Transhumanism — Superhuman or Inhuman?

Transhuman

Transhumanism is a movement that aims at upgrading humanity through technology and scientific advancements. The idea is to enhance the human body and mind, from the development of advanced life-like prosthetics to repair damaged functionality and the development of life-prolonging technologies, to customizing healthy body parts on demand and adding new functionality, and even merging humans and machines such as by uploading yourself into a computer or sharing your neurological hardware with an AI. Transhumanism means basically anything that would make humans faster, smarter, longer-lived and more versatile than nature could ever achieve within foreseeable time.

With its various scientific and philosophical ramifications, and its science-fiction like perspective on human life, transhumanism is one of the most visionary and radical approaches to future human evolution. It’s got a complex history, there are several branches to the transhumanist ideology today, and of course its riddled with controversy and disputes. There are long-winded and sometimes heated debates between its proponents and opponents, as well as between the different branches, ranging from doubts about the achievability and practicability of transhumanist goals, to concerns about the morality and ethics of modifying the human body and interfering with nature.

While I’ve always thought of our distant future as being profoundly technological, to the point where the line between what’s natural and what’s achievable is entirely erased, I am only just beginning to scratch the surface on transhumanism as an ideology. Research wise, not as an adept. I never feel the need to belong to any group in order to validate my opinions. I’m interested in how others view an issue, and, you know, knowledge and speculation oil my brain engine.

So what is “human”?

The core issue of transhumanism (or rather, of its opponents) is the definition of “human”. What is human? What is humanity? And how do you tell when you’ve exceeded it? Apart from the religious angle that defines the human as God’s creation which should not be meddled with, there is also a complex philosophical aspect to defining ourselves. Sure, transhumanism is mostly appealing to atheists and secular humanists (such as myself), but the absence of religious views don’t make the question of what is OK and what not when it comes to altering a human being any easier to answer.

What do we use to define our species? Our DNA profile? Our evolutionary ancestry? Our consciousness? Or is it the fact that we are bipeds with scarce body hair and opposable thumbs? Would we still be human if we had four legs and infrared vision? Are we still human if we have a prosthetic limb or an artificial heart pump?

Are we still human if we’ve been cryogenized for a century and then had our brain transplanted into a lab-grown clone body? Are we still human if we’ve uploaded our consciousness into a computer network and transferred ourselves from Earth to a satellite around Saturn at almost light-speed velocities?

Is a dolphin’s brain that was augmented with technology to master human language and then transferred into a human-shaped android still a dolphin? Or is it a new species? Is it our equal? Do we grant it free agency of its own life?

How far should we go when it comes to improving the human body and prolonging our lives? Or is “should” the wrong word altogether? Is it rather how far CAN we go? How far do we NEED to go, to reach the next stage of evolution and become transhuman? Or how far do we WANT to go? Is it better for people to freely decide whether they want to “upgrade” themselves, or should this be regulated by appointed specialists and authority figures? What will we do when we can end hunger and disease for an entire segment of population in one day, but they refuse because of their beliefs or traditions? Will they live in secluded reservations like the Amish and the Aborigines, while the rest of us travel to the stars and play chess with dolphins? Will we even be able to interbreed after enough time and genetic engineering has passed that our DNA and that of the reservationists isn’t even compatible any more?

Huh…

When it comes to the definition of what “human” really is, I take the simple approach. I don’t identify with my body or my culture, or with an ideology. I’m much more Descartes-ian in this respect — I think, therefore I am. As long as I’m conscious and able to function mentally and keep my thoughts and memories coherent, I am human, I am ME. It’s irrelevant if I have robotic limbs and cloned organs or if I’m cruising along an internet highway made entirely from bits and bytes.

But then again… what about feelings? I’m an emotional being as much as I am a cerebral one. But feelings are a combination of thought (neuronal activity, which could be reproduced by a sophisticated technological medium) and physical activity (hormones altering our body chemistry and thus affecting the background noise, the canvas of our thoughts). Could these be reproduced in a technological medium, well enough for us not to be able to tell the difference from living within our body? Or could they even be enhanced? Would we reproduce defects of hormonal chemistry (such as are present in certain personality disorders or neurological dysfunctions) in order to keep that person intact, or would we alter them? Would they then still be themselves?

So, yeah, cheers to speculative cannon fodder. My imagination is in full gear now. 😀

Next to the perks and benefits of transhumanist technologies, which are just simply mindblowing. (I mean, c’mon, it’s science-fiction come true — who wouldn’t want that?), there are also serious concerns about these benefits being misused.

