History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
– James Joyce
Enhancement. Why shouldn’t we make ourselves better than we are now? We’re incomplete. Why leave something as fabulous as life up to chance?
– Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow a point is reached in the text in which the inexorable power of an accelerating capitalism is shown out of control mutating into something else something not quite human:
The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes— gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands . Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are.1
This notion of a violent nativity, of giving birth to something that is both new and as old as the very “forgotten roots of who we are” seems appropriate to our time of accelerating impossibilities. We who are atheists seem to visualize some secular apocalypse of the semantic, a breaking of the bonds of the Anthropocene era, of a bridging of the gap, a great crossing of some inevitable Rubicon of the inhuman within us into something post-human, something strange and almost unthinkable. Yet, as we study our religious forbears we notice a paradox, a sort of literalization of the Christian mythos of the perfectibility of Man, the veritable myth of a New Adam in the making. But whereas the church going population saw this as a release from embodiment, of a shift into transcendence of spirit, our new atheistic or secular priests of posthumanism and/or transhumanism see it as just an immanent change within the very condition of the human animal itself.
The idea of the perfectibility of man emerges in the 18th century, with the relaxation of the theological barriers protecting the property for God alone. In Enlightenment writers such as the Condorcet and Godwin, perfectibility becomes a tendency actually capable of being realized in human history. Before Kant, both Rousseau and the Scottish thinker Lord Monboddo (1714–99) envisaged perfectibility as the power of self-rule and moral progress. The 19th century represented the high-water mark of belief in perfectibility, under the influence first of Saint-Simon, then Kant, Hegel, Comte and Marx. With the arrival of the theory of evolution it was possible to see successive economic and cultural history as a progress of increasing fitness, from primitive and undeveloped states to a potential ideal associated with freedom and self-fulfilment. This optimism, frequently allied with unlimited confidence in the bettering of the human condition through the advance of science, has taken on a new twist in the pseudo-science of Transhumanism.2
Abraham Maslow, the central figure in “third force” psychology, was one of the first to use the term “transhuman” to describe a new form of secular religion of peak experiences. Maslow described peak experiences as very like orgasms : “the peak experience is temporary, essentially delightful, potentially creative, and imbued with profound metaphysical possibilities.” One cannot live on such peaks but, he insisted, a life without them is unhealthy, nihilistic and potentially violent. The peak experience sat at the summit of a pyramid built on a hierarchy of psychological and physiological needs. At the base of the pyramid was food, shelter, sleep; above that came sexuality, safety and security; above that, love, belonging, self-esteem; and finally, at the peak itself, self-actualization. This last state was regarded as spiritual but in no way religious. One of the achievements of a peak experience, Maslow thought, was that people became more democratic, more generous, more open, less closed and selfish, achieving what he called a “transpersonal” or “transhuman” realm of consciousness. He had the idea of a “non-institutionalized personal religion” that “would obliterate the distinction between the sacred and the profane”— rather like the meditation exercises of Zen monks, whom he compared to humanistic psychologists. Maslow’s idols in this were William James and Walt Whitman.3
George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian socialist, along with H.G. Wells affirmed a view of the perfectibility of human nature. Shaw once stated that the “end of human existence is not to be ‘good’ and be rewarded in heaven, but to create Heaven on earth.” As he wrote to Lady Gregory: “ My doctrine is that God proceeds by the method of ‘trial and error.’ . . . To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching Man to regard himself as an experiment in the realization of God.” (Watson, KL 1959) Shaw also much like Quentin Meillasoux in our own time espoused the notion of inexistent God, of the god that does not yet exist but might. Shaw wrote to Tolstoy in 1910: “To me God does not yet exist. . . . The current theory that God already exists in perfection involves the belief that God deliberately created something lower than Himself. . . . To my mind , unless we conceive God as engaged in a continual struggle to surpass himself . . . we are conceiving nothing better than an omnipotent snob.”(Watson, KL 1930) Notions of perfectibility, good, and progress were all fused into the idea of neverending improvement in Shaw as well in which he “good” is a process of endless improvement “that need never stop and is never complete.”
