Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Cross the trans-human divide? Hell, we just got here!

Who will own our trans-human future? Why, libertarians, of course! Or so says Ronald Bailey in his article in Reasononline, "Trans-Human Expressway - Why libertarians will win the future".

Politics in the 21st century will cut across the traditional political left/right rift of the last two centuries. Instead, the chief ideological divide will be between transhumanists and bioconservatives/bioluddites.

James Hughes, the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, explores this future political order in his remarkably interesting yet wrongheaded, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Hughes, who lectures on health policy at Trinity College in Connecticut, defines transhumanism as "the idea that humans can use reason to transcend the limitation of the human condition." Specifically, transhumanists welcome the development of intimate technologies that will enable people to boost life spans, enhance intellectual capacities, augment athletic abilities, and choose their preferred emotional states.


With a topic as historically important as the transformation of human biology by technology, you would think that the question of which political philosophy will garner the majority of benefits is a trivial concern, but not for a libertarian true believer like Bailey.

Bailey correctly points out that Hughes' couching of the trans-human future in a traditional leftist political context shows how little Hughes has transcended the limitations on his own human imagination:

In a sense, Hughes himself has not transcended the left/right politics of the past two centuries; he hankers to graft old fashioned left-wing social democratic ideology onto transhumanism. That isn't necessary. The creative technologies that Hughes does an excellent job of describing will so scramble conventional political and economic thinking that his ideas about government health care and government guaranteed incomes will appear quaint. The good news is that if his social democratic transhumanism flounders, Hughes will reluctantly choose biotech progress. "Even if the rich do get more enhancements in the short term, it's probably still good for the rest of us in the long term," writes Hughes. "If the wealthy stay on the bleeding edge of life extension treatments, nano-implants and cryo-suspension, the result will be cheaper, higher-quality technology."

But Bailey cannot see his own inability to transcend his own libertarian context:

Although it clearly pains him, Hughes grudgingly recognizes that libertarian transhumanists still belong in his big tent. And why not? You will not find a more militantly open, tolerant bunch on the planet. Adam and Steve want get married? We'll be the groomsmen. Joan wants to contract with Jill for surrogacy services? We'll throw a baby shower. Bill and Jane want to use ecstasy for great sex? We'll leave them alone quietly. John wants to grow a new liver through therapeutic cloning? We'll bring over the scotch to help him break in the new one.


My point is not to confirm or deny whether trans-humanism will promote libertarian political principles, but to say that Bailey is asking the wrong question, or more precisely, is ignoring the most important question: should we even attempt to transcend human biology?

The extent to which Bailey and Hughes welcome this trend as an absolute good with seemingly no reservations is extremely troubling. Neither are ready to answer the critical question "what are the reasons for not pursuing a trans-human direction?". The obvious problem with a Hughes-esque, big government, socialist driven program for human transformation is that such an approach repeats the "fatal conceit" of all socialist programmes. Such a program will repeat the disasters of socialist run economies, that no group of experts can ever understand the intricate, interconnected variables and relationships of a complex system like a human economy or social system.

While a libertarian approach may appear to avoid the problems of a central planning model, it also ignores the effects that people, making individual decisions to employ trans-human methods to design alternate outcomes for themselves and their children, can have on the larger society, for good and for ill. The fatal conceit of the libertatian philosophy is that individuals can operate independently from the dominant moral ethos of the society in which they live.

Society will need a voice in deciding what trans-human technologies are pursued, and to what extent. The aim of society's involvement must not be to design and implement trans-human future for its members, a la the Hughes program. It should be, rather, to preserve the moral and ethical principles under which society operates as the technologies progress and individuals seek to use them to their benefit.

The WTA and the Extropy Institute both advocate approaches seeking to accelerate the pace of trans-human technical development and exploitation, as if the human genome has exhausted its potential for sustaining humanity. It may be a good time to pause and reflect on how successful this genome has been, and to appreciate its marvelous ability to adapt to a variety of ecological, social and technological environments over the ages. This genome posesses and incredible wealth of wisdom that we should tamper with extreme caution, if at all.

