October 1, 2022

UPGRADING TO HUMAN 2.0

The powers of mutants in the recent film X-Men 3: The Last Stand may be fanciful, but not ridiculous, at least to a growing number of believers in Homo Sapiens 2.0. A recent seminar at Stanford University Law School attracted about 150 participants from Europe, Asia, New Zealand and the US who discussed enhancing human intellects and bodies. Topics ranged from improving athletes performance to uploading personalities onto a computer. It was all part of the visionary panorama of an influential movement called transhumanism.

In the words of one of the speakers, Ronald Bailey, author of the book Liberation Biology and science correspondent for Reason magazine, "As a nascent philosophical and political movement, transhumanism epitomises our most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations. The transhumanist quest to liberate future generations from the immemorial curses of disease, disability and early death is a new grand narrative worthy of humanity and posthumanity."

Although most people feel uneasy about the artificial creation of an enhanced version of homo sapiens, Bailey argues that it is quite ethical for people to alter personalities, abolish sleep, increase physical strength, boost intelligence and memories, change sex, and even change the number of their chromosomes for both themselves and their children.

Transhumanists believe that enhancement is inevitable as technology progresses. Drugs already help people to cope with less sleep and to increase their memory power. A neuroscientist in California is working on an artificial hippocampus, a part of the brain, to help Alzheimer’s patients. While these might elevate raise Fred Nerks to the status of an X-Man, they are a step in that direction. What will happen with the progress of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, pharmacology and other fields, however, is difficult to predict. As Bailey remarks about his colleagues, "telling visionaries from crackpots is never an easy task". One of them, George Dvorsky, of the website Betterhumans, contended at the conference that we have a moral responsibility to raise animals to a higher level of consciousness. Another, transsexual Martine Rothblatt, envisages uploading human consciousness into computers.

Transhumanism is on the radar of conservative bioethicists, some of whom suggest that making heritable changes to the human genome ought to be a crime against humanity. But its supporters dismiss these fears. Racists once used similar arguments to maintain the status quo, they respond.