Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 65(2) May 2015
Medicine and Transhumanism
Dr Agneta Sutton
Visiting Lecturer in Bioethics, Heythrop College,
University of London.
Tranhumanism and its roots
There has been much talk about transhumanism among bioethicists in the last few years. This is not least true among UK bioethicists. Like the term posthumanism, the term transhumansim is linked to aspirations to enhance human nature. That is, it is linked to aspirations to make us super-human. The hopes of the movement are succinctly captured in the very first lines of the Transhumanist Declaration first drawn up in 1998 and later revised in 2009: ‘Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming ageing, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering and our confinement to Earth’. Transhumanists hope, then, that human individuals will be able, with the help of science and technology, to reshape themselves and their offspring. They hope for a new humanity, one more intelligent and stronger, one ever young and healthy.
Of course, there are other scientists and bioethicists who do not see themselves as transhumansits, but who are talking about gene therapy and stem-cell therapy and mood-enhancing drugs and other means to improve or enhance physical or mental human health or wellbeing. And some, like John Harris, might say there is little difference between healing and enhancement. Harris, who says he has no transhumanist agenda, argues that vaccines are not treatment, ‘since individuals vaccinated are not usually ill’. True, arguably vaccination is a kind of enhancement, since the aim is to promote above normal or natural resistance to disease. Yet, as Michael Sandel points out, even if there is no sharp line between what might be called enhancement and what is called therapy, the former is understood as efforts to promote physical and mental traits that are superior to or well above normal health and normal abilities, whereas the latter is aimed at ‘restoring and preserving the natural humans functions that constitute health. The point made by Sandel shows that advocates of enhancement have much in common with those who call themselves transhumanists. Transhumanists are extreme, however, in that they talk about making us greatly more able and physically very much more resilient. They talk about greatly extending human lifespan and may even aim at earthly immortality. Some of them talk about downloading our minds on computers and thus immortalise us.
Obviously, transhumanism is a secular creed. Proponents may speak in terms of immortality, but they do not share Christian hopes for a different existence beyond this life. Nor do they express anything like Buddhist hopes for a final nirvana of eternal rest from life. Transhumanists hope that, with the help of human science and technology, we humans will be able to remain in the physical world of time and space for as long as we want. Indeed, as Gilbert Meilaender says in his book Should We Live Forever, the transhumanist target is not simply to overcome ageing and death. ‘More precisely, the target is death we have not chosen’. What is at issue is human control over life and death. ‘Not to be in control, to suffer the limits of fate we have not chosen – that is the enemy.’
This perception is born out by the words of Nick Bostrom, one of the signatories of the first version of the Transhumanist Declaration. According to him, the wisest approach towards transhumanist prospects of producing posthuman beings who may have indefinite life spans and much greater intellectual faculties than any current human being is ‘to embrace technological progress while strongly defending human rights and individual choice, and taking actions specifically against concrete threats, such as military or terrorist abuse of bioweapons, and against unwanted environmental or social side effects’. In short, individual choice and power is what matters. Bostrom’s statements bear witness to the transhumanist movement’s roots in a liberal ideology defending the freedom of the mentally competent adult to do what he pleases—provided it does not adversely affect the interest of other mentally competent adults. ‘A liberal democracy should normally permit incursions into morphological and reproductive freedoms only in cases where somebody is abusing these freedoms to harm another person’, he says.
Transhumanism also has another cultural heritage. The term transhumansim was coined by Julian Huxely in 1957, the elder brother of Aldous Huxely and the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxely. The latter, it may be noted, was known as Darwin’s Bulldog because of his ardent defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. An evolutionary biologist himself, Julian Huxely was the President of the British Eugenics Society from 1959 to 1962. Transhumanism, then, has links with eugenic ideology. If negative eugenics refers to social efforts to eliminate faulty or inferior human traits and genes, positive eugenics refers to social efforts to promote superior human traits and good genes. The transhumanist programme similarly embraces efforts both to eliminate bad traits and to promote superior traits, be it by genetics or other means.
