Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Idealizing Childhood

I have to say it was a surprise a few days back to find a link on Drudge for an article that Julian Savulescu has published in Reader’s Digest, of all places. It’s the UK edition, mind you, but all signs on their website point to it being as impeccably middlebrow as its U.S. counterpart. And Savulescu’s piece advocating the moral obligation to screen babies in utero for desirable genetic traits catches just that tone of banal sweet reasonableness which is perfect for the venue, despite the fact that the homepage link provides the heading “The Maverick: Thinking Differently.”

Yet I wonder if this rhetorical effort can ultimately succeed. For the more you try to make it seem obvious that the parental ability to design children is a self-evidently good thing, the more you are inviting people to think about the all-too-often not very pretty parenting choices they see in the real world. Savulescu’s arguments seem completely detached from that world, where it is a problem when parents try to go too far in molding their children into their ideal image. But then again, maybe in the UK there are no parents who are obnoxious at their children’s sporting events, no little-girl beauty pageants, no dance moms living through their daughters, no parental pressure for academic over-achievement. Maybe everybody in the UK raises children with only the most high-minded motivations and principles — or at least maybe those are the kids Savulescu meets at Oxford.

It could be argued that the kind of real-world parents I’m calling attention to are problematic to the extent that they fail to see the unhappiness they are creating in their children, and they would not create that unhappiness if their children were designed from the start to meet their expectations. Precisely at that point we reach the most frightening possibility, of course: parenting as unmediated narcissism, and child as consumer product. So what kind of warranty have you got on that baby?
Image via Emily Strempler

Monday, August 20, 2012

New from The New Atlantis

Also, in case you missed them, The New Atlantis has published a number of articles in recent issues that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Transhumanism Links from Friends of the Journal

Gentle reader, we’d like to share with you a few recent items of interest by contributors to The New Atlantis:

• Robert Zubrin on antihumanism and transhumanism (discussing his new book, Merchants of Despair, from New Atlantis Books)

Alan Jacobs on the hivemind Singularity: “What if the price exacted by the Singularity is the elimination of human individuality altogether, either voluntarily or, if you happen to have retained your individuality at the moment when the playful giants come through, involuntarily?”

• Rita Koganzon on egg donation and manufacturing children

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A World without Weakness

Aside from the opportunity to watch the ever-delightful Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man may not be one of the great superhero reboots. But it is an interesting movie nevertheless for what seems like some thoughtful consideration of transhumanist themes.

“A world without weakness” may not be the explicit motto of any transhumanist group, as it is of the villainous Oscorp and Dr. Curt Connors. But it certainly encapsulates as well as any four-word slogan could an essential transhumanist aspiration. Nature has created us with all kinds of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, transhumanists believe, and we would be far better off without them. Dr. Connors’s effort to achieve that goal may not make much scientific sense, but making better humans by using DNA from other animals reflects another not uncommon transhuman trope: think Catman and Lizardman and morphological freedom, or Hans Moravec’s interest in melding uploaded human minds with uploaded animal minds.

So it is noteworthy that these transhumanist aspirations ultimately combine to produce the movie’s dangerous monster. It is perhaps even more interesting that behind Oscorp stands a wealthy, shadowy figure who is using its ostensibly philanthropic program to create a world without weakness as a cover for a quest for personal immortality — just the sort of detail of real-world motivation that transhumanists tend to want to gloss over.

Of course, I may seem to be ignoring that Peter Parker is himself also a transhuman of sorts, and indeed that Connors is like him in at first using his powers in an attempt to prevent harm from coming to others. But the writers give us ample grounds on which to distinguish the two cases.

Peter’s life is just plain messy, full of conflicting inclinations and obligations. From what we see of it, Connors’s home is as sterile as his lab, and the backstory suggests a man who avoids emotional entanglements. Peter remains an all-too-human teenager after his transformation, struggling to try to understand what it means to do the right thing in the face of an unsought-for transformation that, like growing up itself, presents him with unanticipated problems and opportunities.

As he grows into an intelligent reptile, Connors, on the other hand, merely becomes clearer on the implications of the ideology that had driven his deliberate quest all along. His ostensibly compassionate desire to eliminate human weakness when he himself was missing an arm becomes contempt for human weakness when his serum “works.” Eliminating human weakness thus becomes eliminating weak human beings. This same contempt is rarely far below the surface of transhumanism, whose own charitable impulse is founded on avoiding entanglements with what human beings really are.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Game

If you read this blog you may well have already come across the wonderful short film “Sight.” But just in case not:

(hat tip: Ted Rubin)