November 1, 2002

November 2002

The Toronto Transhumanist Association released this press release on November 27, 2002:

Bush Bioethicist Thinks Canadians Should Die
Toronto Transhumanist Association opposes the life extension position of Leon Kass, chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, who will be speaking at the University of Toronto on December 2

Toronto, Ontario, November 25, 2002 -- Most people love healthy life and want to extend it for as long as possible. If the chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics had his way, however, all human life would come with a death sentence.

Dr. Leon Kass is a well-known conservative bioethicist. He has spoken out against affirmative action and complained about young women putting off childbirth to build careers. He has criticized the movement towards feminism, gay rights, divorce, single parenthood and premarital sex. He is opposed to abortion, therapeutic cloning and stem-cell research that offers hope for treating many debilitating conditions.

And on December 2, 2002 he’s coming to Toronto to push a conservative position on extending healthy lifespan in a talk called “Why Not Immortality,” which will be the Ninth Annual Alloway lecture of the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics.

In a previous talk called “L'Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” Dr. Kass made his position on life extension quite clear: “Biological considerations aside, simply to covet a prolonged life span for ourselves is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to procreation and to any higher purpose. It is probably no accident that it is a generation whose intelligentsia proclaim the death of God and the meaninglessness of life that embarks on life's indefinite prolongation and that seeks to cure the emptiness of life by extending it forever,” Kass said in that talk. “Confronted with the growing moral challenges posed by biomedical technology, let us resist the siren song of the conquest of aging and death.”

While Kass is entitled to his opinions, the Toronto Transhumanist Association is calling on journalists to take this opportunity to examine the issue of life extension and the dangers posed by Kass’s chairmanship of the US President’s Council on Bioethics. The TTA believes that life extension is a personal choice and that research into extending healthy lifespan should continue unencumbered by religiously influenced government policy.

“Nobody is denying that life extension poses challenges,” says TTA president Simon Smith. “But the goal should be to confront those challenges through an informed dialogue, not through the imposition of a conservative agenda. People listening to Kass’s talk should remember his position. He influences the direction of US government policy on aging- and health-related research, funding and legislation. The US in turn influences the world. If Kass thinks life extension is a bad idea, can we honestly expect that it won’t have major implications?”

What’s worse, while claiming to be a defender of human dignity, Kass has essentially declared that not all people are equal when it comes to the care they can come to expect. “Kass represents an affront to the rights of the eldery,” says TTA vice-president George Dvorsky. “The aging Baby Boomer population needs to take heed of this man and his stance against progressive health technologies, particularly as they apply to medical practices that can extend life and the treatment of suffering and aging itself. Kass is trying to convince all eldery people that they should complacently accept and deal with all aging-related diseases and simply shut up and die. As a result, he has not only revealed a discriminatory stance that targets the eldery and the kind of care they are legally entitled to, but he has also exposed his pro-death agenda.”

This RAND report from last year is a must read for Transhumanists and other future-oriented thinkers:
The Global Technology Revolution: Bio/Nano/Materials Trends and Their Synergies with Information Technology by 2015 (PDF)

Never before has the future been filled with such promise while fraught with such peril. But now isn’t the time to shy away from progress.

Added some new quotes: Ray Kurzweil, Peter Singer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Galileo Galilei & others.

