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.

Free Willy

On a Mothers’ Day trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching the antics of a baby sea otter. The docent explained that it had been found on an Alaskan beach along with its two dead parents, nursed on Pedialyte to stabilize it, and then shipped via FedEx to Pittsburgh, where to all appearances it is thriving.

It is one of those little stories that tells us what a remarkable time and place we live in. For the vast stretch of human history, I’m guessing, a foundling sea otter would have meant some useful fur and perhaps meat (does anybody eat sea otter?). Books like Rascal and Ring of Bright Water suggest that, for some decades in the twentieth century, somebody might have tried to make this otter a pet. Now, a network of commerce, civic institutions, and individual professionals is ready to swoop in and save the critter, at no small monetary cost. It is a privilege to live in a society that can afford to do such unnecessary things, and, on balance, I’m willing to say it represents something we can fairly call progress.
But what is the next step in such progress? The docent did not present a cause of death for the otter’s parents; but plainly, for many, further progress would mean at least making sure that human activities were not the cause. Hence we list the sea otter as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and we can imagine all sorts of schemes to protect it and its habitat. Beyond that, as we have had occasion to discuss on this blog, some would say further progress would mean protecting it from the dangers and pains of nature itself — such as by eliminating animals who prey on them. And then, there are those who imagine that someday “we” — that is to say, our posthuman descendents — will be able to implement the Uplift of sea otters, granting them the gift of rational intelligence.
Now, I think it is fair to say that the consensus position of the vast quantities of science fiction I read as a much younger man in the 1960s and 70s was that in the future there would be no wild animals at all, and that a trip to a zoo might mean a look at exotic species like cats, dogs, and pigeons. The prospect of such a future is still a threatening card to play in the hand of environmentalism. But here is a great example of where extremes meet. For at a certain point, our vision of progress for the sea otter would mean its extinction just as surely as its entire habitat were paved over. The more we imagine ourselves managing the world of the sea otter, the less it is a wild animal, and the less it is a wild animal, the more it seems reasonable to place it within our technological dominion, until even its self-evident joie de vivre is not enough if it can’t tell us all about it.
Plainly, we are on this slope already — the otter I saw will likely spend the rest of its life in a zoo, and I for one will enjoy visiting it there. The question is, how slippery will this slope prove to be? It will be all the slipperier if we fail to note that, like any other good thing, there can be too much progress.

[Image: Sea otter at the Pittsburgh Zoo via flick user mikentiffy]

