The Most Dangerous Idea in the World

By Kyle Munkittrick | September 15, 2010 5:26 pm

I have an ide-KABOOOOOOOM

To think scientifically is to think dangerously. Scientists, from Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, are among the many “Great spirits [who] have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds,” as Einstein so eloquently put it. Daniel Dennett, a prominent New Atheist and philosopher of science, aptly named one of his tomes on evolution Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Constantly challenging the status quo, science is the engine of the future. Science generates the ideas and science fiction gives us whole universes in which to explore them.  Science fiction classics like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four, Slaughterhouse-Five, and A Wrinkle in Time are oft challenged on the premise that they are dangerous or harmful to the impressionable minds reading them. So science and sci-fi push the envelope, but among all of the guesses, theories, and what-ifs, is there an idea most dangerous?

This August, Big Think tried to answer the question with their “Month of Thinking Dangerously.” Max Miller did his best to offend his loyal readers, investigating ideas that are an affront to the common perspective – disband NATO? Control the weather? Cut special-ed? Max! for shame! Though many of the dangerous ideas were political, the preponderance of topics trended towards science of the future: eugenics, space colonization, selling organs, memory erasing, synthetic biology, and drug legalization, to name a few. As such, I was expecting one topic in particular to cap the list at the end of the month. Instead, the editors of Big Think invited their readers to “propose your own dangerous idea.”

So I thought, and considered, and pondered, and then remembered that the idea I’ve spent the past two years obsessing over always manages to raise ire and eyebrows. Thus, Big Think, I submit to you the most dangerous idea in the world:

Allow and Encourage Transhumanism, i.e. Human Enhancement Through Technology

Transhumanism is, at its artificial heart, a simple idea: humans should not be limited by our biology. We forget things, we are irrational, we are vulnerable, we get sick, we age, we die. But we don’t have to do or be any of those things. Science and technology from every branch and every direction is slowly chipping away at each of these problems. Each tiny step aggregates and converges towards a world in which humans are free to live as long as they want, to love and reproduce with whomever and however they choose, to be as smart, as strong, and as happy as possible. The suffering and death that accompany much of our very existence (and perhaps give it meaning) would be reduced and, maybe, just maybe, eliminated. Human nature would be fundamentally altered; which is why Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism the “Most Dangerous Idea in the World.” I agree, and that danger, that essential threat to what we are, is why I believe we should, nay must, promote human enhancement.

To do so, we must raze human nature itself. Philosophy and religion have spent the past 10,000 years working to make virtues of the necessities of biological life; primal urges, emotional outbursts, problems of procreation, suffering, disease, and death are explained away as essential elements of humanity. But these ideas do not create the meaning and value in human nature. Instead it is human nature that has invested these terrors of the flesh with worth to make existence bearable.

Consider a war hero. In a brutal, hopeless battle, a single soldier rushes into danger, risking her life and limb to rescue a fallen member of her team. She returns with her comrade safely and is heralded, rightly, as courageous and moral. But none would argue that it was the war that made her courageous and moral, or, worse, that we should fight perpetual wars to give everyone an opportunity to exemplify their virtue. Yet that is precisely the logic that drives arguments like “death gives life meaning” and “suffering makes us value the good times.” These statements are backwards. We find life meaningful in spite of, not because of, suffering, disease, and death. If they were to be eliminated, life would not merely still have meaning but it would mean significantly more.

Transhumanism, more than any idea in the world today, threatens our very way of being. It asks us to release the last vestige of religion, the last bastion of superstition and bias–that is, transhumanism asks us to reject the delusion that our biology defines us, that our failings are our successes, that human nature is anything but change itself.

The reason we must enhance is that our biology is out of sync with our extended phenotype. Human nature is at a crossroads. Either we embrace the fact that we are a species born of and wedded to technology, or we continue to limp along, terrified of our own central drive to change. As more and more studies emerge linking the evolution of the genus Homo to tool use, fire, cooking, climate shift, and migration we are realizing that humans didn’t adapt to anyone environment or condition but are something far more unique. Human beings have been evolutionarily selected to be adept at dealing with change itself. Every major revolution in human history, from the discovery of fire to the agricultural revolution to the rise of the digital age the human mind has shown its unparalleled plasticity. We are a species that has evolved to evolve beyond biology. It is time for us to embody that ability.

