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« I Am An English Genius | Main | In The Race? »

More Than Human

That's the title of a book I read recently. No, it's not the classic science fiction tome by Ted Sturgeon. This one is (I think) non-fiction, and new, just having been released this week.

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.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 07, 2005 08:05 AM
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Two New Reviews
Excerpt: Two new reviews have posted in the last 24 hours! Yesterday, Rand Simberg posted this review over at Transterrestrial Musings. And today I see that the LA Times has posted their own positive review of the book.
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Tracked: March 8, 2005 11:04 PM
Why Yes, It Is An Offensive Agenda...
Excerpt: This just in from Virginia Postrel, via The Speculist... The WaPost reports that Leon Kass and friends are promoting what they call an "offensive bioethics looks like they want to separate their anti-research agenda from the convictions of...
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Tracked: March 9, 2005 09:46 PM
My Tail!
Excerpt: I may actually get a tail! I'm desperately hoping that I live long enough for biological enhancement (probably genetic in this c...
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Tracked: March 23, 2005 06:23 PM
Why Yes, It Is An Offensive Agenda...
Excerpt: This just in from Virginia Postrel, via The Speculist... The WaPost reports that Leon Kass and friends are promoting what they call an "offensive bioethics looks like they want to separate their anti-research agenda from the convictions of...
Weblog: Classical Values
Tracked: October 30, 2005 07:52 AM

Its interesting how its mostly the opponents of enhancement that are trying to make this into a political issue (should we enhance or should we not?) as though we are all of single mind. Some will enhance and some will not. Some people will want to make themselves super bright and others won't care about intelligence, they will just want to live forever young in perfectly attractive bodies. Some will not want any personal changes at all and will become the late 21st century equivalent of the Amish.

When push comes to shove, this stuff is really a matter of personal choice. These are not "democratic" issues as our detractors would say, they are PERSONAL choices.

Is there any reason why we cannot all make our own personal choices on this stuff and continue to co-exist peacefully in an ever expanding economy? Rand, you are correct that it is the luddites (both right and left) that are trying to use the corrupt force of government to enforce a certain range of choices. Their position, not ours, is analogous to the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany.

There are two positions on this; pro-choice and pro-force. I am pro-choice.

Posted by Kurt at March 7, 2005 09:46 AM

Who says that if I engineer my body such that I no longer grow old or make myself super intelligent, that I am "no longer human"? This has got to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

As long as I can listen to good music and dance, drink a pint of Guiness and have good conversation, I will always be human.

Posted by Kurt at March 7, 2005 09:52 AM

Rand, I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

Kurt, I agree with you. One of the points of the book is that there's no clear dividing line between human and posthuman. We're well advised to take a very broad view of what it means to be human.

Posted by Ramez at March 7, 2005 11:35 AM

Ramex, thats my point. As a life extensionist who has lived abroad, I do not define myself nor anyone else by them living within a fixed life pattern (a.k.a. the natural life cycle). I define a human being as someone who posesses consciousness and is sentient. It says nothing about your race, religion, or life-style choices.
It is the bio-luddites, of whatever flavor, that are trying to narrowly redefine "human" to mean someone with a fixed set of abilities and lives a fixed life pattern. I believe very strongly that we should not allow the bio-luddites to get away with this.

Rather, I believe that we should view and present to the general public that "morphological freedom" (or transhuman rights or whatever) as the logical extension of the civil liberties that we take for granted and vigorously defend, at least in Western society.

Posted by Kurt at March 7, 2005 03:02 PM

Ramez, are you the author of the book? I have just ordered it through a local bookstore in my town.

Posted by Kurt at March 7, 2005 03:03 PM

"It is the bio-luddites, of whatever flavor, that are trying to narrowly redefine "human" to mean someone with a fixed set of abilities and lives a fixed life pattern. I believe very strongly that we should not allow the bio-luddites to get away with this."

Asimov had an excellent template to follow in the story "Bicentennial Man":

(paraphrasing) The protagonists instigated a lawsuit against a man with an artificial heart, claiming the mechanical heart made him no longer human (and thus not entitled to certain rights or payments). While intentionally losing the case, they were sure to have the decision written to take the broadest and most lenient view of what it means to be human. They followed with successive cases, 'losing' at each step along the way, until the only remaining legal difference between a robot and a human was the infinite lifespan.

You'll have to read the story for the ending...


Posted by Stephen Kohls at March 7, 2005 04:55 PM

Kurt, yes I'm the author. I'm happy to hear you've ordered a copy. The book is officially on sale tomorrow!

Posted by Ramez at March 7, 2005 05:29 PM

Eugenics didn't just sterilize people in Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany got its laws and eugenics ideology from the US, where eugenics was a major component of the Progessive Movement (Woodrow Wilson signed into law New Jersey's eugenics law, the author of which was later convicted of war crimes, which he committed as an _inmate_ at a Nazi concentration camp. See Black's _War Against the Weak_ for the gory details.) In the US eugenics was fasionable and well funded by the Carnagie people among others. Alexander Graham Bell was a proponent of 'positive' eugenics, and left the movement only after he realized that if they had been in power a century before he would never have been born(his mother was deaf)! I have H. G. Wells's views up on my web site -- go to the Erle Cox page -- from his 1901 book Anticipations. Utterly unreadable, which is why no one put it up at Project Gutenberg. Cox was among the few writers to attack the idea in his book Out of the Silence. Chesterton was another. The Inklings Press website has a lot more information as well. In the US, more than 60K people were mutilated in the 'progressive' states from around 1911 through the seventies.

Posted by John H. Costello at March 8, 2005 07:12 AM

The fact that Woodrow Wilson supported positive eugenics does not supprise me. When he became president, he fired all of the African American employees of the federal government. He also got us into WWI (the stupidest war in human history) as well as pushed the federal income tax up from 3% up to nearly 70%.

Yeah, Woodrow Wilson was a real statist with a capital "S". Funny how statism, positive (coercive) eugenics, and restrictions on allowing people to enhance their own bodies and minds as personal choice seem to run together. The common denominator of all three is STATISM.

Posted by Kurt at March 8, 2005 09:47 AM

i's down yonder to the funral home tuther nite an sumbodie said, 'at aint ol ned its jes his bodee." i reckin so.

Posted by bubba at March 23, 2005 01:47 PM

Market forces and social imperatives have been moving biotechnology forward for a number of years. Breast implants, advanced prosthetic devices and other cosmetic and functional equipment are commonplace. Teen-aged girls are getting tummy tucks and facelifts at rates unheard of in past generations. The technology will soon allow for not only brighter students, but for more socially acceptable ones as well. Prozac has partly seen to that. The difference between these various current trends and the eugenics movement of the past is that it is individually motivated and not a result of government coercion.

Since the author is participating in this discussion, I would be interested in hearing his predictions about how the personalities and temperaments of people who live 100 years from now will differ from those we see today. In my mind, this is a far more potentially interesting topic than whether blind people are equipped with cybernetic eyes.

Posted by JT Michcock at March 23, 2005 02:05 PM

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