An older heritage still is that bequeathed by Francis Bacon. Indeed, the transhumanist movement reflects Baconian ambitions, since the aim is to take control over nature, including human nature, by means of science and technology. The Baconian project was developed in Novum Organum and in The Great Instauration, both published in 1620. The latter, which was meant as an introduction to the former, succinctly spells out Bacon’s hopes that science based on observations, inductive reasoning and experiments will one day ‘in some degree subdue and overcome the miseries of humanity’. Bacon, then, envisaged a human society where with the help of science it would be possible to overcome disease and prolong life. In another work, the New Atlantis, published in 1627, he depicted a scientifically advanced culture, one with ‘Chambers of Health’ for cure of diseases and preservation of health and with ‘a Water of Paradise’ rendered ‘sovereign for health and prolongation of life’. The people of the New Atlantis are said to have ‘meats also and breads and drinks, which taken by men enable them to fast long after; and some other, that used make the very flesh of men’s bodies sensibly more hard and tough, and their strength far greater than otherwise it would be’.
Bacon’s New Atlantis is, however, not a Brave New World where the less fortunate members are enslaved to those more fortunate. It is also noteworthy that Bacon, a man of Elizabethan England, depicted the New Atlantis as a Christian land where science and religion lived in harmony. By contrast, the New Atlantis of transhumansim has little time for religion.
What’s wrong with Tranhumanism?
How realistic are transhumansit aspirations? And how logical or philosophically sound are they? It should be noticed that the transhumanist creed is based on a materialistic understanding. Transhumanists think, as noted, that with the help of technologies and physical interventions affecting the human body, we will be able to make ourselves more clever, stronger and longer living. Of course, what affects our bodies affects us as a whole. Nonetheless, we should not forget that our characters and our skills, indeed our whole mental life is dependent on nurture as well as nature. We are social, that is, relational beings. Speech, for one, is learned in communication with others. And social mores shape us, just as human societies shape social mores. We are all part of a culture of learning and acquired skills. We are who we are not only because of our physical make-ups but also because of inter-personal interactions.
At the same time as transhumanism is materialistic it is also dualist insofar as it aims to make us humans, or our minds, transcend our bodies. Nowhere is this more evident than in aspirations to download human consciousness or human mental life onto computers. Marine Rothblatt says that with “todays’ technology, the copy of one’s conscious essence would reside in a computer system”. It is, however, contradictory to believe in bodiless minds and at the same time hold the belief that the human mind can be transported to computers and thus is reducible to physical wiring.
That said, in some transhumanist scenarios, we will continue to have bodies, virtual or robotic bodies. ‘Future machines will be human even if they are not biological’, Ray Kurzwell tells us, as he expresses the hope that this will allow us to live much longer lives. On other scenarios ‘the hardware of the human computer, will die; but the software of our lives , our personal “mind file” will continue to live on the Web in the posthuman future where holographic avatars will interact with others without bodies’. But in no way can virtual life lived out in cyberspace be equated with real life, that is, with biological bodily life in time and space—the kind of life we now live. Some transhumanist ideas seem to be dreamed up by computer nerds or taken directly from science fiction!
To turn to other types of concern about enhancement technologies, first, it is to be noted that efforts to improve ourselves or future generations could go wrong. The hoped-for intelligent child might turn out to be dumb and dull or overly aggressive or totally introverted. Such risks are real. But, as the transhumanist camp would point out, techniques might be refined and risks minimalized. Therefore, let us leave the risks aside and turn to social concerns.
Regarding transhumanist hopes for longer and healthier lives for ourselves or for future generations, we must ask what kind of society we would create, if we who are adults or oldies today were to live for another hundred or two hundred years. Should we live a decade or two longer only and in relatively good health, we might think that a bonus. In that case we might not be a burden on social resources and, therefore, not a burden on younger generations. Should we live forever, the world would be filled with oldies. Let us presume these are healthy oldies. In that case might the young not be deprived of opportunities? The oldies might cling on to their positions of power in society. Doing so, they could be stunting the careers of the young. Furthermore, they could be stunting human creativity. Centenarians are surely less likely to have as many fresh and novel ideas as younger people. The result could be stagnation within society.
