Look up “transhumanism” in Wikipedia and you will
find an extensive entry, with enough hyperlinks to keep you occupied for a very
Wikipedia tells us that “the contemporary meaning of
the term ‘transhumanism’ – which is now symbolized by H+ (human plus) … (is)
an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the
possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition
by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and
to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological
The transhumanists believe that we should use the
convergence of new technologies, such as nano-, info-, bio-, neuro-and
robo-technologies, which are unprecedented in human history, to evolve beyond
being human. They advocate changing ourselves from Homo sapiens to Techno
sapiens. Transhumanists see us as presently in the transhuman stage on our way
to becoming post-human – that is, not human at all. They describe natural humans
– whom they refer to as “unmodified humans” – as “becoming an
Transhumanists know that many of their ideas frighten people
and have taken steps to reduce this fear. For example, “in 2008, as part
of a rebranding effort, the World Transhumanist Association changed its name to
‘Humanity+’ in order to project a more humane image.”
Another fear-reducing strategy they’ve employed is to argue
they’re not proposing anything radically new or different, because we have
already set out on the path to a post-human future, in that we are using
technology to enhance and extend our human capacities, for example, cell
phones, the internet, medical prostheses and so on. They also point out that we
have always done so – for instance, with reading glasses or dentures. They
propose that the latest possibilities are just more advanced examples of the
same phenomenon made possible by remarkable advances in science. In short, they
argue that what they are advocating is not different in kind from what we’ve
already accepted as ethical and desirable and, therefore, any fear is mistaken.
As well, the transhumanists rightly believed that the one
idea everyone would buy into was life extension, or even immortality, and they
intentionally put this front and centre of their agenda. They propose two
approaches to achieve this.
“Life prolongation” repairs nature as it fails
with regenerative medicine, including organ transplants, stem-cell therapies,
and so on. “Age retardation” envisions a future in which the genes
that control aging are reprogrammed so we would reach puberty at say 40 years
of age or later, middle age around 150 years, and old age well into our
hundreds and perhaps, eventually, not at all.
The transhumanists’ ultimate dream is of eternal life –
either here on Earth or, possibly, on another planet – through the use of
technology. Consequently, transhumanism could be viewed as a
“techno-utopian, secular religion”: Like many religions, it seeks and
promises immortality through transcendence and transformation, but realized
through science, not traditional religion.
Because we all have a natural fear of death and
annihilation, immortality is a very attractive concept. But would the new
immortal “techno me” or “techno you” – our brain contents
downloaded onto a computer or robot – truly be us, or just a machine? I believe
we would be the latter. And that brings to mind the concept of “genetic
reductionism” – the belief that we are nothing more than gene machines or
“genes-R-us” – which I also reject.
Some transhumanists describe people who oppose their goals
as “technophobic” and “neo-luddite” (the scientific
equivalent of calling someone a dinosaur). For instance, I’ve been labelled in
an editorial in Nature magazine, as “Canada’s neo-luddite
Let me be clear. There is an enormous amount of good that
can be achieved with our new technoscience, especially regenerative medicine.
The issue is where we draw the line between ethical and unethical use of it.
One approach I find helpful is to ask whether we are using it to repair nature
when it fails or to do something that is impossible in nature. The former
usually raises far fewer ethical concerns than the latter, although, of course,
it’s not the only relevant question in deciding on ethics. However, as I know
from personal experience and criticism when I’ve used this approach,
“transhumanists see the very concept of the specifically ‘natural’ as
problematically nebulous at best, and an obstacle to progress at worst,”
and “the natural” as having no inherent moral value.
Another distinction that might help to distinguish ethical
technoscience interventions from unethical ones is whether the intervention
affects the intrinsic being or essence of a person – for instance, their sense
of self or consciousness – or is external to that. The former, I propose, are
always unethical, the latter may not be.
Which leads to a related issue at a much more general level:
transhumanists do not accept that there is any “essential natural essence
to being human” that must be respected, an essence that I believe we must
hold on trust, untampered with, for future generations. It is difficult to
define what constitutes this essence, without referring to a soul or at least a
“human spirit” – the latter of which does not require any religious
belief, but does require that we see ourselves as more than just machines. The
fact that at least a large majority of transhumanists are atheists and they do
see humans as machines might explain, in part, why they believe no such respect
I have written elsewhere (including
in MercatorNet) that I believe failing to see humans as
“special,” as compared with other animals or robots and, therefore,
deserving of “special respect” is currently “the world’s most
dangerous idea,” not least because it would mean the transhumanists could
proceed unrestricted with their human remodelling project. But there are also
much subtler expressions of the same philosophical mindset. A young woman
explained to me recently that she was taking a month off work in order to
decide “whether to remake myself.”
I fear many young people see themselves in the same way, as
“human machines” or “projects,” which, as an aside, helps
to explain their support for legalizing euthanasia (worn-out machines are
disposed of as efficiently and cheaply as possible).
Probably most worrying of all, with respect to interventions
on the essence of our very being, are those with a goal of enhancing people’s
mental or moral capacities. Neuroethics is a new field of applied ethics
looking at issues raised in this context. Transhumanism, again like many
religions, seeks to create the morally perfect human. Transhumanists argue
post-humans will be more ethical and moral than present humans, that wars and
conflicts will cease, and so on. Consequently, one of their special concerns is
how to ensure people in all socioeconomic classes and countries will have
access to human enhancement technologies.
But, leaving aside the reality that even such laudatory ends
do not justify unethical means, other possibilities are not so benign. They
include mind control, loss of the basis for both free will and the liberty and
equality of all people (a person designed by another is not free to become her
authentic self, which is the essence of freedom, and not equal to the
designer), or creating fearless soldiers, who are devoid of the human moral
intuition that it’s wrong to kill another human, and so on.
And the implications of realizing the transhumanists’ agenda
would change, not only individuals, but also, our societies and their
institutions. For instance, it seems likely that the average human lifespan
will be extended to 150 years. Human society has always basically consisted of
three generations: the young, who need to be cared for; the old, who have
retired; and the middle-aged, who are the generation in charge.
Life-prolongation will open up the possibility of having
three “middle generations” competing to be in charge. We have no
experience of such a system. And what if we were immortal and didn’t move on so
those coming after us could have their chance? What role does death play in our
individual and collective lives and what might we be and do without it?
Nearly a decade ago, when I was speaking at a transhumanist
conference in Toronto, one of the organizers asked me why I thought they were
finding it so difficult to recruit any women members – my recollection is that
they had none at that point.
At the time, the adherents of the movement were largely
highly educated, white men aged 20 to 45 years who had a technoscience
background. It would be an interesting test of our human imaginations to try to
answer this question.
Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for
Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal.