Contemplation/Signs of the Apocalypse: The Dreadful Transhumans?

Holy crap, this is two combined Contemplation/Signs of the Apocalypse posts now.  But it seems appropriate, so I intend on going with it.

Yesterday I read a piece in The New York Times by Jack Hitt titled “Are High-Tech Prostheses Fair?”  The piece appeared on Randy Cohen’s “Moral of the Story” blog, a personal favorite of mine because it offers a usually well-informed perspective on some facet of life, contemporary happenings, pop culture, etc. with a look at the ethical implications found within.  Mr. Hitt’s piece was interesting in that it addressed the concern about amputee athletes gaining an unfair advantage in different sports due to the use of increasingly advancing prosthetic technology.  While I find both Mr. Hitt’s arguments as well as the numerous rebuttals in the comment section fascinating, that ethical debate (are advanced prosthetics fair in sports competitions?) is not what I really wanted to focus on here.  Instead I find myself paying close attention to the part of Mr. Hitt’s piece that considers what our advancing technology is doing to re-define human capability.  A hundred years ago, even less really, the loss of a limb (if not more than one) would be very debilitating to one’s life.  Not impossible, mind you, but certainly making life very difficult.  This isn’t to say that such a disability is 100% easy today, but the advancements in technology are certainly approaching allowing injured or other disabled individuals the opportunity to live life much as they would without the disability.  Mr. Hitt touches on human kinds ability to surpass natural evolution by supplementing technological advantages to preserve the species.  But as we change because of our use of technology, what precisely do we become?  Are we still human?  Or do we become the transhumans?

The question of what constitutes “human” is a touchy one obviously.  Throughout history the defining of certain individuals, ethnicities, races, etc. as being “less” than human has allowed for great atrocities; slavery, genocide, racism, and so on.  Our world still faces these problems, and the politically correct of us actively seek to maintain the fact that “we’re all human.”

But then what happens when technology makes us something different from what we naturally ever would have been?  Not just those of use who have suffered a debilitating injury or have some other disability, but any of us who can supplement natural faculties of life for advancements brought about by various technologies. Are we still human at this point, or are we something more?  Are we cyborgs?  Are we transhumans?

I think the I first found myself discussing the matter of transhumanism back in my freshman year of college.  It was brought up in the philosophy club I was in, in regards to whether humans would pursue advancing themselves by retrofitting bodies with advanced machinery and computers or through genetic engineering and cloning.  The conclusion amongst the group at the time is that the future of humanity would probably see a mix of both.  Genetics and cloning would be used to preserve and better “life” but where biological elements could not suffice mechanical and computerized ones would play a significant role.  This of course led to the question of, “what is a human?”  Is a person with robotic limbs still a human?  Generally, given a “yes.”  How about multiple robotic organs, or a computerized brain?  Much less certainty here.

The transhumanism challenge is made more difficult by the fact that the point when one stops being a human and becomes a transhuman is not very well-defined.  There is no set line that says, “well this dude is still a human, but that there is a fucking cyborg.”

The other end of the challenge is whether the pursuit of transhumanism is right or not.  Just because we can provide these advancements does it mean we should?  I think most people would agree that it is great how technology can alleviate some of the difficulties of living a disabled life.  But what about an un-disabled person who decides they want to be able to run faster, or see infra-red light, and so they decide to retro-fit themselves with the hardware to do it?  Or people who someday may use genetic manipulation to increase physical abilities?  Is this justified; is this fair?  Or is it just another part of our species will to survive however we are best capable?

Personally I think one of the major dislikes of evolutionary theory, amongst many, is the suggestion that we are not stable beings.  I think by many this point is overlooked in favor of disgust against having evolved from apes or outrage from suggesting we are not creations of God.  But seriously, whether or not you believe in evolution (which isn’t my debate here) the ideas presented within would conclude that the human species, if it survives, will inevitably change, just as all other life has promoted evolutionary change, and thus there will be new species that are not Homo sapiens but something else entirely.  Transhumanism makes that defining point of human to post-human much closer because our technology, whether mechanical, computerized, or biological, has the ability to change what we would be in lieu of the technology.

And here is something to consider.  Maybe we are all already transhumans.  Why?  Consider the computer age and the advances it has given us in regards to instantaneous communication across the globe.  A hundred years ago we were just barely beginning to understand radio waves and the potential to communicate all over the world.  Now such communication is largely taken for granted.  But imagine the differences in history if say Alexander the Great had been able to flip open his cell phone and called his generals a thousand miles away.  Or what if modern medicine had been able to save Julius Caesar’s life?  Obviously these things did not happen, because the technology did not yet exist.  But it does now.  Would the army’s of Genghis Khan have been able to conquer most of Asia is they had to face platoons of soldiers equipped with modern technology and weaponry?  Unquestionably all of us have benefits in our modern world that previous generations did not have.  Furthermore, the next generations will likely have more than we do now.  So where is the line?  Are we still human?

The point why I am writing this piece as a joint Contemplation/Signs of the Apocalypse is not because I think that we are at risk of being overrun by a bunch of amputees with super robo-limbs.  I tend to agree with Mr. Hitt in that much of the anti-prostheses sentiment discussed in his article is entirely based on paranoia.  I think the advancements in prosthetics is a great endeavor that should continue to be pursued in the goal of allowing everybody to live their lives to the fullest potential.

That being said, could (or has) humanity face a silent apocalypse due to technological changes which render us no longer human?  A silent apocalypse in that one day people look around and say, “we’re not really human anymore are we?”  Personally I don’t think this will happen, because our sapience means that regardless of what we become we will likely maintain the definition of “human” even if only for purely semantic purposes.  Still, that unknown silent technological apocalypse, which may not fell civilization, but could render the old human kind nil, provides a sense of dread in relation to our own preservationists mentalities (and whether you believe in evolution or not, I think it is likely hard to argue that we are all striving to survive whether as a species, a culture, a family, or an individual).

We humans have a strange mix of fascination and dread when it come to our technology.  On one hand we adore all the benefits that it can provide us, while on the other hand we maintain a skepticism, if not outright fear, of the harm it may bestow upon us.  We will inevitably continue to advance technologically because we will more often than not conclude that the benefits outweigh the risks (survival people, that’s what it is all about), but in that advance we may relinquish much of that which formally defined us as human.  Does that mean we’ll be soulless emotionless robots?  Not at all.  It just means that when looking back we might not be able to see as clear a reflection of ourselves in the previous generations.  But, as I said above, this might already have been or be happening.  Really we can’t do anything about it.

We should be glad and proud of our advancements that allow those who are injured or born with a disability to live life without suffering negative consequences of bing debilitated.  We should continue to pursue knowledge that will ease the suffering that we all may face in life.  As a personal perspective, the one ethical imperative that I can almost always get behind is the goal of minimizing suffering.  If we keep that goal in mind then we may hope to continue to advance and prosper, regardless of whether we continue to technically be human or if we step into the transhuman shoes.

~ by Nathaniel on November 11, 2009.

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