March 31, 2006

The end of livestock

The science of tissue engineering and the development of in vitro meat may one day, hopefully, result in the end of livestock.

And with it, the end of unnecessary cruelty to non-human animals, a decrease in the frequency of animal-to-human borne diseases (which is like, all of them), the alleviation of environmental degradation caused by animal farming, and an end to unhealthy, unclean, hormone-ridden and antibiotic laden meat.

Humans eat 240 billion kilograms of meat every year. Imagine how many animals that represents. Now imagine each of those lifetimes as they are individually experienced: caged, crammed, frightened, diseased, poked, prodded, neurotic, psychotic, and all followed by slaughter. Don’t think so? Read this, this, this, this, and this. And then watch this.

Then there’s all the cropland, water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy required to produce animals for the killing floor. And what about the millions of tonnes of manure and other waste produced every year in North America?

As Jared Diamond noted in Guns, Germs, and Steel, humans have been consistently traumatized by the continual spread of diseases, which in virtually every case has been spawned by human-to-animal contact (predominantly the result of maintaining livestock). Current health and pandemic risks such as mad cow and avian flu are all heightened as a consequence of animal farming.

Moreover, with the introduction of in vitro foods, in vitro meat products would be far healthier than the real thing. Cultivated meats would be engineered to be healthier and cleaner.

In vitro meat is still meat in every sense of the term. According to Wikipedia, the process is as follows:
Meat essentially consists of animal muscle. There are loosely two approaches for production of in vitro meat; loose muscle cells and structured muscle, the latter one being vastly more challenging than the former. Muscles consist of muscle fibers, long cells with multiple nuclei. They don't proliferate by themselves, but arise when precursor cells fuse. Precursor cells can be embryonic stem cells or satellite cells, specialized stem cells in muscle tissue. Theoretically, they can relatively simple be cultured in a bioreactor and then later made to fuse. For the growth of real muscle however, the cells should grow "on the spot", which requires a perfusion system akin to a blood supply to deliver nutrients and oxygen close to the growing cells, as well as remove the waste products. In addition other cell types need to be grown like adipocytes, and chemical messengers should provide clues to the growing tissue about the structure. Lastly, muscle tissue needs to be trained to properly develop.
In vitro meat, referred to by some as laboratory-grown meat, is animal flesh that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

According to a recent Globe and Mail article, scientists can grow frog and mouse meat in the lab, and are now working on pork, beef and chicken. Their goal is to develop an industrial version of the process in five years. It will be at that point that we can say a viable threat exists to the ongoing presence of animal farming. And at the very least it will certainly make the presence of livestock that much less justifiable.

That being said, it will be a struggle to convince people to eat synthetic meat over the real thing. Most people who have ethical issues with eating meat are already vegetarians--so devout meat eaters aren’t really listening. And it’s doubtful that die-hards will give up their tried-and-true meat over an artificial and likely inferior-tasting product.

Perhaps it’ll take the death of millions and millions of people from avian flu for people to start questioning meat eating culture.

One last thought: if there are any arguments from anybody that in vitro meat is still somehow unethical or demeaning to an animal, they seriously need to rethink things. A chunk of tissue grown in a petri dish is as far removed from an existential, emotional, and conscious creature as is a rock.

That being said, I can already hear the howls of outrage...

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March 30, 2006

Toronto Transhumanist Association events for April

The Toronto Transhumanist Association is pleased to announce a pair of upcoming events.

First, on Thursday April 6 at 7:00 PM, Allan Randall will introduce us to the fascinating world of cryonics and cryonicists. Mr Randall is the current Secretary and Director for the Cryonics Society of Canada.

Mr Randall is also a teacher and graduate student in philosophy, mathematics and quantum mechanics at York University. He has a BSc in mathematics and an Msc in Computing. Mr Randall has worked on AI research at NTT Systems for the Canadian Department of National Defence.

Allan Randall's talk will be held at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, 40 St. George Street, Room 1200 (see BA on the map at

Second, on Thursday April 20 at 7:00 PM, Mark Walker Ph.D. will be presenting a talk on the ethics and merits of radical life extension. The talk will be based on his recent paper, “Universal Superlongevity: Is It Inevitable And Is It Good?

Dr Walker is a research associate in philosophy at Trinity College, University of Toronto. He is founder and president of Permanent End International, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending hunger, illiteracy and environmental degradation. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Evolution and Technology and served on the Board of Directors of the World Transhumanist Association from 2002 to 2006. He is currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Mark Walker's talk will also be held at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, 40 St. George Street, Room 1200 (see BA on the map at

I hope to see you all there!

George Dvorsky
President, Toronto Transhumanist Association

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I, Telepath: Inching towards 'techlepathy'

Forbes Magazine is reporting on the ongoing work that Chuck Jorgensen is doing in developing subvocal speech for NASA.

Chuck Jorgensen is a NASA scientist whose team has begun to digitize subvocal speech using nerve signals in the throat that control speech. Jorgensen's team discovered that small, button-sized sensors, stuck under the chin and on either side of the 'Adam's apple,' could gather nerve signals, and send them to a processor and then to a computer program that translates them into words.

It's thought that this technology will initially help astronauts working in space, Navy Seals working underwater, emergency workers charging into loud, harsh environments, fighter pilots, and so forth. More practically, one can imagine this technology taking a considerable role in defining the next generation of cell phone and Internet communications.

