The posthumanist (sometimes called transhumanist) views human dignity as a matter of seizing the opportunity to modify and enhance human nature in ways that include the deceleration or arresting of aging, genetic engineering, the bodily introduction of nanotechnology and cybernetics, reproductive cloning, and even the downloading of mind into immortalizing computers. The anti-posthumanist responds that human dignity lies chiefly in accepting the existing contours of human nature as a gift, and that biotechnological efforts to recreate human nature according to inevitably arrogant and short-sighted images of perfectability should be greeted with severe skepticism. The debate between posthumanists and their critics over the future of human nature is rhetorically sharp; any resolutions can emerge only from inclusive discourse, with significant consensus on specific technologies of human modification arrived at only in the full light of disparate ethical self-understandings of the meaning of humanness both secular and sacred (Habermas 2003).
Radical vs. Qualified Posthumanism
The posthumanist, it is argued, has the superficial enthusiasm of the adolescent convert to some new image of the human, yet has little or no insight into the human condition or the narrative of history. Rather than free humans of biological constraints in a misplaced effort to transcend humanness by technology, the anti-posthumanist urges, to quote Leon Kass's 1985 publication title, "a more natural science."
But many posthumanists are deeply reflective. The 1974 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Christian de Duve (2002), thoughtfully urges pursuing the goal of a superorganism as humans reshape life, and raises the question "After us, what?" De Duve warns against fearing the consequences of genetic engineering, or the seduction of a return to nature philosophy. De Duve contends that before even thinking of genetically modifying humans, society should focus on improving the chances of all its members to realize the potential they are born with (through suitable economic, social and family conditions). Fears should be focused on resource exhaustion and catastrophic epidemics. Nevertheless future generations will increasingly interfere with the human genome, he argues, and hopefully the decisions will not be left to a powerful bureaucracy, although a genetic supermarket using the individual choices of parents is not likely to exert more favorable effects on the gene pool.
Posthumanism as Technological Millennialism
Posthumanists embrace decelerated and even arrested aging, but only as part of a larger vision to re-engineer human nature, and thereby to create biologically and technologically superior human beings, as the narrative history of posthumanism by N. Katherine Hayles (1999) makes clear. Genetics, nanotechnology, cybernetics, and computer technologies are all part of the posthuman vision, including the downloading of synaptic connections in the brain to form a computerized human mind freed of mortal flesh, and thereby immortalized (Noble 1997). This last scenario of immortalized minds liberated from any biological substrate makes the biogerontological goal of prolongevity appear conservative.
Posthumanists do not believe that biology should in any sense be destiny, and seek a new sort of entity for whom human nature has been more or less overcome (Hook 2003). They urge humans to take human nature into their own re-creative hands as the next great step in evolution, achieving a post-modern morphological freedom. Their argument begins with the claim that, within the boundaries of technology, humans have always been reinventing themselves through applied technologies. Where should the lines be drawn? Besides as the Princeton University physicist Freeman Dyson writes, "the artificial improvement of human beings will come, one way or another, whether we like it or not," as scientific understanding increases, for such improvement has always been viewed as a "liberation from past constraints" (Dyson 1997, p. 76).
What is natural and what is unnatural, anyway? Homo sapiens long ago embarked on the human phase of evolution through technological prowess, and in the future lies nothing more monumental than increased novelty. At one time the very idea of human beings trying to fly was deemed heretical hubris in the light of eternity—sub specie aeternitatis. It would be a repetition of this error to argue that redesigning human nature runs afoul of the precautionary appeal to the complexities of evolution—sub specie evolutionis? Should people not set aside trepidation and with confidence rethink themselves in the light of human creativity? The postmodernists have paved the way by purportedly demonstrating that there is no essential aspect to human nature, and vive le difference. So it is that Gregory Stock (2002) introduces the idea of superbiology as human beings take full control of their own biology in turning toward perfection.
