Humanity: The Remix

Is building a better human the key to utopia or the world’s most dangerous idea?

With new drugs and medical advances making it ever easier to alter our bodies and minds, many have begun to wonder where the trend could take us. The concern has created some unlikely political alliances as critics warn of the day when the modern mania for self-improvement reaches down into our very cells. Some say we should cling to our imperfections, that our rough edges are the source of our uniqueness. Others would redesign us from the genes up. Whatever the case, we might wish to revisit what it means to be human now that life as we know it could be about to change. — The Editors

Imagine that in the year 2100 the world has become a radically different place. The severely disabled, once totally isolated, communicate telepathically to their computers and other people over special brain implants. Others use the same devices to play CD-quality music in their heads, recall numbers 20 digits long, and relive good feelings from a beach vacation or a hot bath. Health supplements guarantee not only high IQs and low anxiety levels, but also profound spiritual experiences and increased compassion for all living things. Of course, these changes are provided to rich and poor alike — at least since the outdated nation-state system gave way to a world government led by democratic socialists.

This is the future envisioned by a group of tech-friendly liberal “transhumanists.” Transhuman, short for transitional human, refers to the day when our species will be a blend of biology and machine. It’s a step, some say, toward a “posthuman” era when we could become a different creature altogether. Since it emerged from the fringes of cyberculture in the late 1980s, the transhumanist movement has been known as much for its libertarian leanings as for its belief in the plugged-in, “four-arm” human of tomorrow. While today all the self-proclaimed liberal transhumanists could probably fit in the holodeck of the starship Enterprise, they count a number of influential scientists, bioethicists, and philosophers in their small but growing ranks.

Unlike their libertarian peers, who tend to denounce all regulation, these “democratic transhumanists” view societal controls as crucial to realizing their openly utopian dreams. Some argue that the trend is irreversible: As with in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproduction techniques, the public demand for longer lives, prettier children, and better moods will override efforts to stop them. If these powerful new technologies are to be used justly, they say, the time to embrace them is now. Others go even further, heralding the redesigned human as the key to transforming the world along progressive lines.

“Today human intelligence, in the form of technology, is about to make possible the elimination of pain and lives filled with unimaginable pleasure and contentment,” writes James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Westview, 2004). The former editor of a zine called EcoSocialist Review who teaches health policy at Trinity College in Connecticut, Hughes, 44, is executive director of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). His goal, he says, is to convince fellow liberals that a pro-technology, democratic form of transhumanism is the way of the “Next Left.”

Hughes says that Western radicals at least as far back as the 18th century saw science as a tool for advancing democracy. He argues that a pro-tech vision actually dominated the American and European left well into the 20th century, personified by the likes of the liberal British biologist J.B.S. Haldane and the writer H.G. Wells. After World War II, with its gas chambers and atomic bombs, a long-dormant “pastoral” left rose to prominence, closer in spirit to romantic thinkers like Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau. Since then, he adds, “any kind of narrative of a radically transformed life through new technologies is immediately dismissed.”

“Pastoralists are okay with a radically transformed life through yoga or organic gardening,” Hughes says, “but once you start a discussion about using tech to end disease, death, poverty, or work, a wall goes up.” As he noted in a recent phone interview, Hughes believes that the left must embrace a transcendent vision if it is to succeed. Along with calls for social equity and responsibility, he says, “we also need to give ourselves permission to be excited about new technologies.”

The author Jeremy Rifkin, a longtime critic of life patenting and the biotech industry, disagrees. “Transhumanism is the ultimate illustration of how Enlightenment rationalism can easily run amok and create extreme pathology,” he says. In their faith that they can harness such powerful technologies to achieve their social ends, the transhumanists are falling victim to an old, misguided Western faith in human perfectibility. Rifkin’s fear is that under the guise of progress, the public will be seduced by a new technology whose destructive power far exceeds its benefits.

Thinkers across the political spectrum share similar concerns. Last year, the conservative scholar Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), spoke out against trans-humanism when the journal Foreign Policy asked him and several other thinkers to list “the world’s most dangerous ideas.” Fukuyama argues that modern society must learn to respect human nature in the way it now respects the rest of nature. If we don’t, he warns, “we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.”

On the left, Bill McKibben has argued just as passionately against human bioengineering in his book Enough (Henry Holt, 2003). In recent years, he and other ecologically minded progressives, including Rifkin, have found themselves in agreement with Fukuyama and Leon R. Kass, a conservative appointed by George W. Bush to head the President’s Council on Bioethics. All have warned of the social dangers posed by human cloning, whether for making babies or for creating embryos for research purposes. Critics see cloning and embryo-based stem cell science as today’s key gateway technologies leading us toward a posthuman world. Better to confront the biotech juggernaut now, they say, before it gets even more menacing.

This concern has led to other unexpected alliances and conflicts, presaging the many ethical showdowns we’ll face in the years ahead. If we have the know-how to safely cure spinal cord injuries, cheat death, and tint your skin green, why keep it off the market? On the other hand, how do we balance individual desire and freedom against the needs of others, including other creatures? Defining life and death, already touchy issues, will become even more volatile in coming decades. Finally, there’s the question that seems destined to haunt the 21st century: Will we control our technologies, or will they control us?