The team's next goal is to see how much of a speech system can be generated. They are in the equivalent of the early stages of auditory speech recognition, where there is only one speaker and individual words. Ultimately, the team wants to have multiple speakers and continuous speech. They're also working on capacitive sensors which are sensors that don't touch the body and are embedded into clothing or other wearable device.

Jorgensen's work is an obvious precursor to technologically enabled telepathy, or techlepathy as I've referred to it. It's conceivable that someday the neural signals sent to the vocal chords to instigate speech will be re-routed and converted to a signal that can be received directly by another individual's neural audio receptors. The result will be virtual subvocal telepathy.

This won't be true telepathy in the classic sense, however, as it is language that's been conveyed rather than subjective conscious experience.

But one hurdle at a time....

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March 29, 2006

Some scientists say SENS not up to snuff

The BBC is reporting on how twenty-eight scientists working in gerontology have submitted a rebuttal to a paper published by Dr Aubrey de Grey in the journal EMBO Reports last year.

The rebuttal is not so much a technical account of the apparent failings of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) as it is a blanket discrediting of Aubrey de Grey and his methodology. Essentially, the 28 scientists are refusing to acknowledge de Grey's work on account of the supposed far flung and futuristic nature of the requisite technologies and medical interventions called for in de Grey's strategy.

An excerpt from the scientists' statement reads, "Each one of the specific proposals that comprises the SENS agenda is, at our present state of ignorance, extremely optimistic...A research programme based around the SENS agenda... is so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all from within the scientific community."

Dr Richard Miller in particular has some harsh things to say about de Grey's research. "I was amazed that we found no-one who refused on the grounds that they agreed with Aubrey; a couple of people said they didn't want to sign anything about his work because they didn't want to draw attention to it," he says, "We got 28 people who astonishingly were willing to say in public that they had evaluated the science and had found it to be worthless." Miller is the associate director of the Geriatric Centre at the University of Michigan.

Interestingly, Miller and others have refrained from entering a submission to Technology Review's SENS Challenge for fear that it would only be "feeding the fire." Needless to say, de Grey is frustrated that opposition exists to SENS, but few, if any, are willing to explain exactly why they object to his theories. In regards to the SENS Challenge, de Grey recently noted, "I essentially felt that it was critical for me to smoke out the opposition...I had to move things along to an on-the-record opposition so that people would be forced not simply to say what they thought of these ideas, but why."

The SENS challenge offers an award of US$20,000 to anyone who can demonstrate that SENS is wrong and unworthy of learned debate. To date, no one has claimed the award.

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The EU's ENHANCE Project

ENHANCE is a specific targeted research project put together by the EU that examines the ethics of human enhancement within cognitive enhancement, life extension, mood enhancement, and physical performance. The goal of the project is to reach a deeper understanding of the ethical and philosophical issues of the use of these technologies beyond the purpose of therapy.

Transhumanist philosopher and neuroscientist Anders Sandberg is participating in the cognitive enhancement project. And Nick Bostrom's Future of Humanity Institute has the 'ethics in cognitive enhancement' special assignment.

This project is being funded by the European commission's Sixth Framework programme, "Deepening Understanding in Ethical Issues." The study is in anticipation of biotechnologies that will have the potential of being applied to "make people think better, feel happier or even to improve their physical skills in sports or to extend the life-span." From the website:
The ENHANCE project investigates the latest development within research on biology, biogerontology and neuroscience in order to reach a deeper understanding of the ethical and philosophical consequences when moving from ‘therapy’ perspective towards the one of ‘enhancement’.
The main objectives are to document current and imminent scientific advances that may enhance human capacities in cognition, mood, physical performance (in sport) and aging, to evaluate these advances from a philosophical, ethical and social perspective, to facilitate policy-making to the emerging dual-use technologies, and to promote public understanding of dual-use technologies and the ethical debate.

I'm amazed that the EU is this far ahead in the discussion. Europeans have shown considerable distaste up to this point in time with anything having to do with human genetics and issues of enhancement. Here in North America, the only governmental group I see this in tune with humanity's future is the National Science Foundation. Specifically, I'm thinking about their NBIC report from a few years back, the effects of which are still being felt. As for Canada, these issues aren't even close to the policy issues map.

Best of luck to Anders, Nick, and all those involved in the ENHANCE project.

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March 27, 2006

Goin' to California

Looks like I'm goin' to Stanford University for the IEET's conference on Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights. The conference will run from May 26 to May 28.

I will also be presenting. I'll be on the "From Human Rights to the Rights of Persons" panel along with Jeff Medina and Martine Rothblatt. Martine also happens to be on the IEET's Board of Advisors. I'll be speaking on Saturday May 27 from 4:15 to 5:30.

So, now I've got to put together a talk related to personhood ethics. This is one of my favourite issues, so I should do alright. The trick will be to say something interesting and new, and to tie it into the theme of the conference.

I'll likely bring a laptop and digital camera to the event so that I can blog it as close to real time as possible. That should prove to be an interesting experience.

March 26, 2006

Lynn Margulis's talk at UWO

This past Saturday I attended a talk by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis at the University of Western Ontario (my alma mater).

Margulis is known for her work developing symbiogenesis theory -- the idea that organisms come about primarily through the merger of individual and separate organisms.