The Skeptics Society calls him Darwin's Dangerous Disciple. Wired magazine calls him the Bad Boy of Evolution. And The New York Times has described his books as "the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius." He is Richard Dawkins, zoologist, ethologist and evolutionary biologist extraordinaire.
Born in 1941 in East Africa, Dawkins is best known for his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976). In this book he advances the case for a selfish entity -- the gene -- that "works" to preserve and propagate itself. Dawkins argued that the Darwinian theory of evolution via natural selection operates at the level of the gene and not at that of groups, species or even individuals. It is for this reason that Dawkins has been referred to as a neo-Darwinist.
Dawkins describes natural selection as the "nonrandom survival of randomly varying genetic instructions." Thus, it is a two-stage process: the production of random mutations in the genes of every new generation and the nonrandom effect of the environment on each individual gene, causing some to die, and others to survive to pass on their mutations.
Consequently, Dawkins introduced the powerful concept of the "replicator" as the unit of evolution and described it as follows: "The selfish-gene idea is the idea that the animal is a survival machine for its genes. The animal is a robot that has a brain, eyes, hands, and so on, but it also carries around its own blueprint, its own instructions. This is important, because if the animal gets eaten, if it dies, then the blueprint dies as well. The only genes that get through the generations are the ones that have managed to make their robots avoid getting eaten and succeed in living long enough to reproduce."
Dawkins's interest in how genes behave over time is the very definition of an evolution based on the flow of information. "It rapidly became clear to me that the most imaginative way of looking at evolution, and the most inspiring way of teaching it, was to say that it's all about the genes," he has said. "It's the genes that, for their own good, are manipulating the bodies they ride about in. The individual organism is a survival machine for its genes."
Extending evolutionary theory
Dawkins also wrote The Extended Phenotype (1982), in which he outlined concepts of the "genotype" (i.e. an egg gene), "phenotype" (i.e. a chicken) and "extended phenotype" (i.e. a chicken and its nest). He argued that to study the evolution of a bird without studying the evolution of its nest would be absurd. Each is necessary for the survival of the other. For humans, this means that our technological developments are literal extensions of ourselves, now as necessary for our evolution as we are essential to their evolution.
Dawkins also introduced the theory of memes -- by analogy with genes -- to describe a selfish, self-replicating idea, one that survives and evolves through generations. He conceived memetics not as a theory of human culture but "to make the point that what matters in any theory of Darwinism is self-replicating information." The human brain provides a new foundation for replication, but rather than genes it's replicating ideas. "You have in effect, a new primeval soup. Once you have got that new primeval soup, a new replicator could be the basis of a new Darwinism," he has said. Human evolution, Dawkins postulates, is a function of a co-evolution between genes and memes.
It would not be an understatement to suggest that Dawkins has done more to redefine the definition of life than anyone since Charles Darwin.
Meeting of biology and technology
Long fascinated by computers, Dawkins is also a proficient programmer, and has been around computers since the age of paper tape and influenced by their presence. "You would go to a computer room and you'd be smothered by paper tape and machines chuntering everywhere. You'd feel that you were in a room surrounded by all sorts of digital machinery -- translators, copiers, and so on," he has said. "And that is what a cell is like. A cell is a digital data-processing room filled with the equivalents of tapes and cards and bits and bytes floating around everywhere. At a poetic, metaphoric level, exposure to computers helps you to understand the world of DNA."
In fact, Dawkins has written computer programs in an attempt to simulate aspects of evolution. His Blind Watchmaker program is a model of artificial selection with randomly generated variation and a limited kind of embryology that generates forms in two dimensions.
Dawkins also refers to the "Son of Moore's Law," the convergence of rapidly accelerating developments in information technology with the genetic sciences. "If asked to summarize molecular genetics in a word, I would choose 'digital,'" he has said. He believes that by 2050, through the use of supercomputers, scientists will be able to read the language of DNA. Humans will be able to have their own personal genome projects -- they will have the complete text of their genes -- and doctors will be able to provide prescriptions catered to individual genomes. "I conjecture that an embryologist of 2050 will feed the genome of an unknown animal into a computer, and the computer will simulate an embryology that will culminate in a full rendering of the adult will be a way of signifying the completeness of our understanding," he has said.
Dawkins also suggests that it may someday be possible to reanimate an extinct ancestor of Homo sapiens, possibly an australopithecine. And he believes this would be a good thing. "I can see positive ethical benefits emerging from the experiment," he has said. "At present we get away with our flagrant speciesism because the evolutionary intermediates between us and chimpanzees are all extinct. In my contribution to The Great Ape Project, initiated by the distinguished Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, I pointed out that the accidental contingency of such extinction should be enough to destroy absolutist valuings of human life above all other life. 'Pro life,' for example, in debates on abortion or stem cell research, always means pro human life, for no sensibly articulated reason. The existence of a living, breathing Lucy in our midst would change, forever, our complacent human-centred view of morals and politics. Should Lucy pass for human? The absurdity of the question should be self-evident, as those South African courts trying to decide whether particular individuals should 'pass for white.' The reconstruction of a Lucy would be ethically vindicated by bringing such absurdity out into the open."
Anti-religious atheist
A devout atheist, Dawkins has done much to promote atheism and skepticism. In fact, his anti-religious sentiments sometimes overshadow his scientific contributions. He holds a passionate revulsion of what he calls fatuous religious prejudices, which he believes lead to evil. In particular, the Roman Catholic Church has attracted his ire. "It is one of the forces for evil in the world, mainly because of the powerful influence it has over the minds of children," he has said. "Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place."
Dawkins says that the universe is a difficult enough place to understand already without introducing additional mystical mysteriousness that's not actually there. "The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is," he has said. "The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited." Rather, says Dawkins, the universe is genuinely mysterious, grand, beautiful and awe inspiring. Through his work, he has certainly made it seem so.
Dawkins is currently the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science at Oxford University as well as a Fellow of New College.