THE WISH TO EXCEED our bodily limits is as old and varied as human myth. Transhumanism in its recent form is often traced back to the curious circle of thinkers who gathered around a guy named Max More, a British cryogenics advocate turned philosophy student who changed his name from Max O’Connor to reflect his personal quest for perfection. More was in graduate school at the University of Southern California in 1988 when he and a fellow student, T.O. Morrow, founded the journal Extropy. (Its title is an invented word that’s meant to be the opposite of entropy.) The Extropy Institute followed in 1992. By then, their call for building sleeker, quicker, sexier humans had begun to catch on, especially among young males. Heavily influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, among others, More decreed that the institute would be virulently libertarian, and it remains so today, even as he himself is said to have become somewhat more moderate.

Other groups have sprung up as well. By 1998 a handful of European and American thinkers had coalesced into the kinder, gentler World Transhumanism Association. In contrast to the Extropians, WTA officials like the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, now at Oxford University in England, acknowledged that corruption, accidents, and other forces could thwart their futurist visions and needed to be addressed. In particular, they were concerned about equalizing access to technology across borders and classes. The WTA appears to have veered even more to the left since James Hughes took over as director in 2001.

Getting mainstream liberals excited enough to join is perhaps complicated by the fact that there’s a little too much excitement among those already on board. Chats about curing cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and mental illness can quickly become fantasies about millennial life spans, eternally youthful bodies, and average intelligence levels that push Stephen Hawking into the bottom 10 percent. There’s a grain of truth to Mark Dery’s quip in his 1996 book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove) that transhumanists view their bodies as loathsome “meat puppets” to be shed in their bid to become immortal. The movement’s eccentric subchapters include the body-modification transhumanists, who have implanted silicon-based magnets under their skin to create a computer-human chimera effect. The Singularitarians believe we’re heading for a genetic point of no return — the Singularity — when change in the species will be so great as to make us virtual gods.

Nevertheless, the WTA keeps growing. Hughes says it has 3,000 members worldwide and welcomes about 80 new members a month. One possible reason why: Transhumanism’s pet technologies have begun crossing over from sci-fi to the lab.

Nanotechnology — manipulating matter on the atomic level — was far-out stuff back in 1986 when Eric Drexler made it the crucial tool in his cryonics manifesto, Engines of Creation (Anchor).While nobody’s using it to “reanimate” frozen heads and bodies just yet, nanotech is now real enough to be used in various products (even as super-tiny particles raise unexpected health concerns). Researchers have engineered mice that are super strong and fast, and live so long that a human equivalent would be at least 200. In Portugal, scientists have implanted cameras connected to electrodes in the brains of blind people. The result? Not only could the subjects see, but they could beam images to each other’s minds. In 1998 a neurosurgeon implanted a device into the brain of a “locked-in” patient who couldn’t eat, drink, or talk on his own. Before the surgery, the patient could communicate only by blinking his eyes; afterward he could send messages via a computer simply by thinking them out.

Over the past decade, the startling advances in nanoscience, bioengineering, information technology, and cognitive science — referred to collectively as NBIC — have mainstream researchers sounding more and more like Singularitarians themselves. In 2002 the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce released a massive report that said, in effect, these converging technologies “for improving human performance” were both inevitable and beneficial. Hughes says the so-called NBIC papers “are essentially, though not explicitly, transhuman documents.”

A similar spirit pervades the growing popular literature on the topic — books like Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) by UCLA biophysicist Gregory Stock and Remaking Eden (Avon, 1997) by Princeton biologist Lee M. Silver. In More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (Broadway, 2005), Ramez Naam, a software engineer turned futurist, catalogs the new developments that could soon put designer bodies, minds, and children within our reach. He sees them as our next step in the human journey from cave art to the stars. “This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world,” he writes. “Never to say enough, always to want more — that is what it means to be human.”

Curiously, Bill McKibben and Francis Fukuyama list the same enhancements in their books to argue against the posthuman future. They also assert a radically different view of human nature. “What makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves,” McKibben writes. “We can decide not do something that we are able to do. We can set limits on our desires. We can say ‘Enough.’ “

TRANSHUMANISTS LIKE HUGHES dismiss what he calls “bio-Luddite” concerns as just another case of future shock. At any major shift, they say, the change-fearing masses first rebel and then get over it. What’s more, with our contact lenses, artificial heart valves, and cell phones, we’re already cyborgs anyway. Smallpox vaccine and anesthetics for childbirth pain were once both renounced as insults to God. How is Bush’s effort to limit federal funding for stem cell research, and the wider crusade against cloning, any different?

