On the Space Between the Human and the Post- Human

Utopia sign

What especially distinguishes human beings from other animals has been the degree to which they seek out and invent ways to leverage the basics of their biology to reach ever more complex levels of thought and action. Early human beings leveraged their fragile and limited bodies with tools including fire, leveraged their own natural psychology using naturally occurring drugs and religious rituals and used music to obtain a more emotional connection with one another and the world. They most especially leveraged the range of their own knowledge through language, which gave them both a more broad and comprehensive picture of the present, and allowed them to convey lessons learned across generations so that repeat mistakes could be avoided.

The movement into cities and the creation of written language and number systems was another such leveraging. The development of broad ethical systems in the form of world religions was so as well, and many of these religions ramped up human capabilities that were present in the prehistorical phase- the capacity for artistic and musical expression exploded, new forms of internal-emotional or mystical exploration were developed.  These religions were also the first to imagine “perfect worlds” as in world’s free from the ills that seemed to eternally plague individuals and societies- disease, famine, poverty, violence, war, pain, suffering, and death.

Until the modern era there was a tendency on the part of religion to bear down on the only elements of this miserable equation where their efforts could be shown to have a real effect- the moral and internal aspects. And then came science.

In the 16th century modern science emerged as a way to address these perennial human problems.  Science along with political and social reorganization proved extremely effective at coming up with practical solutions to many of these problems. Not complete elimination of them to be sure, but substantial amelioration. Science was a new and extremely powerful form of leverage allowing human beings to form intricate understandings of how nature worked and then ride or tweak these understandings to achieve goals they wanted to obtain.

Transhumanism as the philosophy of the post-human focuses itself on the speculation and imagining of future extensions and leveraging. Yet, the line of demarcation between a continuation of what we have always done in the past and the reaching of some state where we are recognizably no longer human beings has never been absolutely clear. When will we experience changes which are qualitatively greater than the development of written language, empirical science, adoption of universal education, industrialization and its multifold machines, or any of the other huge phase changes humanity has undergone since it emerged in Africa anywhere from 200,000 to 50,000 years ago?

The farther out one goes, of course, the more likely such qualitative shifts appear, but I think that the shift to something that is so far from humanity that it is no longer recognizable as human in terms of morphology, lifespan, intelligence and the like seems unlikely until at the very earliest sometime in the 22nd century, much less the holy grail of 2045 which so many transhumanists and singularitarians hold as an end point.

How much morphologically distinct, long-lived, intelligent etc a human descendant would have to be to be considered post-human is anybody’s guess, but before that the problem of how to better distribute the positive aspects found in the range of differences human beings already have would likely been solved first. The reason for this is quite simple: evolution has already figured out how to achieve outliers in characteristics we wish were more widely distributed. Even if we stick with just human beings, some, today, are active into their 90’s and live to be as old as 120. Some human beings, today, show prodigious talents in sport, mathematics, creativity etc.

The problem of even combining these already present outlier characteristics in one person is likely to be a formidable one. Einstein was a genius when it came to physics, but was not also a great composer, novelist, painter, athlete etc. We should also remember Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” in gauging the complexity of technical challenges in front of us. It must not be easy to get human beings to live out beyond 120 years of age because otherwise it would be found somewhere among human beings. It must not be easy to create human beings who are simultaneously prodigious across all forms of human endeavor. Unacknowledged too is the fact that mastering the environment is just as important to the question of how to raise human potential as any firmer grasp of underlying neurological and biological mechanisms.

We are likely to spend a prolonged period merely learning what evolution- both natural and cultural- already knows and trying to more widely distribute these still human capabilities. This potential flowering of full human capabilities is the space between the human and the post-human. While it is definite that should our species survive for a long enough period of time it will give rise to descendants who are in some very large ways qualitatively different from us we will probably find ourselves in this interim stage first. Such a stage may last a very long time, indeed, we may choose as a species to have it last a very long time.

All this by a circuitous route brings me to a new way of looking at human rights known as the “Capability  Approach” or “Capabilities Approach”. Pioneered by thinkers such Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum the Capabilities Approach is not much older than contemporary transhumanism itself dating from the late 1970’s. CA manages to combine two very different utopian projects- the human rights and development projects.

Rather than focus on abstract rights CA looks closely at the individual person within their specific political, social and economic context by asking the question: “What are people able to do and to be?” CA is particularly interested in the situation of disabled persons and aims to draw attention to the question of whether or not society is so structured as to allow persons with disabilities to have access to the full-range of human potential. In terms of social justice CA seeks not so much social leveling as it calls for living standards that have become the norm in advanced countries to be extended to all human beings, something that given current circumstances requires redistribution to achieve.

