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.

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On Recognizing Deep Fragility

 

Eastern Hemisphere from Space Nasa High Resolution

If we take what amounts to the very long view of the matter it’s quite easy to see how both the tradition of human rights and transhumanism emerge from what are in effect two different Christian emphasises on the life of Christ. Of course, this is to look at things from the perspective of the West alone. One can easily find harbingers of both human rights and transhumanism outside of  Christianity and the West in Non-Western societies and religious/philosophical traditions in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism among others. For now though, lets stick with seeing things through the lens of the Western tradition alone.

Perhaps the primary source for human rights in Christianity would be the idea of Christ as God relocated into the fragility of a human body, a consciousness supremely sensitive to the most vulnerable among us- the sick, the poor, the excluded, the powerless and insisting on the spiritual equality of human beings. Roots of transhumanism can be found in another Christ tradition- the idea of man made God, the desire to transcend human limits to seek and find enlightenment.

Putting aside the elitism of the gnostics, such doubled vision need not necessarily be understood as the source of irreconcilability and conflict, but more like a gestalt drawing where two pictures can exist in one. What picture one sees becomes a matter of what you are looking for at the moment.

Historically zooming in a little closer to the Age of Enlightenment we can again see both the tradition of human rights and something like a proto- transhumanism existing side by side. If an enormous increase in the span of biological or material longevity is taken to be the sine qua non of transhumanism, then the Marquis de Condorcet who predicted in his 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit that:

….a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents or of the flow and gradual decay of the vital powers and that the duration of the middle space of the interval between the birth of man and this decay will itself have no assignable limit. (368)

Was at the same time a staunch defender of much human rights as we would now understand them- the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and political rights as they had been articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and especially in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Yet, if if human rights and proto-transhumanism can often be found right next to one another, so to speak, in both Christianity and the Enlightenment it is certainly difficult to argue that such is the case today. Or only if we narrowly define rights in terms of so-called “negative rights” that is liberties which are used by many transhumanists to argue that they have a right to pursue transcendence, augmentation, and increased powers. How then did the two become so clearly separated in our consciousness?

Often the emergence of human rights and transhumanism is presented sequentially with human rights appearing first and transhumanism or posthumanism occurring afterwards. You find this in Steve Fuller who characterizes human rights (both economic and political) as “humanity 1.0” whereas posthumanism is the newer “humanity 2.0” a separate and sometimes rivalrous utopian project.

This kind of temporal positioning of the utopian project to universally achieve human rights as the ideal of the past with posthumanism as a set of goals for the future is, despite its intuitive appeal, not very historically accurate. For the sharp separation of the human rights and transhumanism can only be dated to their emergence as two clearly defined utopian projects.

It might be surprising to learn exactly how contemporary the appearance of these movements as clearly distinguishable utopian projects actually is. For starters, the very recent appearance of the global movement for human rights is something that has been stressed strongly in recent years by Marxist scholars who want to alert us the inadequacies of the rhetoric of human rights in providing a path through which lasting change in the conditions of humanity in the early 21st century might be achieved. The perspective of this critique can be found in the political writings of the activist and fiction author China Mieville, but by far the most comprehensive argument for both the contemporary nature of human rights and their inadequacy is found in the work of the historian Samuel Moyn.

In his The Last Utopia: Human Rights in Human History Moyn makes a pretty compelling case that far from being the telos of history human rights emerged as the only 20th century utopian project left standing in the 1970’s. For Moyn, human rights emerged as the dominant utopian narrative precisely because all other utopian projects had failed.  Soviet style communism proved itself a failure not with its Eastern European collapse in 1989 but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which showed that state communism could not be reformed by democratic means.

Liberalism had failed with the American debacle in Vietnam, and even self-determination which had since the American and French Revolutions had been seen as the only path through which rights could be truly secured had proven itself a failure as the new post-colonial states failed to not only institute rights but went on the offensive against national minorities.

