May 27, 2004

Transhumanism in Free Inquiry Magazine

Austin Dacey has published an article in Free Inquiry Magazine titled "The New Perfectionism." The June/July 2004 issue has a cyborgesque figure on the cover and reads: "Updating Humanity: Is Man Obsolete?"

Dacey briefly characterizes transhumanism as a fairly homogenous philosophy and makes a number of sweeping generalizations about the movement -- claiming in fact that its weakness resides in the fact that it is a movement. Interestingly, Dacey lists Betterhumans among the major players in transhumanism today, the other groups being Extropy and the World Transhumanist Association:
One obstacle to discussion is that transhumanism is not just a philosophy; it is also a grassroots movement. The movement, which has gathered force in the last ten years and coalesced around organizations like the Extropy Institute, the online magazine BetterHumans, and the World Transhumanist Association, is a motley crew of serious academics, journalists, and scientists, cyber self-help gurus, nanotech venture capitalists, polyamorists and gender-benders, cryonics freaks, and artificial intelligence geeks.

Freaks? Geeks? Whatever, Austin.

While somewhat sympathetic to transhumanist goals and perspectives, Dacey is clearly uncomfortable with some of the more extreme or unconventional cultural aspects of the movement -- Extropy in particular and its libertarian and Randian flavorings:
Like other iconoclastic movements, organized transhumanism attracts its share of sheer goofiness. The co-founder of Extropy Institute, a Southern California body-builder and Ayn Randian named Max, had his last name changed from ’Conner to More, because “I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier.” The co-mingling of serious theory and policy consideration with a grab bag of techno-utopian projects makes for easy targets for the biocons, diverting the debate from core substantive issues.

Additionally, the prominence of organized transhumanism in the debate reinforces the illusion of an all-or-nothing choice between the bio-Luddites and the Borg. Grand Zarathustran dreams of becoming posthuman may leave you cold, though you might nonetheless favor some of the specific developments being proposed. You might be for life extension and gene therapy while being indifferent to whether nanotechnology will ever materialize and opposed to colonizing Mars. Unfortunately, this moderate, piecemeal approach is seldom represented by the ideological camps now squaring off.

And in tune with what I've been saying for some time now, most humanists should have no trouble with transhumanist ideals. In fact, a case can be made that traditional humanism runs the risk obsolescence (and even orthodoxy) should it ignore the changing landscape of technological capabilities and its relation to the human condition. Dacey and other humanists are catching on to humanism 2.0.

Dacey closes by offering a challenge to transhumanist thinkers:
Understood as the body of intellectual and moral ideas that united Renaissance classicists, Enlightenment rationalists, and twentieth-century scientific naturalists, Western humanism was a great and necessary thing. But its moment may have passed, if only because its anthropocentrism accords too little concern to nonhuman animals and too much to human non-persons. The moment may be right for a posthumanist philosophy, if it can be articulated and ethically defended by enough clever and resourceful—you guessed it—human beings.

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