Toward a Typology of Transhumanism

Years ago, James Hughes sought to typify the emerging political debate over transhumanism with a three-axis political scale, adding a biopolitical dimension to the familiar axes of social and fiscal libertarianism. But transhumanism is a very academic issue, both in the sense that many transhumanists, including Hughes, are academics, and in the sense that it is very removed from everyday practical concerns. So it may make more sense to characterize the different types of transhumanists in terms of the kinds of intellectual positions to which they adhere rather than to how they relate to different positions on the political spectrum. As Zoltan Istvan’s wacky transhumanist presidential campaign shows us, transhumanism is hardly ready for prime time when it comes to American politics.

And so, I propose a continuum of transhumanist thought, to help observers understand the intellectual differences between some of its proponents — based on three different levels of support for human enhancement technologies.

First, the most mild form of transhumanists: those who embrace the human enhancement project, or reject most substantive limits to human enhancement, but who do not have a very concrete vision of what kinds of things human enhancement technology may be used for. In terms of their intellectual background, these mild transhumanists can be defined by their diversity rather than their unity. They adhere to some of the more respectable philosophical schools, such as pragmatism, various kinds of liberalism, or simply the thin, “formally rational” morality of mainstream bioethics. Many of these mild transhumanists are indeed professional bioethicists in good standing. Few, if any of them would accept the label of “transhumanist” for themselves, but they reject the substantive arguments against the enhancement project, often in the name of enhancing the freedom of choice that individuals have to control their own bodies — or, in the case of reproductive technologies, the “procreative liberty” of parents to control the bodies of their children.

Second, the moderate transhumanists. They are not very philosophically diverse, but rather are defined by a dogmatic adherence to utilitarianism. Characteristic examples would include John Harris and Julian Savulescu, along with many of the academics associated with Oxford’s rather inaptly named Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. These thinkers, who nowadays also generally eschew the term “transhumanist” for themselves, deploy a simple calculus of costs and benefits for society to moral questions concerning biotechnology, and conclude that the extensive use of biotechnology will usually end up improving human well-being. Unlike those liberals who oppose restrictions on enhancement, liberty is a secondary value for these strident utilitarians, and so some of them are comfortable with the idea of legally requiring or otherwise pressuring individuals to use enhancement technologies.

Some of their hobbyhorses include the abandonment of the act-omission distinction — that is, that there are consequences of omitting to act; John Harris famously applied this to the problem of organ shortages when he argued that we should perhaps randomly kill innocent people to harvest their organs, since failing to procure organs for those who will die without them is little different than killing them. Grisly as it is, this argument is not quite a transhumanist one, since such organ donation would hardly constitute human enhancement, but it is clear how someone who accepts this kind of radical utilitarianism would go on to accept arguments for manipulating human biology in other outlandish schemes for maximizing “well-being.”
Third, the most extreme form of transhumanism is defined less by adherence to a philosophical position than to a kind of quixotic obsession with technology itself. Today, this obsession with technology manifests in the belief that artificial intelligence will completely transform the world through the Singularity and the uploading of human minds — although futurist speculations built on contemporary technologies have of course been around for a long time. Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, for example, imagines a whole world designed in the image of the early twentieth century factory. Though this obsession with technology is not a philosophical position per se, today’s transhumanists have certainly built very elaborate intellectual edifices around the idea of artificial intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence represents a good example of the kind of systematic work these extreme transhumanists have put into thinking through what a world completely shaped by information technology might be like.

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Obviously there is a great deal of overlap between these three degrees of transhumanism, and the most mild stage in particular is really quite vaguely defined. If there is a kind of continuum along which these stages run it would be one from relatively open-minded and ecumenical thinkers to those who are increasingly dogmatic and idiosyncratic in their views. The mild transhumanists are usually highly engaged with the real world of policymaking and medicine, and discuss a wide variety of ideas in their work. The moderate transhumanists are more committed to a particular philosophical approach, and the academics at the Oxford’s Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics who apply their dogmatic utilitiarianism to moral problems usually end up with wildly impractical proposals. Though all of these advocates of human enhancement are enthusiastic about technology, for the extreme transhumanists, technology almost completely shapes their moral and political thought; and though their actual influence on public policy is thankfully limited for the time being, it is these more extreme folks, like Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, and arguably Eric Drexler and the late Robert Ettinger, who tend to be most often profiled in the press and to have a popular following.

Does Evolution Create Harmonious Balance or Messy Patchwork?

Along the same lines as my previous post, Allen Buchanan, professor of philosophy at Duke University, recently did an interview with the Atlantic about the ethics and significance of cognitive enhancement technologies.

Buchanan, though pro-enhancement, is a lot more wary of the potential ethical and social problems than a lot of the people discussed on this blog, so I won’t quarrel right now with his arguments about the ethics of employing enhancement techniques. I wish to draw attention instead to Buchanan’s recurring argument, in this interview and elsewhere, that evolution serves as something of a justification for tinkering with nature.Opponents of enhancement technologies or genetic engineering, Buchanan says, have a

rosy pre-Darwinian view about human nature and about nature generally. They tend to think that an individual organism, a human being, is like the work of a master engineer — a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution.

Moreover, he says, such opponents assume that “somehow we’re at the summit of perfection and that we’re stable” (his emphasis). Based on this misguided view of nature, which he has elsewhere called “the master engineer analogy,” we are “almost bound to conclude that anything we try to do to improve ourselves is bound to be a disaster.”Contrasting to this pre-scientific heathenism is the gospel of Darwin, whose opinion on nature Buchanan often quotes, as when Darwin writes, “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Indeed, we ourselves are just such clumsy works of nature, Buchanan tells us, as “cobbled together beings, products of mutation and selection and the crude development of ways to cope with short term problems in the environment.”To his credit, he does not go so far as to call his opponents creationists or Intelligent Designers, and in a recent paper on the topic he made some excellent points rebutting the neo-Darwinian assumptions of transhumanist philosophers Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg.—But Buchanan overstates the case for evolution’s cobbling things together haphazardly. And it is far from obvious that the idea that we are made from “crude developments of ways to cope with short term problems with the environment” is a superior interpretation of our scientific understanding of evolution to the idea that we are “a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution.” Modern biology actually shows that there is some truth to both views.While natural selection often operates in the short term to select for particular traits, one of the surprising findings of molecular genetics over the last few decades has been just how much has remained stable over the “eons of exacting evolution.” Novel traits, such as the traits that define human nature, tend to arise not from a short term cobbling together of genes (nor from the design of a “master engineer”) but from surprisingly small mutations that elegantly change the way relatively otherwise stable genes interact with one another.As Stephen L. Talbott has argued in The New Atlantis, these elegant biological processes do indeed constitute the “delicately balanced, harmonious whole” that Buchanan dismisses. And of course, this is to say nothing of the complex way our biological nature develops through interactions with the environment, or how that biological nature contributes to and interacts with the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of our nature.—It is strange that Buchanan thinks that opponents of genetic engineering who find something worth preserving in our nature must believe that evolution is analogous to some sort of “master engineer.” Considering that evolution is a slow process by which biological order spontaneously emerges from highly complex networks of highly conserved genes, there would seem to be an obvious analogy for it in the conservative view of society.Conservatives tend to be opposed to social engineering — clearly not because they think that society was perfectly designed by some “master engineer,” but rather because they see society as embodying the wisdom of the ages: the slowly accumulated knowledge, customs and practices that constitute the social fabric. Moreover, the historical record of social engineering ranges from abysmal to atrocious. It seems dubious that we could do much better with the incomparably more complex system of biology.Neither biology or society is ever perfect, but each is profoundly complex in ways that we do not understand. More importantly, human life is deeply embedded in these embodiments of the wisdom passed down through the ages. Living well with the imperfections in our nature is not about “breaking evolution’s chains” through crude exercises of biotechnological power, but is rather the task of ethical reflection and action.[Images: 2001: A Space Odyssey; Jellyfish © Hans Hillewaert (CC)]