At the front of the conference room, Robert Bradbury of the
Aeivos Corporation is talking about immortality. He's showing
us PowerPoint slides, with scientific graphs and charts. He's
telling us about an artificial replacement for the human genome
and about eliminating the need for a heart by replacing all
the cells in the body with "vasaloid" systems. Immortality
is probably not in the cards, Bradbury tells us, but once we
eliminate all diseases it will be possible for us to live for
2,000 years. When we get rid of all the other hazards of living,
we'll be looking at a life span of 7,000 years. Unless, of course,
we happen to be over 40 years old already, in which case these
technologies will come too late for us. Bradbury recommends
that those of us past 40 look seriously into cryonics. If we
have our heads frozen, we can be resurrected at some time in
the future by our benevolent, superintelligent descendants.
As Bradbury speaks, I remember the cemetery across from the
Yale University campus that I passed on in way to the seminar.
Carved into stone on the front gates were the words "The
Dead Shall Be Raised."
I've come to Yale for an intensive introductory seminar on
transhumanism. The term transhuman is shorthand for transitional
human, a stage along the way to becoming posthuman.
A posthuman, according to the World Transhumanist Association,
is "a being whose basic capacities so radically exceed
those of present-day humans as to no longer be unambiguously
human by our current standards." Nobody really knows exactly
what posthumanity will be like, but transhumanists are certain
that it will be a big improvement over the current model. Transhumanists
embrace cryonics, nanotechnology, cloning, psychopharmacology,
genetic enhancement, artificial intelligence, brain chips, robotics,
and space colonization. In fact, they embrace virtually any
conceivable technology aimed at "redesigning the human
Like many of my fellow seminar participants, I'm here out of
curiosity. What little I know about transhumanism I learned
many years ago from Ed Regis's brilliant, quirky book Great
Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (1990). Mambo
Chicken was an affectionate but skeptical portrait of what
Regis called "science slightly over the edge." The
heroes of Mambo Chicken were not especially interested
in ordinary scientific grunt work. They had much grander plans.
They wanted to download their minds onto computer disks, manipulate
matter at the atomic level, colonize interstellar comets in
private rockets. The title of the book refers to chickens that
muscled up to Schwarzenegger-like proportions after gravity
specialists at the University of California, Davis, spun them
around in accelerators for six months. On the whole, the scientists
in Regis's book were less interested in creating superchickens
than in creating superhumans. They chafed at human mortality
and the limitations of their own brains. "Why should we
be restricted to human nature?" asked one researcher in
Mambo Chicken. "Why shouldn't we go beyond?"
Why indeed? In the 13 years since Mambo Chicken was
published, transhumanism has blossomed into something new-part
subculture, part academic discipline, part social movement.
In 1998, philosophers Nick Bostrum and David Pearce established
the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). Transhumanists have
become increasingly visible in the media, often for their out
spoken advocacy of all things technological:
In a memorable encounter last year, trans humanist Max More,
co-founder of the Extropy Institute, debated University of Virginia
bioethicist Jonathan Moreno on CNN's Crossfire about
the ethics of cryonically freezing the head of baseball great
Ted Williams. The seminar I've enrolled in at Yale is part of
a larger conference, cosponsored by the WTA, called Transvision
2003. The theme of the conference is "The Adaptable
Human Body: Transhumanism and Bioethics in the 21st Century."
(I did not attend the larger conference, but the presentations
are available online at www.transhumanism.org.)
Bioethicists have begun writing about so-called enhancement
technologies - medical interventions aimed not at curing illness
but at improving human traits and capacities. For the most part,
these interventions fall squarely within the realm of the possible:
cosmetic surgery, synthetic growth hormone for short children,
psychoactive medications, such as Ritalin and Prozac, and "lifestyle
drugs," such as Viagra, Propecia, and Botox. Many enhancement
technologies are too pedestrian to interest the transhumanists,
but they make an exception for genetic medicine-the possibility
of genetically enhancing human beings. Now that the human genome
has been mapped and Dolly has been cloned, many transhumanists
are starting to ask, "Why not use the tools of genetics
to make ourselves smarter, healthier, and longer-lived?"
At first, I was inclined to dismiss the transhumanists. They
sounded more than slightly over the edge. Later, I wondered
whether I was being unfair. Weren't remarkable things being
done in neuroscience and the genetics of aging? Didn't many
of these transhumanists have impressive degrees from elite universities?
