At an UnHerd event last night, columnist Mary Harrington and Oxford University AI ethicist Elise Bohan, author of Future Superhuman, came together to discuss transhumanism — the idea that human limits such as longevity and cognition can be pushed back using technology. Is this a utopian vision of a better future or a dystopian nightmare? Below, Mary’s opening remarks are republished in full:
I hope Elise would agree, broadly speaking, with my working definition of transhumanism. A worldview in which ‘human nature’ has no special cultural or political status. And in which it’s not just legitimate but morally necessary to use technology — especially biotechnology — to improve on that nature.
When we talk about transhumanism, the temptation is to depict this as an exciting (or frightening) possible future, but in any case one that hasn’t really happened yet.
Another point on which I hope Elise and I would agree is that this is the wrong way to look at it. Transhumanism is already here. In fact it’s so well-established that there’s arguably no point in debating its pros and cons. So: congratulations, Elise. Your side already won. End of debate, we can all go and have a drink.
I’m joking, of course. There’s lots to talk about! Not least, what we can infer from how the transhumanist era is going so far.
This era began in the mid-twentieth century, with a biomedical innovation that radically changed what it is to be a human, in the human social order: reproductive technology.
The Pill was the first transhumanist technology: it set out not to fix something that was wrong with ‘normal’ human physiology — in the ameliorative sense of medicine up to that point — but instead it introduced a whole new paradigm. It set out to interrupt normal in the interests of individual freedom.
At one point in Future Superhuman Elise notes that avowed transhumanist women are rarer than men. She postulates (I’m paraphrasing) that this is because men are typically more abstract, systemic thinkers.
But I’d say on the contrary, the reason transhumanist women seem so rare is that they’re so common they don’t read as transhumanist.
Nearly every adult woman in the developed world has implicitly accepted the belief that full adult female personhood is structurally reliant on technologies that interrupt normal female fertility. And by the definition I opened with, that makes nearly every adult woman in the developed world a transhumanist.
So, how’s the transhumanist era going? The Pill was legalised in 1960 in America, and 1961 in Britain. So we have more than six decades’ worth of data on how transhumanist practice measures up to transhumanist theory.
What I suggest we can infer from the story so far in that instance is that trying to re-engineer our physiology – our nature, if you will – in the interests of freedom, progress, or whatever other name you give utopia doesn’t deliver that utopia.
Or, rather, it does, kind of. But this utopia arrives asymmetrically, depending on where you sit in the socioeconomic hierarchy. And where technology is used to “liberate” us from the kind of givens — such as normal female fertility — that were previously managed, pragmatically, by social or legal norms, what replaces it isn’t a human ‘person’ free from ‘nature’ but a market in which that ‘nature’ becomes a set of supply and demand problems.
In the case of sex, the transhumanist Pill revolution didn’t deliver (as the feminist Shulamith Firestone imagined) a polymorphous liberation of human sexuality. Or it did, but under the sign of commerce. We got the so-called “sexual marketplace” in which normative asymmetries in male and female mating preferences reappear in cartoon form, as market opportunities or as strategic weaknesses to be weaponised in a contest for personal gain. Or, straightforwardly, as commodities to buy, sell, or exploit.
Meanwhile, if those at the top of the food chain are relatively well-placed to thrive in this “marketplace”, those at the bottom — impoverished, racialised, trafficked or otherwise vulnerable people, particularly women — are far more likely to become commodities themselves.
I would argue further that the same logic will be likely to hold for any other embodied limit you destroy via biotech. I predict that should we find a “cure” for ageing, it won’t be universally available. It will be prohibitively expensive, and serve primarily as a tool for further consolidating wealth and power.
Perhaps it will require harvesting tissue from others. The fertility industry already has a thriving market for gametes or ‘reproductive services’ or renting somebody else’s womb. But so far it’s not rich, well-connected people who sell themselves in this way. Research is already being done into blood transfusions as an anti-ageing treatment, and you can be sure that should it flourish, it won’t be rich people selling their plasma either.
You’d have to be wildly optimistic to think we can blithely marketise ever greater swathes of our embodied selves without opening new vistas for class asymmetry and exploitation. And it makes no sense to argue that we will stay well-protected against such risks by moral safeguards. Because transhumanism itself requires an all-out assault on the humanist anthropology that underpins those moral safeguards.
You can’t have transhumanism without throwing out humanism. And if people are just “ape-brained meatsacks” as Elise describes, urgently in need of upgrading, what possible reason could we have for objecting to a market in human organs? Or infanticide? Or genetically engineering the masses to be more docile? All these are only repellent when held against a humanist anthropology.
So if you’re assaulting that anthropology in the name of humanist values (such as freedom, or kindness, or lives lived in greater dignity) I submit that your project is unlikely to work out the way you expect it to.
In sum, then. We’re already well into the transhumanist era. But the story so far suggests that far from delivering utopia, what it mostly delivers is a commodification of the human body that disproportionately benefits those who already have power and privilege.
I don’t think we can put this back in its box. But to my eye the proper response to this era is not acceleration but a twofold resistance. Firstly, in retaining a humanist anthropology, in defiance of all those currently sawing away at the branch we’re sitting on. And secondly, in mounting a vigorous defence of those without power, now increasingly at the sharp-end of biotech’s unacknowledged class politics. Thank you.
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