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Mind

Defending the World's Most Dangerous Idea

Science Not FictionBy Kyle MunkittrickSeptember 24, 2010 8:16 PM
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I had hoped for a good response to “The Most Dangerous Idea in the World,” but I must admit I did not expect the slew of comments, responses, and the huge Reddit thread that it triggered. You critiqued my stance on religion, on economic equality, on the value of suffering and death, on the benefits of technology, and on the “you support eugenics? what!?” level. The value of any idea is how well it stands up to public scrutiny and debate. So allow me to put up my rhetorical dukes and see if I can’t land a few haymakers on your many counterpoints. There were five big counterpoints to transhumanism that emerged from the comments. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I have paraphrased each. 1. Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, "Rapture of the Nerds" pap. 2. Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals. 3. Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we'll all get bored and bad old people will never go away. 4. Eugenics is bad. Period. 5. What if I don't want to be transhuman? And now, my answers: 1.) Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, “Rapture of the Nerds” pap. There are, I admit, strains of transhumanism that are rather embarrassing. Naive, utopian, ludicrous--call them what you will--the “technology will solve all of our problems with robot bodies” is an infantile and useless perspective. I am certainly not a Singularitian (fan of the "singularity"), nor do I operate under the delusion that the Big Goals of transhumanism (e.g. life extension, human level A.I., precise genetic engineering) will occur in my lifetime. Transhumanism, as I and most serious ethicists see it, is a philosophy that highlights the relationship between humans and technology in order to better understand the human condition. It recognizes our biology, our behaviors, and our biases as contingent, not essential, and therefore open to change. The fundamental purpose of transhumanism is to explore those potential, and often terrifying, routes of human change in a way that is as honest and objective as possible. 2.) Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals. That is a real and frightening possibility. Many respected critics of transhumanism, including one of our own here at Discover Mag, make precisely this claim. The problem is that every new advancement has the potential to further split society. Alternatively, every new advancement can potentially level the playing field. Cellphones have nearly 75% global market penetration. Rural villages that still didn’t have land-lines a century after the telephone was invented now have access to a means of global communication. Technology is inherently neutral. It is only the society and culture in which it exists that determines whether or not it becomes a tool of oppression or liberation. Many, if not most transhuman organizations, mirror the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (where I am a program director) or the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, both of which are committed to ensuring transhumanism benefits humanity as a whole, not a select few. 3.) Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we’ll all get bored and bad old people will never go away. Death, even of the natural kind at the end of a long life, is a pretty terrible and lazy solution to the world's problems. For issues of overpopulation and resources, it’s worth remembering that as civilization advances, birth rates go down and population growth alters. This is not to say the problem will solve itself, but it does indicate that civilization’s indicators of progress are fundamentally changing. Growth is giving way to prosperous sustainability. Let's work towards sustainability instead of avoiding life-extension, eh? As for the existential arguments against life-extension, well, I’ve never heard a convincing one. What happens when we get bored or frustrated with our current lives? Usually we have some sort of crisis (e.g. mid-life), re-evaluate our goals and place in the world, and move in a new direction. And with radical life-extension, we won’t be “too old” to try something new, or even to start over. One could live a century in a particular way and, instead of having a deathbed conversion of regret and longing, one could simply decide to start anew. Imagine having the option to have the life experience of a centenarian with a 24 year-old’s health and vigor. Last point: no matter how many bad people die, new ones keep popping up. And in the process we keep losing some of humanity’s best and brightest, no matter how we try to hold on to them. If you sit around waiting for evil to just keel over an die, you’re doing it wrong. 4.) Eugenics is bad. Period. Eugenics, like any technology, is neutral. “Eu” is actually the Greek root for “good.” The problem is that over history a lot of nasty people felt that they should be able to force their definition of “good” on others. Though Hitler is a common example, there was a eugenics program in the US for quite sometime that coercively sterilized those deemed unworthy to reproduce, due to race, economic status, and mental condition. Both programs are considered “negative eugenics” in that they prevent unwanted individuals from reproducing. Positive eugenics is different in two key ways. The first is that it is entirely voluntary. Whether parents want to merely screen for potential diseases, fine-tune every detail of their child’s traits, or leave the whole thing to chance is their prerogative. The second difference is that there is no “ideal”--the process is open ended. Instead of eugenics having a state-decreed goal like blond hair and blue eyes, every parent would decide what is best for their child. As most people want healthy, intelligent, happy children, those traits are what would define the “good” of positive eugenics. 5.) What if I don’t want to be transhuman? Sorry friend, you already are. But I’m happy to let you decide how far to run with it. Transhumanists are not the Borg, folks. Resistance is not futile. Transhumanists merely want the option to move beyond biology to exist, not for it to be imposed.

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