While a Ph.D. is no guarantee of wisdom (as Saul Bellow once
remarked, the world is full of high morons), it does have a
way of making strange ideas seem somewhat more plausible. The
transhumanism seminar seemed worth the price of admission, especially
when the transhumanists offer, in the words of WTA cofounder
Pearce in his book The Hedonistic Imperative, "sights
more majestically beautiful, music more deeply soul-stirring,
sex more exquisitely erotic, mystical epiphanies more awe-inspiring,
and love more profoundly intense than anything we can now properly
comprehend." Besides, I have a weakness for groups with
I began to wonder: Who are the transhumanists? Fanatics? Visionaries?
Trekkies with tenure? Should we be paying attention?
"There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which
has not been hailed as an insult to some god," wrote the
great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane in his 1923 essay "Daedalus,
or Science and the Future." For people who see science
as a way of improving the human condition, the "natural
order" is nothing more than a barrier to human progress.
As Haldane observed, new developments in biology always look
unnatural and indecent to people who've never seen them before.
"If every physical and chemical invention is a blaspherny,"
Haldane wrote, "every biological invention is a perversion."
Most transhumanists are not as eloquent as Haldane, but their
sentiments are much the same. In transhumanist thought, there's
nothing natural, and certainly nothing good, about confinement
to a flesh-and-blood body that expires after three score years
and ten. We can do much better than that. And if we were not
so squeamish, we would do better. Transhumanists believe they
have simply learned to put aside the ordinary human aversion
to novelty in favor of technology- assisted human progress.
As Eliazer Yudkow sky of the Singularity Institute for Artificial
Intelligence-established to hasten the day when technology will
create smarter-than- human intelligence in human beings-put
it in his paper at Yale, "In transhumanism, this special
'yuck' reaction is missing, and such technologies are just an
ordinary part of the natural universe."
Take cryonics, for example. Cryonics firms such as the Alcor
Life Extension Foundation in Arizona will freeze the bodies
or heads of people who've been declared dead, in the hope that
they can be revived (or as transhumanists put it, "reanimated")
at some point in the distant future, when technological progress
has made it possible to reverse the diseases or injuries that
"deanimated" them. The father of cryonics was Robert
Ettinger, a professor of physics arid mathematics at Highland
Park Community College in Michigan and author of the book The
Prospect of Immortality (1964). Ettinger marshaled every
piece of scientific evidence he could find about the prospect
of reviving frozen bodies, and many readers found the evidence
convincing. Of course, others found the notion of deep-freezing
their severed heads in vats a little grotesque. But defenders
of cryonics replied (not unreasonably) that it was no less grotesque
than being embalmed and buried. In any case, they were willing
to put aside their squeamishness for the possible payoff. The
Prospect of Immortality went through nine editions and was
translated into four languages. Ettinger became a major media
figure, and the cryonics movement was launched.
To many outsiders, the evidence that cryonics will actually
work has never looked especially convincing. Indeed, cryonics,
like other cultural products of the 1960s, might well have faded
away-had it not been defended by Eric Drexler in The Engines
of Creation (1986). His was the first book on nanotechnology,
the manipulation of matter on the smallest possible scale. Drexler
envisioned submicroscopic devices capable of manipulating molecules,
or even atoms, to precise specifications. If we could just write
the correct programs, nanotechnology would allow us to build
or rebuild virtually anything, from the bottom up. After all,
this is what bio logical organisms do; the programs are written
into their DNA. Drexler devoted a chapter to explaining how
nanotechnology could make cryonics a legitimate scientific possibility.
With tiny assemblers, we could repair all the cells in a deanimated
body and bring the dead back to life.
The Engines of Creation has been enormously important
for transhumanists, and no wonder. Raising the dead is only
one of the miracles promised by nanotechnology, and it's not
even the most astonishing. Once we have complete control over
matter itself, Drexler argued, we can do virtually anything
permitted by the laws of nature. We can end disease by repairing
damaged cells. We can get rid of world hunger by making food
out of plentiful ingredients such as dirt and sun shine. No
more poverty, no more unpleasant labor, no more pollution. Precisely
when all this will happen is a matter on which transhumanists
disagree. What's important is that Drexler made such a persuasive
case that it could happen. (It hasn't hurt the cause
that nanotechnology is now being hailed as the Next Big Thing,
attracting venture capital, government funding, and attention
in prestigious scientific journals.)