The talk was attended by about 150 people, mostly profs and grad students. Margulis arrived a little late and looked a bit frazzled from her hectic schedule. She was a bit hoarse and under the weather, but was openly pleased to see a standing room only audience on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Her presentation was done primarily through PowerPoint, and a number of her videos were accompanied by music; you could tell that some in the audience felt her presentation to be a tad on the "pop-science" side. It was certainly not technical enough for this particular audience, and meant more for undergrads (which was fine by me because I was able to follow most of it). Margulis was also guilty of incessant name dropping, a habit that grew quite tiresome after some time. Some people took early opportunites to leave -- individuals who were probably hoping for something more advanced and informative.

That being said, her presentation did result in some ooohs and aaaahs from the audience, including videos of photosynthetic worms and an equisitely camouflaged octopus.

Margulis, who was significantly influenced by 20th century Russian biologists like Konstantin Mereschkowsky, fleshed out her theory in her 1981 work, In Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species. In this paper, Margulis argued that symbiogenesis is a primary force in evolution. According to her theory, acquisition and accumulation of random mutations are not sufficient to explain how inherited variations occur. Instead, new organelles, bodies, organs, and species arise from symbiogenesis.

Margulis is also a pioneer in gaia theory. Along with James Lovelock, Margulis has helped to popularize the concept and give it its modern form. Symbiogenesis theory clearly works well within gaianism, as it stresses the need to look at interactions of populations of organisms at given periods of time. During her talk, Margulis stressed the fact that individuals don't evolve but populations do. Her only qualms with Darwinism was that she believes the diversity of life arose not through competition but through organisms networking with each other.

Recent work on the human genome project has certainly added credence to Margulis's claim. During the talk, Dr. Shiva Singh noted that upwards of 41% of the human genome is comprised of viral DNA. Margulis also noted that the human body is not one singular organism. Rather, like the Earth's ecosystem, the human body is a community of life. We have bacteria in our gut and critters on our skin. Without them, we couldn't survive. She noted the case of one individual who lacked the ability to maintain such a balance, and it cost extreme sums of money to keep the person alive before he eventually died.

During her career Margulis has had to consistently defend her ideas against the established brands of evolutionary biology, particularly the likes of Richard Dawkins and other neo-Darwinists. Margulis has also had to work particularly hard as a woman in a field largely dominated by men. She noted how at one time a physicist snidely remarked that her theory of symbiogenesis was something to be expected from a female biologist who would naturally accept processes of co-operation rather than competition.

But during her talk, Margulis dismissed the efficacy of using such terms as co-operation and competition when describing the processes of evolution. "They belong in an economics class or on the basketball court," she said. The actual processes at work, she argued, are far too complex to reduce to such simple "cultural" phrases.

Disappointingly, Margulis's argument was quite weak in regards to explaining the actual mechanisms behind symbiogenesis and the encoding of such information at the genetic level. Nor did she offer much in the way of explaining how these relationships arise amongst populations of organisms so that they become common traits of particular species.

But Margulis certainly got me thinking about the dangers of reductionism and over-specialization when studying the processes of evolution. There are a multitude of mechanisms at work at all levels in the linear and inter-species cycles of evolution and the rise of individual species.

Natural selection, competition, co-operation, parasitism, mutualism, population genetics, fitness peaks, puntuated equilibrium, symbiogenesis, gaia -- it's all good.

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Brights Generate More Heat than Light

Aiming to legitimize and popularize atheism, the brights offer little for living or relating to others and are already guilty of tribalism characteristic of their religious rivals

By George Dvorsky, October 13, 2003

Björk is one. John Malkovich, Noam Chomsky, Angelina Jolie and Annika Sörenstam are too. So are Eddie Vedder, Jack Nicholson, Howard Stern, Linus Torvalds and Camille Paglia.

Atheists. Dirty, godless atheists, every last one of them. And there are many more. So many more. Worse, many of them are actually open about their atheism—even proud of it. How could this have happened?

For the sarcasm impaired: I'm being facetious. But let's face it, the word "atheism" is still fairly risqué for most social contexts, and is a downright profanity in some circles. I can certainly relate. Although currently agnostic, I recently went through a phase of being a born-again atheist. But I was a regular church-goer and there was a time when I couldn't bring myself to even say the word.

Indeed, for many the term carries considerable spiritually and socially negative connotations. It's for this reason that a number of atheists have recently come out in favor of the term "bright" instead—a bright being an atheist, agnostic or, more simply, a person with a naturalistic worldview.

The hope is that the more positive label will take off and permanently usurp the word "atheist." Moreover, a key goal of the brights movement is to bring together atheists and agnostics to form a culturally distinct and influential demographic—one that could pose a legitimate political and cultural challenge to currently overwhelming religious influences, particularly those of the religious right in the US.

At first glance this seems like a good idea. For those with sympathetic philosophical and political persuasions it is certainly seductive. In fact, when I initially decided to write on this topic, I was going to write in favor of the idea. As I learned more and thought deeper about it, however, I became quite torn about the whole thing, and I still am. But ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it's a rather empty idea, and one filled with all the old traps.

Aside from the superiority and elitism that the term "bright" evokes, the brights represent yet another unnecessary manifestation of tribalism. They have positioned themselves in a dichotomous and defensive relationship with their rivals, forcing each camp to further stratify and polarize.

And as for the brights themselves, while they claim intellectual superiority over their religious and supernaturally minded opponents—legitimately or otherwise—they are conspicuously quiet on the nuts-and-bolts issues of how to live and relate to others, and how to deal with the overwhelming totality of existence. Atheism for the sake of atheism is a rather empty and unfulfilling modus operandi, and the brights, should they hope to stand the test of time, must realize this and seek to become more than what they initially appear to be.

