Human Exceptionalism

Transhumanists and “Human Dignity”

Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, one of the leading lights of the transhumanist movement, has a new paper out (“In Defense of Post Human Dignity”) in which he argues that there is no need to fear the post human future if we all agree that all forms of post humanity have equal dignity. Here is how he puts it:

“Transhumanists…see human and posthuman dignity as compatible and complementary. They insist that dignity, in its modern sense, consists in what we are and what we have the potential to become, not in our pedigree or our causal origin. What we are is not a function solely of our DNA but also of our technological and social context. Human nature in this broader sense is dynamic, partially human-made, and improvable. Our current extended phenotypes (and the lives that we lead) are markedly different from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We read and write; we wear clothes; we live in cities; we earn money and buy food from the supermarket; we call people on the telephone, watch television, read newspapers, drive cars, file taxes, vote in national elections; women give birth in hospitals; life-expectancy is three times longer than in the Pleistocene; we know that the Earth is round and that stars are large gas clouds lit from inside by nuclear fusion, and that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old and enormously big. In the eyes of a hunter-gatherer, we might already appear ‘posthuman’. Yet these radical extensions of human capabilities–some of them biological, others external–have not divested us of moral status or dehumanized us in the sense of making us generally unworthy and base. Similarly, should we or our descendants one day succeed in becoming what relative to current standards we may refer to as posthuman, this need not entail a loss dignity either.”

Nicely written, but inapt. There is no fundamental difference between the ancestors Bostrom references and ourselves. They were us, fully human despite their far lower levels of technology. Indeed, their achievement of taming fire is just as impressive as our making it to the moon. And I would match the cave drawings in France with the greatest art in the Louvre.

But let’s not get into that for now. My primary problem with transhumanism is the arrogant presumption that parents should be able to design their offspring to order, as if children were a Dell computer or a pedigree dog. What a concept. Parenting would become about fulfilling the parents’ yearnings through their child rather than (ideally) accepting the child that comes, whoever he or she is, with unconditional love and assisting our child to mature and develop into the person they want to be.

I know, I know. Parents make their children take piano lessons, and some argue that genetically altering them to be musical is little different. But genetic alterations would be set in stone, as it were, and would pass down the generations. A kid can always quit piano lessons and start to work on cars. Would one ever be able to escape the yearnings set in motion by raw biology caused by genetic engineering or other transhumanist enhancements?

The bottom line is this: Transhumanism exhibits a combination of solipsism and obsession with control, bad enough when it involves oneself, but definitely wrong, in my book, when imposed on another. Or to put it another way, if Charlie modified his features to look like Catman, I would feel badly for him, but Charlie would only be affecting himself. But Charlie should not be allowed to manufacture Kitten Boy, because he had an affinity for cats. That would not be parenting, but slave mastering.

Some of my other comments about transhumanism, can be found here and here.

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