For many transhumanists, nanotechnology is the key to our posthuman
future. With nanotechnology, for instance, we could scan the
structure of our brains atom by atom, pre serve all the neural
patterns responsible for our personal identities, and recreate
those structures on artificial hardware. In effect, we could
upload our minds to computers and make copies of ourselves down
to every memory, every last personality quirk, every last hope
and prejudice and desire. Then we could design new and better
bodies, or simply live on as information patterns in computer
net works, like ghosts in a vast machine.
Once we had uploaded ourselves onto computers, the possibilities
would expand tremendously. We could make backup copies of ourselves,
and re-boot if our original selves were to die. We could transmit
ourselves over high-speed networks at the speed of light (which
would be very convenient, the WTA points out, if we colonize
space). We could live in simulated environments where the ordinary
laws of physics were suspended. We could radically upgrade our
intelligence, like computer software, and become superintelligent.
Hans Moravec of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon
University laid out the basics of uploading in his book Mind
Children (1988). In a mere 50 years, Moravec predicted,
we'll be able to upload our minds onto computers, turn ourselves
into robots, arid live forever.
Of course, not everyone may want to spend eternity this. It's
a matter of individual choice, and transhumanists insist on
the universal moral right to decide for one self. That's an
important part of the WTA's Transhumanist Declaration. But should
you decide to become a robot, an information pattern, or any
other kind of sentient life, you can count on the transhumanists
to advocate for your well-being.
As I take my seat at the seminar, the first thing that strikes
me is the gap between the grand transhumanist vision and the
concrete reality of our surroundings. For all the talk about
immortality and superintelligent robots, there's no getting
around the fact that we're sitting in the basement of a college
dormitory. On the list of seminar participants I see a mix of
activists, academics, journalists, and computer specialists.
We all seem to be glancing furtively at one another's name tags,
trying to figure out which participants are the true believers
and which are just voyeurs. Our introduction to transhumanism
will be delivered by Nick Bostrum, president of the WTA and
a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. According
to the syllabus that's been distributed, Bostrum's credentials
include a back ground in cosmology, mathematical logic, and
My most pressing question is the one I never actually ask:
Do transhumanists actually believe all this? Life spans
of 7,000 years? Mind uploads? Colonizing space and living forever
as robots? As the day wears on, the answer becomes clear. Yes,
they do. I had wondered whether these were simply philosophical
thought experiments, but the transhumanists at the front of
the conference room speak of space colonization and radical
life extension as if the technologies to achieve these things
were just around the corner. When, a few weeks after the seminar,
I asked James Hughes, the secretary of the WTA, about the plausibility
of these technologies, he replied by email, "Well, we certainly
do like to talk about them, like philosophers do, but we also
think they are quite real. We differ widely on the time frame,
Maybe so, but it takes a certain naiveté not to realize
that an audience unfamiliar with transhumanism might be a little
surprised by matter-of-fact references to, say, the economic
consequences of becoming a robot. I was curious to find out
whether other non transhumanists had the same reaction. One
scholar, who spoke on condition of anonymity, characterized
the transhumanists as "a lot of young, pasty, lanky, awkward
. . . white males talking futuristic bull shit, terribly worried
that we will take their toys away." William Grey, a philosopher
from the University of Queensland in Australia who attended
the conference, said, "Overall, I've never seen such a
collection of highly intelligent people whose views (at least
to me) are just barking mad."
More than one outsider I corresponded with compared the meeting
to a support group. I was struck more by its religious overtones.
The transhumanists have their sacred texts, The Engines of
Creation and Mind Children among them. They have
communal gatherings, which usually occur online. They have a
set of beliefs about resurrection and the afterlife, couched
in the language of cryonics and computers. They divide the world
into believers and infidels (the "bio-Luddites"),
and they call on one another to evangelize-or, as they often
put it, "spread our memes." Many transhumanists believe
that we're approaching an apocalyptic end-time they call "The
Singularity," a convergence of technological developments
that will push the rate of change so dramatically that the world
could be transformed beyond recognition. The WTA states that
if The Singularity comes, it will probably be caused by the
creation of self-enhancing, superintelligent beings.
If the religious elements also sound like science fiction,
there's a good reason. The concept of The Singularity comes
from Vernon Vinge's novel Marooned in Realtime (1986).