Some liberals as well as conservatives insist that these issues are different. In The Biotech Century (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998), Jeremy Rifkin has suggested that modern molecular biology is creating a political order that’s beyond left and right. As he noted in a phone interview, the new divide, in his view, falls between those who believe life has “instrinsic” value and those who see it in purely utilitarian terms as “reducible to material for manipulation.” Citing respect for life as his motivation, Rifkin says he parts company with many liberals by opposing embryo cloning in all forms, even the “therapeutic” cloning that can be used to generate stem cells. (He is not opposed to research involving adult stem cells, which can be drawn from bone marrow.)

Researchers first reported finding stem cells in human embryos in 1998, noting their chameleon-like ability to become any number of the body’s specialized cells as they matured. Since then, stem cells have been touted as a source of possible regenerative treatments for spinal cord injuries and many diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

“Therapeutic” cloning is one among several ways to produce stem cells for research. In both therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning — the technique that could lead to cloned babies — the nucleus of a human egg is removed and replaced with the genetic material from another cell. But instead of implanting the doctored egg in a womb and letting it grow, researchers harvest the newly formed stem cells that bud within it after just four or five days. In theory, therapeutic cloning could provide tissues and whole organs for transplant patients, in a sense turning them into their own donors: Stem cells derived from their genetic material could be coaxed to grow into spare parts their bodies wouldn’t reject.

Any tampering with the human embryo is a problem for many abortion foes like Bush, but it’s also an issue for those hoping to thwart a posthuman future. They particularly dread the idea of “germline genetic engineering” — that is, giving humans new genetic traits they’re able to pass on to future generations. To block that, they hope to stop the nascent technology today with a ban or a moratorium on therapeutic cloning. That means breaking ranks with the many liberals who support such research. It can also mean parting with those who worry about altering the human species but who see the campaign against abortion as a more immediate fear. Indeed, for some liberals, the stem cell debate has triggered a very real philosophical struggle — with others, and with themselves.

“What we can all agree on, whether we’re pro-life or pro-choice, is that embryos are potential unique human beings at the early stages of development,” Rifkin says. “Nobody can say that’s not true. To my mind, the idea that we would propose legislation in the U.S. Congress to clone embryos specifically for the purpose of experimentation, or as research models, or to harvest spare parts and then destroy them, opens the door to a commercial eugenics era.”

In late 2001 a Massachusetts biotech company announced it had been the first to clone a human embryo. Around that time, Rifkin floated a petition, signed by Fukuyama and other conservatives as well as liberals, in support of a law that would ban all cloning. In 2002 McKibben and others signed a different petition that called for a ban on reproductive cloning and a moratorium on cloning for research purposes. Other unlikely alliances emerged. In Chicago, for instance, progressive tech skeptic Lori Andrews and conservative tech skeptic Nigel Cameron founded the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future. Together they hoped to forge new ties between the anti-biotech left, the Christian right, and secular conservatives.

Still others backed away from a cloning ban, fearing their support would be exploited by pro-lifers.

“This is where the situation gets very, very complicated for the deep ecologists,” says Hughes. “Roe v. Wade made the issue ‘viability’ and set an arbitrary standard at six months, a position that the deep ecologists have felt comfortable accepting. But how will they respond when we have developed artificial wombs that can gestate an embryo all the way to term, and viability officially becomes conception? It’s a very real conflict for them.”

His answer is what he calls “personhood theory,” a concept from bioethics that would grant rights to self-aware “persons,” not humans per se. Babies, adults, the great apes, whales, dolphins, artificial intelligence, and perhaps extraterrestrials are among the entities that deserve personhood rights, he says. Embryos, fetuses, the brain dead — these beings may be human in terms of DNA, but in this view they are not persons. Hughes uses such concepts to articulate a new political axis of his own — between what he calls the new “biopolitical right” and people in favor of technological exploration. In September, prominent transhumanists will meet with reproduction-rights advocates, disability-rights advocates, drug-policy reformers, and transgendered activists at a seminar in Berkeley to discuss a possible coalition of their own. Hughes credits transgendered people with “fighting some of the first battles to define their own bodies and lives.”

“Ultimately, we’re working to create a world where people have control over their own bodies and minds,” he says. “We want a socially responsible world, a sexy, high-tech, radically democratic world.”

It’s worth noting that efforts in Congress to control cloning in recent years have failed. The conflict over abortion is said to be the major reason why. President Bush’s limit on federal funding for stem cell research remains in place, but its effect could be eroding. California, birthplace of the Extropians, has begun building its own stem cell industry with $3 billion in development funds that voters approved last fall. One researcher there says he plans to start human tests on a stem cell therapy for damaged spinal nerves next year. Even as advocates for the ill laud the California initiative, various pro-choice groups recently called for more controls on harvesting human eggs, warning that a market for them could threaten women’s health. But that hasn’t quelled the public demand for cures or the biotech sector’s hope of profit. Driven by such forces, other states are planning research programs of their own.

Amid the debate over whether these powerful new tools should be controlled, or even can be, one thing is sure: If we ever find ourselves stepping into a posthuman future, it will be for all the usual human reasons.

Alyssa Ford is an intern at Utne.

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