Unlike other utopian projects Moyn holds that human rights was able to survive because it was moralistic rather than programmatic. It gave idealistic youth in the West something to focus their energies on that ultimately had little bearing on the actual political regime either domestically or internationally. The rhetoric of human rights gave communist dissidents a moral kludge with which they could hammer away at Eastern bloc violations of human rights without calling for the end of the communist project and without the need to insight revolution.

I have some problems with Moyn’s insistence on an extremely sharp historical separation between what we understand as human rights and what came before. We have known that human rights and self-determination (in terms of peoples) have had a troubling mutually interdependent relationship since Edmund Burke criticized the ideas behind the French Revolution. The problematic relationship between human rights and self-determination was brilliantly explored back in the 1940’s by Hannah Arendt.

That the articulation of rights in the Universal Declaration of Rights in 1948 was written under the assumption that European colonial empires would be retained is less than Moyn argues a sort of moralistic distraction from European powers hopes to retain their colonies than an attempt to guarantee rights outside of the context in which they had previously resided i.e. the sovereign nation-state. Moyn also makes no mention of international movements that have little connection with the nation-state as such and therefore bear more similarity to human rights as understood today such as the movement to abolish slavery and the rights of women and children.

The Universal Declaration was also written, I should add,  in light the recognition that the of the economic crisis that had collapsed the capitalist economic system and led to the Second World War necessitated the universal adoption of egalitarian systems- social democracy-  as the only forms of society that were sustainable, humanistic, and just.

Where Moyn is helpful is in focusing our view on the contemporary period rather than trying to find deeper historical currents. I found his Last Utopia especially fruitful in understanding how human rights and transhumanism separated course and also in grasping how the separation of either utopian project from the broader question of political and economic composition is, a both Moyn and China Mieville suggest for human rights alone, is likely to lead us into a cul de sac.

Let me start with one of the Soviet dissidents that Moyn thinks was instrumental in launching the human rights movement, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. Sakharov was instrumental in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. The Americans had gotten their first. The explosion of the American hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll in 1954- a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the fission nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in 1945 signaled the birth of the human capacity to destroy both civilization and life on earth.

The Soviets would explode their own “true hydrogen bomb” a year later in 1955 based largely on Sakharov’s design. Perhaps the responsibility for what he had made possible had affected him, or perhaps his scientific grasp of the destructive potential of these new weapons had made him aware of the universal fragility of life, but by the 1960’s Sakharov had thrown himself into political activism.

His 1968 essay Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom marked his appearance onto the political scene. What is remarkable about this essay is the way it combines different utopian projects that have since become distinct rivals, and which we are only now attempting to recombine. Sakharov moves from the call for international peace to environmentalism to the encouragement of continued technological progress and development of the Third World to human rights.

What unites all of these for Sakharov is both an understanding of a shared human destiny and the recognition of our universal fragility especially in the face of modern, and largely man made, catastrophic risks.

Our challenges and possibilities can not be hermetically sealed off from one another but form a continuum requiring answers on all fronts. The role of science and technology is especially interesting here for Sakharov sees them as not only the source of many of our challenges but as the best and most essential tools we have for solving our problems. Yet, it is the essentially the political choice of what to use those our powers for that is the primary question.

Sakharov’s views are also infused with the perspective that both capitalist and communist societies had arrived at a sort of egalitarian consensus. Communist critiques that capitalism lead to inequality and immiseration and that the victory of communism over capitalism was a moral imperative to save the world’s poor no longer held now that capitalist societies had adopted social democratic policies and aimed at the development and dominance of a broad middle class. The same kind of consensus on social democracy that had been seen in the Universal Declaration.

Sakharov would go on to be a fierce defender of the idea that human right represented the best universvisable ethic for a new global age. Yet the kind of fusion of rights, social democracy, environmentalism and scientific and technological progress seen in his Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom would take a quite different turn in the West a kind of perfusion and splintering of utopian projects whose missions became quite distinct and even rivals for human commitment.