UPDATE: Gimme your best shots, ye mighty commenters. I’m working on a follow up piece: the better your critiques, the better my response will be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cyborgs, Philosophy, Top Posts

Comments (47)

  1. Brian

    Great article.

    Reminds me of a quote from the show Aeon Flux,

    Trevor Goodchild: Strength is not an absolute value. To be strong is to evolve. Mutability is strength. Evolution is a string of victories by the strong over the meek. The meek shall not inherit the Earth.

  2. Brian Too

    I’m not sure if I’m agreeing or disagreeing with you here! However I do agree that this is the most dangerous idea. Where I disagree (?) with you is this:

    Genetic engineering initially, and then your transhumanism idea eventually, will have the following effect. By an act of will, human beings will cease to be human. At least according to any conventional definition of “human”. That’s the subversive idea at it’s heart.

    It’s the will that is most important. The technology, no matter how expensive/elaborate/advanced, is ultimately subservient to the will to use it. The will to create it. I do think we have that will, even as it horrifies and fascinates us.

    As Nietzsche said, Will to Power.

  3. scott

    Indeed. Give people the freedom to choose where and how they’ll live: underwater, on a moonlet, whatever. Not sure it will eliminate people’s superstitions though, just change them.

  4. Randy

    AI.
    Once the jinni ever leaves the bottle – It’s all over!

  5. Bee

    “What is your dangerous idea” was the Edge annual question in 2006. See

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dangerous08/dangerous08_index.html

    I had something to say about that too

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2008/01/on-edge.html

    Basically, the most dangerous thing that can happen to us is stupidity.

  6. pj

    You have nothing to fear but ignorance. And that is easily remedied.

  7. Stolen Dormouse

    Transhumanism–another way to create “gated communities” for the wealthy. Or will such upgrades be covered under universal health care?

  8. I certainly hope that we as a species will be able to dispense with the boundaries imposed by religion, for example, on manipulating the human genome, and promote stem cell research to facilitate transhumanism.

    Transhumanism itself seems to me like a natural progression of biological evolution. We humans have evolved technologically to a point where we’re able to sustain ourselves through manipulation of ourselves and our environment. We can grow crops with increasing efficiency, improve pest control, take raw ore from the earth and refine it into metal that enables industry, even tweak bacteria to construct insulin and other hormones by manipulating their DNA. In short, we’re able to keep ourselves increasingly afloat in a hostile world which would not hesitate to sink and drown us.

    This enables us to move towards the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that of self-actualization. As we do so, we need concern ourselves in our everyday activities less with the basics of survival, and instead dedicate ourselves to using our brains with increasingly sophisticated tools that compartmentalize lots of low-level tasks into processes, and processes into workflows.

    I believe the more we bend the laws of the universe to our own ends through the effective use of technology, the richer the meaning of life becomes for us, because if we can defeat increasingly more of those things which lead to suffering, we will have conquered the enemy before it can pounce. However, we must never, ever forget the suffering itself, because without an enemy whose sting we can keenly remember, what motivation will we have to move farther from that same enemy?

  9. chico debarge

    This article plays on peoples arrogance. Why wouldn’t you want to “keep up with the Jones’?”
    You too can be better, improved, upgraded, and updated. Be the envy of your friends, family and neighbors when you’re human 2.0. WAKE UP!!!

  10. h_m

    For those of you concerned with Transhumanism being something for the “elites,” as if it were a set of cosmetic body upgrades that the poor won’t be able to afford; please keep in mind that when the vast majority of Transhumanists talk about these things, they’re talking about upgrading the ENTIRE human race–not the rich, not the privileged, not the First-Worlders. We’re all in this together on the same planet. Only hardcore Libertarian Transhumanists are the ones talking about keeping all the fun upgrades for themselves, and they’re not that influential.

