It’s a difficult world that we live in. It’s a world of expectations and everyone seems to expect different things from it. As some would have it, we are to submit to the pseudo-random flux that is evolution. A biologist might define evolution as: the change in allele frequencies in a population over time.
Humans have the unique ability in all the animals on Earth to sort of transcend their instincts. We can act in ways that are contrary to the way we have evolved to act, in other words. I’m not trying to get into a free will debate here, but the fact remains that our ability to perceive evolution for what it is allows us to make reasoned judgments about it. It allows us the unique ability to consciously manipulate it.
Creationists often argue that evolution has never been observed in a lab. Apparently they have never heard of the Westminster Kennel Club.
As the technology for gene manipulation becomes every more sophisticated, a debate is growing about the ethical implications of so-called designer babies. I have very clear objections for eugenics, but as long as gene-screening of embryos is freely available to everybody who wants a child–and not available exclusively to the filthy rich–then what’s the harm? Everyone has a different idea of what beautiful is. What can possibly be wrong with giving your children a little extra edge in the uphill battle for survival?
What I wanted to talk about today is a little different than designer babies, however. I’m almost thirty years old. I’m past the point where my genes could be screened and I could be selected out of a pot of possible embryos. My Adonis-like beauty and Einsteinian intelligence were the result of good old fashioned chance. But that’s it. There’s no way I can improve myself further at the genetic level.
But are there other options? I came across this article today on Science Daily and it got me thinking. There’s a lot of technology being developed for people who lose limbs. This particular new technology is promising because it involves laying microelectrodes on the surface of the brain, rather than embedding them within the neural tissue as a way of detecting neural impulses, translating them, and using them as a computer interface or as a method of controlling a bionic limb. I actually really like that the article uses the words “bionic limb,” terminology that used to be the playground of science fiction writers.
So far, the technology is able to improve the lives of crippled individuals. It is not, however, capable of bringing them back to full power, so to speak. The question that we must entertain at this point is: what happens when it is?
What happens when bionic limbs meet–or exceed–the capabilities of our natural limbs?
Bionics and cybernetics are pretty science fictiony, but this article shows that dramatic progress has been made in the field, and perhaps in ten or twenty years viable, lifelike appendages can be attached with all the articulation of a real hand. But maybe they’re better and stronger than before! A wounded soldier with his purple heart proudly pinned on his cybernetic chest stands tall and proud among a crowd of normal people. He smiles benignly upon them, only dimly remembering the day when he was a mere mortal. He holds his metallic fist above his head, a salute to his great-great-grandfather who had nothing but a leather-wrapped stick to bite down on when the field medic went at his gangrenous leg with a rusty hacksaw.
It’s not that far-fetched!
And even if it were, what are the ethical implications? It’s called “transhumanism.” One could call it forced human evolution. It is a movement that supports the use of biotechnology to augment the human body, not just in the case of injury, but as a voluntary act. A purposeful denial of the limitations of our naturally selected man-bodies. The idea that injury, aging, disease, and death are involuntary and undesirable carries a lot of merit.
Buddhists spend their entire lives attempting to overcome suffering, but their approach is holistic. It emphasizes acceptance of things that can’t be changed. Transhumanism, as a philosophy, urges people to reject the notion that their body is a temple that should not be altered. Body-modification as art is one thing. Body-modification in the name of utility, physical improvement, and life affirmation is another matter entirely.
Robocop spent three films trying to regain his lost humanity, and this is one of the possible perils of transhumanism (also called “posthumanism”). Nietzsche’s description of the Overman is one who has surpassed humankind, but still cares for the transience and vitality that humankind represents.
Bear in mind that evolution short-changes us. Humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. We are merely the product of a natural mechanism that allows animals that are “fit” to survive. As any biologist will tell you, an accurate description of it would be “survival of the sufficiently fit.” In other words, that which survives, survives. All a human needs to do is survive to reproduce. That’s it. In fact, that’s easy. All sorts of terrible maladies and suffering can crop up after that deed is done. Cancer. Osteoporosis. Heart disease. Love handles. And what’s worse? We pass those tendencies on to our children because it’s easy to reproduce.
The question is whether or not we want to accept the qualities that natural selection has, somewhat arbitrarily, assigned to us, or do we wish to strive for something greater? Do we make ourselves something new and distinct? Do we push the limits of human potential?
Some extra reading is important. I highly recommend anything by Nick Bostrom. He’s a professor at Oxford and a noted transhumanist philosopher. Specifically, look at:
- A History of Transhumanist Thought(pdf)
- The Transhumanist FAQ(pdf)
- In Defense of Posthuman Dignity(html)
- Why I Want to be a Posthuman When I Grow Up(pdf).
In the end, it’s not about whether or not you value human life. Everyone except the most staunch sociopaths value human life. It’s about whether you value human life enough to go beyond it.