In the late 1960’ and 70’s Western environmentalism took a stand against science and technology a position that is only now being challenged. The struggle for human rights was cut off not merely from environmentalism but from the kinds of social democratic and egalitarian concerns with which it had emerged in tandem. Like environmentalism, human rights had very little to say in terms of the world’s geopolitical order and therefore too often became a ready made masks for US and Western geopolitical interests.

The idea of science and technology as a utopian project also in the 1970’s became separated from its fellow travelers. One can trace this back to the idea of “digitopia” conceived in Silicon Valley which saw in science and technology solutions to all of the world’s problems if only government would get out of the way. Much of contemporary transhumanism would embrace the libertarian assumptions found in “California culture” and this strain is still strong today. This, for instance, is the venture capitalist Peter Thiel a vocal (and financial) supporter of transhumanist causes such as the Methuselah Foundation which our earlier Condorcet would certainly recognize:

 In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’ . . . We are in a deadly race between politics and technology. . . . The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

For this reason Theil supports utopian seasteading the goal of which “is to innovate more minimalist forms of government that would force existing regimes to change under competitive pressure.” Ostensibly, such islands would be havens for the testing of all sorts of transhumanist innovations.

Yet, the “island” we are actually on isn’t in the middle of any ocean, but the earth itself. It was from a recognition of this fundamental shared fragility of not just humanity but all of the earthly life that has come to depend upon it that Sakharov was able to envision the integration of many of the 20th centuries utopian projects. Even transhumanism the most seemingly optimistic of modern utopian projects emerges from the recognition of our fragility- the desire to be “god-like” is the best sign that we are very far from being “gods”.

One might view much of transhumanism today as built on the same sorts of isolationist assumptions that underlie the project of utopian seasteading. The greatest danger would be a transhumanism that serves as a tool in the stratification of societies along class lines where transhumanists put up “islands” within societies whose overall well being they have abandoned in the name of achieving post-human ends.

Yet, it may be the the sheer interdependence of the 21st century world makes it impossible to pursue any utopian project that fails to take the shared fate of humanity into account. There is a great need of a truly global movement that integrates our various problems and hopes as it becomes increasingly clear that modern crises do not fit squarely into singular versions of utopia or dystopia. The current crises in Syria and Egypt are environmental, rights based, technological, social democratic and geopolitical all at the same time.

We need a utopian project that addresses all of these problems simultaneously and articulates and expands human possibilities for everyone. Let’s hope that the recent profusion of early 21st century movements that seek the reintegration of utopian projects help break us out of our log jam. With these I would include a branch of transhumanism known as techno-progressivism which has the potential to bridge the recently emerged gap between human rights (along with the rest of life) and transhumanism. One of the best way to do this might be for techno-progressives to become aware of and adopt some of the new reformulation of rights as “capabilities” rather than the traditional notion of rights as entitlements. But that is for another time.

 

 

 

 

Towards a Transhumanist Techno-progressive Divorce

Janus

 How is this for a bold statement: the ultimate morality or immorality of transhumanism rests with the position it will take on the question of human rights and more specifically its adoption or denial of the principles of one document little discussed outside of the circle of international lawyers and human rights activists: The Universal Declaration of Right of 1948.

It was by a circuitous route that I came to this conclusion, which at first glance may seem nonsensical, for, after all, isn’t transhumanism precisely about the post- human rather than us current human beings for which the idea of human rights and The Universal Declaration were created?

As briefly mentioned in a prior post, my first indication that human rights and The Universal Declaration might need to be brought into the center of transhumanists’ view was suggested to me by a person who isn’t a transhumanist at all, and indeed is deeply uncomfortable with much of transhumanist rhetoric and underlying assumptions. No one would call the science-fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, a neo-luddite. Rather, he sees science, at least in its beneficent manifestations, as the ultimate utopian project. And, as anyone who has ever read one of Robinson’s novels knows, he views utopianism as a very good thing indeed.

