The debate around it has been quietly raging for years –‘Quietly Raging’, I may have coined a term.
Tragically, it is not a headline grabbing topic but it has been explicitly percolating through various niche’s in our society … academics, science, philosophy, the arts and in literary circles … for at least ten years now.
Unfortunately, the topic just refuses to really ‘pop’ culturally … I do not hear about it at work around the water cooler. I don’t get unsolicited posts from friends and family on the matter, I don’t hear about it in backyard BBQ’s or cocktail parties. Talk show hosts and celebrities are not obsessed with it.
And hasn’t failed to get the attention in needs for lack of heavy hitters (who have successfully bridged their fields of expertise to the popular culture) plugging it in the media. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, just to name two pop icons, have spoken on the topic extensively and publicly … from different perspectives.
“Enough already … what are you talking about?”
Transhumanism. We will define it momentarily. To many it is an invisible theme.
Honestly, I think that the magic behind its invisibility rests upon the “… ism” suffix.
In the postmodern climate, the last thing any of us want to do is spend any emotional or intellectual energy on is another “Ism”. After the 20th century, we’ve had our fill.
But this is not a political issue, it is an existential one for all of us.
Its time is now. It is already happening around us whether we are for or against it. It’s a reality regardless of whether we are individually aware of it or not.
In the past, I have shied away from posting a series of related blogs but this will be an exception. Today we will look at the issue and attempt to define it. Later this week Part Two we will look at some of the specific aspects of it that simultaneously scare the hell out of opponents while titillating proponents . By the weekend, Part 3 will offer some ‘take aways’. Also … unlike in past blogs, I’ll offer some avenues for further exploration of the topic, links, sources and the like.
Lets start with a high level look at Transhumanism and the debate around it.
Humans are evolving. Theological and scientific debates aside, we can say with certainty that over the last 10,000 years the human body has changed physiologically; both phenotypically ( as seen in decreased bone densities and cranial sizes) and genotypically ( such as extended lactase production into adulthood and, in the last 2,000 years, widespread emergence of the chemokine receptor 5 among European populations, which confers resistance, amongst other things, to the human immunodeficiency virus).
Ok … so we are evolving, most people acknowledge the fact … so what?
A great primer on the evolutionary angle of the transhumanism debate is Timothy Taylor’s “The Artificial Ape”. In it he argues elegantly that you and I have evolved differently from the rest of life on the planet on account of our intimate relationship with technology … which precedes us.
He argues that our evolutionary fitness is measured non-biologically – that we are an intrinsically artificial species and have been from the start.
While I have some critical concerns with a few (very few) of the specifics in the book, the overarching themes and first principles seem sound.
Humans are evolving … heavily influenced by our technological culture and that has become part of who we are. Inevitably, our technology shapes and defines us at least as much as we do it. And the impact is growing, thanks in part to the steep acceleration in the rate at which emergent technologies become ubiquitous in human society.
One could point to extreme minimalists, like the Amish, and argue that their existence speaks against the inevitability of this evolutionary path. I don’t mean to straw-man the issue but I really don’t believe we can take the planet’s 7.5 billion human inhabitants off grid without horrific and revolting consequences.
Sitting in neutral isn’t an option either … either we move ahead or we backtrack … economically, ecologically, politically doing nothing is paramount to suicide. The pressures are just to great. We have to either progress or regress.
The Amish themselves can only exist in the context of a modern supportive society … they are my neighbors, and for those of you who do not have Amish neighbors please realize that they shop at Walmart and their buggies ride up and down on plowed roads maintained by modern road crews using modern equipment. And in some situations they ride in cars … they don’t own the cars, but they do ride in them. They use phones too … In communal huts, away from their domiciles … but they have access to them. They also have phones in their businesses. Along with other modern bits of technology.
Please don’t take this to mean that I am in any way anti-Amish … we could learn a lot from their caution in embracing emergent technologies. This is exactly the type of conversation we ought to be having … I am just saying that the modern world creates a ‘bubble’ environment that makes their lifestyle choice possible.
So back to first principles, and really this is where the dialogue should reside …
The 1st three affirmations in the World Transhumanist Association’s Transhumanist Declaration:
- Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
- We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
- We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
I am not here to carry water for the transhumanists … they have some really smart people in their camp that do a far better job than I could … but the above statements are certainly rational and well thought out.
At the risk of oversimplification, we can create some basic points from these declarative statements …
- We cannot turn back time – We will evolve.
- That evolution will be shaped by emergent technologies.
- Some of these will be detrimental and even dangerous. Some, beneficial and safe.
- We ought to embrace this trend so as to better control and guide it to a positive outcome.
Or not … loud and cogent voices are crying out against this line of thinking … today I posted a piece by one of those voices on my blog. Extremely well written.
There is a dangerous trap in this conversation; it is to see the issue as one of Luddite vs Transhumanist.
This is a polarizing view and only serves to put distance between one side and the other …. Like most complex things in life, they exist on a scale … a continuum. With many gradients and steps between the two extremes.
Tomorrow … discussions of some of the pro’s and the cons.