More important, fear of replacement, fear of not being here, seems to be at the roots of transhumanist aspirations. Theirs, therefore, is a quest for more and more of the same thing. There is no hope for something other or totally different. Very different is the Christian vison. ‘Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God’, writes John Paul II. For ‘life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence’, he explains, adding that ‘ it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life’.
Apart from lacking the kind of hope that relativizes this life,
transhumanist dreams seem almost scary. Would you really want a life of
youth, or of middle age, or of old age, going on for two hundred or for
three hundred or several more hundred years? No change, but ever more of
the same thing! We might not relish the prospect of getting old, of
failing health, of loss of abilities. But how appealing is the
Furthermore, transhumanist visions of life often seem primarily fixed on human capacities. Or, to be precise, they seem fixed on the individual’s capacities. The focus often seems to be on the single individual and on how long he lives and on what he can do. But surely a meaningful human life is one involving human relationships. Some transhumanist ideas reflect, however, an extreme individualism, even solipsism.
That said, there are transhumanists who are hoping to better us as social beings. Indeed, there are thinkers expressing transhumanist hopes to bio-medically enhance us morally. Ingmar Person and Julian Savulescu suggest ‘that we should explore whether our growing knowledge of biology, especially genetics and neurobiology, could deliver supplementary techniques of moral enhancement such as pharmaceutical drugs or genetic modifications’.  That is, in addition to the traditional moral education we give our children by schooling them in social living, we might improve people morally by drugs or genetic engineering. While Person’s and Savulescu’s aim is promotion of social harmony, nonetheless, like other versions of the transhumanist creed, theirs seems to express excessive faith - or even more faith- in human technologies and biomedical engineering than in interpersonal education and communication.
In other words, transhumanism presents skewed visons of human relationships. Not surprisingly, some bioethicists have expressed the fear that enhancement technologies might create a genetic overclass and, hence, also a genetic underclass. Some fear that only wealthier people will be able to afford the new means of enhancement to better themselves or their offspring. But it should be noted that if such a division were to result, it would (merely) be the result of one that was there already. The situation would be similar to the one in the UK and the United States today where only some people are able to afford private medical care. After all, little would change!
That said, Francis Fukuyama makes an interesting suggestion to the effect that genetically enhanced people might come to feel superior because they know they are ‘children of choice’. ‘When our abilities and other traits no longer are seen a result of nature’s lottery, those with sharper intellects or stronger bodies, might see themselves as ‘different kinds of creature’, he says. And so, they might see themselves as superior precisely because their nature has been deliberately modified. But why should they?
Isn’t the very opposite possible? Might those who have been genetically (or otherwise) engineered by their elders not feel inferior? As Jürgen Habermas points out, being designed by another establishes an asymmetrical relationship. ‘Our principal concern with programming here is not whether it will restrict another person’s ethical freedom and capacity of being himself, but whether, and how, it might eventually preclude a symmetrical relationship between the programmer and the product thus “designed”’ That is, designer and designed can never be on the same footing. Their relationship implies positions of superiority and inferiority.
Of course, as Habermas intimates, this need not make the designed person any less free to shape his future. If we are not shaped by human design, we are shaped by nature. Moreover, we should allow for the possibility that a designed person might have an advantage over a ‘natural’ in that he is more intelligent or imaginative. What is at stake is actually not so much the freedom of the enhanced as the attitude of the designer. Surely our intentions and hopes for future generations should reflect care and welcome, rather than thirst for power.
Wielding power, the ‘designers’ would seek to improve according to their standards—standards which might not be shared by subsequent generations. Even more important, designer attitudes and aims display a failure to recognize human life as a gratuitous gift. On the designer view, the child is a product and project. As I have argued before, accepting children as gifts means not making their welcome depend on whether they satisfy standards set by us of health, ability or beauty. That is, at issue are human attitudes and aspirations that undermine the welcome of the child as a gift and deny it the respect it deserves as another person whose life ultimately comes to us as a gift. Recognizing life as a gift is humbling. It helps us to sympathize with those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Hence, as Michael Sandel points out, ‘perfect genetic control would erode the actual solidarity that arises when men and women reflect on the contingency of their talents and fortunes’.