Seven Scenarios for the Decline of Transhumanism

Many of the things that transhumanism aspires to, like greatly extended life or special abilities, are not really new; expressing dissatisfaction with the human condition by rejecting some of its limits seems to be a perennial human possibility. So it is possible that something like transhumanism at least will never die, so long as there are people in the world who can imagine things being different from what they are. However, in its current manifestation it may be subject to just the sort of decline into quaint obscurity that has been the fate of previous versions of its ideas. So, in the helpful spirit of Kyle Munkittrick’s “When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism” I would like to present seven scenarios that would conduce to its growing irrelevance.1. Recent concerns about too-skinny models, increasing interest in exposing Photoshopped versions of already-beautiful people, and of course the constant use of celebrity plastic surgery as a topic for satire suggest that there is a broad undercurrent of distrust about body modification that places people too far outside a certain norm. This attitude may not always have the highest motives, but were it to gain momentum it would suggest there would not be much toleration for experiments in more radical bodily modification of the sort that the more “free”-spirited transhumanists celebrate.2. Whether or not it has a solid rational basis, lots of people are suspicious of genetically modified (GM) foods and the businesses that produce them. For many foods, having no GM ingredients has become something to advertise. If this resistance grows, it is hard to imagine how people who will not eat a GM corn chip will rush right in and have their prospective progeny genetically tweaked.3. In a similar vein, the problems of in vitro fertilization and allied technologies are getting increasing attention, as evident in The Wall Street Journal excerpting Holly Finn’s The Baby Chase, or the California Independent Film Festival Best Documentary Award going to Eggsploitation, which exposes some of the risks to health and autonomy created by the infertility industry. If all that emerges from this attention is even a more balanced approached to questions of fertility, it will be bad for transhumanism’s wholehearted aspiration to technologize reproduction.4. If Wikipedia is to be believed, cryonics businesses have a hard time staying alive (so to speak), which may have something to do with the fact that the number of people who chose this method of disposing of their bodies is pitifully low. A well-publicized meltdown at a cryonics facility, particularly one that could be linked to financial weakness, might go a long way to putting this genie back in the bottle.5. The imperatives of innovative medical equipment design and academic fashion being what they are, it is not hard to imagine that the current rage for neuropsychological research — which, however premature scientifically, seems to be a good fit in attitude with transhumanist aspirations for “uploading” — will fade away as young, ambitious researchers and inventors seek to make their own marks on the world. Of course, what replaces it may be yet more dogmatically materialistic, but you never know — after all, during the reign of radical behaviorism in the 1950s, who would have predicted that its philosophical vacuity would actually dethrone it in just a few short years?6. Japan supposedly needs robots to care for its aging population, which has spurred a good deal of effort in robotics and AI there. Yet it turns out that the Japanese people are not so fond of the idea of being taken care of by robots after all. Widespread commercial failure, and/or some noteworthy failures in human-robot relations — especially under circumstances of tight national budgets and slow economic growth — could slow research and development in this area and push it in the direction of other technological dead ends, like the Concorde supersonic transport.7. Once upon a time progressives were certain that the direction of history was on the side of universalism and increasingly inclusive human solidarity. For better and for worse, that is hardly obvious today. Should the present climate of global opinion, which has enough trouble extending political and legal recognition to unambiguously human beings, continue, it hardly seems likely to extend the circle of such recognition to nonhumans.I’m not myself a fan of all of the tendencies I have called attention to here, but as a general rule it is important to distinguish between how things are and how one wishes them to be. Otherwise one ends up with a relatively juvenile belief that wishing will make it so. The aura of inevitability that transhumanism likes to cultivate (as says Michael Anissimov: “I will intervene in my own essence. If you try to stop me — good luck.”) is not one of its intellectual strong points, and has almost nothing to do with the real world., which is rife with conflicting possibilities.UPDATE: See a follow-up post here.

Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?

Michelangelo’s David

Next up in my coverage of the Alasdair MacIntyre conference is a talk by Irfan Khawaja of Felician College, addressing the question of whether we should judge moral character based on appearance. More specifically, as he puts it, “Does focal visual perception ever disclose evidence relevant to judgments about moral character, where the relevant aspect of moral character is under the agent’s control?” This question is in response to MacIntyre’s argument in Dependent Rational Animals (1999) that appearance is likely to mislead, especially when it comes to the disabled and disfigured.Khawaja outlines the major arguments for and against. On the side that a person’s appearance is not (or should not be) relevant to judging his or her character:- The projectivist argument: Believing that a person’s appearance is relevant to his character assumes that there is such a thing as good and bad appearance. But standards of beauty, and appearance more generally, are highly culturally bound, making it impossible to come up with universal norms. (I’m guessing this is called the “projectivist” argument because it claims that we wrongly project our own culture’s ideas of beauty onto others.)- The mismatch argument: Physical appearance is almost entirely a matter of natural endowment, or of circumstances beyond one’s control. People can work a little bit with what they are given, but cannot change the facts about their endowments. So moral character and natural endowments are ontologically different.- The danger argument: The notion that appearance is connected to moral character has been at the root of destructive social trends, from racism, to our modern cult of beauty, to sexual objectification, and so on.On the “pro” side:

Chief Bone Necklace
of the Oglala Lakota, 1899.

The appropriateness argument: There are virtues of social appropriateness, which include matters of dress, cosmetics, and other standards of appearance. Judging whether we comport with these standards, or fail or neglect or choose not to comport with them, is relevant to judging character. (This is the Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. Dear Prudence argument: “We care because we’re group-living social animals, and there are certain accepted codes of behavior in various settings.”)- The concomitants argument: Good character leads to happiness, which has an appearance, which can be judged visually. Likewise for bad character.- Common-belief argument: It is often thought that portraiture uniquely reveals the character of the person depicted. Consider the adage that painters show us how the face at any age may be revealed as the face the subject of the portrait deserves.Khawaja’s purposes for the talk were just to outline the terms by which we might approach the question, but he indicates briefly at the end that he doesn’t think the “pro” arguments hold up, at least not very strongly, and so we should not judge a person’s character based on his or her appearance. Or, he says, if there is some connection between the two, it is so weak that we should make sure such judgments stay in the private sphere (or spheres, as it were).

