Jun 10, 2005 5:00 AM PT
British biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey spoke at Stanford University this week about the prospects for curing aging. His reasoned presentation proved a stark contrast to authors like James Hughes, Executive Director of the World Transhumanist Association, who seek to prolong the life of worn-out political ideas.
In Citizen Cyborg, Hughes argues that the anti-luddite community needs to embrace a "big tent" leftist agenda in order to convince the majority of people that using technology to go beyond human capacities is acceptable.
He calls his idea "democratic transhumanism" and wastes half his book attempting to give new legitimacy to old socialist ideas such as massive redistribution of wealth and government-run health care. While the left is in desperate need of new ideas, adding a few novel twists to tired concepts doesn't make the grade. That said, however, Citizen Cyborg isn't a complete wash.
A 'Posthuman' Future
Between bouts of Bush-bashing and distortions of classical liberal thinking, Hughes's book contains a fairly detailed history of academic and non-academic thinking about a "posthuman" future. For instance, readers learn how the term "Cyborg" was coined (through NASA-sponsored research) and receive an extensive list of "who's who" in both the pro-technology and bioluddite camps.
Among the main bioluddite characters is Leon Kass, Chair of the President's Council on Bioethics and opponent of technologies such as embryonic stem cell research. One of Kass's often-cited arguments is the "yuck factor" -- the idea that "taboos and gut reactions are the only path to wisdom." Hughes attempts to take on this argument using examples such as inter-racial coupling, but he doesn't explain how that rather dated example tracks with ideas such as human cloning.
A better critique of Kass comes from Aubrey de Grey. "I just don't like aging," de Grey told his Stanford audience. "It's yucky, and I just don't like it." Taking Kass's own argument and using it to promote the idea of technology-enabled healthy bodies exposes Kass's weakness. If the same argument can be used equally well by both sides, it loses its power. De Grey also manages to do this in another area that Hughes completely overlooks.
Enemies of Progress
While Hughes treats the "Christian right" as an enemy of progress, de Grey calmly suggests how it would be logical for them to join the quest for human betterment. First off, he notes, "God is not in favor of hastening death." Indeed, it is a sin to kill others or to kill yourself.
Second, de Grey points out, "God is also not in favor of apathy." It is a sin to refuse to help someone when you have the means to do so. For example, if someone is suffering from Alzheimer's, as was President Reagan, other humans have a duty to try to repair his injuries. That's what ultimately swayed Nancy Reagan who is now in favor of stem cell research.
De Grey also pointed out that while President Bush "is not the world's most progressive person," even he sees that "we should always err on the side of life." Hughes never reached these nuanced points, which clearly help to make the tent bigger, because his cause is not human life. Instead, his driving force is what he calls "personhood."
That is, those who are self-aware and have desires are considered persons. According to him, this means they should be allowed to live and be aided in that process. But for those who are non-persons, they should either be ignored or sentenced to die.
Hughes's definition of persons includes adult humans (enhanced or not), children, mentally disabled humans, and great apes (which he aspires to intellectually enhance). His definition of those who have the right not to suffer, but not the right to life, includes fetuses, fish, and permanently vegetative humans. In a third category, he places brain-dead humans, embryos, plants, and toasters -- to him, these are all "property."
Re-Ordering the WorldBy examining these categories, one sees that Hughes's vision of transhumanism does not seek better life, but instead looks to re-order the world from a viewpoint so intoxicated with the idea of intellectualism that it forgets the real goals of humanity.
In Citizen Cyborg, Hughes calls on transhumanist forces to join the fight to make human enhancement seem less freakish, yet he is ironically one of the culprits. By arguing for government endorsement of his bizarre vision, he attempts to find legitimacy, but that won't work. A better way for those who want to use technology to enhance life is to show how it enhances life.
To that end, de Grey and others like him, such as author Ramez Naam, are doing a great job.
What they and many others want are better humans. Those who believe in a human-positive future should reject the semi-freakish "transhumanist" label and the ancient leftist distortions of its currently sitting prophet.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.