Arthur Clarke wrote about mind uploading in The City and
the Stars, first published in 1956. Robert Ettinger got
the idea for cryonics from a story called "The Jameson
Satellite" by Neil R. Jones, published in a 1931 issue
of the science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories. In that
story a man specifies in his will that, when he dies, his body
is to be shot into space, where it will be frozen and preserved.
Millions of years later, he's thawed omit by robots and given
a mechanical body so that he can live forever.
Transhumanists resent the religious comparisons, and, to be
fair, most of those at the seminar seemed no more like cult
members than your average Amway representative. James Hughes
rightly points out that social interaction among transhumanists
occurs mainly online, and, for that reason, their social ties
to one another are a lot weaker than those of church members.
In any case, many transhumanists are openly hostile to organized
religion. For example, when I asked Hughes what he thought of
the Raelians, a sect that believes the human race was created
by aliens, he replied, "Religious nut jobs, but no more
or less irrational or absurd than the Abrahamic faiths, and
a lot less dangerous."
In my more charitable moments, I want to think that the transhumanists
are old-fashioned utopians. Maybe transhumanism rep resents
a high-tech, cyber-savvy version of Robert Owen's socialist
community at New Lanark in 19th-century Scotland, or even the
American hippie communes of the 1960s. Hughes, for example,
teaches public policy at Trinity College and is writing a book
called Cyborg Democracy: Free, Equal and United in a Post-Human
World. Could the transhumanists be the flip side of the
Amish, putting advanced technology to work for a better society?
I entertain these thoughts for a while. Then reality hits home,
and I remember the transhumanists' angry, libertarian rhetoric.
Most seemed less concerned about building a better society than
they were about wanting to be left alone with their computers.
They also seemed bizarrely out of touch with ordinary moral
sensibilities. This disconnect became apparent during a presentation
by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University. At
one point, Hanson told us about a project he had been working
on for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA). The plan was to use the market as a tool to predict
world events, such as terrorist strikes, coups, and assassinations.
Traders would use a government-sponsored website to invest money
in the likelihood that such events would occur, and the Pentagon
- specifically, the Total Information Aware ness project headed
by John Poindexter - would use the data as a tool to predict
future events. The rationale as that if people were willing
to put good money on the prospect, say, of Osama bin Laden's
orchestrating an attack on the World Trade Center, then the
possibility that the attack might occur should be taken very
It was only a few weeks after the seminar that Hanson's project
became headline news and was angrily denounced by senators and
representatives, who called it "betting on death."
The project was eventually scrapped because of the public outcry
and Poindexter resigned his post.
What struck me about the reaction of the transhumanists to
these events was not simply that they backed the project, but
that they seemed unable to grasp why anyone would find it unseemly.
Hanson described it without blinking an eve, and then proceeded
to a discussion of the economic upheaval that might be caused
by mind uploading. When the public opposition later emerged,
the transhumanists I contacted were oddly dismissive. The brouhaha
was "nonsense," said Hughes. And Bostrum said that
he was "very sad to see such a brilliant and potentially
useful idea brutally murdered for cheap political gain."
He characterized the outrage as "smug moral condemnation
fortified by complete ignorance of the issue. Our reptilian
brain in full action."
So the question recurs: Should we be paying attention? I think
we should. As far over the edge as the transhumanists often
appear, the represent a number of ideological strands evident
throughout American society. One is a brand of individualistic,
libertarian ideology often associated with Silicon Valley. A
second is independent, quasi-religious thinking of the sort
that sometimes leads to new religious communities, such as the
Mormons, but that more often is disguised as disdain toward
organized religion. A third is idealistic faith in the power
of technology to make the world a better place. To look at the
transhumanist movement and its self-identified enemies is to
glimpse some of the ideological battle grounds where the debate
over new enhancement technologies will be conducted.
One key issue will be the need to strike a proper balance between
idealism and pragmatism. The genetic revolution has been a weird
combination of media hype, scientific success, and clinical
disappointment. That disappointment reached a culmination of
sorts several years ago with the death of Jesse Gelsinger in
a gene therapy protocol at the University of Pennsylvania. In
recent years, the federal government has temporarily shut down
federally sponsored research at the University of Pennsylvania,
Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and several other
leading academic health centers. Given the enormous growth in
clinical medical research (much of which is now being carried
out by for-profit corporations), many observers argue that our
regulatory system must be radically overhauled if we are to
avoid more deaths and injuries.