It was in a panel discussion  “Utopia- Science Fiction and Fact” that Robinson brought up The Universal Declaration of Rights. As a reminder the Universal Declaration was the first global statement of rights to which, according to the consent of every nation on earth, all human beings are entitled and consists of 30 articles  spelling out these rights. They include not only basic so-called negative rights such as the freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture, but positive rights such as the right to marry and found a family, the right to “social security”, the right to work, the right to rest and leisure, the right to food, shelter, clothing and medical care, the right to “the full development of the human personality”, the right to a stable domestic and international political order, the right to education and to “enjoy the arts and share in scientific achievements and its benefits”.

My interpretation of Robinson bringing up the Universal Declaration in a transhumanist forum was that we already had a utopian project for the future “the project of justice” as he called it; therefore, we should be leery about getting ahead of ourselves. He seemed to be saying that we should focus our scientific and technological efforts on achieving these still far-off 20th century goals before we run full-steam towards the 21st or perhaps 22nd century goals of transhumanism.

It was only when I came across an interview by another future oriented thinker who also brought up the Universal Declaration that I started to think there might be something more to the relationship of transhumanism and the Universal Declaration than my superficial grasp of Robinson’s view had led me to believe.

In an interview with Adam Ford, avowed transhumanist, Steve Fuller, characterized the Universal Declaration as a perfect summation of 20th century progressive politics. This view of what he called “humanity 1.0” found in the Universal Declaration he believes will be likely find itself in conflict with the transhumanism of “humanity 2.0” in the years to come.

Fuller believes that the goals of humanity 1.0, of a progressive, egalitarian society, could only be “paid for” by “holding back” the superior members of society who tried to push the abilities of humanity evolutionarily forward. As time moves onward, more and more of ranks of these visionaries, Fuller thinks, will be filled by transhumanists. Thus his predicted tension between those who hold to the goals humanity 1.0 and those seeking to expand the limits of the possible and achieve the goals of humanity 2.0.

This prediction of probable conflict between the adherents of humanity 1.0 and those seeking to move to a transhumanist notion of humanity 2.0 grows out of Fuller’s libertarian “great man” theory of progress. For him, progress is pushed forward by “superior” individuals who break the bonds of the possible through risk, experimentation, innovation and revolution pulling the rest of society along.

The kind of antagonistic picture of how the world works found in Fuller is on full display in the movie Jobs where innovation and society is pulled forward by visionaries whose disdain for the rest of us non-visionaries types makes them, in common parlance, assholes.

The question that should naturally arise whenever justifications for inequality, such as Fuller’s based upon of the pull of “great men” are made is whether or not such lone visionaries are really acting “alone”? Someone like Steve Jobs was dependent on a society and history around and before him to obtain his visions, and we can never be quite sure if his breakthroughs would have occurred without him. It is just as likely that instead of being driven by “great men” progress in science and technology or human thought in general is really a matter of seizing opportunities that are lying there for anyone to pick up, and which can only be supported if a large enough pool of individuals have come to the point in their own thinking to find the new idea, or invention or whathaveyou compelling.

This libertarian myth that egalitarian policies are the enemy of innovation and upward mobility to which Fuller subscribes and which he conflates with the transhumanist project needs to be vocally challenged, and with hard data. It is, after all, in the Scandinavian countries where egalitarianism runs deepest that rates of innovation are highest and ranked consistently higher than in the in-egalitarian US. Despite libertarian mythology, it is in egalitarian countries where upward mobility is highest as well; suggesting, that egalitarian policies, contra Fuller, are much less about holding the “superior” back as maximize those able to create breakthroughs and in giving everyone a fair shot at success.

There is also the too often unspoken question of power. In another panel discussion, this one for the RSA, only the fiction author and political activist China Mieville had the guts or the comprehension to challenge Fuller’s underlying assumptions regarding power and inequality. If inequality has deep roots in the differential distribution of power and political influence, then Fuller’s version of transhumanism becomes  just one more way in which the already wealthy and powerful will be able to make their advantage permanent.

As another figure worried about exploding levels of inequality, Chrystia Freeland, points out in her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else this is already happening at an ever increasing rate as the rich use their wealth to gain educational advantages for their children and distort market influence through their leverage over the political process. Of course, the rich have always done this. What is unprecedented today is the scale and extent to which the super-wealthy have been able to rig the game, so to speak, in their and their childrens’ favor.