    On the other hand, if you choose to opt-out, that’s your own choice, and I’m willing to respect it. It’s all about personal choice on how you want to live. Transhumanists just feel that there should be way more choices.

  11. What this article suggests to me is that transhumanism can overcome death and once this happens humans will be like God.

    I suggust that the sciences of evolution and ecology preclude this from happening. Viruses and bacteria will not disappear just because we want them to disappear. We will still have to struggle to find out ecological niche and work together to maintain our civilization. Even if humans become total robots, we will have to struggle with the same problems all machines have.

    Of course another issue is, How to live together? Science has yet to solve this huge issue and finally, Why live in the first place?

    Tranhumanism is not a way to answer life’s basic problems. It is just another silly way to imagine that science will magically solve life’s problems without human effort.

  12. Alex S

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the article and the idea. I only hope that I get to experience it within my lifetime (next 50 years or so)

  13. I would have to agree that this is the most dangerous idea. I would have to disagree on a few areas. We cannot stop death itself becasue if we could stop our biology from aging we will die from overpopulation and consuming all of our resources. We must have death to have life. If we stopped death people in my opinion would just want and want some more. People do see meaning in death because it allows them to not just pursue power but to realize that we are all connected through death. We are all one through death and a quote “death is probrably the universes greatest invention” (quote from steve jobs former ceo of apple). I can talk more but my point is that you must have both life and death to have either one. Just like other polar opposites of hot cold, light and dark. Now I do believe that technology should only enhance human lives and reduce our suffering, pain, sickness, and increase our joy, love, and empathy. We can never eliminate those because only with those do have either one like I said earlier. I think you are trying to create a “heaven” on earth by thinking we can eliminate these. We can reduce them but never get rid of them. There will and should always be death.

  14. This is a great perspective. I personally think that targeting the reward system in our brains is not really ambitious and it is too human-centered. That is, limiting our goals to improving ourselves so we can feel better. With enough technology, we may explore systematically what are the components of the ecstatic and mystical experiences that people sometimes have (psilocybin, meditation and the sort), where their personal identity is severely left aside.

    The way I look at it, is that reality can create the conditions for subjective experiences to be instantiated; the so called ‘human consciousness’ is merely a particular case of these possible instantiations. I encourage us all to transcend our self-centered nature and explore the limits of what reality can create in the matter of consciousness. This is how, reality may actually wake up some day.

    Personally, I think it would be enormously sad that all of existence’s potential is wasted in mere human instantiations, not realizing that it is in its self-interest (well, in the self interest of consciousness) to expand its own horizons.

    Furthermore, I think that the tools that we’ll have in the future will have an outstanding convincing power when it comes to persuade us that we are a really simple form of consciousness. It is in my hopes that more people in the future regards their consciousness as Zen Buddhists do: not being metaphysically special or unique, instead, a phenomenon that can be replicated and that is, essentially the same in everyone. People who think of the self as a bundle of factors, and in a sense, have internalized the idea that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, will not be afraid of testing out more controversial changes to their conscious experience and cognitive abilities, having themselves the certainty that whichever changes they make, the observer of their experience will be the same (so to speak). I suspect that connecting brains, in a physical way, and merging them with large super computers, will be a central issue here, and those who test the depersonalized and colossal merging with ultra consciousness will come back and say “hey, check this out”. If people start doing so, a complete merging could be feasible.

  15. Our Mind is what makes us human. Does not matter if you have a prosthetic leg, arm or mechanical heart. Mucsle and skeleton are highly regenerative. The organs and joints are easily replaced. We are almost there already, no one seems to realize this.

  16. Sue

    Kyle–I don’t see your point, unless you’re defending Hitler’s eugenics program. I think he was following similar lines of thought…improving the human race, etc. without regard to “morality” and “suffering”, etc.

  17. Piotr

    Unfortunately, PJ, you will find human ignorance is often deliberate, well-defended and difficult to rout since one of the essential aspects of survival is the ability to ignore most of the world around you.

