Sep 212004

I read an interesting commentary/Op.ed. piece in Sunday’s St. Petersburg Times. It was written by Francis Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is entitled "Latest threat on horizon: transhumans."

Dr. Fukuyama talks about a several decades old liberation movement with the goal of liberating the human race from its biological restraints. She talks about their over-the-top websites, but I did a Google search, and found some sites with well organized and thoughtful essays and information on the subject. I won’t claim to have made an in-depth study at this point, but this might be something worth coming back to at some point, if only as an intellectual exercise.

What appears to be one of the main sites of this movement opens with the statement:

"The common difficulties of life – death, misery and scarcity – once seemed inevitable. Today, we approach them as challenges that can be overcome. Through engineering, creativity, and critical thinking, we participate in the quest to realize human potential, to grow beyond our difficulties, and become transhuman, transcending human limitation. "

Max More defined transhumanism in Lextropicon as: "Philosophies of life (such as extropian perspectives) that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life- promoting principles and values."

The author of the website provides his own shorthand definition as, "the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, both physically, mentally and socially using rational methods."

None of this sounds so threatening. In fact, much of today’s research is founded on achieving some of the aims of this movement. We have mood altering drugs, prosthetic devices of all types, and synthetic replacements for some body parts. So all of this doesn’t seem all that outlandish or threatening.

Dr. Kukuyama raises several concerns that merit consideration. She believes equality might be threatened by transhumanism. She points out that most advanced society realize that being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. She questions what rights people who transcend this human essence might claim, and what would become of those left behind. She talks about how our good characteristics are interconnected with our bad ones, and how, "modifying even one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome."

While here concerns are certainly valid, I believe they already exist today. Wealthier people live longer on average. That we know as a fact. I would submit that while we may believe the essence of being human endows all with political and legal equality, we are already past point of that being our reality. Clearly some people, usually based on wealth, are already "more equal." Whole nations live better than other nations, and classes are evident within developed nations such as the U.S.

From the medical perspective, we are already well down the road toward extended life. Average life-spans continue to increase in developed countries due to new drugs and disease treatments, and the argument can be made that the quality of that longer life is enhanced with all sorts of medical equipment and drugs.

Doesn’t it make sense to use our intellect and collective wisdom to strive to make life better? Are we, as Dr. Fukuyama fears, circumventing evolution to our detriment, or this merely the next phase of our evolution? Does evolution always have to be a centuries long process?

Most certainly, sometimes our technological and medical advances outpace our wisdom in properly using the advances, but does that mean we should stop advancing? Maybe the genie is already out of the bottle and just not organized to appear as a movement. Maybe Dr. Kukuyama’s threat is just the desire of a group of people to organize the discussion around things already under consideration or development. If that’s the case, I’m not so sure I would categorize the Transhuman movement as a threat?A little quirky perhaps, but not a threat. I believe in their vision, they desire equality for all regardless of other’s state of being.

I see the discussion as encompassing many issues from the very broad to the more defined. As an example, don’t all sighted people believe that if we could develop artificial eyes, every blind person would want them? Would Helen Keller have been the person she was if she had possessed all her faculties? I don’t know, but I suspect a friend of mine who is losing his sight to a non-reversible degenerative disease would welcome artificial eyes or a way to halt and reverse the disease. Do we stop research in the areas of vision because we might deny ourselves a Helen Keller, or do we continue so that we might help my friend regain his vision? If it means an artificial eye, does this make one a transhuman, therefore a threat as defined by Dr. Fukuyama?

I sincerely expect my friends, especially my minister friends, to weigh in on this discussion.

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