Who’s Afraid of ‘Brave New World’?

I was very happy to learn from George Dvorsky at io9 that Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World is not the terrifying dystopia it used to be.” It’s not that the things in the novel couldn’t happen (more or less), but rather that they are happening and “we” have become much more enlightened and simply don’t need to worry about them anymore. The book is a product of its time, and our time understands these things much better, apparently.

Thus, the strongest condemnation Dvorsky can offer of the eugenics program depicted in Brave New World is that it is “disquieting.” But we can get over that. Genetic engineering techniques that might have once have been met with “repugnance” are now commonplace. Newer techniques which promise more control to make more things like those in Brave New World possible will have the same fate, Dvorsky expects, trotting out the number-one cliché of progressive bioethics: “While potentially alarming, these biotechnologies and others currently in development hold great promise.” And on the basis of that “great promise” we merrily slide right down the slippery slope:

Advances in genetics will serve to eliminate a host of genetic diseases, while offering humans the opportunity to forgo the haphazard genetic roll of the dice when it comes to determining the traits of offspring. A strong case can be made that it’s both our duty and right to develop these technologies.

Problem solved!

The next non-problem Dvorsky sees in Brave New World is totalitarianism, which, along with “top-down” eugenics, he proclaims “dead.” Happy day! One might trust Dvorsky more on this topic if he did not declare that even in Huxley’s own time the book conveyed a “false sense of urgency” on this topic. But we now know that biotechnology will be “tools made by the people, for the people.” A case in point, I suppose, would be the drug company that just raised the price of one of its pills by 5000 percent.

And on and on. Concern about widespread use of psychoactive prescription and non-prescription drugs is, Dvorsky says, either “not entirely fair” or “hysterical.” On sex and the family Huxley’s “prescience is remarkable” but his concerns  are “grossly old fashioned and moralizing.” So too his Malthusian concerns are “grossly overstated” particularly when population control (apparently it is necessary after all) can be achieved by “humanitarian methods.”

So there you have it. It seems that for the advocates of technological “progress” and human redesign “don’t worry, be happy” has become a respectable line of argument. I know I feel much better now.

A World without Weakness

Aside from the opportunity to watch the ever-delightful Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man may not be one of the great superhero reboots. But it is an interesting movie nevertheless for what seems like some thoughtful consideration of transhumanist themes.

“A world without weakness” may not be the explicit motto of any transhumanist group, as it is of the villainous Oscorp and Dr. Curt Connors. But it certainly encapsulates as well as any four-word slogan could an essential transhumanist aspiration. Nature has created us with all kinds of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, transhumanists believe, and we would be far better off without them. Dr. Connors’s effort to achieve that goal may not make much scientific sense, but making better humans by using DNA from other animals reflects another not uncommon transhuman trope: think Catman and Lizardman and morphological freedom, or Hans Moravec’s interest in melding uploaded human minds with uploaded animal minds.

So it is noteworthy that these transhumanist aspirations ultimately combine to produce the movie’s dangerous monster. It is perhaps even more interesting that behind Oscorp stands a wealthy, shadowy figure who is using its ostensibly philanthropic program to create a world without weakness as a cover for a quest for personal immortality — just the sort of detail of real-world motivation that transhumanists tend to want to gloss over.

Of course, I may seem to be ignoring that Peter Parker is himself also a transhuman of sorts, and indeed that Connors is like him in at first using his powers in an attempt to prevent harm from coming to others. But the writers give us ample grounds on which to distinguish the two cases.

Peter’s life is just plain messy, full of conflicting inclinations and obligations. From what we see of it, Connors’s home is as sterile as his lab, and the backstory suggests a man who avoids emotional entanglements. Peter remains an all-too-human teenager after his transformation, struggling to try to understand what it means to do the right thing in the face of an unsought-for transformation that, like growing up itself, presents him with unanticipated problems and opportunities.

As he grows into an intelligent reptile, Connors, on the other hand, merely becomes clearer on the implications of the ideology that had driven his deliberate quest all along. His ostensibly compassionate desire to eliminate human weakness when he himself was missing an arm becomes contempt for human weakness when his serum “works.” Eliminating human weakness thus becomes eliminating weak human beings. This same contempt is rarely far below the surface of transhumanism, whose own charitable impulse is founded on avoiding entanglements with what human beings really are.

Civil Rights, Eugenics, and Why It’s “Being a Good Human” to Kill Your Daughters

As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.




Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Arguing with Transhumanists

Yesterday, our co-blogger and New Atlantis senior editor Ari Schulman discussed transhumanism on The Stream, a social-media-based show on Al Jazeera English. Hosts Imran Garda and Malika Bilal did a good job of kicking off the discussion, and plenty of viewers commented and asked questions in real-time via Twitter. Several video clips were interspersed throughout the show, including a snippet of Regan Brashear’s documentary Fixed, which we previously discussed here on Futurisms.Ari debated two outspoken advocates of transhumanism*: Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University (whom we have frequently written about here), and George Dvorsky, a blogger and activist. If that sounds unfairly lopsided to you — two against one — well, it was unfairly lopsided: Ari clearly had the better of the conversation.The conversation touched on many subjects, and there wasn’t time to deal with anything in great depth, but I’d like to highlight three items.First, Ari pointed out on the show something that Hanson said recently — that “if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives.” (Hanson wrote this in response to a New Atlantis article; we blogged about it here.) When confronted with his own words, Hanson didn’t retreat; he stood by those remarks. Today, one of Hanson’s blog readers took him to task: “You totally let yourself look like you’d support sexism…. You made us look bad and … I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to repair the damage your mistake caused.” I certainly agree that Hanson’s comments make transhumanism look bad — not because he misspoke or misrepresented his views, but because his forthright comments revealed the heartless calculation that underlies much transhumanist thinking.Second, Dvorsky and Hanson both objected to one of Ari’s comments: that transhumanism shares with the twentieth century’s eugenics movement a deep dissatisfaction with human nature. When we sometimes make this comparison, transhumanists accuse us of smearing them — after all, who would want to be compared to a movement that was responsible for forced sterilizations and that inspired some of the worst Nazi atrocities? But Ari’s remarks were measured and careful, and the comparison is apt: both eugenics and transhumanism are rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature. That does not mean (as Dvorsky claimed) that we think that human nature as it now exists is perfect. To the contrary, we think that human beings are flawed, and some of us might even say fallen, creatures. But for this very reason, as Ari said, we are skeptical of grand schemes that promise or pursue perfection.Dvorsky also bridled against the comparison to eugenics for another reason. He said that eugenics was a “top-down imposition,” wherein terrible decisions were made by “either the state or certain groups in power.” By contrast, Dvorsky said,