    This too is a comment on transhumanism.

  18. Norin

    It will be easier to overcome death than it will be to overcome the political and economic structures it entails.

  19. kaku

    “reproduce with whomever and however they choose…” How are you going to eliminate competition?

    “These statements are backwards. We find life meaningful in spite of, not because of, suffering, disease, and death. If they were to be eliminated, life would not merely still have meaning but it would mean significantly more.”

    ^^ Assertion without any supporting evidence^^.

  20. I consider myself a transhumanist, but not the same type as you.

    I believe in:
    1) eventual death
    2) The importance of suffering
    3) The importance of sadness, anger, jealousy and other “negative human emotions”

    In short, I feel that the ultimate goal for my style of transhumanism is to maximize our ability to experience the universe, expand our scientific knowledge, our understanding of art, spirituality, and the biodiversity of our surroundings. Variety and our ability to experience a variety of things, is one of the most important things to me.

    Long life, for example, is a good thing since it allows us to experience a wider variety of things in our lifetime.

    If you start eliminating death, suffering and emotions, you are limiting the human race.

  21. Andrew Stebbins

    Great article, just two things that bothered me:

    1. Whoa, eugenics? I think I see where you’re going with it, but that’s a pretty loaded word to sling around so haphazardly. You may want to precisely explain your definition of the term, as the first thing that pops into most people’s head when they hear “eugenics” is “Nazi master race.”

    2. Drug legalization is fine and dandy, but I’d classify it as merely matter of domestic policy (assuming you’re talking aobout the US), hardly the “science of the future.”

  22. Interesting idea, and I would like to see it expanded.

    Speaking of science fiction, I suggest that a better term would be speculative fiction. Some may find this a difference without distinction, but I have a point… somewhere.

    Robert A. Heinlein used a simple premise of genetics as his primary plot device in the collected stories about the “Howard Families” in “Time Enough for Love”: encourage prodigious mating between people whose parents and grandparents are long-lived (proof is age at death), and the eventual result would be humans whose normal life expectancy would reach 200 years of more. The assumption is that longevity is primarily a genetic trait.

    As for the topical “transhumanism”, I find a certain line of dialogue from the movie “Jurassic Park” (more fiction-as-source, and I don’t remember if it’s in the book) an excellent rejoinder: “Nature finds a way.” Nature always finds a way. If we use technology to change or replace our biology, nature will find something to thwart it. It might be a bacterium that eats plastic or rubber (“Andromeda Strain”). It might be a hitherto unknown chemical interaction as substances are forced to interact where they never could before. I read once that cancer is Nature’s “response” to ever-improving medical technology. I’m sure some readers could find more examples.

  23. Filip Rabuzin

    A couple of ideas spring to mind and i eagerly await your next installment.

    Firstly, the idea of “the good life”, which i suppose is the Mediterranean notion that life is worth living well and to the fullest, but its only worth it because it ends. Thought of in economic terms if you increase the supply of “life” the demand might expand but the value (or worth/price) of it decreases.

    Secondly, a really good way of exploring this issue would be to imagine through science fiction how technology has shaped or changed other imaginary species (so as not to offend any humans) and specifically focus on that change. The Borg and Stargates’ The Ancients immediately spring to mind although I wish there was more. What benefits did trans-(whatever species) bring them? Is there an ultimate goal or idea driving it?

    Even so we seem not only constrained by our own biology but by the universe itself. Is it possible for us to even become a Type 4 or Type 5 civilization and skip to another universe when this one inevitably becomes un-inhabitable? If so what is the optimum time to be alive?

    Anyways, wish you well on your dangerous thoughts…

  24. Bd

    In precisely what way does transhumanism ask “us to release the last vestige of religion?” There seem to be several leaps in thought made here that may not be so straight forward.

    If your definition of “religion” necessarily maintains that one of religion’s goals must be to “make virtues of the necessities of biological life” then OK, you can make the claim I quoted above. But this is really more a consequence of an anemic definition of religion rather than a profound consequence of accepting transhumanism.