Nussbaum herself has come down solidly in favor of many techno-progressive concerns from stem cells, to the liberalization of neurological drugs, to animal rights and the push to expand the range of human longevity. And in the case of longevity, unlike what I take to be the position of transhumanists more generally, but similar to techno-progressives more specifically, Nussbaum is concerned with the question of equity when comes to such gains.

 Here is Nussbaum on longevity:

And what about the question of death? Is it somehow contrary to human dignity to seek to prolong life? Once again, the use of the term “natural” seems to me to do great harm, as when people talk about extending life “beyond the natural lifespan,” or, as I heard on NPR yesterday, “beyond our allotted threescore years and ten”-as if that figure were given by the stars or fate, rather than by conventional human experience.

People used to have a life expectancy at birth of around 35 years. (That seems to have been the situation in ancient Greece, where the effects of a healthy climate were greatly undercut by persistent warfare.) In the developing world today, average life expectancy at birth is still under 40 in many nations. Many people in those nations, especially those with no literacy, probably believe, then, that it is “natural” to die early, just as they may believe that it is “natural” that a majority of one’s children will die before age five. We know, however, that the low life expectancy in many nations is an artifact of poverty and the unequal distribution of medical care and sanitation. On a recent visit to West Bengal, for example, I attended a workshop on the high rate of maternal mortality in one populous rural district. The primary causes of death mentioned were anemia, unsafe drinking water, and the sheer distance a woman would have to travel to find medical facilities. None of these is “natural” in the sense of “given, inevitable, unable to be changed.”

We should say that what is wrong with this situation is not the fact that life expectancy in the richer nations is now around 80 years. What is wrong is the fact that food, medical care, and lifesaving technologies are so unequally distributed around the globe. Seeking to prolong life for a privileged few while ignoring the low life-capabilities of the many is morally wrong, a violation of the dignity of those who are treated as if they were of unequal human dignity. That is why my capability approach urges ample redistribution from richer to poorer nations, as well as from rich to poor within each nation.

It is morally bad to focus on how one’s own life can be extended while totally ignoring these global inequalities. (That doesn’t mean waiting to do research about extending life until all global inequalities are corrected, since we learn a great deal from basic research, and it often has unexpected dividends in other areas.) The sheer fact of prolonging life is a very good thing, and should be encouraged, up to the point where life becomes nothing like a human life at all, such as when someone enters a persistent vegetative state-or, up until the point when the person, mentally fit and free from undue pressure, chooses not to live.

The reason I find CA instructive for techno-progressives is in its openness to technological change. The concept of rights is too often static and de-contextualized. The “right to life” means different things in a world where people die on average at 45 and where people live into their 80’s. What CA suggests is that once technological and social advancement makes a human good obtainable our efforts should be focused on making sure that good is widely distributed.

Unlike bio-conservatism which looks backward to “nature” and attaches itself to the “natural” and unlike transhumanism that looks forward to post-human possibilities almost exclusively to be realized through technology, CA looks around us asking what is possible in the present, where are these possibilities not found right now, what do we need to do to make sure they are widely available as quickly as possible?    

CA also offers an alternative to the technological fetishism that all types of transhumanism, including techno-progressives, often suffer. Very often the solution to an unreached human capability is technological, but environmental factors are just as important as well and absolutely necessary in the intermediate stages when a technological solution has yet to be fully formulated. It is CA’s interest in disabilities which has allowed it to better articulate such a position than other utopian projects including the traditional human rights and transhumanist discourses.

We should work hard in working out medical and technological interventions that will allow blind people to see, and the deaf to hear and everything in between, but until then the widespread adoption of low-tech wrap-arounds, schools that teach braille and sign language, accessibility requirements for public places and the like need to be as widespread as possible. Once effective medical and technological interventions, including genetic interventions, come online and are proven to be safe they need to be extended to the human population as a whole, again, as quickly impossible.

In a similar vein, we may at some point figure out the neurological mechanisms behind differences in human intelligence or even morality, but that shouldn’t preclude our investment in low-tech methods of achieving those same ends such as good and universal education, good nutrition, the promotion of loving family environments. Indeed, even as we discover the neurological mechanisms behind such things as musical ability we will want to double down on low-tech means of making these capabilities realizable- such as the support for music education in schools.

This space between the human and the post-human is what lies in front of us as far as we are able to confidently predict for we are likely to be able to reach the full limits of humanity for some time before we are able to move beyond them. In this light, the project for techno-progressives would be to bring attention to and support low-tech methods of enabling human capabilities where they continue to be needed even while pushing those capabilities ever outward through medicine and technology. At the same time techno-progressives need to ensure both that these low-tech and high-tech enabled capabilities are widely shared and that attention continues to be paid to the creation and sustaining of environments in which they can be considered meaningful.