This is a dense and complicated subject, on which Khawaja has written a lengthy paper, and I haven’t given full justice to his account here — probably I’ve misunderstood parts of the argument too. That said, I think Khawaja is a bit too quick to dash the intuitive connection between appearance and character, despite having well presented the case for it. Part of what he seems to be after with this talk is something very important: the “danger” argument he described only begins to hint at just how dangerous is the idea of pre-judging, or passing final judgment, on a person’s character based on his or her appearance.Particularly relevant today is the “cult of beauty” he mentions: we assign inordinate status to people who, through no effort of their own, are born beautiful, while the plain or unattractive are disadvantaged. Something he didn’t mention in the talk that I find particularly bothersome, and that is as old as time but probably worse than usual today, is our tendency to react with distaste towards the elderly, and disgust towards the disabled. These are all reactions we would do well to shake ourselves of — but I think the answer is not to ignore our evaluations of appearance, but to teach ourselves to treat them with initial hesitance, and to learn how to better cultivate them.

First, the “concomitants” argument deserves more emphasis. It’s not just that happiness might indicate a life well lived, which can be a sign of good character. People are very good at reading facial expressions — especially within their own cultures, but many expressions have been found by anthropologists to be universally recognizable. And there are greater depths to facial expressions that strongly indicate personality, and so character. For example, there is a subtle but apparent difference between how happiness looks on the face of a person when it comes from kindness, charity, and good humor as opposed to when it comes from smugness, greed, and pridefulness. One of the functions of portraiture is to highlight the differences between these.There are many other aspects to appearance, of course, that are relevant to judging character. When you consider a word like “comportment,” it becomes clear how difficult it is to strictly separate appearance from behavior, and behavior is clearly relevant to judging moral character. At one point, Khawaja noted that he teaches criminal justice majors, and has found that law enforcement organizations and the public alike think cleanliness and neatness in appearance are related to trustworthiness in enforcing the law. But he doesn’t think this connection necessarily holds: certainly there is no reason that a person who looks scruffy or unshaved cannot be trustworthy.I asked him whether police officers should wear uniforms, and he said yes, but only so they are easily identifiable as police officers. In effect, he argues that while we do have standards of social appropriateness when it comes to appearance, we should not, at least not as a matter of policy or practice. Should doctors wear uniforms, then, I ask? He says no, but the Q&A ends before I get a chance to follow up.

U.S. Army ceremonial uniforms

I think the matter becomes more clear when you consider comportment in the military. Militaries place a strict emphasis on discipline in all aspects of appearance — neat uniforms, clean haircuts, rigid, formal salutes, and so forth. Are these merely a means of signaling conformity to the standards of a group? If so, are they superfluous to understanding and acting in accordance with those standards? Or might participating in a set of rituals exclusive to one group actually be an important means of inducing a person to actually reason and act as if he were a member of the group and its traditions? (And isn’t becoming a member of some tradition or practice crucial, on MacIntyre’s account, to exercising virtue?)Similar points can be made — though they have to be done carefully, as we will see — about the way people shape their appearances more generally, including the way they choose to dress and use cosmetics, especially as an exercise of style. These can also rightly be seen as aspects of the way individuals embrace the beauty of the human form, and display their possession of it, in all its varieties — which is something we should be attuned to and celebrate.But the more important point for this discussion is hinted at in a position MacIntyre outlines in After Virtue: appearance is never purely a matter of aesthetics. Visual perception always depends on theories — and might this not include theories about other people? Put simply: doesn’t the way a person appears change as you get to know him? At a basic level, when you come to admire or love someone, they become more pleasing in appearance, and when you come to dislike or hate someone, they become displeasing. (Deeper contours of character, one might think, could also be revealed in appearance as you get to know someone.)I would contend that these are good and just responses. In fact, they provide the basis for believing that attractiveness (and attraction) is not solely a matter of appearance. Holding this idea does justice to the notion that a person, not just in appearance but in character, can be “beautiful” or “ugly.” It takes us away from what Khawaja rightly notes is a false idea that we all do or should evaluate the beauty of others in the same way. (If this were true, it would imply, among other things, that everyone who tells his or her spouse that he or she is the most beautiful person in the world is lying, except for one.)This idea could also have the specific effect of teaching us to treat our initial evaluations of appearance to be suspect but capable of refinement, in the same way we do evaluations of character itself. Our reaction to people who are disfigured should not be to feel disgust and then decide whether to legitimize or ignore our disgust; rather, it should be to humanize our response to the person himself such that we can experience his appearance as beautiful rather than disgusting.

