject to a more stringent approval process than medical therapies. The calculations will be the same. Every medical treatment is a rapidly evolving mix of information and unknowns about risks, side-effects and benefits. When the FDA approved the weight loss drug Meridia it was controversial, and continues to be, because there were minor benefits and occasionally serious cardiac side effects. But then morbid obesity is a much bigger killer. Why not let people make that calculation with their doctor? If we were to come up with a gene tweak that doubles the life span of mice, but it had a 1% risk of earlier mortality, I think we would want to make it available to the public and let them decide. The question is when the possible risks outweigh the possible benefits so far that no one should be using it.

Part 3

While it may be difficult to see in the aftermath of last month's election, the compositions of the post-World War II coalitions on both the Left and the Right are changing. Emerging issues, from globalization to climate disruption to intellectual property rights on the Internet, are starting to push some traditional allies apart and traditional opponents together. For Dr. Hughes, human enhancement technologies will likely prove to be another axis for new political friction. From his democratic transhumanism treatise:

The biopolitical spectrum is still emerging, starting first among intellectuals and activists. Self-described transhumanists and Luddites are the most advanced and self-conscious of an emerging wave of the publics ideological crystallization. We are at the same place in the crystallization of biopolitics as left-right economic politics was when Marx helped found the International Workingmens Association in 1864, or when the Fabian Society was founded in England in 1884: intellectuals and activists struggling to make explicit the battle lines that are already emerging, before popular parties have been organized and masses rallied to their banners.

Will transhumanism -- or human enhancement technology -- be a key line of conflict for the 21st century? It's possible, although I suspect it will be part of a larger struggle both over the direction of human technology and the nature of "personhood." If the core philosophical struggle of the 20th century was over "how we live," the core philosophical struggle of the 21st may be "who we are."

I also suspect, moreover profoundly hope, that the "transhuman" meme falls to the wayside, and that tools and techniques that help us live healthier, longer, happier lives are seen as human technologies, something rightly available to us all, not something that implicitly divides us. Progressives are thinking a lot about "framing" these days, and rightly so: how we describe something imparts a great deal of meaning. Just as Dr. Hughes wishes (as said in Part I of the interview) that, in due time, "democratic transhumanism" will shed "democratic" in the name because the need for equitable, fair, and full distribution of enhancement technologies will be obvious to all, I hope that "democratic transhumanism" will shed "transhumanism," because the realization that enhancement technologies are simply part of our cultural birthright as humans will be equally obvious.

In the final installment of my interview with James Hughes, we talk a bit about what the future may hold for the democratic transhumanist movement and humankind in general.

Cascio: How do you see the politics of transhuman technologies playing out over the next few decades?

Hughes: I'm convinced that politics will become more complex in the next decades as new coalitions form along the emerging biopolitical axis, an axis with transhumanists at one end and bioconservatives at the other. Biopolitics will divide traditional progressives and conservatives, and the outcomes of struggles will be partly determined by whether progressive or conservative voices are louder at each end of debate. I would much prefer that the policy debate be framed between democratic transhumanists and left-wing bioconservatives like the Center for Genetics and Society, for instance, so that whatever the outcome our concerns for safety and equity are reflected.

The fight over embryonic stem cell research is the current hot biopolitical struggle. Some of the issues likely to force a crystallization and polarization along the biopolitical axis in the future include:

 

  • Demands of the growing senior population for anti-aging research and therapies, in the context of increasing conflict over generational equity and the tax burdens of retiree pensions and health care.

     

  • FDA approval of gene therapies, psychopharmaceuticals and nanocybernetics for "enhancement" purposes, such as improving memory, mood, senses, life extension and athletic performance.

     

  • Perfection of neonatal intensive care and artificial uteruses which will erode the current political compromise on fetal rights, predicated on "viability" as a moral dividing line.

     

  • The intellectual enhancement of animals, which will force a clarification of the citizenship status of intelligent non-humans.

     

  • The regulation of the potentially apocalyptic risks of nanomaterials, nanomachines, genetically engineered organisms, and artificial intelligence.

     

  • The fight over parental rights to use germinal choice technologies to choose enhancements and aesthetic characteristics of their children.

    Cascio: How may "bioconservatives" react as they see people starting to use these technologies?

    I think social conservatives and bioconservatives will all use the latest enhancement technologies at the same rate as the rest of us, and religious Right and neocon leaders will scramble to keep the goal post one step ahead of the latest life extending technology. They no longer oppose autopsies, condoms, organ transplantation or IVF because they can't win those battles.