Introducing the brights

A number of atheists have recently decided to come out of the closet. This metaphor is hardly accidental; as with gays before them, atheists aim to engage in some memetic engineering.

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, gays were pretty much referred to in the pejorative. Labels such as homosexual, queer or fairy were hardly flattering, leading some gay activists to conclude that a new, uplifting and positive term was needed to replace the old labels. Thus, the word "gay" was co-opted, and the rest is history.

Inspired by this, two Californians, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, recently coined the term "bright" to refer to atheists and agnostics. The word was carefully chosen (whether Geisert and Futrell will admit it or not) as one that could perform double duty as both a noun and an adjective. "Bright" evokes images of cleverness and intelligence. And, of course, those who are not bright are, well, you get the picture.

This past summer, efforts to propagate the new meme got a huge boost from two famous and outspoken atheists, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and consciousness theorist Daniel Dennett—Dawkins writing "The Future Looks Bright" for the Guardian and Dennett writing "The Bright Stuff" for The New York Times.

Dennett explains that "a bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny—or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic—and life after death."

Brights, proclaims Dennett, are all around us. They are "doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards and men and women serving in the military. We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority."

What atheists "want most of all," Dennett says, is "to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less."

Since the Dawkins and Dennett articles, the official brights Website has experienced considerable volume and a slew of new member signups. Articles both in support and in condemnation of the new term have littered the media. The meme appears to be taking off, prompting critics such as the Southern Baptist Albert Mohler to comment, "This is, no pun avoidable, a diabolically brilliant public relations strategy."

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

Don Hirschberg once said, "Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color." Unfortunately, too many atheists have lost sight of the meaning of Hirschberg's insight.

Dennett's claim that brights just want to be treated with the same respect accorded to other religious groups is as disingenuous as it is revealing. Dennett, after all, has made a career arguing for the cultural health of the meme pool, one in which supernatural beliefs are segregated or eliminated altogether. I question the sincerity of this newfound tolerance, as it would seem that the raison d'être of the brights is to legitimize atheism so that it can be a cultural and political force to rival theistic influences.

Moreover, the bright strategy smacks of quasi-religious overtones. The fact that Dennett would compare the brights to Baptists, Hindus and Catholics exposes the true nature of the movement. It would seem that the brights are trying to defeat the enemy at its own game. By creating a distinctive club with specific metaphysical convictions, the brights have essentially created their own religion, and that is unfortunate. It is for this exact reason that I have rejected atheism in favor of agnosticism; both theists and atheists are profoundly guilty of taking monumental and irrational leaps of faith.

Orson Welles was once quoted as saying, "I have a great love and respect for religion, great love and respect for atheism. What I hate is agnosticism, people who do not choose." This is utter nonsense, and utterly dangerous. It is this mentality that has caused so much suffering and fanaticism in the name of religion, and it is the same mentality that compels people to think that they must choose one or the other, lest they be labeled a fence sitter or as lacking convictions.

As far as I'm concerned, the skeptical and responsible thinker, when it comes to making grand proclamations about the true nature of the universe and existence, will at best posit a series of hypotheses and declare that one cannot know given limited amounts of data. As Clarence Darrow said during the Scopes trial, "I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure—that is all that agnosticism means." Now that's what I call being bright.

As a result, there is a part of me that resents the brights including agnostics amongst their flock. I consider agnosticism to be in a different category altogether from atheism and theism.

Atheist evangelism

Atheist activism—or evangelism, depending on your taste—has a time and a place. Without question, the struggle against pseudoscience, misinformation and psychologically damaging worldviews is an important and noble cause, as is the struggle against religious impositions. Ellen Johnson's leadership of American Atheists has had important results in the US; they have been instrumental in several rulings against Alabama judge Roy Moore and they have crusaded successfully against many faith-based initiatives.

But I've learned from friend, outspoken atheist and Gravity Lens blogger Jeff Patterson that there is a general reactionary undercurrent among many atheists today, one that has manifested itself in the belief that the primary role of an atheist is to be an activist.

Patterson, who attended last year's American Atheist convention in Boston, observed that far too many attendees were discussing the "conversions" of their friends, the relative success of their letter-to-the-editor or the next protest that they were attending. "What was absent," says Patterson, "was any talk of what was going on in their lives, what was making them happy. What was missing from the convention itself was any program content about Life as an Atheist. No celebration of the guilt-free flavor of happiness that one can achieve with a godless worldview." Ultimately, the event reminded Patterson of an unsuccessful Star Trek convention. "A few hundred folks in a poorly lit hotel talking almost exclusively about how much better they were than everyone else," he says. "I left there mildly depressed and thoroughly uninspired."

At its outset the bright movement showed promise as an antidote to the rather stoic joylessness that seemed prevalent on the surface of atheism. The concept of defining one's self by a positive instead of an omission was philosophically sound. The high profile faces of the brights embraced an ebullience rarely seen in the atheist movement—with exceptions such as Carl Sagan, Penn Jillette and George Carlin (who once quipped, "atheism is a non-prophet organization").

Patterson's problem with the brights "is that they are falling into the same sinkhole as the folks at the atheist convention. They espouse a wonderful path to happiness, but when it's time to actually walk the path they simply point and say, 'there y'go, have a nice trip.'"

