Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

If Sterling Cooper remade man

Think for a moment of the common critiques of 1950s American culture — of the era’s conformism and repressiveness, its denial of brewing social discontent, its spiritual emptiness and shallow view of human good, and the gosh-golly attitude toward social life that led one astute commentator to dub it “the sunny synthetic fifties.” Much as those critiques can be prone to lapse into Pleasantville-style caricature, there is surely still something to them. Now imagine if scientists had attempted, in the era of all those peculiar neuroses, to biologically remake man.

A 1956 article in Mechanix Illustrated asked scientists and engineers to propose redesigns of the human body. Among the offerings were:
  • Making the spine a solid column.
  • Placing the brain in the chest cavity, because “Nearness to fuel supply is a fundamental principle in industry.”
  • Replacing the rib cage with a sort of giant clamshell easily opened for surgical purposes.
  • A wider pelvis to decrease the risk of hernia and make childbearing easier.
  • Extra eyes in the back of the head or the end of a finger (a very Guillermo del Toro image).
  • Antennae on the head, like a grasshopper’s.
  • Making the nose a long snout to reduce sinus troubles.
  • Elimination of the toenails and the little toe.
  • Pockets like a kangaroo’s or a food storage compartment like a camel’s.
  • Hooks on the head for straphangers on subways.
  • Detachable arms for comfort while sleeping.
  • Baldness to eliminate the cost of maintaining hair. (Note that this proposal came from a dermatologist.)
  • Folding ears like an old-fashioned ear trumpet, for catching low-pitched sounds. (This one came from a radio engineer.)

In the previous post here, I wrote of the danger of tinkering with complex systems we did not create due to the impossibility of controlling and predicting the outcome. But there is an additional cost in tinkering with some of these systems. At the dawn of the age in which the Mechanix Illustrated article was written, C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man:

In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.

When examining transhumanism, we need not go nearly as far as Lewis in describing the power one generation asserts at the expense of its descendents. We can accept that each generation has some limited power to correct, through changes in theories and institutions, the errors of their predecessors.

But the transhumanist form of change is of quite a different kind. Whereas before successive generations remade their understanding of a human nature that itself remained effectively constant, the transhumanist project is to remake human nature itself to match its novel understanding. The effects will be immensely more difficult for successor generations to change — if they can be changed at all — than the previous process of change at the social level, itself a very brittle process.

Put another way: You might foresee a freer and better future if transhuman powers come to pass within your lifetime — but would you be freer and better off today if transhumanism had begun reshaping human biology in the 1950s? (I wonder in particular what transhumanist feminists would say to such a question. Would women today come with rocket-cone breasts and built-in kitchen appliances?) Gizmodo blogger Wilson Rothman says that “if 1950s men redesigned the human form, we’d be horrors.”

One might object that our cultural ideas today are better than those of the 1950s, but this objection only makes the point. We could not alter our culture nearly as easily had a previous one remade human nature to match its own. The “freedom” promised by transhumanism is in fact the license to grab power for our generation at the expense of future ones. As Lewis says:

There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.


  1. If you managed to get both of your arms detached for comfortable sleeping, how would you get them back on again?

  2. For once your criticism of transhumanism is directed at an appropriate target: These all sound like pretty cool ideas to me.

  3. If people wanted to change themselves into this, who would you be to stop them? And if we modified ourselves into this based on the ideology of the 50s, couldn't we just then change it again if we didn't like it?

    We are proposing exploring the space outside humanity, learning from our mistakes, and becoming experienced with morphological diversity. You are... advocating remaining at the status quo for the next million years?

  4. Mr. Anissimov -

    Ari has already responded to part of your comment here, but I’d like to quickly make two further points.

    First, you ask a silly question of authority: “If people want to do X, who are you to stop them?” Our aim, on this blog and in the pages of The New Atlantis, is to encourage deeper reflection on and a richer understanding of what it means to be human. (As opposed to Mr. Yudkowsky’s shallow and impoverished reaction: “those sound like pretty cool ideas to me.”) Our aim, in other words, is to help people in stopping themselves.

    Second, before you go “exploring the space outside humanity” (a nice euphemism), you might read Ari’s previous post on rationality, complexity, and hubris.

