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A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 3 of 3)
Jamais Cascio, 2 Dec 04

Concluding the conversation with Dr. James Hughes of Trinity College, founder of the Democratic Transhumanism movement.


Read Part I.
Read Part II.

While it may be difficult to see in the aftermath of last month's election, the compositions of the post-World War II coalitions on both the Left and the Right are changing. Emerging issues, from globalization to climate disruption to intellectual property rights on the Internet, are starting to push some traditional allies apart and traditional opponents together. For Dr. Hughes, human enhancement technologies will likely prove to be another axis for new political friction. From his democratic transhumanism treatise:

The biopolitical spectrum is still emerging, starting first among intellectuals and activists. Self-described “transhumanists” and “Luddites” are the most advanced and self-conscious of an emerging wave of the public’s ideological crystallization. We are at the same place in the crystallization of biopolitics as left-right economic politics was when Marx helped found the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, or when the Fabian Society was founded in England in 1884: intellectuals and activists struggling to make explicit the battle lines that are already emerging, before popular parties have been organized and masses rallied to their banners.

Will transhumanism -- or human enhancement technology -- be a key line of conflict for the 21st century? It's possible, although I suspect it will be part of a larger struggle both over the direction of human technology and the nature of "personhood." If the core philosophical struggle of the 20th century was over "how we live," the core philosophical struggle of the 21st may be "who we are."

I also suspect, moreover profoundly hope, that the "transhuman" meme falls to the wayside, and that tools and techniques that help us live healthier, longer, happier lives are seen as human technologies, something rightly available to us all, not something that implicitly divides us. Progressives are thinking a lot about "framing" these days, and rightly so: how we describe something imparts a great deal of meaning. Just as Dr. Hughes wishes (as said in Part I of the interview) that, in due time, "democratic transhumanism" will shed "democratic" in the name because the need for equitable, fair, and full distribution of enhancement technologies will be obvious to all, I hope that "democratic transhumanism" will shed "transhumanism," because the realization that enhancement technologies are simply part of our cultural birthright as humans will be equally obvious.

In the final installment of my interview with James Hughes, we talk a bit about what the future may hold for the democratic transhumanist movement and humankind in general.

Cascio: How do you see the politics of transhuman technologies playing out over the next few decades?

Hughes: I'm convinced that politics will become more complex in the next decades as new coalitions form along the emerging biopolitical axis, an axis with transhumanists at one end and bioconservatives at the other. Biopolitics will divide traditional progressives and conservatives, and the outcomes of struggles will be partly determined by whether progressive or conservative voices are louder at each end of debate. I would much prefer that the policy debate be framed between democratic transhumanists and left-wing bioconservatives like the Center for Genetics and Society, for instance, so that whatever the outcome our concerns for safety and equity are reflected.

The fight over embryonic stem cell research is the current hot biopolitical struggle. Some of the issues likely to force a crystallization and polarization along the biopolitical axis in the future include:

  • Demands of the growing senior population for anti-aging research and therapies, in the context of increasing conflict over generational equity and the tax burdens of retiree pensions and health care.

  • FDA approval of gene therapies, psychopharmaceuticals and nanocybernetics for "enhancement" purposes, such as improving memory, mood, senses, life extension and athletic performance.

  • Perfection of neonatal intensive care and artificial uteruses which will erode the current political compromise on fetal rights, predicated on "viability" as a moral dividing line.

  • The intellectual enhancement of animals, which will force a clarification of the citizenship status of intelligent non-humans.

  • The regulation of the potentially apocalyptic risks of nanomaterials, nanomachines, genetically engineered organisms, and artificial intelligence.

  • The fight over parental rights to use germinal choice technologies to choose enhancements and aesthetic characteristics of their children.

    Cascio: How may "bioconservatives" react as they see people starting to use these technologies?

    I think social conservatives and bioconservatives will all use the latest enhancement technologies at the same rate as the rest of us, and religious Right and neocon leaders will scramble to keep the goal post one step ahead of the latest life extending technology. They no longer oppose autopsies, condoms, organ transplantation or IVF because they can't win those battles.

    Cascio: Cloning as a hot-button issue has died down a bit, at least for now. I've always been a bit confused by the fervor of opposition. While the opponents seem to assume that there would be a huge groundswell of desire for cloning if it was allowed, I just can't see that many people actually wanting a time-delayed twin. Or not even that close! Identical twins are closer in many respects than clones.

    Hughes: The use of donor eggs for nuclear transfer introduces the egg donor's mitochondrial DNA; twinning produces a much cleaner copy.

    Although transhumanists defend cloning as an eventual reproductive option once its safe, it is not an enhancement technique. I would go so far as to say that once we have enhancement gene therapies it would be unethical for parents to make a copy of themselves. It would be like insisting that your kid use your grade school textbooks. OK, worse.

