Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"The means to make the man of the future"

The impulse to redesign humanity is not new, and turns up in surprising places once you start paying attention to it. Consider the following passage from a very long speech given in 1891 by Woman’s Christian Temperance Union founder Frances Willard, one of the giants of turn-of-the-century progressivism:

It may be that in some better day the world will see a human being gifted with the best powers of what we are wont to call the "lower orders of creation;" keen sighted and swift of motion as a bird, sharp scented as a greyhound, faithful as a dog and full of wisdom as an elephant. It may be, too, that we shall see a human being who has not only these powers, but is made up of the best physical graces, mental gifts and graciousness of all generations; one who shall gain knowledge, not by the present slow process of acquisition, but instantaneously, through magnetic currents, from the books and brains about him. One who will be such a thinker as Kepler or Kant; such a poet as Shakespeare or Tennyson; such an artist as Da Vinci; such a sculptor as Phidias; such a musician as Beethoven; such a statesman as Gladstone; such a philanthropist as Shaftesbury; such a saint as Guyon. Naturally the unintelligent and the unimaginative will declare this impossible, but everything helps forward the advent of just such a being as that. All arts, inventions, philanthropies, religions, are but tentacul put forth, searching for the means to make the man of the future, who shall be what all who have the vision and faculty divine have always prophesied he would yet be — a microcosm, the mirror of the universe. We in our little corner, doing our work well-nigh unnoted by the world at large, are helping by our small increments of power to create this complete human being — the goal of all desire and hope. The coral zoophyte builds not more surely on the unseen reef that yet shall rise in gleaming beauty above the deep sea's level blue than we are building for universal and perfected human nature. Nothing less is in our thought, and nothing else; for by ideals we live, and this ideal has been upon our consciousness from the beginning. The brain is but a stained glass window now, we wish to change it to a crystal pure and brilliant. The total abstinence [from alcohol] pledge is but one strand in the cable of our organised endeavour, for we have seen that to make man as God would have him be, the student of perfection must study his heredity, must hover like an unseen guardian about his cradle, his desk at school, his happy playground, his thoughtless and endangered youth, his tempted manhood, and must guard, not only against beginnings of ill in his own separate career, but their organised form in the habits, customs and laws of his nation and his world. For "it is easier to prevent than to undo."

This excerpt is Willard at her most utopian, and to that extent does not do justice to the strong bent of practical reform that is the dominant tone of her speech. Yet it is not disconnected from that dominant tone; Willard evidently realized that reform has to aim at something or else it is mere change, and here she adumbrates her ultimate goal.

Willard’s description of her hoped-for human future could serve as a manifesto for contemporary transhumanism, but for a few key distinctions. The first is her sense, explicitly mentioned later in the speech, that the wisdom of science was on a convergent course with the truth of religion, which (in good Spinozistic fashion) she defines as doing good, not doctrine. The stir James Hughes made in transhumanist circles by even approaching the Catholic Church on transhumanism confirms the obvious, which is that for most transhumanists, their project is a substitute for religion.

A second distinction is her willingness to acknowledge not only animal bodily superiorities, but high points of human culture as well — which count as little or nothing for those in quest of the Singularity. What is Da Vinci, in comparison with some imagined super-intelligence? A dabbler and dauber, a constructor of termite mounds.

Finally, Willard looks to a perfected humanity. Her notion of that perfection is ultimately hard to fathom (mirror of the universe?) and perhaps somewhat mystical. But it is a united perfected humanity, not the for-the-most-part libertarian transhumanist visions of diverse forms of do-your-own-thing posthumanity. For Willard, we are all in this together.

On their merits, Willard’s speculations may be superior to the transhumanist norm, but at the very least they are rhetorically superior precisely for the differences just noted: she has a vision of human progress not cut off from all previous human history, but flowing from it. In context, that would be something like a common touch. She apparently thought nothing of laying out her vision to the second biennial convention of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and to do so in a section of her speech devoted to abstinence, the organization’s key issue. We don’t know, of course, how her audience, representatives of a mass movement, reacted to this passage. We do know that transhumanists talk mostly to... other transhumanists. But perhaps in principle their separation from the human mass should not be a problem; after all, if they are correct about the future, they’ll be alright Jack.


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