The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.
– Francis Fukuyama
Many enthusiasts applaud transhumanism, but the movement has also provoked a major wave of criticism. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama even pointed it out as one of the most dangerous ideas of our time. Many others from across a whole spectrum of disciplines have criticized it as well. Fukuyama himself belongs to a “bioconservative” current and the core of his argument consists of the question: will mankind, by dint of all these technological adjustments, somehow lose its humanity and dignity? What if, as the transhumanist dreamers propose, we get rid of all undesirable traits such as aggression, illness, and death that are an inherent part of human nature – won’t we also lose human nature itself? And might not transhumanism create whole new types of social inequality, based not on racial, sexual, or other bodily differences but instead on the accessibility of implants (and, ultimately, on the access to money, in much the same way as we see it today with the accessibility of cosmetic plastic surgery and/or orthodontics)?
Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a bristling reaction to Fukuyama’s critique; Bostrom defends “posthuman dignity” and refutes Fukuyama’s understanding of equality as based on some kind of chimerical “human nature.” Bostrom points to the dignity of animals and insists that the posthuman might be treated in a similar way (i.e. as a non-human creature that nonetheless has its own specific dignity). According to Bostrom, transhumanism itself is mostly a way to improve human life by means of technology; as such, it does not deserve Fukuyama’s severe barbs.
There have been other critiques of transhumanism, such as the fear that joining humans and technology will bring about the danger of totalitarian oppression. This would purportedly occur through the direct manipulation of human thoughts, without the need to resort to propaganda. In a worst-case scenario we might even be controlled by artificial intelligence that would program all of our behavior. This dire possibility is a favorite motif of anti-utopian narratives and has also been analyzed by bioethicists such as James Hughes.
There also is the issue of increased security risk – although we humans might be able to greatly reduce or even eliminate biological illness, we might also expose ourselves to attacks by computer viruses or other malware. And vice versa: as Eric Drexler points out in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, if nanotechnology were able to infiltrate our environment, a global catastrophe might follow. These problems are often addressed by the transhumanists themselves, who try to offer possible solutions or at least ways to enforce security measures against such threats. However, proponents of transhumanism generally assert that the gains would far exceed any possible risks.
Another critique charges transhumanists with hubris, extreme arrogance. Naturally this is the rhetoric of most Christian churches, though not all of them (for example there is a Mormon transhumanist association). This type of critique considers interventions in the body, which we might not understand entirely, as far too risky. The manipulation of embryos and the creation of “designer babies,” in particular, has been heavily criticized. There has been an interesting transhumanist response to this – some (for example J. Savulescu) say that the tuning of the embryo is in fact our duty – parents, after all, are responsible for maximizing their offspring’s health and skills.
Generally the transhumanists are fully conscious of the controversies surrounding their philosophy and try to think them through. For example the transhumanist association Humanity+ (which also issues a magazine of the same name) addresses many ethical problems in its 1998 declaration and mentions, among other issues, the great danger of technology abuse and the necessity of diligent research to diminish that risk. The declaration also discusses responsibility, ethics, and respect for human rights and individual decisions. Its priority is the optimization of living conditions, the reduction of suffering, and the enhancement of human skills and abilities.
Some of us might endorse the transhumanist vision, some of us might find it suspect or even revolting; nevertheless, given the speed of technological and biotechnological progress, great changes surely await us in the near future. Are we really to see an age where machines will be virtually indistinguishable from human beings? Will mechanical implants form an inseparable part of our bodies, just as computers today are an inherent feature of our studies and offices? Will genetic engineering and embryo tuning be necessary for the competitiveness of our children? Is there really a Singularity awaiting in thirty years?
The future still holds the answers to these questions. Today we must content ourselves with discussions, speculations, and various media representations of transhumanist ideas, from movie portrayals (Gattaca – eugenics, Blade Runner – people versus bio-androids, The Island – cloning), to literary narratives (Neuromancer – AI, Bridge Trilogy – nanotechnology and cyberspace) to videogames (Deus Ex – moral aspects, nanotechnology, Singularity).