    - Adam Keiper

  5. Adam,

    My "silly" question has a point. Hundreds of millions of people will use transhumanist technologies to self-modify, and in the absence of Christian Conservative or Islamic dictatorships, no one is going to be able to do much about it.

    With regard to the complexity post, so we should never explore the space outside of Homo sapiens just because nature made us a certain way and changing ancient complex systems is risky? Why don't you actually say specifically what you mean instead of always hedging? Either say, "we are against all self-modification of humans forever", or say exactly what you think. You are avoiding getting to the point because you know that your point only makes sense to a very small subset of people who believe in a afterlife paradise.

  6. Mr. Anissimov,

    We do say exactly what we think — you just don't seem able to formulate a direct response to it. You haven't, for example, offered any reason to doubt the concerns raised in my post about attempting to control complex systems; you simply drill ahead with your curious mantra that you think we look reflexively backwards and so you must look reflexively forward.

    As you and I have both noted before, the kind of ad hominem you are engaging in here is a fundamentally lazy and dishonest way to argue — dishonest because of the ungrounded and rather desperate attempt to ferret out our religious beliefs, lazy because doing so is irrelevant to the issues we've raised. None of the arguments we have made on this blog depend on belief in some religion, and all of these arguments could be made as consistently by an atheist as by a believer. So while I've said it before, it is worth noting again the great irony that you repeatedly invoke religion in order to avoid engaging in substantive debate.

  7. "The 'freedom' promised by transhumanism is in fact the license to grab power for our generation at the expense of future ones."

    I don't see any way to avoid having power over people who don't exist yet. True, you might say that by modifying ourselves we wield power against the children we would have had if we didn't modify ourselves. But for the same reason, you could just as well say that by not modifying ourselves, we wield power against the children we would have had if we had modified ourselves. There is no ontologically privileged future; there are an infinite number of counterfactual future generations that we could help or harm. Lacking any way to break the symmetry, what alternative do we have but to do what we, on reflection, think is right?

  8. Zack,

    This is a legitimate argument with regards to designing one's kids. Of course it is not relevent to self-modification by competent adults, which is purely a personal matter.

  9. Zack,

    Nice to "meet" you again — if you recall, we spoke in person at the Singularity Summit.

    Part of the answer to your question hinges on how you define freedom and power. But I think mostly it hinges on how you define personhood and personal identity. You seem to be saying that the power we yield is in selecting which potential set of children will come into existence, in which case we always allow some set to exist at the expense of many others' existence. But I'm not sure this "counterfactual generations" analysis holds, both because it assumes that the counterfactual people are other people and not other versions of you, and because it takes into account only the forms that are created and not the forces that went into creating them.

    To wit, suppose Bob can competently play the piano but has no interest in playing it professionally, and wouldn't have interest even if he could. Now suppose Bob had had an older brother who desperately wanted to be a child piano prodigy, and whose parents had wanted it too, but who was not quite good enough for it. And suppose that Bob's parents had then decided to have another child, but to screen for the gene which predisposes one toward piano-prodigality. This child is counterfactual Bob (let's call him Bob!p). Bob!p may in fact have as little interest in being a piano prodigy as Bob, and may even have as little ability given the uncertainty of gene predisposition. Or perhaps Bob!p does in fact have prodigal capabilities; in either event, he was created by human intervention for the purpose of being a piano prodigy, and his life is shaped by this fact, not simply at the level of the pressures he feels from his family, but at the inalterable level of his genetic makeup.

    Who can we say is more free to choose who and what they want to be — Bob or Bob!p? And who is more subject to the power of the previous generation's technology and choices? If you want to get at the personal identity issue, you can apply the scenario to yourself, asking whether you wish your parents had screened you at the embryonic stage with a mind towards making you a piano prodigy or, say, a football star. Or if you want to stick with the "counterfactual generations" form of personal identity, you can ask the same question and then ponder whether you would even exist if they had made such a choice. The questions hold whether you want to consider that Bob and Bob!p differ only in the one gene or, closer to the screening scenario, in many genes.

    This scenario is just a hypothetical, but there are similar ones that could be constructed for the technologies already available today to select — or, rather, attempt to select — one's children's sex and other characteristics.



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