The Wall Street Journal calls him the most prominent professor Australia has ever produced and the most influential ethicist alive today. Others have called him one of the most challenging philosophers in the world. Ethicist, animal-rights activist, philosopher, political scientist and Transhumanist, Peter Singer has garnered as much respect as he has condemnation. Yet, the controversy that surrounds him arises from his conviction in challenging long-established ways of thinking -- or ways of avoiding thinking.

He has put forth arguments on the permissibility of euthanizing certain disabled newborns, for example, and has proclaimed that significant advances in medical technology require us to think in new ways about how we should make critical medical decisions about life and death. Our increased medical powers mean that we can no longer run away from the question by pretending that we are 'allowing nature to take its course,'" he writes. "In a modern intensive care unit, it is doctors, not nature, who make the decisions."

Important works
Throughout his long career Singer has remained deeply committed to arguing for the reduction of suffering in the world, the ethical treatment of animals and the improvement of the environment for the benefit of all. The author of Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, Singer is widely credited with triggering the modern animal-rights movement. Through such works he has done much to promote personhood theory, the utilitarian-inspired belief that sentience matters, that all sentient beings should be treated humanely and that nonhuman animals should be protected by a charter of rights.

Singer has also published How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, in which he argues that people should give away all their wealth beyond what's required to live a simple life. He also reflects on what it means to live a good life, reviving the time-honoured idea that turning away from self-centredness and towards others' needs makes for a satisfying life. Singer is also known for Practical Ethics, one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and Rethinking Life and Death, which received the 1995 National Book Council's Banjo Award for nonfiction.

Transhumanist flavour
A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation, published in 2001, has a characteristically Transhumanist flavour. In this book, Singer argues that in today's world, many sociobiological constraints on human nature and politics have become irrelevant. He goes further by suggesting that ingrained human selfishness and hierarchy is what has prevented society from achieving proper egalitarian social reform. Singer envisions a Transhumanist future in which genetic and neurological sciences can be employed to identify and modify the aspects of human nature that cause conflict and competition. He also supports socially subsidized, but voluntary, genetic improvement, while rejecting coercive reproductive policies and eugenic pseudoscience.

James Hughes, secretary of the World Transhumanist Association, was recently asked to participate in the Future Humans workshop held in Seattle. The workshop was sponsored by the Foundation for the Future, an organization established by Walter Kistler, an inventor and aerospace entrepreneur. Hughes was asked to make a statement on the future of humanity for the next 1000 years:

"If we can keep from destroying ourselves, after one or two hundred years we will have conquered aging, disease and the worst forms of poverty. Work will be optional, we will be repairing Earth's shattered ecosystem, and will have begun settling Mars and Europa. We will control our brains and bodies. We will be able to edit our desires and memories, and change our gender painlessly. If renegade AIs take out your shuttle you'll be able to boot yourself off that morning's backup. So that will leave the next 800 years for the really interesting developments.