More to life than disbelief

What the bright movement needs, argues Patterson, is an affirmation that the dismissal of long-irrelevant superstitions and guilt-driven moral codes is a requirement for true happiness, that living with a sincere and well-deserved smile on your face cannot be accomplished through systems of penance and damnation and that concepts such as original sin and sacrificing for the sake of virtue have no place in the mind of an intelligent being.

"More than that," he says, "happiness is what fuels productivity, imagination, creativity and morality. Happiness is at the core of our sense of good, in our love and in our desire to think. It drives us to perform great acts. It defines our taste in art. It encourages camaraderie. It defines, for lack of a better word, our soul."

Indeed, the organized atheist movement, with its letter-writing and hand-wringing, has lost sight of this. Patterson fears that the brights, as open-minded and all-inviting as they claim to be, may be falling into the same trap.

The bright meme looks set to take off as intended, creating a more open and accepting atmosphere for atheists. But it's what the brights do with this newfound acceptance, rather than the marketing success itself, that will matter in the long run. Brights have to realize that if they're going to proselytize, a considerable responsibility goes along with this. Convincing people that supernatural phenomena don't exist is only part of the story, and just the first step.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, October 13, 2003.

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From Third World to Brave New World

China's embrace of state-driven eugenics should be of concern to bioconservatives and bioliberals alike

By George Dvorsky, October 27, 2003

China took a great leap forward on October 15 by becoming only the third nation in history to put a man in space. On top of a Long March rocket, China's first manned spacecraft, Shenzhou 5, soared into the heavens along with taikonaut Yang Liwei and a profound sense of inevitability.

While the feat lagged the US and the former USSR by 40 years, anyone who doubted the inexorable nature of technological progress even among the developing nations had their doubts put to rest. The Chinese success story revealed that, given enough time and patience, high-tech makes its way into even the most unlikeliest of places—including former third world countries. While once the exclusive domain of the Cold War superpowers, space is now accessible by such countries as India, Japan and various nations of the European community.

However, one unfortunate reality of the great catch-up game being played by the former have-not countries is that for many of them social modernization has not caught up with technological modernization. Yes, it's a positive sign that China is catching up technologically, but the communist country currently resembles an infant who has stumbled upon his father's toolbox.

Nowhere is this more so than with biotechnology. The authoritarian Chinese government is using advances in the health sciences to further entrench and realize its eugenic agenda. Beyond the "one child, one family" policy, Chinese eugenics is startlingly reminiscent of 20th century social experiments—including the forced sterilization of citizens deemed unsuitable for procreation—conducted not just by the Nazis, but by many nations.

This is exactly the kind of Brave New World scenario that keeps bioconservatives up at night. But it's also the kind of state-driven eugenic imposition that even the techno-utopian and biolibertarian transhumanists worry about. The vision of a centralized, ideological and hyper-bureaucratized politburo hammering out design schematics for its future citizens is abhorrent, representing everything to which ideals of democracy and self-actualization are opposed.

Consequently, liberal democracies should continue to pressure China to embark upon a path of increasing democratization in hopes that its citizens will eventually demand procreative, cognitive and morphological freedoms. At the very least, the Chinese example should act as a continual reminder of where we do not wish to go.

Primed for reproductive restrictions

Historically, the Chinese have operated with the understanding that citizens are obligated with personal duties to the state, and it is partly due to this tendency that Western ideas of individual autonomy are lost. The Confucian tradition, along with its early agnostic and humanist character, placed emphasis on the orderly arrangement of society and stressed appropriate personal relationships.

In conjunction with ancient customs in medicine, Chinese tradition holds that every aspect of an expectant mother's life must be controlled. It was commonly held that maintaining a balance in cosmic forces, in essential bodily fluids and in lifestyle both before and after conception was paramount if you hoped to have a healthy baby.

The Chinese also subscribed to the patrilineal model of descent, in which a person is viewed as the culmination of his or her ancestors and is held responsible for the health of all future generations. Thus, an expectant mother's behavior and attitude is believed to directly influence the well-being of her future baby, and a deformed or developmentally disabled child reflects a moral failing on the part of the parents. As historian Frank Dikötter has noted, "Herein lies the basic eugenic belief that human intervention—in the form of behavior and morality—can shape heredity."

It was not until after World War I that modern science was introduced to China. It was during the Republican Era (1911 to 1948) that elites called for increased intervention of medical professionals and the state into the sexual lives of its citizens. It was also during this time that Western eugenics was imported and combined with existing fears of cultural, racial and biological degeneration in Chinese society, leading to government regulation of sexual reproduction. Compounding these impulses were the Chinese cultural currents that feared anything deviant and the urge to draw clear boundaries between the normal and the abnormal.

Moreover, it is this emphasis on the collective good that has driven modern eugenics in China since the late 19th Century, when, as Dikötter explains, "Chinese intellectuals, the well-to-do gentry, and government officials explored how to improve the Chinese race after the arrival of the stronger Western imperialist nations." Indeed, as Dikötter has aptly observed, nationalism in its many forms remains an important force in eugenics today. And without question, the Confucian ethic, which emphasized the individual's responsibility to the collective, is still felt across China today, and has hybridized itself quite effortlessly with Marxist notions of communalism and self-sacrifice.

A dubious leap forward

The introduction of communism in China did not do much to change these historical notions or tendencies. In fact, Marxist notions of the blank slate and the creation of the "new man" have inspired Chinese thinkers to mesh Marxist ideals into their already eugenic-primed view of population management.

