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could argue that we only consider her sort of self-modification to be caused in part by mental illness because of our outdated normative principles — or even that we’re all actually mentally ill for accepting our frail, decaying bodies.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.

The War on Dying, the Battle Against Aging (panel one)

The first panel today is on the science of life extension, with a typically crisis-laden title, “The War on Dying, the Battle Against Aging.” (And a heated exchange ensues toward the end of the panel — don’t flip that dial.) The first two speakers, Cynthia Kenyon of UCSF (revealingly profiled here) and Ana Maria Cuervo of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, are researchers. They share some familiar anecdotes about the biology of aging: tapeworms whose lifespans were extended several times over by flipping a couple genes, and so forth.

Aubrey de Grey and Ana Maria Cuervo.

One interesting experimental result I hadn’t heard before is that if you attach an old, infirm mouse to a young, healthy mouse and then inflict a bruise on the healthy mouse (it must be something to sit around thinking up the idea to do this sort of thing), the old mouse will heal much faster than if the young mouse didn’t have the wound. The panelist describing this says that this shows that “external interventions can have a great effect on the body.” This seems like a strange way of putting it, since the “external” intervention is in fact the internal workings of another organism’s body.
Stephen Johnston of Arizona State’s Biodesign Institute seems at first to be the voice of reason in this setting: he talks about approaching aging from the standpoint of disease and detecting and treating early chronic diseases. He offers have a practical, clinical perspective on life extension, noting his initial trepidation about the title of the conference, because “I’ve known a lot of radicals that I’m not sure I’d want to extend their life.” (Um, don’t look to your left, Mr. Johnston, where Aubrey de Grey sits.)
But soon enough Johnston starts heading into transhumanist territory, saying we’ll be melding with robots and computers and increasingly turning ourselves into them. After all, he says, we already have mechanical implants, and “computers already have the computing capacity of our brains.” Ooof. I imagine quite a few people here will believe that because he’s speaking with an air of scientific authority, but let me just note that this claim is well outside his field. Indeed, let me go further, and knock it down outright: we don’t know how to define the whole function of the brain as a computer, and so we can’t define the brain’s “computing capacity” generally. All we can do is compare its performance on particular computational tasks, like adding. This is why computers can perform many sorts of tasks billions of times faster than us, but there are many other tasks we can do that they can’t even perform at all, because we don’t know how to define them computationally. Apples and oranges, folks, certainly for the time being.
Next up, and given the largest speaking slot, is Aubrey de Grey, the aging researcher and activist. He says that radical life extension is a turn-off to a lot of people, “especially people on Capitol Hill,” because they imagine it as people getting old and extending the frail and infirmed portion of their life indefinitely. This is a pretty old understanding of radical life extension (Jonathan Swift depicts it this way in Gulliver’s Travels), though I think he’s also alluding to the problems life extension would potentially pose (and has already posed) for our social and health care systems. De Grey is right, of course, to push back against the idea that life extension would have to occur that way. But it doesn’t seem at all apparent that it necessarily wouldn’t; he’s just saying that it won’t because life-extensionists are trying to prevent that outcome. But the current explosion of chronic and degenerative diseases as life spans increase isn’t hugely supportive of his assertion. Radical life extension, as de Grey well knows, will have to take a form very different from just continuing the life extension we’ve seen so far.
At the end of the panel, Cynthia Kenyon throws some cold water on the anecdotes from the beginning about tapeworms, noting that the same interventions have not produced nearly as dramatic results in mice, and seem to be even less powerful in more complex organisms such as humans — though Kenyon seems also to be setting up how little we know and have tried as reason for optimism about what new interventions we could find. Aubrey de Grey agrees that “the combinatorial approach [flipping genes] rapidly approaches diminishing returns.”
From left to right, Cynthia Kenyon, Stephen Johnston, a questioner (obscuring Ana Maria Cuervo), and moderator Emily Yoffe.
And now for the juicy, tabloid coverage of the conference you’ve all been waiting for: Near the end of the Q&A session, a little spat broke out between Stephen Johnston and Cynthia Kenyon over NIH funding and whether research projects need to have a specific, practical, and easily politically justifiable aim, or whether open and “pure” research should remain funded. Kenyon placed herself on the moral high ground of defending pure research, comparing Johnston to the infamous head of the U.S. Patent Office in the nineteenth century who supposedly declared that everything that could be invented had been (actually an apocryphal story). But it wasn’t clear to me that Johnston was making the point Kenyon imputed to him. I’ll have to watch the video again later, but it was a weird, rude little spat.
(Dear Prudence: I’m moderating a national conference and two of my panelists keep yelling at each other and accusing each other of philistinism. Do I let them duke it out over a live feed? Signed, Moderately Befuddled. [Actually, moderator Emily Yoffe, Slate‘s “Dear Prudence” columnist, wisely and adroitly headed off the exchange and moved on to the next question.])
Fireworks aside, it’s been pointed out to me that the most entertaining part of this panel is watching Aubrey de Grey play with his beard — and watching the other panelists watch him.