My sense is that the technology of human augmentation will continue to accelerate of its own momentum. Rather than applying additional external forces to accelerate this trend even more, social and political groups should act more in the function of a brake, slowing this trend to ensure the continuity of society's moral ethos. These are the kinds of decisions that will affect humanity for untold generations to come. It makes sense to approach this future slowly, with all due respect for our genetic heritage.

12 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

Politics in the 21st century will cut across the traditional political left/right rift of the last two centuries. Instead, the chief ideological divide will be between transhumanists and bioconservatives/bioluddites.

I highly doubt that.
Mr. Bailey believes that the "Amish impulse" in society will expand to include a third to half of Americans ?

NO WAY.
Add up the number of Amish and Christian Scientists in today's America to get an idea of how little resistance there is to the concept of better living through technology.

There will certainly be those who are "bioluddites", and it may be an issue that the left can use to rise to prominence again, but the ideological divide between transhumanists and bioconservatives is likely to be less charged than abortion currently is. It's more likely that bioimprovements will have a level of controversy similar to tax policy.
(Abortion, by the way, is likely to fade as a flashpoint of contention as better technology makes abortion less necessary).
How many people are going to turn down the opportunity, especially for their children, to be healthier, longer-lived, stronger, and smarter ?


[S]hould we even attempt to transcend human biology?

[W]hat are the reasons for not pursuing a trans-human direction?

Well, unproven transhumanist technology is certain to cause plenty of unexpected consequences and deaths, possibly even birth defects or epidemics of disease.
The history of drug discovery and use, right up to the news headlines of today, amply illustrate that.
However, like widespread pharmaceutical drug use, transhumanism will definitely be a net good.

The only reason not to pursue a transhumanist future is if we define "human" by what it is not.
As long as the darkest African and the lightest Swede, the world's best athlete and the wheelchair bound are considered "human", there's room for the transhuman.

The 21st century will be the century of the cyborg, and the 22d begins the age of diversity.

May 22, 2005 12:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Some of this article seems to ignore even recent history.

The average age of the US population has nearly doubled during the lifetime of the oldest Americans.

Through better training--and steroids--atheletes are attaining previously impossible performances.

Transplants, both mechanical and organic, extend function and lifespan.

Laser eye surgery is virtually a cast-aside-the-crutches miracle.

The transhumanist future is now.

To pick just one of the above examples, LASIK is a clear example of how bereft of life leftist ideas are in this realm. Does anyone really think that socialist impulses would have allowed such a thing to exist in the first place, never mind drop in price so rapidly? (My wife had it done in 1999 for $4500; it is now available for less than half that.)

Michael made some good points above, to which I might add an observation about which I can draw no conclusion. Deaf activists are actively resisting cochlear implants because the feel such a thing will destroy their community.

To which I can only say: Huh?



Duck:
I think your characterization of libertarians in this regard is wide of the mark. (NB--I my opinions here are purely reflexive; if there is an official Libertarian position, I am well and truly ignorant of it.)

I think libertarians are on very firm ground regarding moral decisions. I doubt libertarians assume individual human decisions have no effect on the wider society; rather, they (granted, "I" might be the more accurate pronoun here) believe that, in general, the most moral net outcome will obtain in a society where the greatest number of decisions are made as close as possible to the individual.

Where I think libertarians run aground is in completely failing to come to grips with "free rider" problems.

But that is grist for another post.

May 24, 2005 1:06 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Some of this article seems to ignore even recent history.

The average age of the US population has nearly doubled during the lifetime of the oldest Americans.

Through better training--and steroids--atheletes are attaining previously impossible performances.

Transplants, both mechanical and organic, extend function and lifespan.

Laser eye surgery is virtually a cast-aside-the-crutches miracle.

The transhumanist future is now.

To pick just one of the above examples, LASIK is a clear example of how bereft of life leftist ideas are in this realm. Does anyone really think that socialist impulses would have allowed such a thing to exist in the first place, never mind drop in price so rapidly? (My wife had it done in 1999 for $4500; it is now available for less than half that.)