For Wells on the other hand improvement, good, progress were conceived of within the tradition of “perfectibility” not in a theological way, but as a three-pronged process— perfectibility of the individual but within the greater structure of the state and of the race. As he stated it:
The continuation of the species, and the acceptance of the duties that go with it, must rank as the highest of all goals; and if they are not so ranked, it is the fault of others in the state who downgraded them for their own purposes. . . . We live in the world as it is and not as it should be. . . . The normal modern married woman has to make the best of a bad position, to do her best under the old conditions, to live as though [as if] she were under the new conditions, to make good citizens, to give her spare energies as far as she can to bringing about a better state of affairs. Like the private property owner and the official in a privately conducted business, her best method of conduct is to consider herself [as if she were] an unrecognized public official, irregularly commanded and improperly paid. There is no good in flagrant rebellion. She has to study her particular circumstances and make what good she can out of them, keeping her face towards the coming time. . . . We have to be wise as well as loyal; discretion itself is loyalty to the coming state. . . . We live for experience and the race; the individual interludes are just helps to that; the warm inn in which we lovers met and refreshed was but a halt on the journey. When we have loved to the intensest point we have done our best with each other. To keep to that image of the inn, we must not sit overlong at our wine beside the fire. We must go on to new experiences and new adventures. (Watson, KL 2566)
John Passmore in his classic study The Perfectibility of Man begins by distinguishing between “technical perfection” and the perfectibility of a human being. As Harold Coward points out following Passmore Technical perfection occurs when a person is deemed to be excellent or perfect at performing a particular task or role. In this sense we may talk about a perfect secretary, lawyer, or accountant, suggesting that such persons achieve the highest possible standards in their professional work. But this does not imply that they are perfect in their performance of the other tasks and roles of life. Passmore points out that Plato in his Republic allows for technical perfection by allocating to each person that task to perform in which the person’s talents and skills will enable a perfect performance of the task. But that same person might be a failure as a parent; and so, in Plato’s Republic he or she would not be allowed to be a parent. The parent role would be reserved for someone else whose talents enabled him or her to perfectly perform the task of raising children. But Plato distinguishes such technical perfection from the perfection of human nature evidenced by the special class of persons who are rulers of the Republic. These “philosopher-kings,” as he calls them, are not perfect because they rule perfectly; they are perfect because they have seen “the form of the good” and rule in accordance with it. Passimore comments, “in the end, the whole structure of Plato’s republic rests on there being a variety of perfection over and above technical perfection-a perfection which consists in, or arises out of, man’s relationship to the ideal.”‘ Passmore goes on to point out that other Western thinkers including Luther, Calvin, and Duns Scotus follow Plato in talking about technical perfection in terms of one’s vocation or calling. But the perfecting of oneself in the performance of the role in life to which one is called is not sufficient by itself to ensure one’s perfection as a human being.4
Plato by introducing the idea of a metaphysical good as the ideal to be achieved, he also evoked the idea of evil or the lack of good, and the tension between the two. They are related to the terms “perfect” or “perfection” in the sense of an end or goal that is completed (the Greek telos [end], and the Latin perficere [to complete])’ Thus, human nature attempts to perfect itself by actualizing the end (the “good,” in Plato’s thought) that is inherent in it. Insodoing it “completes” itself. (Coward, KL 124) Peter Watson in his The Age of Atheists wonders at such notions of good, perfection, progress, telos, etc. asking: “Is the very idea of completion, wholeness, perfectibility, oneness, misleading or even diverting? Does the longing for completion imply a completion that isn’t in fact available? Is this our predicament?”(Watson, 545)
Vernor Vinge in his now classic The Coming Technological Singularity gave his own answer to this question saying,
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.5
Vinge brought to fruition many of the ideas of the good from Plato to David Pearce. Illah R. Nourbakhsh commenting on David Pearce’s The Biointelligence Explosion, tells us that Pearce sets up an antihero to the artificial superintelligence scenario, proposing that our wetware will shortly become so well understood, and so completely modifiable, that personal bio -hacking will collapse the very act of procreation into a dizzying tribute to the ego. Instead of producing children as our legacy, we will modify our own selves, leaving natural selection in the dust by changing our personal genetic makeup in the most extremely personal form of creative hacking imaginable. But just like the AI singularitarians, Pearce dreams of a future in which the new and its ancestor are unrecognizably different. Regular humans have depression, poor tolerance for drugs, and, let’s face it, mediocre social, emotional and technical intelligence. Full-Spectrum Superintelligences will have perfect limbic mood control, infinite self-inflicted hijacking of chemical pathways, and so much intelligence as to achieve omniscience bordering on Godliness.6
In this same work, Singularity Hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Dr. David Roden of Enemy Industry blog stipulates his Diconnection Thesis. Part of his wider Speculative Posthumanist stance this thesis provides that basic tenets that the “descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration”; and, the notion of a “relationship between humans and posthumans as a historical successor relation: descent.” (Singularity, KL 7390) At the heart of this thesis is the notion “that human-posthuman difference be understood as a concrete disconnection between individuals rather than as an abstract relation between essences or kinds. This anti-essentialist model will allow us to specify the circumstances under which accounting would be possible.” (Singularity, KL 7397) In acknowledgment of Vinge Roden states “Vinge considers the possibility that disconnection between posthumans and humans may occur as a result of differences in the cognitive powers of budding posthumans rendering them incomprehensible and uninterpretable for baseline humans” (Singularity, 7554).
