Defending the World's Most Dangerous Idea

By Kyle Munkittrick | September 24, 2010 11:16 am

I wish every room of my life was lit with bomblights

I had hoped for a good response to “The Most Dangerous Idea in the World,” but I must admit I did not expect the slew of comments, responses, and the huge Reddit thread that it triggered. You critiqued my stance on religion, on economic equality, on the value of suffering and death, on the benefits of technology, and on the “you support eugenics? what!?” level.  The value of any idea is how well it stands up to public scrutiny and debate. So allow me to put up my rhetorical dukes and see if I can’t land a few haymakers on your many counterpoints.

There were five big counterpoints to transhumanism that emerged from the comments. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I have paraphrased each.

1. Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, “Rapture of the Nerds” pap.

2. Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals.

3. Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we’ll all get bored and bad old people will never go away.

4. Eugenics is bad. Period.

5. What if I don’t want to be transhuman?

And now, my answers:

1.) Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, “Rapture of the Nerds” pap.

There are, I admit, strains of transhumanism that are rather embarrassing. Naive, utopian, ludicrous–call them what you will–the “technology will solve all of our problems with robot bodies” is an infantile and useless perspective. I am certainly not a Singularitian (fan of the “singularity”), nor do I operate under the delusion that the Big Goals of transhumanism (e.g. life extension, human level A.I., precise genetic engineering) will occur in my lifetime. Transhumanism, as I and most serious ethicists see it, is a philosophy that highlights the relationship between humans and technology in order to better understand the human condition. It recognizes our biology, our behaviors, and our biases as contingent, not essential, and therefore open to change. The fundamental purpose of transhumanism is to explore those potential, and often terrifying, routes of human change in a way that is as honest and objective as possible.

2.) Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals.

That is a real and frightening possibility. Many respected critics of transhumanism, including one of our own here at Discover Mag, make precisely this claim. The problem is that every new advancement has the potential to further split society. Alternatively, every new advancement can potentially level the playing field. Cellphones have nearly 75% global market penetration. Rural villages that still didn’t have land-lines a century after the telephone was invented now have access to a means of global communication. Technology is inherently neutral. It is only the society and culture in which it exists that determines whether or not it becomes a tool of oppression or liberation. Many, if not most transhuman organizations, mirror the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (where I am a program director) or the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, both of which are committed to ensuring transhumanism benefits humanity as a whole, not a select few.

3.) Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we’ll all get bored and bad old people will never go away.

Death, even of the natural kind at the end of a long life, is a pretty terrible and lazy solution to the world’s problems. For issues of overpopulation and resources, it’s worth remembering that as civilization advances, birth rates go down and population growth alters. This is not to say the problem will solve itself, but it does indicate that civilization’s indicators of progress are fundamentally changing. Growth is giving way to prosperous sustainability. Let’s work towards sustainability instead of avoiding life-extension, eh?

As for the existential arguments against life-extension, well, I’ve never heard a convincing one. What happens when we get bored or frustrated with our current lives? Usually we have some sort of crisis (e.g. mid-life), re-evaluate our goals and place in the world, and move in a new direction. And with radical life-extension, we won’t be “too old” to try something new, or even to start over. One could live a century in a particular way and,  instead of having a deathbed conversion of regret and longing, one could simply decide to start anew. Imagine having the option to have the life experience of a centenarian with a 24 year-old’s health and vigor.

Last point: no matter how many bad people die, new ones keep popping up. And in the process we keep losing some of humanity’s best and brightest, no matter how we try to hold on to them. If you sit around waiting for evil to just keel over an die, you’re doing it wrong.

4.) Eugenics is bad. Period.

Eugenics, like any technology, is neutral. “Eu” is actually the Greek root for “good.” The problem is that over history a lot of nasty people felt that they should be able to force their definition of “good” on others. Though Hitler is a common example, there was a eugenics program in the US for quite sometime that coercively sterilized those deemed unworthy to reproduce, due to race, economic status, and mental condition. Both programs are considered “negative eugenics” in that they prevent unwanted individuals from reproducing. Positive eugenics is different in two key ways. The first is that it is entirely voluntary. Whether parents want to merely screen for potential diseases, fine-tune every detail of their child’s traits, or leave the whole thing to chance is their prerogative. The second difference is that there is no “ideal”–the process is open ended. Instead of eugenics having a state-decreed goal like blond hair and blue eyes, every parent would decide what is best for their child. As most people want healthy, intelligent, happy children, those traits are what would define the “good” of positive eugenics.

5.) What if I don’t want to be transhuman?

Sorry friend, you already are. But I’m happy to let you decide how far to run with it. Transhumanists are not the Borg, folks. Resistance is not futile. Transhumanists merely want the option to move beyond biology to exist, not for it to be imposed.

MORE ABOUT: Death

Comments (10)

  1. Jason

    I agree that the concept of almost any ‘questionable’ science is neutral, it is the execution and use that determines its morality.

    For instance, your description of positive eugenics sounds an awful lot like the plot to Gattaca in which you had parents trying to do right by their children to screen for genetic flaws. Those who went without becoming discriminated against by peeks into their genetic ‘perfection’. It might have good intentions, but invariably gets twisted by practicality. I’m not saying it should be avoided, I think we should just understand and prepare ourselves for the social consequences, then assert that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

    No other species has been able to directly influence their own bodies in the way we’re now capable of. We have no reference model for this and I am definitely eager to see how it all pans out over the next 60-70 years.

