'The world's most dangerous idea'

02 November 2006

Transhumanist notions of life-enhancement are on the wrong track, argues Jennifer Swift

Did you know that the first human being to live to be 1000 years old might already be 60 now? Or that, by 2040, we will not only have intelligent computers, but they will be billions of times brighter than us? Or that, in the near future, schools may have to screen pupils not just for illegal drugs, but for pharmaceutical products that boost memory and cognition?

These ideas may sound far-fetched, but they are only a few of those put forward in a report issued in February by the respected think tank Demos, and aired at a conference earlier this month at Oxford University.

The report, Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension, was sponsored by the UK’s leading medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust; and the conference, "Tomorrow’s People", took place in Oxford’s gleaming new Said Business School, and was partly funded by the Department of Trade and Industry.

These establishment sponsors are clearly taking seriously the idea that science and technology will soon enable human beings to enhance our mental and physical capacities well beyond what is presently possible. Techniques of enhancement range from some already in common use, such as cosmetic surgery, to the more speculative, such as direct interfaces between computers and human brains.

Promoting these notions of enhancement is a small but influential group of technological optimists called the World Transhumanist Association, most of whose members are scientists, engineers, and computer experts. It was their vigorous advocacy of what they see as "the next stage in human evolution" that inspired the report and the conference, though in neither place have Transhumanist ideas gone unquestioned.

At the heart of the debate so far has been the question whether innovations such as living hundreds of years and choosing the IQs of our children by genetic engineering will so transform human nature that what we value about it will be lost. The neo-conservative American thinker Francis Fukuyama is quoted in the report as describing Transhumanism as "the world’s most dangerous idea".

Yet the Transhumanists and others who support their ideas argue that enhancement will not dehumanise us — either because we have been doing it for a long time already, and these technologies have not changed our nature (for example, telescopes enable us to see what no unaided eye could); or, more radically, because there is no essential human nature that cannot be enhanced.

As the US bioethicist Arthur Caplan says in his chapter of the report: "I think, ever since Darwin, we haven’t had any basis of saying that there’s any biological limit on what we could be, should be, or might want to become."

ARE THESE proposed enhancements a genuine threat to human nature? First, claiming that there is no significant difference between typing on a keyboard and restructuring the brain so that it can control a computer directly is not convincing. There comes a point when, instead of humans’ shaping technology, technology shapes humans.

Second, the bodies and minds we have today are the product of four billion years of evolution. Even if you do not think that evolution was directed by God, you still ought to have more respect for it and the capacities it has given us, of which most of us rarely make full use.

Third, it is striking that both the report and the conference scarcely addressed the kinds of enhancement that the world needs most — making human beings wiser, more generous, and more loving. Perhaps this is because it is hard to see how technology could bring about these changes; but I fear it is also because these traits are undervalued not just by Transhumanists, but also by a competitive, status-obsessed society.

Unlike Professor Fukuyama, however, I do not see Transhumanism as the most dangerous idea in today’s world. In part, this is because many of the extrapolations they put forward are frankly unbelievable. To take one example: despite millions invested in research, we are still unable to vaccinate against AIDS, let alone cure it; so why is it plausible to claim that in 25 years, we will be able to able to double the human lifespan? The meteoric rise of information technology and the explosive growth of the internet has misled those familiar with IT into thinking that biological hurdles can be overcome almost as easily.

None the less, these dreams of enhancement pose risks because they distract us from the problems we really ought to be using science and technology to address. It is no coincidence that these paeans to human power have become so shrill just when it has become clear that our present way of life is unsustainable. Imagining that your personality can become immortal by being downloaded into a supercomputer is much pleasanter than contemplating what will happen when the glaciers of Greenland melt into the sea (as they are already doing, according to last week’s New Scientist).

We must put aside childish notions of using technology to make the world’s privileged people invulnerable. Instead, we should use science to transform our destructive habits, so that our planet can survive as a home in which all living things can flourish.

Jennifer Swift is a writer on bioethics and co-convener of the Oxford University Genetics Forum.

Better Humans? edited by Paul Miller and James Wilsdon is free to download at www.demos.co.uk .

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