  25. Isn’t flying in a plane transhuman?

  26. John Hawtnewts

    Laughable. You waste your life with wanton desires that mean nothing. I understand that being a nerd means that you never have had sex with a REAL woman. However, if the greatest possible fulfillment of this life for you is simply reproducing with anyone that you could choose, whenever you choose it. Then you are a total loser and nerd and you deserved all of the “bobbing for turds” and “purple nurples” the dummy jocks gave you in high school. As for when the time comes for this life to end for you…feel free to know that you have wasted your life and done nothing positive for humanity, and then die.

    P.S. I chose to be so very harsh to you so as to cause you to believe that through my infliction of your ego, that you therefore MUST be equal with Einstein (and the others that you had mentioned), because you like him have received harsh criticism. So go feel better about yourself Aladin. You really are special and it’s just all of us know nothings that just can’t see the diamond in the rough that you really are.

  27. M jenkin

    Isn’t vactnation transhumenism to a certen degree. We will allways suffer feel pain feel joy and emotionley be alive to be human is to have a mind not a bilogical body I think the biggest and scearyist idea would be to erradicate money it’s money that limits humans another scary idea would be me to spell correctley :-) lol

  28. Max

    have you considered the possible moral and political revolutions that would be forced to occur if we enter into a transhumanist future? What about overpopulation, equality, or the dynamics of state and social power? Have you considered how the inevitable privatization of the “transhumanist” industry would turn out for the different economic classes? Would the wealthy be the only ones able to afford the technology, consequently dividing nations (and the world) into human v. transhuman? Would producing children eventually be phased out of the human experience? Think about that. If you’ve achieved infinite longevity and infinite physical capabilities whats the point of reproducing? Have you considered these concepts before declaring your vision?

  29. M jenkin

    i live
    in a city called Nottingham well known
    for caves the last family to move out the
    caves was 1927 technology allowed them
    to be housed not politcs it wasent politics
    that built there house techonolgy did
    I carnt recall a problem politics solved
    it just restriced when they were allowed
    to move in to a modern home all techonolgy
    should be embraced after all it was political
    scienceist that said if a motor car whent
    over 30 mph you would die the list gose on
    don’t let politics restrict tecnology

  30. theInformer

    Spider Jerusalem.

  31. Andre Rosowski

    You wrote “Yet that is precisely the logic that drives arguments like “death gives life meaning” and “suffering makes us value the good times.” These statements are backwards. We find life meaningful in spite of, not because of, suffering, disease, and death.”

    I have to say that I see it differently. First of all, we as humans are not able to realise that we are going to die. Please have a look at TMT (Terror Management Theory) for that. In these studies it was shown that People, in spite of being non-religious, commented on death as though they wouldn’t cease to exist. Furthermore take a look at the Kübler-Ross model “5 stages of grief”. To accept death and the end of your existence you have to be confronted by it. Buddhist monks use meditation to confront themselves with the issue of death. Ajahn Chan for example used to meditate on funeral grounds. Why do they do that? Because once you realise that everyday could be your last, you will start to really live your life. You will live your life in the present moment not in the past or future. Analyse yourself! How often are you not right in the moment? For me, personally, I can say that most of the times I’m not in the present moment.

  32. TA

    You state “In a brutal, hopeless battle, a single soldier rushes into danger, risking her life and limb to rescue a fallen member of her team. She returns with her comrade safely and is heralded, rightly, as courageous and moral. But none would argue that it was the war that made her courageous and moral…”

    It is not the war that makes the person courageous and moral. The war simply provides the avenue for the person to show those attributes. Those attributes were there, in that person, before the war and continue to be after the war. There are many other avenues to show the best and worst of our humanity besides war. Whether it is someone jumping in harms way to pull someone from the subway tracks or others simply walking past a stabbing victim while they lay dying. In all of these examples people are given the chance to “do right”, or wrong, as the case may be, however, it is not the situation that makes them hero or villian. The situation simply gives the person a chance to show the world the type of person they are. I believe your premise to be flawed.