A transhumanism lacking an egalitarian anchor, of which the Universal Declaration is just one example, threatens to become just one more way in which the already wealthy and powerful (including many of us lucky enough to be born in the developed world) will be able to make their advantage permanent by, for instance, genetically enhancing themselves or their children when this option is not available to all, purchasing the most advanced form of bioelectrical enhancements whose expense prices out the bulk of the middle class and the poor, replacing middle class and working class jobs with AIs and robots- further shifting the balance of economic distribution away from labor and towards capital without at the same time adopting policies to offset this decline of opportunities for human work with policies such as guaranteed basic income.

Yet, if I thought the extent of Fuller’s critique of the progressive worldview that underlie the Universal Declaration was based on a simplistic view of the reality of social equality reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or the Kurt Vonnegut short-story “Harrison Bergeron”, I was in for a rude awakening when I actually read Fuller’s book- Humanity 2.0.  It was in reading this book that I became convinced not just of the need for an egalitarian orientation for transhumanism but for the full embrace and incorporation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights into its project if transhumanism was to free itself from the potential to unleash social evil.

It was in Humanity 2.0  that Fuller showed just how far he was willing to go in his rejection of the Universal Declaration, as far in fact as to call for the rehabilitation of the inhuman Nazi regime that had given rise to the Universal Declaration in the first place. The kinds of ethical obscenities that can be found in Humanity 2.0 are indicative of the dangers inherent when one unmoors the idea of post-humanity, of the transhuman, from the project to obtain the requisites of the human condition- of humanity 1.0- for all, and when one sees progress being driven by “superior” individuals or groups.

Part of the moral dilemma any transhumanists has to face is the sheer, and often unacknowledged gap, between transhumanist goals and the actual conditions of the large numbers of humanity. Transhumanists in large measure have objectives such as the obtainment of biological immortality when the average life expectancy in a country like Sierra Leone is 46. Talk of a technologically supercharged humanity rings hollow when 2.6 billion human beings lack toilets. If these disparities are not addressed and our global environmental, and political problems are not solved, we will likely have more explosions like the recent one in Egypt which is as much a crisis of population density, energy, food and water scarcity as it is a secular vs. religious conflict.

The immoral potential implicit in this gap confronts us directly, even if on simplistic terms, in the film Elysium where in the year 2154 the majority of humanity lives on a planet of want, social breakdown and violence when a minority lives in a transhumanist paradise in space where there is no disease, poverty or war. Here, transhumanism becomes a sort of sinister version of The Rapture of the Nerds that is the dream of singularitarians.  It is a possibility that emerges from the race for the rights of the future when we have yet to secure the rights of the past.

One of the main ways techno-progressivism- a relatively recent branch of transhumanism- might best distinguish itself, or even if necessary, divorce itself, from both the kinds of anti-progressive transhumanism seen in Fuller, dramatically presented in Elysium and found in the millenarian fantasies of singularitarianism would be to openly embrace as its primary mission the obtainment of the goals set forth in the Universal Declaration. The priority of science as a utopian project would then be aimed at the achievement of a sustainable human condition for all. To these goals could then be added core transhumanists hopes such as the radical extension of the human lifespan (which would fall under the Universal Declaration’s right to life) and the right to explore and build upon the transcendence of current human capabilities, including by the use of technological means (which would fall under the Universal Declaration’s right to the full development of the human personality).

Still, a little historical and philosophical background and context might prove helpful in making the reasons for such a linkage between the projects of humanity 1.0 as represented by the Universal Declaration and  tehno- progressivism a little clearer and might lay bare some of the risks in tying progressivism to science and technology alone without addressing underlying dynamics of wealth and power.

For, it should not be surprising that human rights, singularitarianism and transhumanism emerged almost simultaneously and might someday soon prove real rivals for defining the human future. All three emerged from the loss of faith that utopia could be created through political action and as responses to the recognition of a common human identity and our likely fate. To that I will turn next time…

The above painting of Janus is by South African artist Christo Coetzee (1929-2001), oil on board.   It can be found in the Sanlam Collection. Copyright Christo Coetzee, all rights reserved.