Andrew Wyeth, Braids, 1979.

This seems to be central to the value of portraiture — as Khawaja mentioned, and as Charles Rubin has insightfully discussed on this blog. It is not coincidental that some of the best portrait and figure painters choose as their subjects not the most conventionally beautiful human subjects, but ones that might be considered plain or unattractive. The Helga paintings of Andrew Wyeth are a particularly famous example.There is a deeper point about appearance here, both for and against the idea of linking it to moral character: probably a lot of what is at stake in a person coming to “deserve” the face he has is that people are treated as if their character were linked to their appearance, whether they deserve it or not. Naturally beautiful people probably tend to be treated better in life than others, and so are more prone in the first place to have a pleasant disposition, whereas someone who is disfigured may become bitter as a result of his likely treatment.But, of course, crucial for character is how we fare with things that are beyond our control, including our own natures. So in someone who is aesthetically beautiful, unkindness to others may indicate an exceptionally weak character, while in someone who is disfigured, affability and cheer may indicate an exceptionally strong character. (And both character traits would, and should, cause us to treat and view the person contrary to how we might otherwise be prone based on their raw appearance.)

I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here is the lesson about transhumanism: Khawaja seems to be continuing what I consider a basically noble progressive project teaching that, to paraphrase the famous line, a person should not be judged based on the color of his skin (or his immediate attractiveness) but on the content of his character. But once we say that a person’s physical form, particularly his appearance, not only can but should be a matter of his total control, we perversely then should judge a person based on superficial aspects of appearance. We can now legitimately find distaste at an ugly person for not having the good sense or the courage to slice and dice her face to conform to others’ standards of beauty. The same point applies not only to attractiveness, but to things like skin color and other aspects of race, not to mention novelties of self-modification.Social pressures that already induce people to focus excessively on the most immediate aspects of their appearance now become imperatives to exact more permanent changes on the body, whether through plastic surgery or implants or genetic modification. It’s a difficult distinction to make, but one could argue that this is the point at which a person’s concern with his or her own appearance crosses from a potentially good exercise in exploring and displaying the beauty of the human form to an implicit rejection of that form.This is not just hypothetical, but already becoming a reality. As we’ve noted here before, transhumanists like Kyle Munkittrick have celebrated Asians carving their faces up to look more like white people (a continuation of the early-twentieth-century trend in which blacks were encouraged to chemically straighten their hair so they would appear more white), while many transhumanists celebrated a young woman who self-mutilated through implants as a supposed sort of self-expression.It’s worth asking how we ought to regard the character of someone who looks aesthetically beautiful due only to non-reconstructive cosmetic surgery and other elective enhancements. If there seems to be something of a cultural distaste arising for people who look too “fake” and “plastic,” perhaps it is because we sense that there is something inauthentic — not only in their appearance but in their characters. This notion indeed seems to throw some cold water on the idea that transhumanist ambitions are truly a means of liberating the self, when it is perhaps closer to the truth to say that they shackle it.[NOTE: Prof. Khawaja has promised to send in a response to this post. I’ll put that up as a new post and add a link here when it comes through.]

Celebrating self-mutilation, Ctd.