  33. Mike Ruet

    In response to Darth Continent #8: Our record on manipulating the environment is anything but stellar. Witness the British rabbits released in Australia for sportsmen,the pigs released on a Hawaian island to supply future food for sailors, the huge decline in Marine life in the last twenty years,the recent oil spill,amphibians and fish born as sterile hermaphrodites due to homone mimicking chemicals in the water sheds throughout the world,and girls entering puberty at an earlier age, probably due to the same cause. I could cite many more axamples but many think our progress in manipulating the environment is moving rapidly backword. So maybe we better hurry up and get our minds into those fancy computers before we make it impossible for biological humans to exist on the planet.
    To h-m #10: Your idealism is uplifting but I think not based much on fact. I think the “hmanitarian” trans humanists aren’t very influentil either. All this research and developement take gobs of money-who has it? The world wide financial crisis we are experiencing is transfering lots of power and wealth to the “elite”. The gap between what “they” earn and what I earn is not only growing, but the growth is accellerating. I am also aware that philanthropy among the “elite” is increasing and that many of the givers are becoming much more thoughtful regarding trying to make sure their gifts are acting as catalysts to stimulate long term improovement.
    I only hope that my pessimism is misguided and that somehow the idealists get the upper hand. Peace.

  34. chico debarge
  35. Fido Dogstoyevsky

    How dismissive.

    Not all religious or spiritual people are primitive thinkers terrified of X or desperately clinging to ritual to banish anxiety Y. Some of us see subtle patterns in the architecture of our lives and the universe we live in. Others do not. And for many of us who do, science is no anathema. Do you think the Dalai Lama is an ignorant terrified fool? Mother Teresa? The Dalai Lama is supremely rational and believes in divinity, as did the lady of Calcutta. And Einstein, who you quoted, was agnostic not atheist. He well understood that there is no empiric proof either way, and that the human experience is limited and not a reliable means of proving or disproving the existence of divinity. Atheists who rage against religion are no more justified than proselytizers in their behavior.

    As for expanding the nature of human experience by the means you mention… there is no assurance that it will result in the glowing future you predict, either. If human history is used as any guide (a rational approach), such actions will only result in more inequity, misery and dismal unintended consequences.

    Cheers.
    Fido

  36. Patricia

    I’m defending you all the way and I’m sorry to see such responses. I think you should elaborate on why its (obviously) more beneficial to eliminate human suffering as soon as transhumanistically possible, so that we can become better at being humans. It seems that lately we have de-evolved as a species. In light of our knowledge and capabilities, shouldn’t we be able to fly by now. You are right, we are way behind in our sequence of evolutionary development. Human suffering is whats holding us back. I mean “come on” people, get it together already. We can send a mission all the way to Mars, but we can’t figure out how to nurture/feed people so they don’t have to live in constant pain (or stress)? “Suffering” is any force that denies life its most optimal way to live. I believe Confucius say “the purpose in life is to enjoy it”

    You have the best line I’ve read so far “We are a species that has evolved to evolve beyond biology. It is time for us to embody that ability.” Fantastic. Thank you.. hope it helps

  37. Not always do you stumble upon good writing with interesting information like yours. You are really relevant on the topics you compose which is very functional to many. Keep on the great work so we have something to hope for.

  38. i want to meet lady gaga

  39. Unquestionably feel that which you mentioned. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the internet the easiest matter to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get irked although folks consider about worries that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the major and defined out the entire thing not having acquiring side-results , folks can get a signal. Will probably be back to get much more. Thank you.

  40. JayCar

    Any attempt at genetic, or body manipulation will have to be made 100% free of cost for all. I am against socialized medicine in many cases but on any issue such as this we can not afford the free market control. It would lead to the Ivory tower becoming ever more inaccessible.

    So if it was free to all then yes lets do it. Push our bounds eugenics failed for numerous reasons but most of all because of the inhumanity of it all. This allows us to practice scientific eugenics and bring everyone along for the ride.

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