While scientific and technological advancements were stunted during the Maoist era, recent decades have witnessed the revitalization of health-based issues. Deng Xiaoping's reforms of the late 1970s emphasized the rapid development of scientific knowledge and technological innovation, along with the acknowledgement that Western-style capitalism was necessary to both increase economic efficiency and state power.

While these reforms have led many to conclude that China has finally embarked on the path towards democracy, the truth of the matter is that the totalitarian infrastructure has remained intact; the Chinese political regime has shown no willingness to abandon Marxism anytime soon. This has been made painfully apparent by China's ongoing poor human rights track record, including 1989's Tiananmen massacre, its suppression of religious and cultural freedoms, its stringent control of information (including its own internal Internet) and, of course, its devotion to eugenics.

As a result of Xiaoping's reforms, the standard of living has steadily improved, as has Chinese proficiency with technology, causing a number of thinkers to push for a renewed commitment for eugenic measures. In 1995, the Law of the People's Republic of China on Maternal and Infant Health Care went into effect. The move was greeted with near unanimous international uproar.

The law primarily seeks to ensure the "health of mothers and infants and [to improve] the quality of the newborn population" while reducing the burden of disabilities. Among the many provisions of the legislation was the requirement that all couples seeking to marry submit to a physical examination by a physician to "see whether they suffer from any disease that may have an adverse effect on marriage and child-bearing." The diseases include "genetic diseases of a serious nature.that may totally or partially deprive the victim of the ability to live independently, that are highly possible to recur in generations to come." Also covered by the law are infectious diseases, such as AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis and leprosy, and relevant mental diseases, including "schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis and other mental diseases of a serious nature."

Physicians who perform these premarital checkups "explain and give medical advice to both the male and the female who have been diagnosed with certain genetic disease[s] of a serious nature which [are] considered to be inappropriate for child-bearing from a medical point of view." The couple can marry "only if both sides agree to take long-term contraceptive measures" or to undergo permanent sterilization.

Couples not satisfied with the results of the check-up may apply for an appeal mechanism. When applying for marriage registration couples "shall produce their pre-marital physical check-up certificates or medical technical appraisement certificates." Diagnosis will be verified prenatally if an abnormality is "detected or suspected," such as by ultrasound or because of family history, after an antenatal examination. If a serious disease or defect is found, physicians will offer the couple "medical advice for a termination of pregnancy."

Applications to terminate a pregnancy or to undergo sterilization must "be agreed [to] and signed by the person concerned." Couples that are identified by this process "shall take measures in accordance with the physician's medical advice." In other words, they will be compelled to do what their doctor tells them to do.

Even though this law came into effect in 1995, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have been sterilized against their will since 1986. Clinic-based and mobile birth control teams, dubiously known as the "womb police," have been known to travel across the countryside enforcing both the number of births and the "quality" of the newborn population, assessing such things as feeble-mindedness and mental illness.

There is little doubt that the Maternal and Infant Health Care law is a throwback to 20th century style eugenics. During the first half of the previous century, it was fashionable for the politicians of many countries to implement sterilization schemes that targeted questionable deficiencies while greatly diminishing the reproductive freedoms of their citizens. Two primary factors that led to these policies—two factors that still exist in the Chinese worldview today—are nationally and racially fed conceptions of social Darwinism and an immature understanding of medicine, genetics and science—not to mention unenlightened and socially primitive stances on democracy and the moral and practical efficacy of individual autonomy.

And typically, the law went into effect in China without any real discussion by bioethicists proper. In fact, it is arguable as to whether China even has a bioethics discipline by Western standards. China doesn't even have the same conception of eugenics; in Mandarin, "yousheng" is the closest word that corresponds to "eugenics," and it simply means "healthy birth." (This is interesting, because "eugenics" is a Greek term meaning "good origin," but has gone on to mean a centralized, preconceived and imposed vision of heredity.)

Moreover, legislators in China don't have to face the political hurdles, scrutiny and heated discourse that tend to greet new biolegislation in other countries. Simply put, the communist Chinese government is not held to the same ethical standards as are governments in the more developed and socially mature nations of the world.

Marching into the 21st century

Of course, in my condemnation of Chinese eugenics I could be accused of both cultural and social relativism. As medical doctor Patrick MacLeod has observed, China is struggling with issues of population health beyond our comprehension in the West.

For example, the UK has five percent of the population of China but 20 times the number of medical geneticists and counselors to serve that population. Compounding the problem, China is largely rural, with health insurance programs that do not cover medical genetic assessments. Some estimates place the disabled population of China at more than 50 million. "It is from this perspective," says McLeod, "that one can understand why social planners might adopt eugenic solutions without any knowledge or understanding of the long-term consequences for the gene pool."

And while the work of many health scientists in the West is stunted by debates about whether or not a microscopic clump of embryonic cells is a person or not, China marches on in terms of important medical research and development. Eric Brown, in his provocative but ultimately technophobic article "Brave New China," notes, "China has made some brave leaps beyond the rest of the scientifically advanced nations in crucial areas of biogenetic research."

Chinese researchers, for example, recently created 30 cloned human embryos and allowed them to develop to unprecedented stages. This work could eventually allow people to grow their own organs to replace failing ones. In Tianjin, a stem cell engineering institute is being constructed that will have its labs filled with half a million cloned embryonic cells. As Brown observes, "In the near future, China may well emerge as a major global dealer in human genomic expertise. Recognizing the opportunity China has to leap ahead of a comparatively reluctant West in the world biotechnology market, investors from both China and abroad may provide the capital necessary to drive China's genetic revolution to a much larger scale."