Transhumanist Inevitability Watch

Transhumanists have a label — “the argument from incredulity” — for one kind of criticism of their visions and predictions: The instinctual but largely un-evidenced assertion that transhumanist claims are simply too fantastical and difficult to fathom and so must be false. While there’s plenty of reason, empirical and otherwise, to doubt transhumanist predictions, they’re certainly right to point out and criticize the prevalence of the argument from incredulity.
But there’s a transhumanist counterpart to the argument from incredulity: the argument from inevitability. This argument is prone to be just as un-evidenced, and at least as morally suspect. So I’d like to begin a new (hopefully regular) series on Futurisms: the Transhumanist Inevitability Watch.

Or are we?

Our first entry comes from transhumanist blogger Michael Anissimov:

It’s 2010, and transhumanism has already won. Billions of people around the world would love to upgrade their bodies, extend their youth, and amplify their powers of perception, thought, and action with the assistance of safe and tested technologies. The urge to be something more, to go beyond, is the norm rather than the exception…. Mainstream culture around the world has already embraced transhumanism and transhumanist ideals.

Well, then! Empirical evidence, maybe?

All we have to do is survive our embryonic stage, stay in control of our own destiny, and expand outwards in every direction at the speed of light. Ray Kurzweil makes this point in The Singularity is Near, a book that was #1 in the Science & Technology section on Amazon and [also appeared] on the NYT bestsellers list for a reason.

Ah. Well, if we’re going to use the bestseller lists as tea leaves, right now Sean Hannity’s Conservative Victory is on the top of the Times list, and Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea is #2. Does this mean conservatism and alcoholism have also already won?
Similarly, his other major piece of evidence is that it would be “hard for the world to give transhumanism a firmer endorsement” than making Avatar, a “movie about using a brain-computer interface to become what is essentially a transhuman being,” the highest-grossing film of all time. Okay, then surely the fact that the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter movies occupy five of the other top 10 spots means even firmer endorsements of pirates and wizards, no? And actually, Avatar only ranks 14th in inflation-adjusted dollars in the U.S. market, far behind the highest-grossing film, which, of course, is Gone with the Wind — unassailable evidence that sexy blue aliens aren’t nearly as “in” as corsets and the Confederacy, right?
Mr. Anissimov’s post at least contains his usual sobriety and caution about the potentially disastrous effects of transhumanism on safety and security. But he and other transhumanists would do well to heed the words of artificial intelligence pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum in his 1976 Computer Power and Human Reason:

The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it.

Keep Weizenbaum’s words in mind as we continue the Inevitability Watch. Humanity’s future is always a matter of human choice and responsibility.
UPDATE: Here’s another good example from Anissimov:

Transhumanist issues are obscenely mainstream nowadays, who even cares. We’re not even edgy anymore. The excitement is over. It’s time to start racing towards a safe intelligence explosion so we can end the Human-only Era once and for all. Let’s just get it over with.

Attack of the Cloners

In a couple of posts last week (here and here), Kyle Munkittrick joined in on the recent blogospherical cloning debate, taking particular aim at our post on the subject.
There’s a good deal of sloppiness in Mr. Munkittrick’s posts to nitpick (e.g., the Bioethics Council’s claim that “genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves” is far from “genetic determinism”; people can act like arrogant narcissists without necessarily being arrogant narcissists, just as sometimes good people do bad things; the term “neoconservative” is stretched to the point of meaninglessness; and so forth). But there are also crucial flaws in the central points of his posts, and (you guessed it) they point towards common flaws in transhumanist arguments.
Reproductive Equivalence
First, Mr. Munkittrick seeks to defend cloning by drawing a moral equivalence between it and other means of reproduction (both assisted and unassisted), and arguing in particular that the genetic relationship between parent and child does not matter:

Cloning is a method of reproduction just like IVF and PGD and rutting in the back seat and the rhythm method…. IVF, adoption, surrogate parenting, and egg/sperm donation all also alter the genetic make up of the child from unassisted reproduction and produce no ill effects on parent/child relation.

He argues further that the notion that the genetic relationship does matter was made up by critics of cloning. Twisting (or perhaps misunderstanding) something Adam Keiper quoted, he quips and challenges:

I am almost certain that human beings were endowed with a “sense of life” [as a] “never-before-enacted possibility” before Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Collins, but I might be wrong!… Where is the evidence people identify with their genetics? Anyone?