The Terrifying Banality of Humanity 2.0

William Blake Urizen in Fetters Tears streaming from His Eyes

Something I think we are prone to forget in this age of chattering heads and two-bit pundits is that ideas have consequences. Anyone engaged in public discourse has some responsibility to wrestle with the ethical implications of their thought, and this is as much the case for the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world as it is for that disappearing class of thinkers who once proudly went by the name intellectuals.

In a way, artists have always had an easier time than those engaged in more discursive lines of thought. We hold Plato morally accountable for the ideas he put forward in a work like The Republic in a way we don’t hold his contemporary Aeschylus for a play full of human violence like The Oresteia. The reason for this is that philosophers rather than artists it is assumed, not doubt in part falsely, are not just giving us a view into the world as it is, but as they believe it should be.

If ideas are indeed serious things, and we need to hold intellectuals responsible for their moral implications in a way artists need not be, then the pushing open, perhaps better tearing up, of the envelope of our moral horizons found in Steve Fuller’s recent Humanity 2.0: What it means to Be Human: Past, Present and Future needs to be confronted in a way a work of art like the song Vicarious by the band Tool does not, even if both start from a kind of Archimedean point outside or above the normal human perspective to look down upon the world as whole to end up with a sort of metaphysical justification for evil and violence.

Upon picking up Humanity 2.0 I did not expect this. What I anticipated is a recent version of run of the mill transhumanism with an epistemological slant (Fuller is a social epistemologist). Instead, what I got was a rather disturbing set of conclusions embedded within an otherwise banal alternative history of sociology.

There were far too many points throughout Humanity 2.0 where I found myself stopping to exclaim “Did he really just say that?” to discuss them all. So, in what follows I will focus on what I found the most relevant. For starters, Fuller thinks that for transhumanism, or better transhumanism as he understands it, to succeed it has to adopt what can only be understood as a form of  politics as deception. The first step in this deception is merely the discussions surrounding transhumanists’ concerns, where, for Fuller:

Intentionally or not, this serves to acclimatize citizens, in the company of their peers, to whatever nano-driven changes might be on the horizon, thereby updating the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. (147)

In social psychology, this strategy is often dubbed ‘inoculation’, the suggestion being that by allowing people to spend time thinking about extreme or pure cases of some potential threat, you have laid the groundwork for the acceptance of a less virulent version.  (148)

Fuller compares this indirect method to be used in the achievement of transhumanist ends to be akin to the victory of socialism which emerged as a way to stave off the communist threat. (150)

Let’s pause and think about what he is saying for a moment. For Fuller, discussions and debates surrounding the issues of the application of science and technology to transform the current human condition are not so much a way to think through the profound challenges and questions transhumanist concerns pose to our understanding of what it means to be human or even post-human as they are a sort of public relations campaign which will win over the public to transhumanist positions the more extreme the proposals it appears to make for the human future.

That Fuller would adopt a perspective more reminiscent of the television show Mad Men that anything we might recognize from the tradition of moral philosophy or democratic politics shouldn’t be all that surprising given that he thinks the bizarre way in which we afford corporations with the rights of individuals to be a primary vector by which his post- human version of utopia will come into being. He muses:

Once the modes of legitimate succession started to be forged along artificial rather than natural lines with the advent of the corporation… the path to the noosphere had been set. (205)

If indeed Fuller means us to associate our modern corporations- our Walmart’s and McDonald’s- with the telos of the world, Teilhard de Chardin will not be the only one rolling in his grave.

Fuller’s love of corporations and his view of them as vectors for what he conceives to be the “real” ends of transhumanism is just one shade of his unabashed collectivism. One of his primary aims is to rehabilitate 19th and early 20th century eugenics. Many of the contemporary proponents of eugenics tend to approach the issue from the standpoint of reproductive rights. The problem with antique forms of eugenics, in their view, wasn’t just that it was based upon bad, meaning pre-genetic and racial science, but that it was focused on empowering the group in complete disdain of the rights and life of individuals.