There seems to be a fine line between certain posthuman theorists and transhumanist theorists. Where they seem to converge is in the notion of progress, improvement, and perfectibility of human nature. On the one hand we see the enactment of a total divergence, or transcension, a disconnect between our current embodied natural humans (i.e., you and I), and those that will become our descendents – our posthuman descendents – the yet to be. Yet, the line of difference is more of nuance than of substance. Posthuman seem to seek a transformation to another order of being, a surpassing of the human into the inhuman/posthuman order of being. While the transhumanists seek a new inclusion of existing humanity in an enhanced order of being in which the immortality is the central telos rather than perfectibility of the human condition. Transhumanists find little point in living forever in old bodies, however, even in bodies that remain healthy. So in addition to being immortal, they want humans to engineer themselves to be forever young. Ray Kurzweil, for example, is counting on cloning and stem cells to do the trick, the same technologies that John Harris wants to employ to eliminate the diseases of old age. Our bodies will be rejuvenated, says Kurzweil, “by transforming your skin cells into youthful versions of every other cell type.”7
Secularist dreams of immortality seem more like religionists without a religion, a sort of philosophical humbug trip for disgruntled atheists to wonderland without the need to pay the ticket to Charon. Behind the whole drama of transhuman science is the century old notions of eugenics. The eugenic goals, which had informed the design of the molecular biology program and had been attenuated by the lessons of the Holocaust, revived by the late 1950s. Dredged from the linguistic quagmire of social control, a new eugenics, empowered by representations of life supplied by the new biology, came to rest in safety on the high ground of medical discourse and latter-day rhetoric of population control.8 But the shadow of eugenics has for the most part been erased from our memories. One must be reminded that the original holocaust was part of the progressive movement in medicine within the United States not Germany:
The goal was to immediately sterilize fourteen million people in the United States and millions more worldwide-the “lower tenth”-and then continuously eradicate the remaining lowest tenth until only a pure Nordic super race remained. Ultimately, some 60,000 Americans were coercively sterilized and the total is probably much higher. No one knows how many marriages were thwarted by state felony statutes. Although much of the persecution was simply racism, ethnic hatred and academic elitism, eugenics wore the mantle of respectable science to mask its true character.9
Many might think this is a thing of the past but they would be wrong. Eugenics no longer hides in plain site under the rubric of some moral or progressive creed of eliminating from the human stock a particular germ line. It now hides itself in other guises. One needs only seek out such new worlds of the Personal Genome Project: http://www.personalgenomes.org/ dedicated to what on the surface appears to be a perfectly great notion of health: “Sharing data is critical to scientific progress, but has been hampered by traditional research practices—our approach is to invite willing participants to publicly share their personal data for the greater good.” But such notions were already in place by one of the leaders of the eugenics movement Charles Davenport a century ago:
- “I believe in striving to raise the human race to the highest plane of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavor.”
