Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, August 15, 2011

Seven Scenarios for the Decline of Transhumanism

Many of the things that transhumanism aspires to, like greatly extended life or special abilities, are not really new; expressing dissatisfaction with the human condition by rejecting some of its limits seems to be a perennial human possibility. So it is possible that something like transhumanism at least will never die, so long as there are people in the world who can imagine things being different from what they are. However, in its current manifestation it may be subject to just the sort of decline into quaint obscurity that has been the fate of previous versions of its ideas. So, in the helpful spirit of Kyle Munkittrick’s “When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism” I would like to present seven scenarios that would conduce to its growing irrelevance.

1. Recent concerns about too-skinny models, increasing interest in exposing Photoshopped versions of already-beautiful people, and of course the constant use of celebrity plastic surgery as a topic for satire suggest that there is a broad undercurrent of distrust about body modification that places people too far outside a certain norm. This attitude may not always have the highest motives, but were it to gain momentum it would suggest there would not be much toleration for experiments in more radical bodily modification of the sort that the more “free”-spirited transhumanists celebrate.

2. Whether or not it has a solid rational basis, lots of people are suspicious of genetically modified (GM) foods and the businesses that produce them. For many foods, having no GM ingredients has become something to advertise. If this resistance grows, it is hard to imagine how people who will not eat a GM corn chip will rush right in and have their prospective progeny genetically tweaked.

3. In a similar vein, the problems of in vitro fertilization and allied technologies are getting increasing attention, as evident in The Wall Street Journal excerpting Holly Finn’s The Baby Chase, or the California Independent Film Festival Best Documentary Award going to Eggsploitation, which exposes some of the risks to health and autonomy created by the infertility industry. If all that emerges from this attention is even a more balanced approached to questions of fertility, it will be bad for transhumanism’s wholehearted aspiration to technologize reproduction.

4. If Wikipedia is to be believed, cryonics businesses have a hard time staying alive (so to speak), which may have something to do with the fact that the number of people who chose this method of disposing of their bodies is pitifully low. A well-publicized meltdown at a cryonics facility, particularly one that could be linked to financial weakness, might go a long way to putting this genie back in the bottle.

5. The imperatives of innovative medical equipment design and academic fashion being what they are, it is not hard to imagine that the current rage for neuropsychological research — which, however premature scientifically, seems to be a good fit in attitude with transhumanist aspirations for “uploading” — will fade away as young, ambitious researchers and inventors seek to make their own marks on the world. Of course, what replaces it may be yet more dogmatically materialistic, but you never know — after all, during the reign of radical behaviorism in the 1950s, who would have predicted that its philosophical vacuity would actually dethrone it in just a few short years?

6. Japan supposedly needs robots to care for its aging population, which has spurred a good deal of effort in robotics and AI there. Yet it turns out that the Japanese people are not so fond of the idea of being taken care of by robots after all. Widespread commercial failure, and/or some noteworthy failures in human-robot relations — especially under circumstances of tight national budgets and slow economic growth — could slow research and development in this area and push it in the direction of other technological dead ends, like the Concorde supersonic transport.

7. Once upon a time progressives were certain that the direction of history was on the side of universalism and increasingly inclusive human solidarity. For better and for worse, that is hardly obvious today. Should the present climate of global opinion, which has enough trouble extending political and legal recognition to unambiguously human beings, continue, it hardly seems likely to extend the circle of such recognition to nonhumans.

I’m not myself a fan of all of the tendencies I have called attention to here, but as a general rule it is important to distinguish between how things are and how one wishes them to be. Otherwise one ends up with a relatively juvenile belief that wishing will make it so. The aura of inevitability that transhumanism likes to cultivate (as says Michael Anissimov: “I will intervene in my own essence. If you try to stop me — good luck.”) is not one of its intellectual strong points, and has almost nothing to do with the real world., which is rife with conflicting possibilities.

UPDATE: See a follow-up post here.


  1. I admit that a lot of the AI/singularity stuff is flaky. However, I fail to see why you have a problem with cryonics.

    If someone is not into cryonics, no one is about to force them to do it. It’s a personal choice. It makes no more sense to be “opposed” to cryonics any more than it would be to doing bodybuilding workouts or kite surfing (both of which I do).

    In psychology, boundary issues are defined as being obsessed with the actions of others as though it is proper that you have control over those other people. This is considered a marker of psychiatric disorder. Since the pursuit of cryonics (and any other kind of personal modification) is purely a personal choice, to oppose the right of a private individual to pursue it, especially if that person is a complete stranger to you, can be considered a psychiatric disorder.

