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?
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.