The Transhumanist Breeding Program

I’d like to talk a 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 reputation of the Spartan military is testiment to how well they made it work.  Then we don’t hear anything about it for a while.  The mid 19th century to early 20th century decided they liked eugenics again.  Looking back, we’re able to point out a lot flaws with that particular time period, including a lot of strange social notions that the British, in particular, held.  Then the Nazi’s happened, and suddenly eugenics became the passe and anachronistic interest of radical fringe groups.  Understandable backlash, certainly.  But is this reputation really fair to the true spirit of eugenics (which I promise has nothing to do with Hitler’s concept of Lebensunwertes Leben or the creation of das Übermensch )?

The Dune series by Frank Herbert is set in the far future where humanity has spread to hundreds of worlds.  In the diegesis there is an organization called the Bene Gesserit, a group of women who, in addition to refining their abilities of self-control and observation, run a eugenicist breeding program.  Unlike the negative eugenics projects of human history to this point, the Bene Gesserit run theirs by dictating breeding pairs.  Although they are not peering into the genetic code, they do keep careful genealogies and run speculative projections on offspring before deciding on pairs.  The Bene Gesserit have two things going in their favor:

1.  They think on a time scale that is barely comprehensible to people of the 20th century.  Over the course of the book series, well over 10,000 years pass, yet the Bene Gesserit goals remain straight and true.  They have the extreme patience needed to deem a thousand year project too short to be worth while.  Once upon a time humans had a little of this mentality.  It is what made the construction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral possible–a task which took 182 years (1163-1345).  The Industrial Revolution and subsequent advances in technology have created a mindset where a task of this magnitude is no longer even imaginable.  It is possible that the climate crisis will give humans the ability to think long term again.  Any successful eugenics program is going to require more than 182 years of attention and concentration.

2.  They don’t depend on love or marriage or any other silly social apparatuses.  A breeding pair is simply that–two individuals expected to produce offspring.  Love and marriage are separate matters which the Bene Gesserit tend to ignore.  This represents a radical shift from our current social conceptions of marriage, sex, and reproduction.  For a program like this to work, much of our sociological underpinnings would have to be altered.

One problem I have seen with the mindset of eugenics programs is that they continually seek to rid society and humanity of what they deem to be the “negative” or “bad” bits.  I’m all in favor of eradicating things like heart disease and cancer.  But trying to raise the intelligence level, for instance, of the entire human race is not a realistic goal, no matter what time frame one thinks in.  Why not, as the Bene Gesserit do, concern ourselves only with creating individuals with superior traits?  If humanity is to transcend humanity, as I believe we must and one day will (if we do not destroy ourselves), it will not be all together at a single collective moment.  The technological singularity will always leave part of the population behind, as has every advance humanity has ever undertaken.

The easy (and I think often petty) questions here are the same as they are for many other debates:  Isn’t that unfair to the poor?  But who gets to decide what’s “good” and what’s “bad?”  Aren’t we in danger of losing our humanity?  I believe the last two questions, in particular, are driven by a certain amount of technophobia (or perhaps transhumanist-phobia) and fear of change.  Don’t people usually cite some adage about humans being glad we climbed down from the trees?  I fail to see how this is any different.  If humanity is to move forward (and we as a species will accept nothing less) then we will have to be the engineers of our own change.  I see a long-term positive eugenics program as one way to implement this.

Humans aren’t ready for a program of this spatial and temporal size.  We are still not comfortable with the concept of eugenics, despite what it could do for us.  I realize this even as I posit it as a viable option for the future of the species, or rather for the future extinction/transcendence of the species.  Am I a radical?  Perhaps, but I do know that the technological singularity will happen some day, and it is better to have talked about it now than to deal with it ad hoc as it occurs.

-Wade Wheatley


~ by wadewheatley on February 22, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Transhumanist Breeding Program”

  1. I respect your transhumanist views, and even agree with a few of them. It is inevitable that society will continue to improve its functions and I also support research into the eradication of disease and cancer. Alternatively, I believe rather than allowing technological singularity to decide our course, there should be a stopping point or a slowing-down of progress. Society should limit the expansion of science into areas which will inevitably lead to dire consequences.

    As science progresses and it reaches the limitations of human conception, should we dare to create technology that we don’t understand? Movies like The Matrix and I-Robot come to mind as expressions of the potential problems with technological singularity.

    Take, for example, the construction of Roxxy, the first computerized sex robot. Why do we need a computer that looks and acts human just to engage in sexual intercourse? Let’s say Roxxy hits the market big time and replaces prostitutes. You’re right, “The technological singularity will always leave part of the population behind,” but who does technology replace next?

    I believe that if we don’t control and limit technological expansion then it will inevitably result in the extinction of the human race. The extinction might come in the form of the next horrific A-bomb or the machine/robot revolution, but either it way it will occur as the result of too much science and too little regulation. Unless science progresses carefully and only with the full support of society will we actually see that future in which disease and cancer no longer exist.

  2. You bring up a very good point about the difficulty in drawing lines between good and bad. How can we decide what to label as “bad” when determining characteristics to eradicate? It’s a slippery slope. It is going to be very difficult to establish a positive eugenics program. Your post is very interesting and thought-provoking.

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