In response to my last post about transhumanist celebration of the self-harming behavior of one young woman, tlcraig comments:
I have to say, I am tempted by the view that Lepht Anonym is simply more clear-sighted and thorough-going in her rejection of ‘the given’, or, more sharply put, her hatred of the body, than her fellow transhumanists. Like the body-builder, or the cosmetic surgery patient, she at least recognizes the necessity of risking the good that goes with our presently limited bodies in order to get FOR HERSELF the thought-to-be-possible good of a deliberately remade body. Her fellow transhumanists are willing, even eager, to risk the goods available to presently limited bodies FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS. The fact that they are willing to risk nothing themselves must be somewhat telling, no? Indeed, from the vantage point of L.A., it looks a bit like cowardice masquerading as generosity.
Of course, this is not to deny that there may be a confusion, even a kind of mental illness, behind her ‘daring’, and that the actions of the more ‘timid’ transhumanists in fact points to a prudence. But making that explicit would oblige thinking their way past ridiculous arguments like “searching on Google makes us all cyborgs already” and “aging is a disease no different than cancer”
Tlcraig is right, of course, that one could view Lepht Anonym’s behavior as simply following transhumanist principles without timidity. But now that we have an example of those principles in action, we can vividly see their shortcomings. From a theoretical standpoint, one could argue that we only consider her sort of self-modification to be caused in part by mental illness because of our outdated normative principles — or even that we’re all actually mentally ill for accepting our frail, decaying bodies. But then, as we’ve seen in this case, one becomes unable to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy states of mind — in particular, one loses the capacity to judge any self-modification behavior as unhealthy, or as motivated by unhealthy impulses.
Perhaps there is such a thing as a perfectly adjusted, psychologically balanced, and untroubled person simply deciding for philosophical reasons to cut up himself or herself. But it is striking that none of the transhumanist-friendly discussions I’ve seen about Lepht Anonym have mentioned even the possibility that her behavior might be motivated in part by disturbed psychological states, feelings of self-loathing, or suicidal ideation. Nor, of course, have they noted the easily available confirmation that her behavior actually is motivated by these things. Nor have they discussed whether this might bring into question the praising of self-modification — much less have they discussed whether it might be unethical to encourage it in this one individual.
All of this points to the conclusion that transhumanism has some profound shortcomings in its ability (and desire) to understand the human subject it claims to be so interested in bettering.

Celebrating self-mutilation

I had a look today at the disturbing, fascinating blog of Lepht Anonym, the young woman who recently caused a stir on transhumanist-leaning sites by performing various “enhancement” surgeries on herself at home. These surgeries typically involved implanting small devices in herself, such as magnets under her fingertips, meant to give her extra sensory abilities — often with medical complications resulting.
There’s actually something strangely refreshing about Anonym’s blog: it may be the only transhumanist writing I’ve seen that seems to be written by an actual person, one clearly possessed of a complicated inner life. Transhumanists usually seem to lose interest in expressing their inner lives when they give their thoughts over to the boundlessly incoherent muddle of transhumanist theorizing.
Here’s just one example of Anonym’s distinctive relationship to transhumanism:
i would very much like it if the uneducated masses who like to call me an idiot would disavail themselves of the following precepts:…
3. that you are just as much a “cyborg” as i am because you use an iPhone and wear glasses. [****] off if you are going to tell me that what i do is pointless, and i do not want to debate the definition of cybrog with any normal.
Anonym is here rejecting one of the most familiar and empty transhumanist tropes (employed just yesterday in a blog post by Philippe Verdoux, who says that “the cyborg is already among us”).
Lepht Anonym delivers a lecture.
There is much else that could be said about Anonym’s very personal chronicle. Most notable, sadly, is the confirmation, in a post dated eight days before Wired.com ran its story about her, that Anonym is a diagnosed sufferer of borderline personality disorder (BPD). One of the main symptoms of BPD is deliberate self-harm — formerly known as self-mutilation.
Transhumanists love to repeat the idea that life as we know it, inextricable as it is from aging, is inherently a state of disease (for which transhumanism is the cure). Whatever you think of the aims of that idea, it is difficult to distinguish among various diseased states as good and bad. The only easily recognizable good is resisting the disease — rebelling against the bounds of biology.
Consequently, transhumanists have no conception of any relevance to beings alive today of what it means to flourish, and neither, then, of what sorts of acts and states of mind constitute a profound lack of flourishing. And so it’s sad, if not at all surprising, to find transhumanists not only lacking the faculties to evaluate self-mutilation as the self-destructive behavior of a person in need of help, but encouraging it — both by reporting on it so enthusiastically, and by fostering a subculture in which it could be understood as a laudable act of creation and self-expression.
It’s not psychological distress: it’s “morphological freedom” through “DIY bio.” This is the terminology transhumanists use to anoint their attitude as the highest and bravest sort of enlightenment. Except, read a few of Anonym’s posts describing her self-surgeries and the complications following them, and get a sense of the motivation behind them, and those terms begin to seem like cruel euphemisms — and yet another indication that transhumanist ideology represents a step backwards, not forwards, in our betterment and self-understanding. Wired.com should seriously reexamine its decision to run this piece in the way it did. And — although I know that the moral invoked here is itself scoffed at as unenlightened — the transhumanist community should be ashamed of its role in this.
Lepht Anonym certainly has a distinctive voice and presence on her blog. I can’t help but enjoy that she has twenty-six blog posts tagged “that is illogical captain.” She can be clever, witty, and charmingly self-deprecating. Her self-description says that she “likes people,” and it shows: even in posts in which she describes her pain and confusion, there is an obvious and admirable warmth and love for her friends and family.
I hope Lepht Anonym will stick around, and will find an outlet for her energy and talents that is better for her.
UPDATE: See my follow-up post here.

