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September 19, 2004

Francis Fukuyama's latest article on transhumanism

The Sept./Oct. 2004 issue of Foreign Policy features a symposium titled "The World's Most Dangerous Ideas." In it are eight fairly interesting articles, although some are quite silly (I'll post an entry on Paul Davies' hysteria over sociobiology later). In this symposium, Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future (among other things), has identified transhumanism as one of the "world's most dangerous ideas." Lets take a look at what he has to say.

He begins with this:

For the last several decades, a strange liberation movement has grown within the developed world. Its crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gay-rights advocates. They want nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints. As “transhumanists” see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species.

Lovely to see him using one of my favorite terms to attack his opponents: "crusaders." And as for the assertion that transhumanists want to "liberate the human race from its biological constraints" and "wrest their biological destiny from evolution," I must say that it's nice for him to concede that behavior may be biologically determined. Let us continue:

It is tempting to dismiss transhumanists as some sort of odd cult. . . The plans of some transhumanists to freeze themselves cryogenically in hopes of being revived in a future age seem only to confirm the movement’s place on the intellectual fringe.

This may well be the future, Mr. Fukuyama. You can either attack the wave of the future and risk being drowned, or you can ride the wave and help make the future. It seems he has chosen the former...

Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable, the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify. The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases, physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity’s jealousies, violence, and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project begins to look downright reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology’s tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.

The first victim of transhumanism might be equality. The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and the most serious political fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.

It seems Mr. Fukuyama has an odd interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Yes, generally, when we are created, we are equal. However, as time progresses and individuals develop their skills, tune their abilities, and learn, it becomes very obvious that we, as individuals, are not equal. So, I must ask, why is it so horrible if science simply proves what is already obvious? People should be treated as individuals, equal under the law, which is a point that he seems to agree with. That is about the only form of equality that can actually exist without having to impose a totalitarian system. Other forms of equality, such as intellectual, economic, and physical, are not desirable from either a moral or a scientific standpoint. He then says, "Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality." My question is, how does transhumanism eliminate "political and legal equality"?

Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world’s poorest countries—for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out of reach—and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

"Enhanced creatures"? Would we not still be human, although in what might be considered to be a "more evolved form"? Why does he assume that the law would change? With countries like China practicing national eugenics programs, perhaps he should ask them. Many of our laws already have preferences for certain groups. So, why is Fukuyama so worried about how we identify people under the law in the future when we already have vast legal inequalities?

Transhumanism’s advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods? For all our obvious faults, we humans are miraculously complex products of a long evolutionary process—products whose whole is much more than the sum of our parts. Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones: If we weren’t violent and aggressive, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves; if we didn’t have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn’t be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love. Even our mortality plays a critical function in allowing our species as a whole to survive and adapt (and transhumanists are just about the last group I’d like to see live forever). Modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome.

Here, I admit, these are many of the same questions that I have asked myself when reading up about the transhumanist movement. Many transhumanists have a great flaw: they desire a utopian world, and think that all the problems in the world could be solved by getting to the root of the problem. I don't know how many of you have seen the movie Equilibrium, but I think the movie makes a great point.

In it, a gigantic world war had broken out, and it was believed that if another war were to occur, humanity would wipe itself out entirely. Their solution was to get at what they thought was the root cause of the problem: emotions. So a group got together and formed a totalitarian state centered around a drug called Prozium, which, when taken regularly, eliminated the emotions of humans. Within the state, it is quite totalitarian, yet peaceful, and a gestapo group existed that hunted down "sense offenders," those who could feel. I won't say much more than that, since I think everybody should go rent it, but I will say that what happened was that, in the process of eliminating emotion, they also eliminated freedom. It's a good movie about the dangers of utopian thought.

If we weren’t violent and aggressive, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves; if we didn’t have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn’t be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love.

I agree with him on this. I do not believe in eliminating emotions, and I do not think that completely and utterly eliminating violence would be a good thing, especially if we were invaded by a bunch of aliens while we were wandering around aimlessly in our utopian dreamworld where there was no violence and no war.

It's the utopians whom he is worried about. However, instead of simply attacking the utopian wing of the movement, he has decided that the best way to prevent the utopians much say in this debate is simply to crush the debate altogether and oppose transhumanism, without much thought about legitimate uses of it.

Nobody knows what technological possibilities will emerge for human self-modification. But we can already see the stirrings of Promethean desires in how we prescribe drugs to alter the behavior and personalities of our children. The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.

Has the environmental movement really taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature? We breed all sort of things in nature, animals and plants for our own selfish desires. Here, Fukuyama seems to have it backwards. It isn't the integrity of "nonhuman nature" that has been maintained, but rather the integrity of human nature.

Again, I believe that Fukuyama is making legitimate criticisms of the utopian wing of the movement. However, I believe he is unfairly attacking the rest of the movement because he worries about a select few.

Posted by Arcane at 12:19 PM