    Cascio: I've noticed over the course of our conversation something that I've seen in other transhumanist speculations: a subtle mixture of medical technologies implemented to protect or restore some measure of normative health (e.g., insulin injections or vaccinations) and technologies implemented to enhance the human biology beyond what is considered a standard part of human biology (e.g., endless lives or four arms). It's a very slick slope, of course; is a technology which gives what amounts to an IQ of 250 -- vanishingly rare, but definitely a part of broader human experience -- an enhancement beyond the norm or a restoration of what's possible? How about not an endless lifespan, but healthy life to (say) 140? Nonetheless, I suspect it's these transhumanist musings about radical divergences that sets some people off.

    Hughes: The problem is that that is precisely the slope we want to slip down. There is no practical or ethical distinction between therapy and enhancement. We're living in an unnatural, enhanced human state already. I don't see many people going back to foraging and chipping stone tools in caves, or more to the point, giving up aspirin and vaccines. The average IQ of the citizens of the industrialized countries has already risen by 30 points in the last century, a phenomenon called the "Flynn effect." What we are saying is that its good for people to be able to live another day, whether they are 70, 100 or 150. Its good for people to learn more, faster, whether they have IQs of 80, 120 or 200. Its good for people to have more acuity to their vision, whether they are legally blind or 20/20. Moreover, the therapies will not be clearly therapeutic or enhancement. If I give you an anti-aging vaccination that reduces your likelihood of contracting all aging-related diseases and extends your life span to 120, was that therapy for prevention of those diseases or an enhancement? We think it doesn't matter.

    Cascio: In a world of limited research resources, which should receive a greater priority: research into technologies to enhance human biology, or research into technologies to improve social conditions? What's the appropriate balance between "democracy" and "transhumanism"?

    Hughes: As I've said before, I think the two go hand-in-hand, although we do have to allocate resources. But take the example of obesity, which is growing worldwide. There is very little evidence that public health education or diet program interventions have any long-term effect for the majority of the obese. The reason people are getting fat is that we are programmed to eat good-tasting food when we can, and we live increasingly sedentary lives. So, by all means let's educate people to eat right, and set up community activity centers, and get sodas out of the schools, and tax high fructose corn syrup. But let's also pursue research on drugs and gene tweaks to prevent obesity in the first place, to be slim and healthy no matter what we eat and how much exercise we get, because if we really want to save the people's lives that's where the answer will come from. And then let's make sure those treatments are available to everybody worldwide. Investing in technological obesity prevention will not only be more cost-effective than social-behavioral weight control, but will dramatically reduce overall health costs. If people want to find some spurious social account they can empty out and put into their favorite social reforms let's start with professional football not medical research.

    Cascio: One aspect of your work which I greatly appreciate is that you think about transformative technologies as social technologies, which while they may directly change the lives of individuals, also affect us at the level of social relationships.

    Hughes: One of the books that I was deeply influenced by as an undergraduate Buddhist Sociology major was Trevor Ling's The Buddha. Ling was a Marxist scholar, and he drew out of early Buddhism a radical message of integrated social and individual change. The monks weren't just told to go meditate in caves, they were instructed that their liberation was an interdependent process involving psychological change, behavioral change, a certain kind of community and a certain kind of engagement with the world. The Wheel of Dharma, turned by these interlocking processes, countervailed against the Wheel of Karma, with its characteristic greed, hatred and ignorance and attendant behaviors and social systems (e.g. patriarchy, capitalism, militarism, the Repuglican Party). I think I bring pretty much he same perspective to transhumanism. The core demand of transhumanism is that we all should be given the means to reach our fullest potentials. But helping people achieve their full potential is a matter of social reform as much as individual technological empowerment.

    Cascio: Do you expect that, once radical life extension technologies are available, the majority of people will adopt them?

    Hughes: In a gene-tweaked heart-beat.

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    Comments

    On the whole I agree with Mr. Hughes. I've been following these areas (longevity research, nanotechnology, neurotechnology and others.) for nearly twenty years now and he is a refreshing change from the libertarian-tinged thought that used to dominate these topics.

    On the other hand, I think he's too worried about the power that luddites (And I use that term very vaguely.) have to slow things down. Change is happening in too many areas and synergizing in too many complex ways for anyone to stop it now.

    That's both good and bad.

    Look our current circumstance. We are living in a world almost beyond the imagining of the participants of the 1938 World's Fair in New York City. We have the superhighways, fast food, cheap telecommunications and spaceflight they dreamed of back then. Did their grand utopia come to pass?

    Not exactly.

    Upon solving one problem, we always seem to find another to worry about.

    These transhuman technologies are coming to pass. They will become commonplace and even cheap.

    But I am pretty sure that the transhumans and posthumans will find something else to complain about.


    Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 4 Dec 04



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