- “I believe that I am the trustee of the germ plasm that I carry; that this has been passed on to me through thousands of generations before me; and that I betray the trust if (that germ plasm being good) I so act as to jeopardize it, with its excellent possibilities, or, from motives of personal convenience, to unduly limit offspring.”
- “I believe that, having made our choice in marriage carefully, we, the married pair, should seek to have 4 to 6 children in order that our carefully selected germ plasm shall be reproduced in adequate degree and that this preferred stock shall not be swamped by that less carefully selected.”
- “I believe in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits.”
- “I believe in repressing my instincts when to follow them would injure the next generation.”10
From the older form of sharing one’s “germ plasm” to the new terms of sharing one’s “personal genome” we’ve seen a complete transformation of the eugenics movement as the sciences transformed from early Mendelian genetics to mid-Twentieth century Molecular Genetics to our current multi-billion dollar Human Genome Project. But the base science of germ line genetics remains the same, and the whole complex of hereditarianism along with it. The reason for this new book which included a facsimile of the original educational manual textbook by Davenport Heredity in Relation to Eugenics is stated by the Cold Harbor review boards as:
…the most compelling reason for bringing Davenport’s book once again to public attention is our observation that although the eugenics plan of action advocated by Davenport and many of his contemporaries has long been rejected, the problems that they sought to ameliorate and the moral and ethical choices highlighted by the eugenics movement remain a source of public interest and a cautious scientific inquiry, fueled in recent years by the sequencing of the human genome and the consequent revitalization of human genetics.
When Mendel’s laws reappeared in 1900, Davenport believed he had finally been touched by the elusive but simple biological truth governing the flocks, fields and the family of man. He once preached abrasively, “I may say that the principles of heredity are the same in man and hogs and sun-flowers.” 54 Enforcing Mendelian laws along racial lines, allowing the superior to thrive and the unfit to disappear, would create a new superior race. A colleague of Davenport’s remembered him passionately shaking as he chanted a mantra in favor of better genetic material: “Protoplasm. We want more protoplasm!”(Black, KL 1053) Redirecting human evolution had been a personal mission of Davenport’s for years, long before he heard of Mendel’s laws. He first advocated a human heredity project in 1897 when he addressed a group of naturalists, proposing a large farm for preliminary animal breeding experiments. Davenport called such a project “immensely important.”(Black, 1068)
In our own time this notion of redirecting evolution is termed “transhumanism”. In section eight of the Transhumanist Declaration one will find: “We favor morphological freedom – the right to modify and enhance one’s body, cognition, and emotions. This freedom includes the right to use or not to use techniques and technologies to extend life, preserve the self through cryonics, uploading, and other means, and to choose further modifications and enhancements.”11 This freedom would also include the use of the latest biogenetic and neuroscientific technologies to transform or enhance humanity. As one proponent of this new morphological freedom put it:
Given current social and technological trends issues relating to morphological freedom will become increasingly relevant over the next decades. In order to gain the most from new technology and guide it in beneficial directions we need a strong commitment to morphological freedom. Morphological freedom implies a subject that is also the object of its own change. Humans are ends in themselves, but that does not rule out the use of oneself as a tool to achieve oneself. In fact, one of the best ways of preventing humans from being used as means rather than ends is to give them the freedom to change and grow. The inherent subjecthood of humans is expressed among other ways through self-transformation. Some bioethicists such as Leon Kass (Kass 2001) has argued that the new biomedical possibilities threaten to eliminate humanity, replacing current humans with designed, sanitized clones from Huxley’s Brave New World. I completely disagree. From my perspective morphological freedom is not going to eliminate humanity, but to express what is truly human even further.(Transhumanist Reader, 63)
That last sentence holds the key to the difference between most posthumanist and transhumanists: posthumans support in Roden’s terms some for of the disconnect thesis of a divergent descent from humans to something else through some technological transformation; while, most transhumanists want to bring the older humanistic notions into some morphological freedom in which humans become enhanced by technologies in ever greater empowerment.