The safety of research subjects is a crucial concern in genetic
enhancement and reproductive cloning. Yet the Yale conference
did not include a single presentation on the ethics or regulation
of biomedical research. In the introductory seminar, the potential
dangers of enhancement technologies got significant attention
only once, when Bostrurn listed a number of possible threats
posed by such technologies, among which he included evolution
into oblivion, "simulation shutdown," and invasion
by extraterrestrials. The transhumanist enthusiasm for scientific
research represents an extreme version of the kind of idealism
that will need to be tempered by an effective system of research
A second issue will be the relative value of individual versus
collective solutions to social problems. Many "enhancement
technologies" are more accurately characterized as medical
remedies for social stigma. That is, they are technological
fixes for the condition of being shy, short, overweight, or
small breasted. But these individual solutions have the paradoxical
effect of making social problems worse. As Georgetown University
philosopher Margaret Olivia Little has argued, the more breast
augmentations that cosmetic surgeons perform, the more entrenched
is the social preference for large breasts; the more "Jewish
noses" that surgeons correct, the more reinforced is the
social standard that makes Jews seek out surgery in the first
place. A better solution would be the one that American individualists
often regard as hopeless: fixing the social structures that
make so many people ashamed of these aspects of their identities.
Even technologies that unambiguously provide enhancements will
raise issues of social justice not unlike those we currently
face with ordinary medical technologies (wealthy Americans,
for example, get liver transplants, while children in the developing
world die from diarrhea). We live comfortably with such inequities,
in part because we have so enthusiastically embraced an individualistic
ethic. But to an outsider, a country's expenditure of billions
of dollars on liposuction, face-lifts, and Botox injections
while many of its children go without basic health care might
well seem obscene.
At one point in our seminar, Bostrum listed a number of ideological
opponents of transhumanism, including religious conservatives,
postmodernists, the writer-activist Jeremy Rifkin, the environmentalist
writer Bill McKibben, the bioethicist Leon Kass, and the political
theorist Francis Fukuyama. If any thing unites such a disparate
array of people, it's not opposition to technology. Rather,
it's a conviction that the social order is critically important
to human flourishing. Right-leaning moralists do not have much
in common with left-leaning moralists; nor do religious conservatives
have much in common with postmodernists. But none of these people
believe that an individual is independent of the society in
which he or she lives, and, for that reason, they're uncomfortable
with the notion that technologies of profound social consequence
should be primarily a matter of individual choice. The technologies
call for collective decision making.
A final battleground in the debate over enhancement technologies
will be the marketplace. Whatever you think of the ethics of
these technologies, von must admit that they're being driven
by a powerful economic engine. For a number of years now, pharmaceuticals
has been the most profitable industry in America. Until the
earls 1980s, the most profitable drugs were those to treat anxiety.
Now, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management,
the most profitable class of prescription drugs is antidepressants,
such as Paxil and Prozac. When Pfizer put Viagra on the market
in the late l990s, it immediately became the fastest-selling
drug in pharmaceutical history. It's a long way from anxiety
drugs and impotence remedies to germ-line genetic enhancement,
but if the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries see a
way to profit from a new enhancement technology, it's hard to
imagine that they'll resist.
Is the industries' power a danger? Whether you think so will
depend on what you think of market-driven medicine. Transhumanists
are not worried, but then again, neither is the average American.
Cosmetic surgery has never been more popular than it is now.
But for critics of genetic enhancement, the market represents
something far more sinister because it seems to view the world
as a place where everything has a price. How will our sensibilities
be changed if we start to see our children, our bodies, and
our minds as potential objects of consumption? Where does the
soul go, once it's been priced and tagged?
J. B. S. Haldane was an enthusiast for scientific progress
because he thought that science was the servant of humanity.
Bertrand Russell disagreed. In "Icarus," his famous
response to Haldane's "Daedalus" essay, Russell wrote
that the mistake scientists usually make is to imagine that
they will decide how science is used. In fact, he said, science
serves whoever holds power. If the people who hold power are
evil, then they will use science for evil purposes-and Russell
was not impressed with the people who held power. "I am
compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power
of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy," he
wrote. "Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father
Daedalus, was destroyed b his rashness. I fear that the same
fate may over take the populations whom modern men of science
have taught to fly."
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