More or less human?


Humans have been using technology to artificially enhance their bodies for a very long time. Spectacles, hearing aids, false teeth, wooden legs – when our distant ancestor first used a tree branch to lean on as she walked with an injured leg, she was taking the first (painful) steps towards transhumanism.

So what is transhumanism?   Mark O’Connell, in his book To Be A Machine, writes that it is the “belief that we can and should eradicate ageing as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.”

Of course, the technology that we have used in the past to augment our bodies has been pretty low-tech: false teeth and hearing aids are certainly useful and have caused us to merge with machines up to a point; but it is the scientific advances of tomorrow and next week that have the potential to remake us into something more than human.

And this brings philosophical and ethical challenges.  Soon athletes in some events such as the 100 meter sprint who run on carbon fibre blades will be faster than those who run on legs.  So what should a surgeon  when approached by a prospective patient who wants him to amputate her perfectly good legs and fit her with the latest blades so she can compete at the top levels of her sport?

Many surgeons would refuse to be involved in such a procedure.  But there are also many health professionals who would be more sympathetic to the idea of exchanging inferior body parts with artificial replacements that could make the patient perform better, or live longer.  Cyberneticist Kevin Warwick is such a man.  He has had a number of  implants: one let him experience ultrasonic waves, which he likens to a “bat sense”. At another time:

“I interfaced my nervous system with my computer so that I could control a robot hand and experience what it was touching. I did that when I was in New York, but the hand was in a lab in England.”

And he is far from alone in his enthusiasm. The idea of transhumanism has sprung onto the stage of public attention recently.  It’s been featured in a number of recent blockbuster Hollywood movies, including Transcendence, Lucy and Her.  The Facebook group Singularity Network, one of the largest of hundreds of transhumanist-themed groups on the web, as seen its membership grow from 400 to over 10,000 in 3 years.  And that is just one of hundreds of transhumanist-themed groups on the web.


cartoon by scott adams – cheers scott!!

Of course there are plenty of opponents to this creeping transhumanism.  “Blogman – Blacksmith of Truth” is one such naysayer.  In he blogs against what he calls the “transhumanist agenda.”  He does not want to have his body altered or invaded by swarms of nanobots, and he doesn’t want other people to go through such procedures either, as he believes transhumans will either imprison “normal” humans on an island or force them to assimilate like the Borg.

It’s true that transhumanists want to convert as many non-believers as possible.  They want to convince the public that embracing the radical science is in the human species’ best interest.  In a religious world where most of society still believes in heavenly afterlives, some people are doubtful if significantly extending human lifespans is philosophically and morally correct. Transhumanists believe the more people that support transhumanism, the more private and government resources will end up in the hands of organizations and companies that aim to improve peoples’ lives and bring mere human mortality to an end.  But some conspiracy theorists would have it that transhumanists are intent on dragging everyone away from their humanity, by any means possible.

Conspiracy nut and talk radio presenter Alex Jones is one such human.  In “Transhumanism: The New Dark Age,” he sets out his stall.  Ray Kurzweil, maybe the best-known long-time transhumanist, has been trying to achieve technological immortality for years.  In this, and in Kurzweil’s popularity among celebrities and executives, he sees proof of a transhumanist elite intent on enslaving human-kind.

“It’s all global government—accept nanotech. Accept wirehead. Accept interfaces, everything’s fine. All of our modern technologies—created by eugenicists. Or farmed out by scientists owned by scientists owned by eugenicists robber barons. The entire society, the whole technotronic plan; robotics, future not needing us, phasing out humanity, all of this, a hellish future, while they’ve been poisoning us and dumbing us down, so we can’t resist their takeover, and then saying we deserve it because all we want to do is watch Dancing with the Stars.

His ranting sometimes suggests lunacy.  But he is popular, so he wields much influence.  And he is not alone in believing in a transhumanist conspiracy.


When does the cyborg become a machine? pic dc comics

Some of the conspiracy theorists’ fears do raise interesting – possibly important – questions.  If people become cyborgs, replacing limbs and organs with mechanical parts and implants, at what point do they become machines rather than human?  If they have their diseased hearts and kidneys and other organs replaced with ones grown in rats, when does their humanity succumb to rat-ness?  If a man uploads his mind and consciousness into a computer, and has his useless body destroyed, is he still a human?  When no physical trace of him remains, can he still claim any humanity, never mind transhumanity.  Rather than a glorious transhuman status, do they instead become low creatures and kitchen appliances and sundry pieces of equipment?


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