Technological Millennialism as Secularized Religion
David F. Noble (1997) has argued with some plausibility that the roots of this posthumanist project lie in Western European religion, and especially in the ninth century, when the useful arts came to be associated with the concept of human redemption. As a result, there exists a religion of technology that promotes the uncritical and irrational affirmation of unregulated technological advance. In essence technological advance is always deemed good. Noble hopes people can free themselves from the religion of technology, from which they seek deliverance, through learning to think and act rationally toward humane goals.
Millennialist religion is certainly relevant to the posthumanist vision. As Gerald J. Gruman has pointed out, the modern concern with enhancing longevity "stems from the decline since the Renaissance of faith in supernatural salvation from death; concern with the worth of individual identity and experience shifted from an otherworldly realm to the here and now, with intensification of earthly expectations" (Gruman 1966, p. 88).
With the transition to a this-worldly millennialist human horizon, a powerful current of thought emerged in which the goal of significantly extending the length of human life through biomedical science was affirmed. Gruman termed the concept prolongevity as "a subsidiary variant of meliorism, the belief that human effort should be applied to improving the world" (Gruman 1966, p. 89). Carl L. Becker, in his classic work, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), had similarly interpreted the great ideas of the Enlightenment and the merging goals of science as based on a secularization of the medieval idea of otherworldly salvation, resulting in an advance toward a heaven on earth.
Indeed, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a founder of the scientific method, in his millennialist and utopian essay "The New Atlantis" (1627), set in motion a biological mandate for boldness that included both the making of new species or chimeras, organ replacement, and the Water of Paradise that would allow the possibility to "indeed live very long" (Bacon 1996, p. 481). Three centuries before Francis Bacon, the English theologian Roger Bacon (c.1220–1292) argued that in the future the 900-year-long lives of the antediluvian patriarchs would be restored alchemically. Like many Western European religious thinkers, both Bacons saw death as the unnatural result of Adam's fall into sin. These dreams of embodied near-immortality could only emerge against a theological background that more or less endorses them. There are various other cultural and historical influences at work besides religion, but the initial conceptual context for a scientific assault on aging itself is a religious one (Barash 1983).
The modern goals of anti-aging research and technology, then, are historically emergent, at least in part, from a pre-modern religious drama of hope and salvation, Renaissance science transferred the task of achieving immortality from heaven to earth in the spirit of millennial hopes. The economy of salvation presented by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was replaced by the here and now. There is a vibrant millennialist enthusiasm in the responsible biogerontologists, who have proclaimed aging itself to be surmountable to degrees through human ingenuity.
The Anti-Posthumanist Appeal
For every utopian there is a dystopian. Should individuals, viewing their own prospects for deceleration of aging, pursue such anti-aging treatments when and if they actually become available? Perhaps yes, if this assures one that diseases for which old age is the overwhelmingly significant risk factor can be avoided. But there is an important school of thought that cautions against the development of treatments to slow aging.
Individuals, when confronted with the availability of deceleration, ought to reflect carefully about the choice at hand, raising every question of relevance to themselves and to humanity. One of the wiser minds of the last century, Hans Jonas (1903–1993), an intellectual inspiration for contemporary anti-posthumanists, articulated these questions quite thoroughly. He wrote in 1985 that "a practical hope is held out by certain advances in cell biology to prolong, perhaps indefinitely extend, the span of life by counteracting biochemical processes of aging" (Jonas 1985, p. 18). How desirable would this power to slow or arrest aging be for the individual and for the species? Do people want to tamper with the delicate biological "balance of death and procreation" (Jonas 1985, p. 18), and preempt the place of youth? Would the species gain or lose? Jonas, by merely raising these questions, meant to cast significant doubt on the anti-aging enterprise. "Perhaps," he wrote, "a nonnegotiable limit to our expected time is necessary for each of us as the incentive to number our days and make them count" (p. 19). Jonas's later essays raising many of these same questions were published posthumously in 1996.