Thus, over the next few decades, as the Chinese continue to develop innovative biotechnologies, and as they continue to impose their eugenic policies, they will have greater and greater control over how they actively re-engineer their citizens.

A democratic transhumanist's nightmare

From a democratic transhumanist perspective, these prospects are both exciting and troublesome. Transhumanists agree that stronger, smarter and healthier people are a good thing, as are reductions in suffering and various psychological and physical disabilities. But while progress in health sciences is a value unto itself, it shouldn't come without proper public debate or the proper bioethical infrastructure to gauge the impact of technologies on individuals, societies and the human condition as a whole.

Worst of all, in China these technologies are being used as tools by the communist government to impose its idea of a healthy and evolving populace onto its "subjects." This idea, that of totalitarian transhumanism, is anathema to democratic transhumanism, which insists that choices about whether and how to use these biotechnologies must be left to individuals. While some of the goals of transhumanists and Chinese politicians run in parallel, the manner and spirit in which they are applied makes all the difference, both from ethical and sociopolitical standpoints.

It is understood by most transhumanists that parents, when empowered to make informed procreative decisions for themselves and their families, will make responsible choices that will result in the improved health of their offspring. How the human family evolves and develops as a result of these individual choices is anyone's guess, but it must be the role of future governments to help their citizens prosper along chosen paths, not to dictate preconceived and group-think notions of what it means to be normal or healthy, and certainly not to do so from a rigid ideological agenda.

I can only hope that as China modernizes itself technologically, social and cultural modernization will quickly follow. The impact of the information revolution has only recently been felt in China, and has been greeted with great caution, resulting in the Great Firewall of China.

Fortunately, technology often acts as the great equalizer, and as mobile phones, computers and other information technologies make their way into China, the Chinese will surely start to take advantage of these tools as they begin to democratize themselves at the grassroots level. The push for better science and technology, I can only hope, will be the ultimate undoing of the current communist regime, rather than further its state-driven eugenic goals.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, October 27, 2003.

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March 23, 2006

TTA meeting round-up for March 22, 2006

Last night the Toronto Transhumanist Association (TTA) held an introductory talk on transhumanism at the University of Toronto. It was the first meeting organized by the TTA in over year, marking the first of many such events planned for the coming months.

We had 25 attendees at the talk, most of them U of T students. There were 18 men and 7 women, which was encouraging as it has been difficult to get women to come out in the past. There were both new and familiar faces at the talk. TTA vice-president, Simon Smith, was also present.

The backgrounds of those in attendance were diverse as usual; in attendance were computer programmers, humanists, life extensionists, science students, bioethics students, artists, and others.

We were also fortunate to have Pablo Stafforini present. Pablo has organized a transhumanist group in Argentina and is currently working towards a PhD in Toronto. He generously agreed to give a talk at a future TTA event and we are certainly looking forward to that.

Humanists and atheists were particularly well represented yesterday. In attendance were leaders from three humanist organizations: the Humanist Association of Toronto, The Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge-Guelph Humanist Association and Toronto's Secular Alliance. At the end of the meeting we all met and agreed that inter-group networking was something we should all work towards. We found many commonalities in our groups and agreed that we should collaborate in cross-group events.

As for the presentation itself, I gave an introductory talk about transhumanism, introducing key scientific, philosophical and futurist concepts and describing historical, political, and socio-cultural precedents. I also briefly discussed the history of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) and the TTA.

Many attendees knew very little about transhumanism and were curious to learn more. In some cases, individuals familiar with transhumanism brought friends and family members to the event. We were successful in attracting a number of new people by hitting a number of lists, including archived membership lists and university lists (including the Secular Alliance and the Philosophy department at U of T). My thanks go out to Justin Trottier and Asher Maan for helping me organize the talk.

After my presentation I spoke about the TTA itself and offered ideas as to what the group should be about and what kind of activities it could be engaged in. I described organizing future talks, debates, social events, activism, and public outreach. Based on very positive responses, it’s fair to say that most of the group was interested in all the above. Several attendees also expressed interest in volunteering and helping with such work as administration and maintaining the TTA website. That being said, a couple of attendees openly expressed reservations or concerns about transhumanism in general.

It was encouraging to see so many enthusiastic people come out to the event – something that will certainly encourage me to organize future talks and activities.

If you'd like to learn more about transhumanism and the Toronto Transhumanist association, please contact me.

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March 22, 2006

TTA meeting tonight

For those in the greater Toronto area, the Toronto Transhumanist Association will be hosting an introductory talk to transhumanism on Wednesday March 22, 2006 at 7:00 PM. The meeting will be held at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), 252 Bloor St. West - Rm. 2227 (on the second floor).

I will be giving a brief introductory talk about the WTA, the TTA, and transhumanism in general. At the close of the meeting we'll be having an informal meet-and-greet.

Hope to see you there!

George Dvorsky
Toronto Transhumanist Association

March 21, 2006

The perils of miniaturization on the battlefield

DARPA, the advanced concepts research group voted most likely to destroy the Earth, has come up with a bizarre futuristic idea for the Pentagon.

They want to create an army of cyber-insects that can be remotely controlled to check out explosives and send transmissions. The organisms would truly be cybernetic; the idea is to insert microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) at the pupa stage, when the insects can integrate them into their body, so they can be remotely controlled later.

