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More Human Than Human

James Hughes’ speech in UAlbany’s New Science Library on Wednesday, April 13, was cogent and thorough, as if he were anticipating a hard sell. The author of Citizen Cyborg was on hand to discuss the controversial and wide-ranging topic of transhumanism in democratic society, and in light of recent events such as the Terri Schiavo case, it’s understandable that Hughes would be ready for objections to a philosophy that seeks to “deconstruct” the notion of what it is to be human. Nevertheless, giving the lie to his comprehensive PowerPoint presentation, Hughes claimed with easy assurance that he is confident about the prospects for a transhumanist future: “I sometimes feel that I’m arguing for the plow.”

Hughes made the point that the transhumanist agenda to mitigate or eliminate the effects of aging, and to enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities through emerging technologies (“e-tech”), such as psychopharmacology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, is already being enacted. Still, extrapolation from such everyday modifications as the contact lens or specialized medical devices like computer-assisted prostheses to the downloading of an entire human conciousness into a non-organic host, such as a computer, pulls on the very last nerve of the “bioLuddites,” as Hughes characterized opponents of transhumanism.

Among the opponents are a motley of disparate political and theological orientations. According to Hughes, the most avid of the bioconservatives are members of the religious right: Hughes identified President Bush and Leon Kass, Bush’s selection for chair of the President’s Council of Bioethics, as chief among those who oppose and deride transhumanism as a hubristic, nearly Satanic, desire to “play God.” But he also pointed to deep ecologists, whose reverence of the natural Earth, Gaia, has made them suspicious of technology, and to members of the political left who rile at the notion of “techno eugenics.” Hughes specifically mentioned Ralph Nader—who with Wesley Smith, author of Forced Exit: the Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder and the Consumer’s Guide to Brave New World, issued a “save Terri” statement—as one of those who are “building a connection between the political right and left.”

It is Hughes’ belief that these objections are “irrational, hysterical”, and though he was quick to point out that tranhumanism is not a cult and has no theological doctrine he (a “Buddhist-Unitarian” himself) claimed that the movement shared elements with the world’s religions. All religions offer the transcendence of sickness, aging, death and the promise of a bet- ter world, he noted. Such are the goals of transhumanism—though facilitated not with a miter and chalice, but with a Power book and a petri dish, perhaps.

Ultimately, Hughes said, trans- humanism would not be bound by either religion or politics, but it must take root in what he typified as the best currently available political structure, social democracy; and socially democratic transhumanism’s goals are to “free ourselves through technology from the tyranny of nature” and to “free ourselves from social conditions” such as “greed, racism, class inequality, poverty, gender oppression, authoritarinism, fear and superstition.”

As befits a Utopian, Hughes’ agenda is an ambitious one; and, as befits a Utopian, there is a charming lack of cyncism—or a curious streak of naïve optimism, depending on your take—to his thoughts on implementation. Faced with questions regarding the access to such capability-enhancing technologies as pre-natal disease-preventing gene therapy, or cognition-boosting neural implants, and the prospect that such advancments would be available only to the wealthy, thereby increasing social inequality, Hughes maintained his positivism.

“Is cognitive enhancement or biological enhancement in the same category of technology as PDAs and computers, or is it like a feedback loop?” he asked, rhetorically. If the former, he said, then surely the technology would trickle down, and surely we wouldn’t prohibit all use of PDAs because not everyone can afford them at once. If the latter, and the technology created enclaves of privilege and ability, then lack of universal access would be a “dealbreaker,” and a responsible democracy would cautiously regulate.

But, he added confidentally, “I think most technologies will be available.”

Rounding out his pitch for the plow, Hughes posed another rhetorical question, “Do we have good democracies?” to the crowd of laptop- , cell phone- and PDA-toting college students and faculty snacking on cheese cubes and crackers from the buffet table.

—John Rodat



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