Fuller will have none of such individualism or talk of “rights”.  We should rehabilitate 19th and 20th century eugenics because:

The history of eugenics is relevant to the project of human enhancement because it establishes the point-of-view from which one is to regard human-beings: namely, not as ends in themselves but as a means for the production of benefits… (emphasis added/142)

Lest we think that Fuller is out merely to rehabilitate the image of now forgotten  eugenicists like Francis Galton and couldn’t possibly be talking about “rehabilitating” our understanding of National Socialism we have this:

Put bluntly, we must envisage the prospect of a transformation in the normative image of Nazi Germany comparable to what Barrington Moore described for the French Revolution. This is not easy… there have been only the barest hints of Nazi rehabilitation. But hints there are, helped along by the deaths of those with first-hand experience of Nazism. (244)

Does the death of those with first-hand experience of Nazi atrocities make us wiser in Fuller’ eyes? This is not the kind of “PR” transhumanism needs.

Fuller’s commitment to collectivism takes him very far from traditional transhumanism indeed. In his hands the universal commitment to the increase in human longevity becomes nonsensical because the individual herself, from Fuller’s perspective, is a non-entity, a bridge to a kind of reborn primordial soup of cells and silicon which from his pantheist perch appears to be the ideal evolutionary future of a disembodied human intelligence or logos.

From his perspective the satirical world of “Utilitaria” imagined by the moral philosopher, Steven Lukes, where the characters are fully cared for from birth until old age only to be literally deconstructed both mentally and physically to serve as “parts” for the young becomes not a searing critique of a purely utilitarian world devoid of human rights, but a prescription for his version of our post-human future.

… with nature-inspired technologies we might think more imaginatively (aka divinely) about the terms on which ‘the greatest good’ can be secured for ‘the greatest number’, especially how parts of individuals might be subsumed under this rubric.” (228)

This zooming out to an amoral height in which the individual no longer has real value aside from whatever benefits they can bring not so much to society as to the process of history leading us to Fuller’s post-human age leads him to embrace a whole host of troubling concepts.  He gives gives his proposal to disassemble the panoply of protections we have built up around the use of human beings in scientific research vanilla,  soft-nietzschean labels such as “suffering smart”. Where his proposals amount to a kind of martyrology in which individuals sacrifice their own lives and health for the “honors” of propelling scientific research at a faster pace.

Fuller’s version of “heaven” is a return to the Eden of the primordial soup where the distinctions between species, machines, and even individuals has collapsed. In this he is riding the wave of the transformation of biology into an information science where individuals of a species become mere pattern of genes and the boundary between species become permeable. Here, Fuller takes the extremely irresponsible glorification of our new found ability to swap and combine genes between species who have not occupied the same place in lineage since the dawn of life on earth coming from figures like Freeman Dyson to an even greater extreme. Being able to incorporate the genes from other species is less for Fuller a means of human enhancement as it is the road the disappearance of the human into some sort of divine stew.

Fuller takes this transformation of biology into an information science to the degree that he has become one of the most vocal proponents of teaching intelligent design in schools. What? The logic behind his advocation of the pseudoscience of intelligent is that the actual history of life on earth has become irrelevant now that we have reduced it to information.

… nothing much hangs on the fact of whether animals and plants evolved naturally or were specially created, let alone whether it happened over 5000 or 5 billion years… (64)

For Fuller, intelligent design is a sort of noble lie meant to teach its students how to be “God-like” designers of nature.

As far as things to raise critical awareness I will stop there, and am left to wonder how it is possible that Fuller has come up with such a regressive version of transhumanism where debate and discourse is replaced by manipulation, where corporations and collectives have replaced individuals, where not just 19th and early 20th century racists, but Nazis mass murderers are seen as premonitions of transhumanism and that is not be taken as a negative thing, a warning, where individuals become sacrificial animals for a research endeavor whose success would ultimately spell the end of individuals, where intelligent design is touted as a serious version of biological science?