  2. Why would cryonics become less popular just because early cryonicists failed to put together a solid enough organization? I would think that with more cryobiological research backing it, cryonics would become more popular over time. (It certainly has so far.)

    Rational individuals confronted with the fact that previous cryonics organizations have failed would look at the causes and create new organizations with fewer flaws. And in fact, this is exactly what CI and Alcor have done -- there is no more "pay as you go" cryonics, rather a certain minimum is placed in a trust fund which earns interest over time to keep the company going.

  3. I've distinguished myself somewhat from other cryonicists by breaking with their faith in nanotech charlatanry. I would like to see Drexler's pseudo-technology from the 1980's fall into "quaint obscurity" sooner rather than later so that we can focus on more productive ideas. For example, the idea of preserving a human brain in a potentially revivable way falls into the realm of feasible scientific empiricism, not science fiction.

  4. Point 2 is one of the best defenses of transhumanism I've seen.

  5. Pace Mark Plus, reanimation is plainly an article of faith for many transhumanists. My point was simply to suggest how any lack of confidence in the keepers of the freezer who administer the cryonic rites has the risk of eroding that faith, and to that extent could present a risk to transhumanism. It may indeed be that doubts about financial probity or technical know-how or both can be met to the satisfaction of some by the learning process Luke describes, although I think it is an open question as to whether these represent the most rational or the most faithful. In any case, beyond my effort to articulate scenarios for the diminution of interest in transhumanism, I don't have that much interest in how people in general choose to dispose of their legally dead bodies.

  6. Point 4, a failure of a cryonics organization, has already occurred once before. This was the Chatsworth disaster in 1979, when several patients thawed out due to financial and operational mismanagement. The Chatsworth disaster did indeed set cryonics back for about 7 years. However, it did not kill it. A similar disaster is unlikely to kill it in the future.

    Also, two cryonics organizations have shut-down without incident, and their existing suspension patients transferred to other organizations.

    Point 2 is valid only as it is applied to designer babies. Parents are much more conservative with their kids than they are with their own bodies. This is the reason why I think "designer baby" technology will be very slow to becoming of wide-spread use.

    Enhancement of oneself, on the other hand, will develop large markets rather quickly, once such enhancements are developed. The most likely candidates are cognitive enhancement and physical strength enhancement (myostatin inhibitors). Anti-aging therapies do not qualify as enhancement as curing aging is no less therapeutic than curing cancer or any other disease.

    Indefinite healthy life extension is not "transhumanism" as it is purely therapeutic.

  7. > I’m not myself a fan of all of the tendencies I have called attention to here, but as a general rule it is important to distinguish between how things are and how one wishes them to be.

    Perhaps we should also be careful to distinguish between trivial problems and major decline-causing problems.

    I rolled my eyes as I read this list. Some muted public criticism is a worrying trend? Take in vitro - I would be infinitely more concerned by data on an *actual* decline in IVF, rather than a random documentary.

    Not only does the list fail on its terms, it fails on the larger terms. Supposed IVF was not merely disapproved of in a few transient articles and documentaries, but actually more regulated. No, let's be crazy and say IVF gets outright *banned* in the US!

    What of it?

    Transhumanism is not about IVF, nor is it cryonics, nor is it germline engineering, any more than Moore's law is about the x86 architecture or 2D silicon chips. (If IVF is banned, perhaps people will expand their use of medical tourism and go abroad for IVF as well as stem cell and other treatments. Or maybe they simply don't care about IVF any more because there are better treatments, or maybe they're not having kids at all, or maybe it was just a temporary reverse due to one cranky bioconservative judge getting lucky with an IVF case coming up before him.)

    It doesn't need to win on every possible front against every possible enemy. The overall trend is what matters.

  8. 2. I wouldn't take the "GM suspicion" argument too far. Lots of people still eat this stuff. Moreover, other types of GM organisms - such as the kind used for medical research - are widely used in places where there is strong suspicion of GM food, like Germany and the EU.

    4. The main issue with Cryogenics is that no one has successfully frozen and revived a person - people are frozen after they've already died.

  9. This article is a poor brainstorm of counter points. Particularly point 2. Sure, there are plenty of people who won't choose to use human germline engineering, particularly the protester types. That's pretty obvious. You don't need 100% participation to make a big transhumanism difference, particularly when compounded across future generations.


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