    Cascio: Cloning as a hot-button issue has died down a bit, at least for now. I've always been a bit confused by the fervor of opposition. While the opponents seem to assume that there would be a huge groundswell of desire for cloning if it was allowed, I just can't see that many people actually wanting a time-delayed twin. Or not even that close! Identical twins are closer in many respects than clones.

    Hughes: The use of donor eggs for nuclear transfer introduces the egg donor's mitochondrial DNA; twinning produces a much cleaner copy.

    Although transhumanists defend cloning as an eventual reproductive option once its safe, it is not an enhancement technique. I would go so far as to say that once we have enhancement gene therapies it would be unethical for parents to make a copy of themselves. It would be like insisting that your kid use your grade school textbooks. OK, worse.

    Cascio: I've noticed over the course of our conversation something that I've seen in other transhumanist speculations: a subtle mixture of medical technologies implemented to protect or restore some measure of normative health (e.g., insulin injections or vaccinations) and technologies implemented to enhance the human biology beyond what is considered a standard part of human biology (e.g., endless lives or four arms). It's a very slick slope, of course; is a technology which gives what amounts to an IQ of 250 -- vanishingly rare, but definitely a part of broader human experience -- an enhancement beyond the norm or a restoration of what's possible? How about not an endless lifespan, but healthy life to (say) 140? Nonetheless, I suspect it's these transhumanist musings about radical divergences that sets some people off.

    Hughes: The problem is that that is precisely the slope we want to slip down. There is no practical or ethical distinction between therapy and enhancement. We're living in an unnatural, enhanced human state already. I don't see many people going back to foraging and chipping stone tools in caves, or more to the point, giving up aspirin and vaccines. The average IQ of the citizens of the industrialized countries has already risen by 30 points in the last century, a phenomenon called the "Flynn effect." What we are saying is that its good for people to be able to live another day, whether they are 70, 100 or 150. Its good for people to learn more, faster, whether they have IQs of 80, 120 or 200. Its good for people to have more acuity to their vision, whether they are legally blind or 20/20. Moreover, the therapies will not be clearly therapeutic or enhancement. If I give you an anti-aging vaccination that reduces your likelihood of contracting all aging-related diseases and extends your life span to 120, was that therapy for prevention of those diseases or an enhancement? We think it doesn't matter.

    Cascio: In a world of limited research resources, which should receive a greater priority: research into technologies to enhance human biology, or research into technologies to improve social conditions? What's the appropriate balance between "democracy" and "transhumanism"?

    Hughes: As I've said before, I think the two go hand-in-hand, although we do have to allocate resources. But take the example of obesity, which is growing worldwide. There is very little evidence that public health education or diet program interventions have any long-term effect for the majority of the obese. The reason people are getting fat is that we are programmed to eat good-tasting food when we can, and we live increasingly sedentary lives. So, by all means let's educate people to eat right, and set up community activity centers, and get sodas out of the schools, and tax high fructose corn syrup. But let's also pursue research on drugs and gene tweaks to prevent obesity in the first place, to be slim and healthy no matter what we eat and how much exercise we get, because if we really want to save the people's lives that's where the answer will come from. And then let's make sure those treatments are available to everybody worldwide. Investing in technological obesity prevention will not only be more cost-effective than social-behavioral weight control, but will dramatically reduce overall health costs. If people want to find some spurious social account they can empty out and put into their favorite social reforms let's start with professional football not medical research.

    Cascio: One aspect of your work which I greatly appreciate is that you think about transformative technologies as social technologies, which while they may directly change the lives of individuals, also affect us at the level of social relationships.

    Hughes: One of the books that I was deeply influenced by as an undergraduate Buddhist Sociology major was Trevor Ling's The Buddha. Ling was a Marxist scholar, and he drew out of early Buddhism a radical message of integrated social and individual change. The monks weren't just told to go meditate in caves, they were instructed that their liberation was an interdependent process involving psychological change, behavioral change, a certain kind of community and a certain kind of engagement with the world. The Wheel of Dharma, turned by these interlocking processes, countervailed against the Wheel of Karma, with its characteristic greed, hatred and ignorance and attendant behaviors and social systems (e.g. patriarchy, capitalism, militarism, the Repuglican Party). I think I bring pretty much he same perspective to transhumanism. The core demand of transhumanism is that we all should be given the means to reach our fullest potentials. But helping people achieve their full potential is a matter of social reform as much as individual technological empowerment.

    Cascio: Do you expect that, once radical life extension technologies are available, the majority of people will adopt them?

    Hughes: In a gene-tweaked heart-beat.


  • Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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