Whereto Transhumanism? The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass
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Whereto Transhumanism?
The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass

Transhumanism is, according to its proselytizers, the "intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities."1 Transhumanists look forward to descendents who are posthumans, "future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards." 2 These posthumans may be "resistant to disease and impervious to aging," have "unlimited youth and vigor," and "reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates." They may have "increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity" and "experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access."3 Posthumans may go so far as to escape the limitations of physicality by uploading themselves onto computers.

When last I checked the Web site of the World Transhumanist Association, an organization formed to agitate for transhumanism, I learned that it had a global membership of 3,744. But transhumanists are not the philosophically marginalized, technology-obsessed Trekkies that this number might suggest. Transhumanist thinkers present their view about where we should be headed with a keen awareness of how we might get there. Their opponents, not they, tend to be the ones guilty of arguing from caricatures of the technologies in question.

With the publication in the last few years of several books on transhumanism, a decent transhumanist literature has now been amassed. Those setting out this literature include the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who directs the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and maintains the influential "Transhumanist FAQ"; James Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, whose syndicated talk show Changesurfer Radio puts the case for transhumanism on a weekly basis; Gregory Stock, author of the book Redesigning Humans, which saw him pitted in public fora against Francis Fukuyama (whose book, Our Posthuman Future, also published in 2002, warned of the threat to humans and human nature from the new genetic technologies); the science journalist Ronald Bailey, who argues for a libertarian take on posthumanizing technologies; and Simon Young, who combines advocacy of transhumanism with composing and playing the piano.4

Intellectual movements are often given unity by a shared sense of who the enemy is. Transhumanists declare their most implacable foes to be a group of thinkers they call "bioconservatives" or, more insultingly, "bio-Luddites." Prominent among the bioconservatives are Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, Bill McKibben, and Jeremy Rifkin. Although there are differences between them, these thinkers share a desire to keep us and our near descendents human, even if this means keeping us and them dumb, diseased, and short-lived. They identify the technologies that enthuse transhumanists as distinctively threatening to our humanity. [End Page 12]

Human and Posthuman

The Transhumanist FAQ tells us that posthumans are "no longer unambiguously human by our current standards."5 This leads to the questions of what our current standards for humanity are and whether they should be trusted. One of history's lessons is that seeming different does not suffice to make someone nonhuman. Europe's age of exploration led to many encounters between humans who struck each other as so strange as to belong to different species. If we are to avoid mistakes like these, we need definitions of humanity and posthumanity that look deeper than appearances.

Francis Fukuyama thinks that we should acknowledge genes as marking the boundaries of humanity. He says "every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures."6 The idea that one is human by virtue of possessing a genome that gives rise to traits typical of humans may correctly classify posthumanizing technologies that work by modifying genes. But it seems to misclassify posthumanizing technologies that work without modifying genes. A descendant of ours modified with multiple cybernetic implants, after the fashion of the Borg from Star Trek...