Michael made some good points above, to which I might add an observation about which I can draw no conclusion. Deaf activists are actively resisting cochlear implants because the feel such a thing will destroy their community.

To which I can only say: Huh?



Duck:
I think your characterization of libertarians in this regard is wide of the mark. (NB--I my opinions here are purely reflexive; if there is an official Libertarian position, I am well and truly ignorant of it.)

I think libertarians are on very firm ground regarding moral decisions. I doubt libertarians assume individual human decisions have no effect on the wider society; rather, they (granted, "I" might be the more accurate pronoun here) believe that, in general, the most moral net outcome will obtain in a society where the greatest number of decisions are made as close as possible to the individual.

Where I think libertarians run aground is in completely failing to come to grips with "free rider" problems.

But that is grist for another post.

May 24, 2005 1:07 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Michael,

I tend to separate medical advances which optimize the functioning of the existing human body from "trans-human" technologies which aim to alter the structure of that body and that genome. Eye surgery, which aims at giving a person with poor vision the vision that a person with no impairment has, doesn't meet my definition of trans-human.

I am mostly cautious about attempts to re-engineer the human psyche through genetic means in some idealistic attempt to achieve some utopian vision. Just read these two paragraphs from the Extropic Institute's mission statement"

Human beings achieved "civilization" thousands of years ago. Yet we have not shaken off the ancient tyrannies that haunt the human condition. We suffer physical and emotional sicknesses ending in decrepitude and death. The primitive parts of our brain spur us to envy, to hate, to despair, and to kill. Our philosophies and our religions attempt to express our highest values, yet we use them to oppress and control. We use them to crush the world's complexity into a simplicity that we can clutch like a security blanket for the human condition.

Human ingenuity has created many institutions and technologies to address these problems. Yet we still have to address our human nature that cause us to fear new technologies. The ever-changing world of the future brings us both anxiety and hope. New technologies that can cure diseases and improve the human condition are always looked on with suspicion and fear when they first arrive. We need to carefully evaluate and use new technologies for their usefulness and not reject them too quickly because they are new and different.


Can you imagine genetic engineers trying to eliminate the "envy gene", or the "hate gene" at the behest of such a program? Can you imagine the disastrous consequences of such a decision, the unintended side effects that would spawn emotional idiots with no capacity for self defense or self interest? Of all the complex systems in the universe, the human psyche has to be the most complex we will ever see. It has been honed by millions of years of evolution, and it has been incredibly successful. To monkey with it for some imagined ideal of bliss would be as foolish as the heir to a fortune that was built up by many generations of hard work betting it all on what's behind door number 3.

The "bad" side of the human psyche is part of the design. We may not understand why, but it was found to be necessary by the forge of evolution. It makes us a very "high maintenance" species - that is the cost for our success. I trust in social evolution to help us minimize those maintenance costs. Better to deal with a known quantity over time than to inject wild cards into the mix.

May 25, 2005 8:51 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper,
To me, libertarians are arrayed on a scale from the very thoughtful and realistic, like yourself, to the insanely unrealistic and clueless idealists who see an extreme laizzes faire moral order as a panacea. I see Bailey as closer to that end of the spectrum, especially with statements like this:

You will not find a more militantly open, tolerant bunch on the planet. Adam and Steve want get married? We'll be the groomsmen. Joan wants to contract with Jill for surrogacy services? We'll throw a baby shower. Bill and Jane want to use ecstasy for great sex? We'll leave them alone quietly. John wants to grow a new liver through therapeutic cloning? We'll bring over the scotch to help him break in the new one.

All of these moral choices are not equal, all are not neutral or beneficial with regards to their impact to the larger society. Drug use is neither beneficial or neutral. Personally, if I had friends who were going to experiment with extasy during sex, I'd do my best to talk them out of it. We are an individualistic society up to a point, and we do grant each person a "neutral zone" regarding their personal behavior, but it is not absolute. It can't be.