Many of the these issues are echoed in the writings of Leon Kass. Kass for the most part accepts biotechnological progress within a therapeutic mode; his issue is chiefly with efforts to enhance and improve upon the givenness of human nature. He draws on the technological dystopians, such as Aldous Huxley, as well as on the writings of C. S. Lewis (1898–1963). An early anti-posthumanist, Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man (1944) to defend a natural law tradition: What is, is good, and people should live within their God-given limits. He cautioned against a world in which one class of enhanced human beings would dominate and oppress the other. One might ask, then, if those freed from the decline of aging would become the superior and elite humans, while those who age would be deemed inferior.
In a creative essay, "L'Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?" (2001) Kass argues against prolongevity in ways mostly raised by Jonas. He asserts, for example, that the gradual descent into aged frailty weans people from attachment to life and renders death more acceptable. He contends that numbered days encourage a creative depth in human nature—a depth that escaped so many of the immortal Greek gods and goddesses, whose often debauched and purposeless behavior made Plato wish to ban them from the ideal Republic. In addition, says Kass, a preoccupation with the continuance of life is a distraction from that which is best for the human soul. Finally Kass writes that in a world transformed by anti-aging research, youth will be displaced rather than elevated, and the parental investment in the young will give way to my perpetuation; and that in such a new world people will grow bored and tired of life, having been there and done that. These assertions are all thoughtful, creative, and appropriately cautionary, because the implications of slowing or arresting aging itself are obviously monumental and mixed. Responsibility to future generations precludes clinging to youthfulness. There is wisdom in simply accepting the fact that humans evolved for reproductive success rather than for long-lived lives Without such wisdom will people lose sight of their deepest creative motives? Possibly.
Another leading anti-posthumanist, Francis Fukuyama challenges those who would march society into a posthuman future, characterized by cybernetics, nanotechnology, genetic enhancement, reproductive cloning, life span extension, and new forms of behavior control. Undoubtedly the ambitions of posthumanists to create a new posthuman who is no longer human are arrogant, pretentious, and lacking in fundamental appreciation for natural human dignity. Fukuyama is also drawn to the dystopian genre and sees much more bad than good in efforts to significantly modify human nature. He argues powerfully that the anti-aging technologies of the future will disrupt all the delicate demographic balances between the young and the old, and exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The concerns raised by political scientists such as Fukuyama are ones that the individual decision maker ought certainly to have in mind.
The anti-posthumanists often appeal to nature and character as morally valuable categories. They understand the proper human attitude toward evolved nature as one of humility, awe, and appreciation. Clearly the emerging technological power to control nature does not always constitute progress. The anti-posthumanist exhorts us to work with human nature to get the best out of it, rather than to seek cavalier domination in an effort to recreate what is already good. Better to accept natural limits, or so, anyway, is the spirit of anti-posthumanism. The perfectibility of humankind lies not in modifying the human vessel, but in developing the treasures within, such as compassion, virtue, and dignity.
In summary the natural law traditions represented by anti-posthumanists exhort people to live more or less according to nature, and warn that efforts to depart from that will result in new evils more perilous than the old ones. How can society presume that the brave new world will be a better world? Should not the burden of proof be on the proponents of radical change? What right have people in the early 2000s to impose their own arbitrary images of human enhancement on future generations?
Posthumanist beliefs in the inevitability and desirability of transforming human nature see human beings as essentially technological beings who now have the opportunity to redirect the technological powers that they have been exercising on the nonhuman world onto human nature itself. Just as humans have made the world better through technological mastery, so will they be able to do with human nature, in the first instance by prolonging human life as it currently exists but then ultimately by transforming human life. Such a posthumanist future is the natural outcome of all previous human history and the specific form that a respect for human dignity takes in the twenty-first century.
By contrast, anti-posthumanists suggest that the proper human attitude toward evolved nature is one of humility, awe, and appreciation. Just as past technological manipulations of nonhuman nature have not always been beneficial, so the emerging technological power to control human nature does not always constitute progress.
STEPHEN G. POST
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