Transhumansim: Engineering Our Own Obsolescence

Let me begin by saying that I am an avid transhumanist.  This is to say that I believe that the ultimate goal of humanity is to transcend humanity.  We will have achieved our telos when we have made ourselves obsolete.  (For an interesting take on this, see the Hob storyline in the webcomic Dresden Codak).  The human species has never been content just being.  We always seek to become more, to know more, and achieve perfection.  For me, this dissatisfaction is one of the things that makes us human and separates us from non-sentient species.  In fact, dissatisfaction is probably the greatest achievement of our species.  But back to the main point–transhumanism.  Simply defined, it is a condition where science and technology are used to supplement and improve the human body.  Cyborgs are a great example.  Even things like eye glasses are a transhumanist apparatus.  So why not genetics, too?

Perhaps an interesting bit of pop culture to examine would be X-Men.  In the recent movies, much of the political debate centered on the existence of mutants, designated as a new sub-species Homo sapiens superior. Are they human?  How do we designate them under human rights statutes?  What will happen to “normal” humans?  While X-Men attempts to be a social critique on several issues, perhaps its science-fiction approach is not as much fiction as the original creators intended.  Many of the questions raised by a modified human population applies to the advent of an analogous situation in real-world society.  The movie Gattaca certainly takes a negative view of a society with a majority of genetically modified individuals.  But is Gattaca really reacting against the transhumanist sentiment in general?  Or is it just warning against a form of genetic fascism?

Darwinian genetics says that evolution occurs as advantageous traits get selected for over time.  Certainly this explains how humans (and every other living thing) got to where we are today.  But what about its applicability to our current situation?  It is my belief that love and modern medicine have abolished evolution in the Darwinian sense among humans.  This is to say that 1) traits which are selected for are no longer necessarily those which lend themselves to survival in the strictest sense, but rather are traits selected for on a purely social level, appealing primarily to things like aesthetics, and 2) advances in health care have negated some of the selective pressures of diseases such that individuals with historically fatal conditions or  increased susceptibility to diseases are no longer being removed from the reproductive gene pool.  While one could argue that this is leading to the weakening and de-evolution of the species, I am going to choose not to be that contentious.  In lieu, let me just say that evolution must proceed otherwise.

This is where genetic tests for parents come into play.  Testing for the probability of genetic diseases in offspring for potential parents would allow these conditions to be avoided.  Gene therapy for embryos could put an end to things like Tay Sachs disease.  If we are able to engineer humans to be healthier and happier, I find it difficult to say that this is something to be avoided.  One could say that this is a slippery slope, leading to conditions like those in Brave New World or Gattaca. The problem in these fictionalized futures is not the technology, but the attitude toward the technology.  What must be avoided at all costs is the genetic determinism which dictates the caste a person belongs to before their own birth.  To limit a person’s abilities and opportunities as with the menial laborers in Brave New World is nothing short of an egregious human rights violation.  But this should not prevent us from using genetic engineering to expand humanity’s abilities and potential.

Yes, we need to be wary of fascism.  But to pass on an opportunity for improvement is not only illogical, it goes against human nature.  And if the humans of the future are so much faster, stronger, smarter, and healthier as to be unrecognizable to those of us living today, so be it.  More than that, I believe we should hasten the day by funding genetic research, technological human augmentation, and man/machine interfaces.

I welcome my own obsolescence.

-Wade Wheatley

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~ by wadewheatley on January 31, 2010.

3 Responses to “Transhumansim: Engineering Our Own Obsolescence”

  1. You are correct; we are a species of dissatisfaction. My question is how do you determine what the best qualities are to improve humanity? And what’s to say that these qualities would not change or evolve over time. Also in our rush to create the perfect human, I would think we would lose our uniqueness. With limited knowledge of the underlying mechanisms of the genome, being able to pinpoint these best qualities is next to impossible.

    • You raise some good questions. I absolutely agree that what constitutes a desirable or “good” trait is subject to cultural concerns and will change over time. I’m not so sure this is a bad thing, or even something we need to address. I would propose allowing our self-engineered evolution to change along with our cultural climate, creating individuals best suited to the current definition of good. Just as with traditional evolution, organisms in the wild survive based on current conditions, not some stable view of what is good that somehow takes the future into account. As far as maintaining individuality, yes, this is a concern. However, the specific type of improvements I am thinking of are not so much about aesthetic style (as the Nazis were concerned with) or altering individual personality (as the identities of individuals are shaped in Brave New World). Rather, I envision a scenario where a person engineered to have high intelligence and increased cardiovascular endurance can decide if she wants to become a professor or a cross-country athlete. For me, improving on the human is not about limiting diversity or potentiality. This is in fact what scares me most. Rather, I believe that improvements can foster diversity and provide people with greater opportunities. The eradication of a genetic disease does not make you just like every other healthy person; it allows you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. An engineered genome should never equal determination or predestination. As far as our current understanding, I realize that everything I’m discussing is science fiction. Our understanding of the genome is decades, if not a century, away from realizing my aims. I merely put it forth as a way of conceiving the future evolution of the species.

  2. […] little about eugenics, extending Justin Barisich’s discussion, and incorporating a few of my previously-discussed views on transhumanism.  So, the ancient Greeks were into eugenics for a while, and the continuing […]

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