June 12, 2005

"Transhumanist" confusion

I'm only about halfway through James Hughes' Citizen Cyborg, but I've read enough to know that the guy is a bit confused.

It isn't that he's a proponent of any and all technology that allows us to manipulate human biology. Manipulation, after all, is one of the things that man does best. Nor is it his enthusiastic use of hideous terminology -- transhumanist, bioLuddite, and futurology are grisly examples. Hughes is much more of a technological optimist than I am, but that's not why I think his book is so confused and awkward.

The real reason I can't wait to heap scorn upon this book is that Hughes doesn't show any sign that he'll recognize any distinctions between "technological pessimism" and "human racism."

Hughes seems to think than anyone who's ever made an argument against the rapid development of cloning, nanotechnology, or germline genetic engineering is also, necessarily, on the wrong side of the debate over whether citizenship should be tied to consciousness and self-awareness, or to some biologically essentialist definition of humanness.

Huh? If you're confused, join the club. What do these two disputes have to do with one another? It's true that Hughes' bete noire Leon Kass sometimes writes as if the reason we should be wary of certain biological technologies is because these technologies might blur the distinctions between the human and the non-human. Because some social conservatives like Kass seem to think that democratic rights of citizenship depend upon one's biological humanness and not upon one's degree of conscious self-awareness, this technological blurring of biological boundaries would present, for some conservatives, some very difficult political choices. But this biological essentialism obviously isn't the only reason why people might be wary of technologies that would make us immortal.

For example, you might disagree with Hughes about how obvious the equivalence between human immortality and human happiness really is. You might be skeptical of Hughes' assumption that enhancing our physical prowess with cybernetic implants and nanotech brain implants will inevitably make us happier. You might even disagree with Hughes' fundamental claim that "control over our lives" is always positively correlated with happiness. Any of these reasons would be enough to make you less optimistic about new technologies than Hughes, regardless of your position on the question of where liberal democratic citizenship rights come from.

But I'm only halfway through this book. I'm willing to keep reading to see if Hughes will finally specify what it is he's arguing against, but I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by Carey at June 12, 2005 01:00 PM

If you are going to base the grounds for citizenship on conscious self-awareness, why deny it to non-human primates? Can anyone doubt that, e.g., chimpanzees possess self-awareness? Somehow, I don't think that Dr. Hughes would agree with me on that. If he is actively involved with this research, then he is more than likely doing cruel experiments on higher primates. And if he were to respond that a certain level of intelligence would be required for citizenship, then he would be denying said citizenship to less-intelligent humans. Now who's the eugenics advocate?
The other issue is the horrors that could be unleashed by this technology. I think we have passed the point where our technology has surpassed our ethics. The Christian Right's boogeyman, stem cell research, is actually relatively harmless compared to some of this computer-brain interface research. But we rarely hear a peep about cyborg research. Yes, cyborg research has the potential to help paralytics, stroke victims, amputees, etc. But so does stem cell research. And stem cell research doesn't have the potential to destroy our basic humanity, which sorry Dr. Hughes, is actually worth saving.

Posted by: at June 12, 2005 09:26 PM