Man Achieves True Clarity of Hindsight

Engadet reports that Wafaa Bilal is having trouble with the camera anchored to the back of his head. The post is a little vague, but to Laura June, it is “not really a surprise” that he should be removing the camera from the back of his head, and that the experience has been pretty painful. Still and all, she thinks the project can be judged a success if he just wanted to be known as “the guy who had a camera implanted in the back of his head.”

When Engadget contributor Sean Hollister covered the same story back in December, he was considerably more upbeat. While the version now posted is headlined “NYU prof sticks camera on the back of his head, just as promised,” the version I have archived in my Google Reader says, “Man sticks camera in the back of his head, fulfills our childhood fantasies.” The tone of the post that follows is anything but skeptical, even if there was a tongue-in-cheek aspect of the original headline. (Although if there was, why change it?)
Everything is so much clearer, after the fact!

Transhumanist self-mutilation

Wired has a story up by John Borland featuring one Lepht Anonym, who performs surgery on herself to implant various small devices intended to augment her sensory abilities. “You just have to get deep enough to open a hole and put something in,” she says. Take a minute and read this short article before continuing here, as it is one of those stories that cannot possibly be improved in the retelling.

Lepht AnonymI can’t be sure, of course, but I’m willing to bet that had such a story appeared in the news anywhere in the modern West up until very recently — the past decade at most — it would have been given a headline more like, “A Curious Case of Self-Mutilation.” But look at how readily Ms. Anonym and Mr. Borland fall into the transhumanist mindset to account for what she is doing to herself (and this despite her contempt for transhumanist theoreticians). When young people cut themselves and do not attempt to stick anything into the incision — as so many today, especially young women, do — it is still relatively obvious even in our tolerant times that they are in need of psychological assistance. That, after all, is pointless cutting, a cry for help. But let a young woman cut herself and implant some foreign and potentially toxic material into her body, and she becomes worthy of respectful attention, a pioneer. Somebody has to show the way for the next step after tattooing and piercing lose their edge, right?
“Self-mutilation” may be one of those ideas that become too old-fashioned to survive in a transhumanist-influenced future. It will be hard enough to maintain any serious idea of mutilation when the transgressive “creativity” that the artistic temperament currently unleashes against innocent canvas is turned on flesh. It might seem as if any diminishment of capacity would constitute mutilation on transhumanist assumptions, but that caveat is unlikely to survive its libertarian relativism.

In this case, however, even “doing her own thing” does not seem to be the last word. She is Lepht Anonym — left nameless — as if despite doing something so distinctive, she does not seek distinction, but rather wishes to be always in motion, to be the one who can be defined by no name. How can there be self-mutilation if one denies there is a self to do it, or do it to?