  2. Peter Morgan

    “Whether parents want to merely screen for potential diseases, fine-tune every detail of their child’s traits, or leave the whole thing to chance is their prerogative.” Not sure about this. Is this a right, that I might choose to determine every detail of my children, for them to have to live with? Surely there are limits? What if I believe it’s best for my child to have some trait that most people think is a terrible failing? How about asking for Schizophrenia because that increases the chance that the child will be artistic, which I deem so good that any amount of (someone else’s) pain is OK? What if I can’t even give that much rational justification for what I want to do? Will there be backstreet eugineering shops?
    As always, the devil is in the details and in the legislation — I would say that the US constitution doesn’t give that much right over my children, so I guess that in the US at least there will be either some new Supreme Court decisions, constitutional amendments, or simple legislation. If or when we get it wrong at the first try, look for the quick fixes or for the aftermath. On something like this, which makes the decision process for stem cell technology look simple by comparison, I can only imagine how complex the international landscape will become once some countries allow one thing and disallow another and other countries make exactly opposite decisions. Brave New World, I guess.

  3. Eneasz

    Huzzah!! Three cheers for you, sir!

    I particularly cannot stand people who argue #3. Anyone who wants to live for one more day should immediately see how terrible this argument is, and those who don’t shouldn’t force their suicidal decision on the rest of us.

    Jason – am I the only one who saw Ethan Hawke as the villain in Gattaca? The lives of everyone on that shuttle depend on the crew. If Hawke’s heart disorder kills him under the stress of space flight, he’s just killed all those people. Having health restrictions for such critical jobs is a good idea, even if it isn’t “fair”. It’s the same reason we don’t want people prone to seizures to fly commercial jets.

  4. Chico Debarge
  5. Colugo

    Transhumanism is eugenics on steroids and crank. It’s the same species of fanciful, grandiose dreams indulged in by Ernst Haeckel, Davenport, Trotksy (bigtime eugenicist fantacist), HG Wells and the rest of the figures from the history we (especially bioethicists, it seems) refuse to learn from.

    (By the way, you’re conflating voluntary/involuntary and negative/positive eugenics. But I hestitate to bring that up because it distracts from more important points.)

    A eugenicist program to improve human beings by making them more intelligent is problematic for three reasons. One, it necessarily would involve the production of failed human experimental humans. Many of these would be aborted, of course, but many more would survive birth and some would even live into adulthood. Macrocephaly, neural tube defects, CNS cancers, Tay-Sachs-like syndromes etc. Two, due to pleiotropy it’s quite plausible that there could be quite a few Aspergers, narcissistic personality disorders, schizoids, and psychopaths among these little geniuses, who less desirable traits might manifest later than their intelligence. Three, the parents and whatever other people involved in the creation of such smart kids (investors? marketers?) will raise them in a way intended to enable these traits to reach their full potential. That is, in a likely psychologically and socially abnormal manner. These people might end up feeling entitled or resentful.

    The same kinds of problems also apper in eugenicist/transhumanist fantasies to make people more ethical through genetic manipulation (see Peter Singer) and other kinds of supposed improvements.

    The difference between the classic eugenicsts and today’s transhumanists is that the eugenicists’ only notable tools were sterilizing and murdering people – which of course failed to radically change the human genome – but transhumanists can directly monkey and muck with the human genome, even though they scarcely understand it. (Much less the epigenome, proteome, etc.)

  6. Twilightened

    I think, we need death. We actually need it. I can understand and support all the enhancements for a more quality and comfortable life, but in the end, if no one dies, the progress of humanity would cease to a halt. No new ideas would come out from a generation, decades older from his own window of life. That is why young people always come up with the new ideas, and when old stubborns die, these new ideas take over. That is why old people always talk about the past. This is the way of evolution, throwing the dice every time, to get a new mixture of genes to have somthing different, fresh, new. Without death, the elders would never leave the chairs. And they would continue to suppress everything new, that is if you can find some youngster to come up with a new idea of course. It would all be a suspended animation kind of life.

    If somebody can find a solution to this, well, why not. I’d love to be immortal :)

  7. Vincent Archer

    “Transhumanism is eugenics on steroids and crank.”

    It’s not exactly eugenics. Part of it are eugenics, but not all.

    Fundamentally, transhumanism is the fact that we, as a species, are moving out of the natural-shaped Homo Sapiens and becoming Homo Instrumentum. And we can no more escape that fate than we can stop evolution.

    For we are evolving, willingly, willfully or not. There was a recent study that highlighted the fact that a number of genes that promote a form a child diabetes are becoming more and more common. They’re increasing in frequence because the imbalance, which would be deadly and prevent children from getting to the age of reproduction, is no longer deadly because we simply treat them. So, the ancillary benefits mean that those genes propagate.

    If you can drink milk as an adult, it’s because our ancestors shaped our genetics with goat and cow herding: the genes that let some of us drink milk after out mothers stop giving it are the product of our technology.

    And no one set out to make us milk drinkers. It’s just that the environment, which includes our technological products and lifestyle, will promote the change. We just have technology to speed up that process.

  8. I have been hunting for reliable ideas on natural health and think that your site is . It is hard to find reliable suggestions on the Web, but I think I can put this to use! If you are aware of any more reliable information, please don’t hesistate to publish them. Thanks a million!

  9. Peter Gulbrandsen

    As for the eugenics bit, most of what you mentioned is cosmetic. And honestly, I really wouldn’t consider testing babies for down’s syndrome eugenics. Also, tracing the word’s etymology doesn’t mean anything. This seems very foolish, because evolution is largely unpredictable. Shouldn’t every unborn child be assured the right to a random mutation as the natural order sees fit? I feel like this idea of positive eugenics comes from a point of view that considers man completely evolved. Sorry, I can’t help but be skeptical.

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