Of course on a Christian understanding of life as a gift from God, ‘the child cannot be desired or conceived as the product of an intervention of medical or biological techniques; that would be equivalent to reducing him to an object of scientific technology. No one may subject the coming of a child into the world to conditions of technical efficiency which are to be evaluated according to standards of control and dominion’, as Donum Vitae tells us. This is because the child is another human like its adult peers, but one more vulnerable. As such it deserves to be recognized not as an object at our disposal but as somebody deserving care and nurture.
That said, transhumanists often sound more interested in development of technologies that would allow them to modify themselves, than in technologies enabling them to modify their future children. In other words, transhumanist aspirations often sound like aspirations relating mostly to their own health, abilities and longevity. That is, they seek an escape from their own frailty and fears. As such they might remind us of the Greek tale of Icharos. To escape from the Cretan Minotaur, a half-man and half-bull monster, Icharos used wings made by his father Daedalus from feathers and wax. But he flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. Not listening to his father’s warnings about the dangers linked to the use of the flighty invention, Icharos soared too high and the wax melted. Human hubris was his fall.
- Transhumanist Declaration:http://humanityplus.org/ philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/ (accessed on 8/07/2014)
- John Harris, Enhancing Human Evolution; The Ethical Case for Making Better People (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007) p. 57.
- Michael Sandel, The Case against Perfection (Belkamp Press of Harvard University Press: 2007), p.47.
- Gilbert Meilaender, Should We Live Forever? The Ambiguities of Aging( Grand Rapids Michigan/ Cambridge: Wm MB. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2013)
- Nick Bostrom,’ In Defence of Posthuman Dignity’, in (eds.) Gregory R Hansel and William Grassie, Transhumansism and Its Critics (Philadelphia, PA: Metanexus, 2011), p. 56.
- Ibid. p. 62.
- Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, in (ed.) Jerry Weinberger, New Atlantis and the Great Instauration(Harlan Davidson, Inc: 1998), p. 26.
- Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, in (ed.) Jerry Weinberger, New Atlantis and the Great Instauration(Harlan Davidson, Inc: 1998),p.73.
- Ibid. p. 76.
- The Church of Latter Day Saints is said to endorse a ‘variant’ of transhumanism. See, Gregory R Hansel and William Grassie (eds.), Transhumansism and Its Critics (Philadelphia, PA: Metanexus, 2011), p. 26.
- Marine Rothblatt, , ‘From Mind Cloning; Gene to Meme to Beme’, in in Gregory R Hansel and William Grassie (eds.), Transhumansism and Its Critics (Philadelphia, PA: Metanexus, 2011), p. 115.
- Ray Kurzweil, -The Singularity Is near: When Humans Transcend Biology’ (New York: Penguin, 2005, p. 136.
- Hava Tirosh Samluelson, ‘Engaging Transhumansim, in Gregory R Hansel and William Grassie (eds.), Transhumansism and Its Critics (Philadelphia, PA: Metanexus, 2011), pp. 42-43. Samuelson is describing the transhumanist hopes expressed by Raymond Kurzweil in: The Singularity is Near (New York: Viking, 2005).
- John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995, para. 2.
- Ingmar Person and Julian Savulescu, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement Oxford: OUP, 2012, p. 9.
- Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (London: Profile Books, 2002), p. 157.
- Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Canbridge: Polity press, 2003), p. 65.
- Agneta Sutton, ‘Germ-Line Gene Therapy Could prove a Two- Edged Tool’, Christian Bioethics: Non-Ecumenical Studies in Medical Morality, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 145-162.
- Michael Sandel, The Case against Perfection (Belkamp Press of Harvard University Press: 2007), p. 92.
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, 1987, II, B. 4, c.