Personally I enjoy having a neutral zone, I think that we should strive to make it as large as we can responsibly make it for everyone. Where I differ with libertarians is on the matter of degree. I find that many libertarians over-estimate the extent to which this neutral zone can be expanded. As social animals, there are limits to which autonony can be tolerated within the social group. Technology, communications and mobility have greatly widened it for us moderns, we enjoy more personal autonomy than any one generation of our ancestors. But we share the same psyche with the same social needs, and social intercourse will always demand a minimal level of moral agreement between its members.

May 25, 2005 9:22 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I agree.
The Extropic Institute's mission is dangerous, foolhardy, and doomed.

However, in the realm of the physical, mechanical implants to help us communicate, better perceive our surroundings, and be stronger and healthier are just around the corner.

Slightly further out is genetic tinkering to attempt to maximize our biological beings. Not just eliminating diabetes and sickle-cell anemia, but adding the strength of a bear, the speed of a cheetah, etc.

I actually expect elements of genetic engineering to be ready before the cyborg stuff, but the public may be slow to embrace the former, and with good reason.

You can usually just take out an implant, if it ends up being a bad thing - might be hard to undo genetic engineering done before fertilization.

May 26, 2005 8:37 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

[S]hould we even attempt to transcend human biology?

In thinking further about this question, I've come to the conclusion that the answer is yes.

My previous comments were made with the view that it would happen anyway, whether we should or not.

However, it seems to me that human intellect and ability outstrip the limits of human biology, and have done so since shortly after the advent of agriculture and urbanization 14,000 years ago.

Re-engineering our bodies to keep up with our ability to perceive and control our environment and universe seems logical.
After all, what makes humans different from most other animals is not the shape or ability of our bodies, but of our minds.
The final difference between humans and other pretty smart animals is the ability to conceive of, manufacture, and utilize tools.
If we view our bodies as, in part, tools, then we can see that upgrading simply makes sense.

That thought also leads to what I would consider the only rational reason not to become demigods: Aesthetics.

We might choose to remain in our natural state because of its simplicity and authenticity.

That is an elegant argument, but not one likely to sway the masses. It resounds better among those who are already among the elite, due to winning genetic lotteries.

May 28, 2005 1:25 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Michael,

I also think that it is inevitable that humans will tamper with their genetic heritage, mainly because it is in our nature to do so. The author of Genesis foresaw that. We will play god for precisely one reason - God won't. Religion will not be able to satisfy all of us indefinitely with the promise of a happy afterlife if we forswear any temptation to improve upon the earthly limitations that He "willed".

But this all points to one important philosophical dilemma. How do we transcend our existing legacy by acting on those desires that are a product of that legacy? We have our current grab-bag of drives, instincts and passions because of our evolutionary history. We are driven by sex and status because those are the behavioral prods that made us successful servants of our selfish genes. When people contemplate how they would want to enhance their genetic natures, they will look at increasing their capacity to satisfy these behavioiral prods more effectively. Heightened sexuality. Greater athletic performance and physical beauty to enhance status. Rather than transcending our biological heritage, we will be enslaving ourselves more tightly to it.

Be careful what you wish for, you may just get it.

June 03, 2005 8:44 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Rather than transcending our biological heritage, we will be enslaving ourselves more tightly to it.

Well, yeah, with one caveat.

The only way to transcend biology, under your definition, is to become not-human, possibly not-biological.

I would say that the ability to choose the talents and looks of our offspring, or possibly even ourselves, instead of leaving it to fate, is fairly transcending.

The exception that I would make to the concept that we will merely make ourselves more strongly influenced by our base lusts or needs is in the area of intelligence.
We will certainly be enhancing our minds and memories in the future; in fact, many people are using prescription drugs that have memory enhancing "side effects" right now, for that very reason.

Throughout the history of humanity, being smart has been an edge for survival and procreation, but not a decisive or necessary one. (Except for 75,000 years ago, when the supervolcano exploded, and only the super-smart and the super-lucky humans survived).

Thus, increasing the average IQ to, say, 140, has no precedence in human history, and it'll be an interesting experience.
If humanity survives it...

June 19, 2005 12:46 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Michael,
Hopefully the affirmation "What does not destroy me makes me stronger" will apply here.

June 26, 2005 10:26 AM  
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