By the year 3000 the descendents of the human race will be colonizing a widening sphere of galactic space, inhabiting a wide variety of forms. The bulk of intelligence will have migrated from organic to nonorganic platforms, on molecular-scaled computing media. But there will also be an even wider variety of organic life, on Earth and in space, than exists today. One of the certain challenges for this galactic social ecology will be the same as today: how to build a cultural and political system where the powerful respect and help the weak, where all intelligent beings feel empathy for other beings no matter what differences exist in their bodies or minds. I imagine the biggest challenge to future empathy and equality will come from the difference between the inconceivably fast and vast capacities for thought and feeling of the non-organic personalities compared to the plodding and limited organic persons.

A more profound threat to our understanding of society will be the creation of collectivities beyond one body-one brain-one personality. Extremely rapid brain-to-brain communication and connection to the global web will make our current individuality seem horribly lonely. Some groups will choose to share memories, thoughts, feelings and even identity, while some powerful individuals will spread themselves out over multiple organic and robotic platforms. One person or hive mind may exist simultaneously in animal, human and robotic bodies. Will these Borgs get one vote or a million in the Solar Federation? And if we only give the Borg one vote will they insist on assimilating the rest of us?

Because of these conflicts and the need for collective action and defense, I think it is clear that we will still need government in the future. Ensuring that those governments preserve some degree of freedom, equality and solidarity will be one of the most important projects of the next millennium. In other words, death will be overcome by 3000, but not taxes." -- James Hughes

Added some new quotes -- Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Henry Sumner Maine, and more.

There are subsets to consciousness, such as our decision making skills that we base on our capacity to predict outcomes (another way of saying rational free will). However, I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as personal identity that is quantifiable in this context; it may be an emergent effect. The minute-by-minute sense we have that we are a coherent self that exists continuously over time may be a necessary illusion for survival and cognitive functionality.

For instance, if you had no memories and no capacity to project yourself into the future, you would most certainly have no sense of self; you'd just be a non self-reflexive agent processing your environment in real-time. Moreover, the notion of personal identity may be culturally instilled. Many of us, particularly those from religious backgrounds, were taught to accept vitalistic conceptions of self, that there is a 'soul' or some other component of self (spiritual or material) that exists over time (from birth to death).

Would I be acting unethically if I were starving and my only recourse for survival was to kill an animal? If the answer is yes, one must answer the question: why is my life more valuable than the animal's? Is it because I'm more sentient (would you kill rats that infested your house; what about a gorilla infestation, would you kill them?) Is it because I'm capable of doing more good and beneficial acts than the animal (I can perform more acts of kindness and make more persons happier than the bear can)?

How are we to act?
For me, acting unethically is the act of causing unjustifiable harm. Just because something is in one's best interest doesn't give one entitlement to harm others, especially if one defines 'best interest' as the attainment of a personal maximum fitness peak.

We should be able to strive for the attainment of a personal maximum fitness peak without harming others (this can include an individual or a consenting group like a society); live and let live. Harm involves the prevention of others from attaining their own personal maximum fitness peaks (killing, coercion, etc.) if they were doing no harm to you.

Thus, there will be 'ethical' limits to what can and can't be done. For example, is a deer cull justifiable if the intent is to prevent human deaths caused by deers wandering onto roads? The issue here is not that human life is more valuable than a deer's; instead, the argument is that there is a human right to traverse along a certain stretch of highway without a certain amount of existential risk involved. That, at least to me, seems somewhat unreasonable, given that a number of significantly highly sentient creatures will have to die for an issue that's not threatening life (unless the act of traversing that stretch of highway is somehow enabling that person to live – like an ambulance racing off to a hospital).