The extent that Fuller flirts with the shibboleths of early 20th century fascism, indeed, he appears to see them as the true harbingers of transhumanist politics, suggested that the most recent offshoot of transhumanist thought, so called techno-progressivism will need to divorce and divest itself from its transhumanist roots if it is to remain ethically viable. Special efforts need to be made to disentangle techno-progressivism from underlying religious aspiration,s for it is these which serve as the launch point from which Fuller would undo much of the moral progress that emerged as a delayed response to the abuses and cognitive distortions of fascism and European imperialism.

As I have warned elsewhere religious rhetoric or the historically unconscious adoption of ideas whose origins are ultimately religious is dangerous to the transhumanist project both because it puts transhumanists and traditional religious persons in an artificial state of conflict, but also because it leads to the very kinds of moral and intellectual hubris found in a work like Humanity 2.0.

Fuller taps into what Susan Neiman in her Evil in Modern Thought declared to be the moral problem that would define the modern age- why is there evil in the world? A problem answered by thinkers such as Gottfried Leibniz with his concept of theodicy. The problem of evil is one of our own limited human perspective. Get up “high” enough and you will see that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”.

It shouldn’t be surprising that theodicy emerged at the same time as modern science and biblical literalism. Before the scientific revolution it was assumed that the everyday world that surrounds us is the worst of all possible worlds only in comparison to the Hell thought to be literally below us both a consequence of ours and the rebellious angels’ fall from grace.

Newton was just the most prominent of the early moderns to have destroyed the gap between the perfect world of the heavens and that of earth; what guided a thrown object here was the same thing that ruled heavenly objects above. Here emerges the idea of God as a celestial engineer.

Many of the early scientists such as Newton or Francis Bacon were proponents of the new biblical literalism. For them the project of freeing our understanding of the world from the hold of ancient and inaccurate science and finding the true meaning of the Bible by clearing it of the distortions caused by Catholicism were a set piece- a dual project. In her The Case for God, Karen Armstrong points out how these early moderns created the literalists idea of God replacing more mystical and metaphorical understandings. What drives debates between vocal New Atheists and fundamentalist is that the two are in fact theological brothers who share their conception of God and are merely arguing over whether this God exists or not.

Fuller places himself within this camp although his argument might be described as a leap from New Atheism to fundamentalism: the literalists creator God of the early moderns (and today’s fundamentalists) does not exist, so we should ourselves become this God. All of history then becomes excused as the mere birthpangs of us a newborn “god”.

The problem is we are not “gods” and are nowhere near “becoming gods”, or are very strange gods indeed. Not the omnipotent creator/designer that is a common power fantasy, but a god trapped within his own creation that needs to create and act anew merely to survive and can never be sure that the next creative act will not spell his end.

Theodicy of the type Fuller promotes denies the very reality that the Copernican Revolution and all subsequent great leaps in our scientific understanding has brought us: We are not at the center of events- we are not the story.

Theodicy implies that we can judge the universe by the moral qualities characteristic of human individuals- good and evil. But we do not exist on the same moral plane of the universe because the universe does not have a moral plane. It creates and destroys with absolute indifference.

When doing science we have to approach the world from above, from an Archimedean point, but morality does not and can not work like this. Justifying the whole of life or the entirety of the universe on moral grounds means a justification which a more theological age called evil, death, pain and destruction, for there is no need to justify the good. Fuller wants to justify historical and natural evil, but instead ends up at the same place as the viewpoint of the character in that Tool song I mentioned earlier who justifies his own voyeuristic bloodlust because the universe itself is a place of pain:

Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.

                Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.

   Shouldn’t have to say it all again.

              The universe is hostile. so Impersonal. devour to survive.

So it is. So it’s always been.

  We all feed on tragedy

 It’s like blood to a vampire

Vicariously I, live while the whole world dies

   Much better you than I

The banality of evil is that it comes not so much from this sort of willful malice as a mistaken notion of the good and an obliviousness to our own limits. Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 has both in spades.