Like everything we humans come up with, the many sparkling ideas of transhumanism have both up- and downsides, apart from the philosophical implications. From prosthetics malfunctioning or being hacked into, to bugs and viruses running amok in your uploaded consciousness, what could go wrong once we have the possibility to upgrade ourselves has about as wide a range of possibility as the benefits. Just think of dehumanized supersoldiers, of criminals with bulletproof skin and embedded weapons, of terrorists who keep blowing themselves up again and again and are resurrected, of untraceable serial killers who can redesign their DNA after every strike, and of the exponential growth of illegal drugs and body parts cartels.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of serious concerns that transhumanists and scientists consider, but they’re also — you guessed it — awesome story material. Awesome, juicy, drool-down-my-chin story material! If you’re ever out of writing ideas, just google “transhumanism benefits and dangers” and let your mind loose on all the goodies.

Anything brilliantly bright that transhumanist scientists will come up with to improve our lives, will also have a shadow, and the pool of ideas waiting to be developed is enormous. We live in exciting times, and I bet the future will be even more fantastic. My inevitable interest in this area will keep me wondering and speculating, and of course, I’ll share my thoughts with you. Next time I’ll pick a specific transhumanist technology that already exists, and see where it could be heading toward.

Such fun!

17 Replies to “Transhumanism — Superhuman or Inhuman?”

  1. and this is an area where I think science fiction is hugely important in very real, practical terms. Scifi stories become what-if thought experiments preempting the moral, cultural and religious issues of transhumanism before they arise, preparing us for the future in the same way Orwell’s 1984 allowed us to (mostly) avoid Big Brother (or at least delay and circumvent his rise)

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    1. Oh I agree with that. Without visionary and well-thought-out science-fiction, the evolution of science would have been much slower and limited, tied to demand and not to possibility and vision. So cheers to scifi!

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  2. If you pick anything, pick quality body mods!
    I want a new body, but at least as good as the original one. Some moderate brain boost is fine I guess, I wouldn’t object an IQ of 500. 😉

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    1. I’d love some bionic implants. I find human-robot combos fantastic! 😀 Which doesn’t mean I don’t admire nature for its ingenuity, I just wouldn’t refuse an upgrade.

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  3. A lot of interesting questions there, Vero.
    As far as what it means to be human, if you mean the species Homo Sapiens, I suppose a biologist would probably say that your DNA needs to be close enough to be able to reproduce with other humans (seems you’re safe on that one;). Consciousness is a good one, but many of our pre-human ancestors (as well as existing cousin species) would also pass that test.
    Have you read any William Gibson? His dystopian novels, e.g. Neuromancer, are full of cool bio-enhancements.
    Great post as always!

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    1. Thanks, Simon. 🙂

      When it comes to consciousness, certainly it’s not only an aspect of humanity — I am more than convinced there are other conscious beings out there, maybe here on Earth, likely on other planets, and definitely in other galaxies. Yet I regard my consciousness as the only thing truly mine, truly ME, and I wouldn’t want it tampered with even if my entire body would be replaced. While many other creatures (obviously many other humans too) would pass the “does it have a consciousness” test, they would still not be ME. Know what I mean? 🙂

      Unless… we could completely recreate a person’s consciousness and personality, and duplicate them 1:1… now THAT would be a real dilemma, not the cloning of body parts or entire bodies…

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  4. The very attempt to define humanity is a fallacy. Biologists define a species as a group of individuals capable of interbreeding with one another, but even that definition breaks down when individuals vary continuously. Continuous variation happens extremely rarely in nature — extinction usually cuts out all the intermediates. Imagine if A can interbreed with B, and B can interbreed with C, but A and C can’t interbreed with one another. Are they all the same species or not? I believe any attempts to say “X is human; Y is not” will necessarily fail.

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      1. If your parents were human, you are human, and you reproduce with a human of the other sex and your children are humans. But that is only true as long as we preserve natural sexual reproduction, as you note. If we make genetically engineered beings that do not have actual human parents, then they really aren’t human, even if they can reproduce with another human (though they would surely have more of a claim than a being that couldn’t reproduce with a human, but they wouldn’t find that out until they were able to do it).

        We should enact a Natural Marriage and Reproduction Act to stop genetic engineering of people to preserve what it means to be human and stop the huge government regulation and entitlement program that would erode our natural rights and equality.