transhumanism is absolutely opposed to any of those ideas. In fact, it’s very much a hands-off type of a philosophy. If anything, it’s bottom-up, where we give the benefit of the doubt to individuals who are informed individuals, in conjunction with their doctors, their fertility clinics, and so on, who will make the decisions that are right for themselves. So everything from their reproductive rights, their morphological rights, and their cognitive rights as well.

But as Ari rightly noted on the show, not all transhumanist proposals pleasantly envision free, autonomous individuals pursuing the good as they see it. Julian Savulescu, for example, recently proposed that we should compel people to take behavior-altering drugs to make them more “moral” (as our colleague Brendan Foht mentioned here last month). And just because Dvorsky and some of his confreres think that the transhumanist future will be “hands-off” and “bottom-up” doesn’t mean that it actually will be. Who’s to say that we won’t see dictatorships of (or backed up by) Unfriendly AI? And even if somehow the transhumanist future were accomplished without obvious coercion, that doesn’t mean (as we have pointed out many times here on Futurisms) that “individuals who are informed individuals” would be free to abjure the enhancements that society is pressuring them to accept.All in all, a fine television performance by Ari; anyone interested in hearing more such intelligent criticism of transhumanism should poke around here on Futurisms and read some of the articles we’ve linked to the right.* To be clear, Hanson doesn’t consider himself a transhumanist, and during the program he said that he thinks “it’s somewhat premature to either advocate for or oppose these changes, because we don’t actually know very much about the context in which they’ll appear.” But since he is a vocal proponent of cryonics and he believes that many of the things that transhumanists embrace are at least plausible and in some cases desirable, I think it’s not unfair to put him on the transhumanist side of these debates.UPDATE: See Ari’s follow-up on his exchange with Robin Hanson about sex selection.

Robin Hanson, Proudly Fighting the Good War Against Baby Girls

A recent issue of The New Atlantis features the article “The Global War Against Baby Girls,” by Nicholas Eberstadt, on the epidemic of sex selection. In countries that value the lives of women less than men, gender discrimination now means not just that women are likely to be treated poorly, but that they might not be allowed to live at all. Baby girls in these countries are habitually being killed because of their sex (typically in the womb but also in many cases after birth).Eberstadt’s article goes into some detail about the demographics of this phenomenon: it’s happening in scores of developing countries across the world, and, perhaps counterintuitively, is much more prevalent among affluent families. Minimum estimates place the number of baby girls eliminated based on their gender in the range of 30 million; more comprehensive estimates place the total upwards of 160 million.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

So what do our friends, the bastions of potential biotech progress, have to say about this very actual biotech present? The transhumanist and libertarian economist Robin Hanson has weighed in on Eberstadt’s article on his blog. Hanson has previously turned his moral acumen to subjects like how we should forget the 9/11 attacks because they killed an insufficient number of people to matter. When Hanson responds to Eberstadt’s article, however, the number of lives lost doesn’t seem to matter, even though in this case it can be expressed as large percentages of affected countries’ populations.Instead, Hanson asks the really important question, which is what a high school student in the second week of his introductory macroeconomics course would say about all this:

A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

That’s a nice story, except that South Korea is the only country where there has been a clear reversal. Hanson doesn’t mention the dozens of other countries where the ratio of male to female births has increased steadily, without significant reversal, since the early 1980s. Perhaps this issue isn’t clarified by forcing it inside “a simple supply and demand analysis.” But let’s not let facts stand in the way of our favorite theories.Reported child (0-4) sex ratio in China by county, 2000Or perhaps the reversal just hasn’t kicked in yet for those countries. So history should bear out Hanson’s idea. Can you think of any societies that have selectively exterminated a certain class of their members? Now, how did those exterminations come to an end: was it because those societies suddenly began to value what they had made scarce?Hanson elaborates:

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

You might think that the people who devalue girls so much that they kill them are the ones who, well, devalue them. But you’d be wrong. The best thing you can do to help the cause of girls is to get rid of more of them. Got it?Maybe I’ve been hasty in my take on Hanson’s analysis. Let’s see how he wraps this up:

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

One goes through life aware that some people, even respected intellectuals, think these things — but you figure they at least know better than to say them in public. Did I mention that the name of Hanson’s blog is “Overcoming Bias”? And he doesn’t seem to be kidding, either. If some other people think your life is not worth living, then that makes it actually not worth living, and the rational, beneficial thing to do from a public and economic standpoint is to end it.Transhumanists claim they’re bringing us away from moral slavery and toward rational enlightenment. Libertarian economists claim to offer tools to make peoples’ lives better and more free. To borrow a line from Alan Jacobs: How are they doing so far?