[Image: Lepht Anonym, courtesy of Wired.]

Rudolph, the Racism Reindeer

My apologies if this puts some coal in your stocking on Christmas Eve, but among the many wonderful tunes sung and played at Christmastime (the beautiful, transportive instrumental album Dulcimer Christmas comes highly recommended by yours truly), there is one that has never sat well with me: the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There have been various versions of it over the years — most notably the original 1939 booklet produced by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward, and the 1964 stop-motion animation film (Snopes has a great overview of the history) — but if you recall, the most famous version of all is of course the 1949 Johnny Marks song, sung since by millions and millions of children.
The song leaves a lot of important questions unanswered, but what is there paints a pretty unsettling picture. Rudolph is a physically deformed young buck who is mocked and ostracized by his reindeer peers for looking different. They never let him join in any of their reindeer games; alack, poor Rudolph.
Eventually, it turns out that Rudolph’s deformity, a shiny red nose — so shiny, in fact, that one could even describe it as luminous — comes in handy (nosey?) during a particularly low-visibility Christmas Eve. Santa calls upon our snubbed protagonist, who, owing to his unique feature, is able to save the day. It is then (only then!) that all the reindeer love him.
I ask you, gentle reader: what kind of message is this sending to our children?
Rudolph’s predicament of feeling different, excluded, and unable to fit in is something many kids must be able to relate to — and I think many parents assume the story has a positive message to tell them. But what are we to take away from the way Rudolph’s predicament is resolved?
The conclusion to the story is ostensibly redemptive; but is it because the young reindeer come to empathize with the suffering they have inflicted on Rudolph, accepting him into society when they realize the inherent wrongness of their bigotry? No. At least in the song — I understand that the 1964 movie version tells the story quite differently — things only turn around for Rudolph when the thing that makes him abnormal happens to be also very valuable, and moreover, valuable in a way that is recognized as valuable by others.
Rudolph, in other words, becomes accepted because he is lucky. There is an optimistic way we can read the story: Rudolph’s shiny nose stands for the inner light that shines in each of us, through each of our unique and special attributes, waiting for the proper opportunity to finally become visible to others. Rudolph gains acceptance when his fellows realize not only that he is excellent in spite of being different, but excellent because of his difference. So, too, can each of us find ways to make the things that make us different become recognizable to others as displaying our unique worth. Perhaps there is even an excellence — a process of, in the parlance of our times, actualization or of finding the self — in learning how to make our unique worth recognizable to others.
This question about the wisdom of the message of “Rudolph” points to a larger tension in our culture — one that was probably at its most apparent at the height of the P.C. era of the 1980s and 1990s, but that has been with us as long as we have been struggling to achieve civil rights and secure liberal democracy: are we supposed to rally around the motto that “everybody’s equal,” or is it that “everybody’s different”? Égalité or diversity? The former is very easily warped into the ludicrous and harmful “everybody’s the same” (a suggestion that has been brilliantly spoofed by Stephen Colbert’s repeated insistence that he literally “can’t see race”). And the latter is a notoriously tricky, somewhat fuzzy, and often challenged concept.
One problem with the notion that “everybody’s the same” is that it papers over the great diversity of ways that people can be excellent and valuable. There is a potential wisdom in the message of “Rudolph” worth underlining: it teaches us that excellence often must be demonstrated in deeds. It celebrates that there are many ways we can be remarkable, and teaches us the virtue in striving to find them and show them. In other words, it tells kids that if they are different and don’t fit in, then they just need to find ways to prove everyone wrong by showing just how great they can be in their difference.
But the problem with this message is that many of the things that make us different from each other are not easily recognizable as great, particularly by the people we want to accept us. When the next mutant reindeer comes along, perhaps with a lump of coal for a nose instead of a light bulb, will the other reindeer have learned their lesson about acceptance and immediately let him join their reindeer games? I suspect that the coal-nosed reindeer too will have to struggle to show the specialness of his difference, and may well never find a way to fit in as well as Rudolph has.

For better or worse, the “Rudolph” song paints an honest picture of how equality and acceptance tends to be won in our own society. Black civil rights probably gained as much from the achievements of jazz, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson as from philosophical appeals to inherent human equality — as much, even, from the personages and deeds of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were making those philosophical appeals, as from their words.
Of course, the notions of diversity and equality are bound up with one another. Our acceptance of people’s differences is tied to our expansion of equality — the realization that a person who is different from us is still equally a human being, and equally deserving of the rights and respect accorded to human beings. We still, that is, believe that equality comes not from what a person can do but from what he or she is.

And this is where the transhumanists come in. Transhumanists call for the proliferation of new posthuman forms; they celebrate diversity and tolerance; and they seek to smash such “-isms” as “speciesism,” acting, as we have noted, as if they are in fact the modern successors to the civil rights movement. But in avowedly rejecting the human, the transhumanists also reject, at least implicitly, our underlying human equality. And once we refuse to recognize our underlying equality, as poor Rudolph discovered, the best way we have left to get at what we are is through what we do.
Yet there are many people who already cannot do as much as most — the very young, the very old, the sick, and the disabled — who thus cannot easily demonstrate their worth in deeds. Consequently, philosophers like Peter Singer already declare that many of these groups should not be treated or defended as people at all. (It is not an accident or a quirky footnote of utilitarian belief that Singer defends killing infants and Alzheimer’s patients — including perhaps even his own mother.) And transhumanists, for all of their self-congratulatory tolerance, are either indifferent to or repulsed by these groups. (Or perhaps, charitably, they are repulsed for them, on their behalf.)
If these obviously human groups are already having trouble being recognized as people, how will they — and the rest of us — fare in the posthuman age? For while Rudolph was lucky to have his difference make him excellent in a way that was recognizable to others, the posthuman age will be defined by the dissolution of any shared notions of who we are and what is valuable about us. One of the new sorts of beings may be great in some way that is totally unrecognizable to the many other new sorts of beings. It may no longer be just the weakest human beings who will have trouble making the case for their worth in a way that others will understand.
“Rights,” “equality,” and “tolerance” may well lose their meaning in such a world. If that happens, you’d better make sure your bright-red nose can shoot lasers beams too.
[Images: The 1964 stop-motion film; diversity according to Fairfax County; Frederick Douglass; “speciesism” according to Flickr user thinkvegan; the 1998 animated film.]

Kitty minus kitty

In my last post, I noted the problems with Michael Anissimov’s attempt to defend “morphological freedom” as following from the civil rights movement. I described the way racism has been historically combated by appealing to what we have in common. This is an inherent problem with comparing “species-ism” to racism, because racism is combated precisely by appealing to our common humanity — that is, to our common species.
But it’s worth noting that a similar point holds when we look at an existing, non-hypothetical debate about interspecies rights and difference: the animal-rights debate. If we apply Mr. Anissimov’s “morphological freedom” argument to that debate, we again find it pretty lacking: Advocates of animal rights don’t argue that we should treat, say, a pig with respect or kindness because it “has a right to be a pig,” but rather because we should empathize with the way that, like us, a pig is intelligent (after a fashion) and has emotions and the capacity for suffering.
In fact, Mr. Anissimov, like many transhumanists, considers himself to be continuing the movement for animal rights in addition to civil rights. It’s all part of the ostensible transhumanist benevolence outreach, the grand quest to end suffering. But their formulation of this is to “reprogram” animals so as to end predation. Cats could go on being cat-like in some way, but we have an obligation to remake them so that they no longer hunt and kill. But have a look at this:
Where is the line here between the feline instincts to hunt and play? Is the hunting aspect of a cat something wholly separable from its nature, something that can be cleanly excised? Isn’t a cat minus its hunting instinct a cat minus a cat?
The suggestion of a project to end predation illustrates the transhumanist inclination to see living beings as simply a collection of components that have no logical dependencies on each other — as independent parts rather than wholes. But, more to the point, it makes the question of morphological freedom a pressing one for transhumanists themselves, who before undertaking such a project would quite seriously have to confront the question, “does a cat have a right to be a cat?”