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      2. Yes, or we could change the way we define humanity. It’s not an absolute definition, no absolute truth, it’s something we opt for during a certain era. The criteria we choose to define ourselves is a choice shaped by our current knowledge. Before we knew of the existence of DNA we had other definitions…

        Humans created in labs from human DNA are still human if we define humanity by DNA. If we define humanity by natural conception & birth, then many babies who are conceived through artificial insemination and born prematurely through c-section aren’t humans either (the feeding of the fetus with nutrients within the mother’s womb could be easily reproduced in a lab without the fetus ever knowing or suffering any difference from natural pregnancy). So that’s not a practical definition of humanity.

        Also… why should we stop genetic engineering of people, if we could cure genetic abnormalities (disabilities and diseases) and achieve better health and longevity? What’s the rational argument against that? Is procreating with another human more natural than preserving our lives and assuring better chances of survival? That’s a pretty natural instinct and right as well.

        Not that I’m fundamentally disagreeing with what you said, John, just presenting the other side of the discussion. 🙂

        Thank you very much for your comment! It was thought-provoking.

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      3. IVF and C-sections and everything else we do today still produces humans because it is still an actual man and an actual woman having human offspring together. It’s when we create people that do not have an actual man and woman for their progenitors, who come from lab-created DNA that matches no actual humans, that the result is not human.

        I think a person who was gestated in an artificial womb would certainly be deprived of a human experience and artificial wombs should be prohibited along with genetic engineering. The problem is that it would become a huge government entitlement and would never cure disease because there would still be people having children naturally, and those families would be shunned and the disease will lose medical care because it will be “cured” except for a few people who should have been born perfect like all babies of responsible people are. It will just cost too much and introduce new problems in place of the old, and more importantly, it will change what it means to be human and destroy the basis of equality and liberty and rights, which come from the universal human condition of being a child of a man and a woman who reproduced together, same as everyone else. If some people are created different, we won’t be created equal, and there goes equality and rights and liberty. It is also like slavery in that it turns people into property and mere raw materials to be ordered on demand, rather than as miraculous gifts that arrive on their own.

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  5. WOW!! My brain is frizzing with ideas. I love to explore different forms of transhumanism in my novels and as I go further up the timeline into the future, the evolution of human gets more and more complex and interesting. You have offered even more possibilities for future stories. I want to talk more on this and may pursue this on my own blog http://www.scifibookreview.com if okay with you.
    How about…
    How mightl we change ourselves to adapt to space travel? Bujold’s “Falling Free” dealt with that idea.
    Great blog as usual.

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    1. Glad you’re overflowing with ideas. 🙂 Sure you can take the subject over to your own blog! Be sure to link back to that post from here — maybe others are also interested in reading it.

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  6. I’m always fascinated by transhumanism. It really goes right to the root about what makes us human. In my view it isn’t really a binary switch between human and inhuman it’s more of a spectrum. For most of our history there’s been a clear distinction between what’s human and what isn’t. Even chimps, our closest relatives are still far removed from humanity. However at the beginnings of humanity there were dozens of subspecies of humans from Neanderthals to Australopithecus, the line was much more blurred about what truly made a human (not that I imagine this was considered much by people at the time).
    Now it seems with advances in technology we’re headed for a new age of humanity. It’s not much of a step from GM plants to GM people and we’re already integrating technologies like smartphones into our lives. It won’t be long before it becomes impossible to separate the technology from the person. Of course, this is all dependant on income bracket as well. In the future will the rich be literally superior to the rest of us? I’d like to think that we’ll work out these difficulties and create a society we can all live in but I do worry humanity as we know it will become forgotten, as a species of posthuman far removed from us takes it’s place as the dominant species.

    I like the thought of those people refusing these technologies because of their beliefs and living secluded from the rest of humanity. Actually, the novel I’m currently working on is told from the perspective of a human in a just such a secluded colony. They live like the Amish in isolated areas except they chose to keep the technology of the 22nd century rather than the 18th. From their view the surrounding posthumans are as powerful and as strange and unknown as gods. It’s interesting to think that in the future the only standard humans will be hermit outcasts, far removed from the mainstream of “humanity”.

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    1. That sounds like an interesting story, Jennifer. 🙂

      Humanity is bound to change and evolve, and the more we are mastering nature and ourselves, the more we will be masters of our own evolution as opposed to slaves to it. I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, regardless of the many difficulties and conflicts it will inevitably bring along the way. When was ever something we humans did unanimously accepted? 🙂

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  7. I want a new body now.
    I think the science of this is going too slowly.

    I would gladly ditch this body i was born in completely and go for a all new body.
    Something that would suit me for a change.
    I would even accept a digital existence then this current existence.

    I think becoming something better then a human should be a goal.
    Humans have too many flaws yes some flaws are needed yet i don’t think major flaws should be over look.
    Beside what make humans so special anyway?
    There so disconnected with everything around them.

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