You are not acting unethically if you harm someone who is acting unethically against you (i.e. someone is harming you without proper justification). And here we get into trouble because of the subjectivity involved. What I consider to be harmful may not seem harmful to you.

What are human rights?
I'd rather refer to this as "natural rights" because it's less limiting and speciest. Essentially, the conviction that there are strong and inalienable moral entitlements, defenses, and protections or "protective norm." It's the acknowledgement that highly sentient beings don't require a particular capacity to have these rights (or by virtue of some particular transaction or relationship), just the endowment of sentience.

Are human rights negotiable?
I don't like the word `negotiable' in this context. Perhaps I'm being idealistic, but the development of natural rights should be arrived through rational and moral discourse.


As I become more knowledgeable and intelligent, and as I gain more rational comprehension and control over myself and my place in my environment, the more capable am I of becoming empathetic.

Homo sapiens have an advanced sense of self. What I mean by 'advanced' is that humans, as far as I know, are the only animals that are existential (i.e. we know we're going to die). Assuming this is the case, the only animals on this planet that my statement would apply to are humans (and pending posthumans). Thus, non-human animals like mice and eagles are excluded. They hunt out of sheer instinct and the need to survive. They have no way of altering the conditions such that they don't need to kill to survive. We do. Moreover, they haven't developed any advanced sense of altruism or compassion -- they don't really project themselves onto their prey, and they have no comprehension that they're harming other sentient creatures. I'm sure some primates have developed empathy skills, but certainly not to the degree that humans have. Moreover, our empathy skills are now being steadily enhanced by culture; as we learn more about how organisms work, the better we understand the harm we are doing to ourselves and other life-forms.

Our culture is intelligent. It has been under construction for the past 10,000+ years, and it is getting more and more refined.

For example, in the West we have very developed normative political, judicial, and social systems. These systems have been under constant reviews, revisions, and trial-and-error developments, and their current condition is the result of generations upon generations of work (somewhat Darwinian if you think about it). They are not random or chaotic systems, but rather, very specific systems designed quite well for specific purposes; and for better or worse, they are functional and intelligent systems that operate to maintain order and fairness. Thus, when we discuss human intelligence, it must be placed in context with the cultural intelligence that supplements it.

When a SI entity eventually comes into existence, be it posthuman or artificial, it will have access to (or be programmed to access) all human cultural intelligence, including our moral and ethical standards and expectations. The result could quite possibly be supermoral agents residing in a SI-cultural system.

The alternative is to suppose that the SI comes up with a malevolent 'solution' in a vacuum and consequently through pure logic.

So, I have a hard time believing that radically advanced superintelligence (SI) will stomp on us like we do ants. I don't buy the paranoid and apocalyptic arguments that are put forth by so many Transhumanists. If we, with our limited and unaugmented brains can develop an active axiological discipline and develop enforceable contractual-like arrangements between various agents -- regardless of their capacities -- then imagine what superintelligent-supermoral (SI-SM) entities will be capable of.

Where the danger resides in SI-AI, though, is the possibility of badly programmed AI, a runaway Singularity, or a transcending upload.

What kinds of changes can we expect the human species to undergo in the next 25 years? 100 years? Here are some ideas:
- Genetics - continual progress in the germ-line re-engineering/evolution of the human race including the elimination of all genetic diseases (probably around 2030); genetic augmentations (including intelligence, beauty, and physical attributes)
- Specieation of Homo sapiens, a la Darwin's finches
- Androgenization of some post humans
- Cyborgization of Homo sapiens - replacing failing components, adding prosthetics to enhance human performance, adding nanites and other technological innovations into our systems for monitoring and regulation and to supplement existing systems (e.g. white blood cell helpers), etc.
- Re-engineering Homo sapiens for adaptability to specific environments and environmental stressors, including harsh environments and space; miniaturization and de-noising of humans - making ourselves more efficient, more resilient, and less susceptible to unwanted biological/evolutionary vestiges; hyperminiaturization into nanite quantum computers.
- Abandonment of corporealness; uploading into supercomputers and living in unbound VR environments