A first book by Ramez Naam (a software developer who claims to be one of those responsible for Internet Explorer, though I won’t hold that against him), it’s a highly readable survey of the current and projected state of the art in various life-extending and life-enhancing technologies, including life extension, cloning, prosthetics and neural implants, most of which are already here, but in their infancy. These are subjects about which he’s both enthusiastic and optimistic.
Many critics of these technologies, particularly Kassians and other worshipers of ultimate death, will find them quite disquieting. Regardless, whichever camp one is in, as Naam points out (and as I pointed out last week), these technologies are going to happen, because that’s the history of such technologies. They are being developed to solve real human problems that are causing real human suffering, and once they become available, there’s no sufficiently bright, unambiguous line between their uses for therapy and their uses for what some, like Dr. Kass or Frank Fukuyama, will consider unnecessary enhancement, to a state beyond that which they currently (and subjectively, and arbitrarily) define as human.
It’s not a new problem. To take a mundane example, a plastic surgeon can do reconstructive surgery on a mastectomy patient, to restore her shattered sense of womanhood at the loss of one of the features that biology and society have defined as a key component of that state. Few argue that there is anything wrong with this. But the same surgery can also change a 32B to a 36D. And some women are naturally unendowed, and would like an artificial solution to what they view as nature’s mistake. Who is going to be the arbiter of which are allowed such surgeries?
Naam leads off each chapter with similar examples, of radical new therapies currently in work, that have natural potential for non-therapeutic use. Beyond that, the military is developing some of these deliberately for the purpose of enhancing troop performance. Imagine the possibilities of a pilot able to fly an aircraft, and sense hostile activity, directly with her mind, with no need for intermediary appendages. Imagine in particular the utility of such a system in which this can be done remotely.
One particular insight from the book that hadn’t struck me before is the disingenuousness of the Godwinized argument that many use against proponents of cloning, or life extension, or body enhancement, by accusing them of attempting to revive the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, offshoots of which were indeed adopted by the Nazis.
But such comparisons are ludicrous. It wasn’t the goal of the eugenics movement that was necessarily odious (they were, after all, only seeking an improvement of humanity)–it was the means by which they wanted (indeed would have had to employ and, in Germany, in fact did) to achieve it. They could only achieve their goals through government coercion and ultimately totalitarianism. The irony is that proponents of these technologies are seeking them for use by the free choice of individuals, while this time it’s the opponents, those who (by their spurious association of them with the eugenicists) wish to implement government policies to prevent the use of such technologies. In Virginia Postrel’s formulation, the dynamists are those who want to allow individuals to decide, and the stasists are the King Canutes who want to hold back the tide through the force of government (though, unlike Canute, they don’t seem to recognize that the tide won’t be held back).
Naam’s ultimate message is that these technologies are coming, ready or not. If we can’t accommodate our definition of humanity to them, then the future will indeed be post human, but I suspect that it will be a future much more free of suffering and pain than the present, with much more opportunity for growth of those things–art, science, love and laughter–that make being human so precious.