Well, for starters, try the quote from Bryan Caplan that Mr. Munkittrick’s post is ostensibly defending:

Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sure sounds like identifying with your genetics. It’s more than just a little odd that Munkittrick, in trying to defend Caplan’s wish to clone himself, ignores the stated source of that desire.
A Sober Look at Assisted Reproduction
Believing that the nature of the biological relationship between parents and children is essentially irrelevant, Mr. Munkittrick writes that cloning would be similar to other kinds of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in producing “no ill effects on [the] parent/child relation.” But he’s wrong about the track record of existing ART.
Cheryl Miller’s New Atlantis essay “Donated Generation” examines the profound and pronounced social and psychological effects of ART on the children it is used to create. Her essay rebuts the simplistic assumption that there are no moral differences between different means of human reproduction. And it highlights a contradiction similar to the one in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — denying the importance of biological relationships even while defending them:

To [author Elizabeth] Marquardt, donor conception is inherently problematic, no matter how openly or lovingly it’s done, since it intentionally separates children from at least one of their biological parents. Take the often-made comparison to adoption, she says. In both cases, children are separated from their biological parents. Adoption, however, is an extreme situation — one that recognizes the loss to the child. “In adoption, your adoptive parents were not the ones who caused this loss — the people who raised you were not the ones who intentionally divided you from your mother and father,” she explains. “In donor conception, the people raising you are also the ones who decided before you were even conceived that these relationships should not matter to you.” Here Marquardt sees a curious contradiction at the heart of donor conception: Love makes a family, we’re told, but parents choose donor conception because they want a child biologically connected to them. If biology matters to parents, Marquardt asks, why wouldn’t it also matter to children? (Emphasis added.)

The same point applies just as well to the cloning debate, but even more so to an argument like Caplan’s: He advocates cloning specifically because a genetic relationship between himself and the child does matter a great deal. Moreover, he at least implicitly advocates cloning over and above existing methods because of the supposedly profound new possibilities allowed by creating a child with the exact same genes as himself.
If these profound possibilities matter so much to Caplan, why wouldn’t they also matter to his child? And, in (partial) defense of Steve Sailer’s post, why wouldn’t it matter to Caplan’s wife that she would not share that “sublime bond” of genetic identity? If, as Caplan hopes, some stronger relationship between a clone and his or her genetic parent indeed would exist, then, all else being equal, wouldn’t Caplan feel a stronger connection with his own clone than with a clone of his wife, or with a child sharing both their genes? So when Mr. Munkittrick claims, “To somehow assume that a clone of Bryan Caplan would be ‘Bryan’s’ child while the other kids were both [his and his wife’s] is vulgar and preposterous,” doesn’t this mean that the assumption is in large part Caplan’s own?
The Unbearable Lightness of Cloning
What is the source of this tension? If Mr. Caplan thinks this relationship matters enough to motivate the pursuit of cloning, then why does Mr. Munkittrick defend Caplan on the grounds that the relationship doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter at all? Striking as it is, this is a surprisingly common move in transhumanist argument. Consider the prevalence of defenses of enhancement that begin with words like, “But we already do/have x.” For example:

In defense of steroids in sports, the argument that we already enhance through better sporting equipment and training;
In defense of enhancing the brain by implanting computer chips, Ray Kurzweil’s argument, “We already do that now. If you are a Parkinson’s patient you can have a pea-size computer put in to replace the biological.”;
Or even in response to the general question, “[W]hy should public money be spent to produce an eventual race of posthumans?,” Kurzweil’s reply, “We already have people walking around who have computers in their brains”;
In defense of sex with robots: “We already have the ability to have sex with a variety of machines and to have sex in virtual environments”; etc.

The underlying pattern is to describe the potentially novel good of some new enhancement, but then rebuff potential criticism of that good by claiming that the enhancement actually won’t be very different from anything we already have. But this move towards and then back away from the difference and significance of an enhancement also undercuts the original positive arguments for it: In this case, if we have no evidence that cloning is cheaper or safer than other assisted reproductive technologies, and we’re also to believe that it is not morally different from other technologies in either its means or ends, then what reason do we have for pursuing it at all?

Geoengineering: Falling with style

Brandon Keim at Wired has a short piece and a gallery called “6 Ways We’re Already Geoengineering Earth,” related to the new conference on geoengineering being held at Asilomar:

Scientists and policymakers are meeting this week to discuss whether geoengineering to fight climate change can be safe in the future, but make no mistake about it: We’re already geoengineering Earth on a massive scale.
From diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to planting and grazing two-fifths of its land surface, humankind has fiddled with the knobs of the Holocene, that 10,000-year period of climate stability that birthed civilization.
The point that humans are altering geophysical processes on a planetary scale is almost inarguable. But while this alteration is an aggregate effect of human engineering, it is not in any sense geoengineering. Geoengineering is the intentional alteration of geophysical processes on a planetary scale, while anthropogenic environmental change as it exists now occurs without such intent (either through ignorance or indifference).
Mr. Keim probably had no hidden agenda himself, but the attempt to blur a distinction of intent into a difference of degree is a common transhumanist move, and a seductively fallacious one. In the case of climate change, it can lead to advocacy for what amounts to fighting fire with fire. As I’ve argued before, the lesson we ought to learn from global warming is that humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them.
Just like a project to remake man, a project to remake the planet will have to be so advanced from today’s technology as to overcome what is at least now the truth of this lesson — but it will not do so by treating the project as essentially more of the same of what humankind has already done to the planet.