As one outspoken spokesman tells us “genomic technologies can actually allow us to raise the dead. Back in 1996, when the sheep Dolly was the first mammal cloned into existence, she was not cloned from the cells of a live animal. Instead, she was produced from the frozen udder cell of a six-year-old ewe that had died some three years prior to Dolly’s birth. Dolly was a product of nuclear transfer cloning, a process in which a cell nucleus of the animal to be cloned is physically transferred into an egg cell whose nucleus had previously been removed. The new egg cell is then implanted into the uterus of an animal of the same species, where it gestates and develops into the fully formed, live clone.”12 This same author even prophesies that new NBIC technologies will help us in reengineering humanity in directions that natural selection never dreamed of:
Using nanobiotechnology , we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup. Synthetic genomics has the potential to recapitulate the course of natural genomic evolution, with the difference that the course of synthetic genomics will be under our own conscious deliberation and control instead of being directed by the blind and opportunistic processes of natural selection. …We are already remaking ourselves and our world, retracing the steps of the original synthesis— redesigning, recoding, and reinventing nature itself in the process. (Regenesis, KL 345)
As Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu suggest that human enhancement has moved from the realm of science ﬁction to that of practical ethics. There are now effective physical, cognitive, mood, cosmetic, and sexual enhancers —drugs and interventions that can enhance at least some aspects of some capacities in at least some individuals some of the time. The rapid advances currently taking place in the biomedical sciences and related technological areas make it clear that a lot more will become possible over the coming years and decades. The question has shifted from ‘‘Is this science ﬁction?’’ to ‘‘Should we do it?’’.13 They go on to state:
It seems likely that this century will herald unprecedented advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science, and other related areas. These advances will provide the opportunity fundamentally to change the human condition. This presents both great risks and enormous potential beneﬁts. Our fate is, to a greater degree than ever before in human history, in our own hands.( Human Enhancement, 20-21)
Yet, as the great historian of the eugenics movement Daniel J. Kevles admonished speaking of Francis Galton, one of the progenitors of the genetic enforcement of the eugenics heritage tells us:
Galton, obsessed with original sin, had expected that the ability to manipulate human heredity would ultimately emancipate human beings from their atavistic inclinations and permit their behavior to conform to their standards of moral conduct. But in fact, the more masterful the genetic sciences have become, the more they have corroded the authority of moral custom in medical and reproductive behavior. The melodies of deicide have not enabled contemporary men and women to remake their imperfect selves. Rather, they have piped them to a more difficult task: that of establishing an ethics of use for their swiftly accumulating genetic knowledge and biotechnical power.14
Ethics, Law, Politics have yet to catch up with these strange twists of the eugenic heritage as it is brought to fruition by the great Corporate Funds, Think Tanks, Academies, and Scientific laboratories all part of the vast complex of systems that are moving us closer and closer to some form of Singularity. What should we do? Ultimately I wonder if we have a choice in the matter at all. That is my nightmare.
The novelist’s argument is clear enough: genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.
– Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
1. Pynchon, Thomas (2012-06-13). Gravity’s Rainbow (pp. 133-134). . Kindle Edition.
2. See more at: http://www.philosophycs.com/perfectibility.htm#sthash.ESqeoqFt.dpuf
3. Watson, Peter (2014-02-18). The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (Kindle Locations 7511-7519). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
4. Harold Coward. The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies) (Kindle Locations 89-100). Kindle Edition.
5. Vinge, Vernor (2010-06-07). The Coming Technological Singularity – New Century Edition with DirectLink Technology (Kindle Locations 16-18). 99 Cent Books & New Century Books. Kindle Edition.
6. Singularity Hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment (The Frontiers Collection) (Kindle Locations 6222-6229). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Kindle Edition.
7. Mehlman, Maxwell J. (2012-08-10). Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering (p. 23). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Lily E. Kay. The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (Monographs on the History & Philosophy of Biology) (Kindle Locations 4511-4513). Kindle Edition.
9. Black, Edwin (2012-11-30). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Expanded Edition (Kindle Locations 182-186). Dialog Press. Kindle Edition.
10. Davenport’s Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity and Eugenics (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008)
11. (2013-03-05). The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future (p. 55). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
12. Regis, Ed; Church, George M. (2012-10-02). Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (Kindle Locations 269-274). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
13. Savulescu, Julian; Bostrom, Nick (2009-01-22). Human Enhancement (Page 18). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
14. Kevles, Daniel J. (2013-05-08). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Kindle Locations 6624-6629). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.