A number of experts are skeptical, but it sounds fairly plausible to me. Most criticisms of the plan have to do with the supposed implausibility of creating such small MEMS. Indeed, today it is quite impossible, but the miniaturization revolution is in full swing, and it's likely that MEMS will eventually be manufactured that are small enough to fit inside the insect at the pupa stage.

Moreover, scientists have already created cyborg roaches that have had their nervous systems tapped into. A research team at Tokyo University is making 'cyber-roaches' by lopping off the antennae of regular cockroaches and replacing them with pulse-emitting electrodes. The researchers then send signals with a remote control to a backpack worn by the roach that powers the electrodes. The roaches can be told to go left, right, forward and back.

This is starting to become something of a trend. It was rumored at one time that either China or the United States was developing nano-ants for the purpose of destroying the enemy's infrastructure. While somewhat outlandish, it does bring to mind the evil potential for robotic locusts and other man-made blights.

Indeed, these are dangerous precursors to nanoweaponry and other forms of advanced bioweapons.

Süddeutsche Zeitung Online recently featured an article about the potential for nanotech-equipped soldiers -- namely smart dust, self-healing body armor and self-reproducing nanobots.

Some analysts, including Jürgen Altmann, are starting to think that arms control needs to be extended to miniature weaponry. In his book, Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control, Altmann takes a look at the prospect of future weapons and considers international security, the new dangers for arms control and the international law of warfare, the dangers for stability through potential new arms races and proliferation, and of course, the dangers to humans and human civilization altogether.

The specific technologies that Altmann considers include extremely small computers, robots, missiles, satellites, launchers and sensors, lighter and more agile vehicles and weapons, implants in soldiers’ bodies, metal-free firearms, autonomous fighting systems, and new types of chemical and biological weapons.

Thinking it through, Altmann concludes that international treaties need to be installed, existing non-proliferation agreements need to be extended, and that a general ban on autonomous robots smaller than 20 centimeters needs to be put into force.

But as the actions of the United States has recently shown, it is a country that is not very interested in these types of constraints. Back in 2000 George W. Bush pulled out of the Biological Weapons Convention, and in 2003 he withdrew the US from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia. And as the illegal (civil)war in Iraq continues, and as DARPA looks to litter the battlefield with cyber-insects, the chances of attaining global consensus on the regulation of miniaturized weapons looks slim indeed.

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Rushkoff, Kurzweil to be on CNN special

IEET fellow Douglas Rushkoff was recently recorded for a CNN special called Welcome to the Future, along with Jeff Greenfield, Ray Kurzweil, Mirka De Arellano, and Margaret Cho. The program will air on CNN Saturday March 25 at 7pm EST, and will be repeated Sunday at the same time.

Rushkoff has an account of the experience on his blog. Here's an excerpt:
It was a strange and long journey into various utopian and dystopian high-tech scenarios concerning everything from nano-bots implanted in two-year-olds so they can compete for places at increasingly selective nursery schools to why we never got to ride go carts on Mars even though Lost in Space was set in 1997.

I found Kurzweil brilliant but a little creepy. I'm usually on the gung-ho pro-technology side of discussions, so it was fun to be voicing some of the more cautionary concerns for a change. Of course, I've never really been pro-tech or anti-tech - just pro "life" (in the living things sense) and pro consciousness. While Mirka would argue against, say, genetic selection techniques on religious grounds (we should raise the children as God gave them to us), I was in the interesting position of suggesting how a balance could be struck between human agency and new technology. Do we *want* to choose our child's talents? If so, what does that say about why we want to have a child in the first place? Is it to have the opportunity to care for another human being, or simply to extend our own obsessions to another generation?

It all came down to "human nature" for Jeff Greenfield; you know, the idea that we can develop all sorts of technologies but human nature will stay the same, and use them for the same good and bad reasons. And that's when, for me, it became about the opposite: yes, human beings may have their biases, but so do the technologies we develop and implement. And we don't always know those biases when we set out to invent this stuff in the first place.
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Civilized Life in the Universe

Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials
by George Basalla

Book Description:
This book is a selective and fascinating history of scientific speculation about intelligent extraterrestrial life. From Plutarch to Stephen Hawking, some of the most prominent western scientists have had quite detailed perceptions and misperceptions about alien civilizations: Johannes Kepler, fresh from transforming astronomy with his work on the shape of planetary orbits, was quite sure alien engineers on the moon were excavating circular pits to provide shelter; Christiaan Huygens, the most prominent physical scientist between Galileo and Newton, dismissed Kepler's speculations, but used the laws of probability to prove that "planetarians" on other worlds are much like humans, and had developed a sense of the visual arts; Carl Sagan sees clearly that Huygens is a biological chauvinist, but doesn't see as clearly that he, Sagan, may be a cultural/technological chauvinist when he assumes aliens have highly developed technology like ours, but better.

Basalla traces the influence of one speculation on the next, showing an unbroken but twisting chain of ideas passed from one scientist to the next, and from science to popular culture. He even traces the influence of popular culture on science--Sagan always admitted how much E. R. Burroughs' Martian novels influenced his speculations about Mars. Throughout, Basalla weaves his theme that scientific belief in and search for extraterrestrial civilizations is a complex impulse, part secularized-religious, and part anthropomorphic. He questions the common modern scientific reasoning that life converges on intelligence, and intelligence converges on one science valid everywhere. He ends the book by agreeing with Stephen Hawking (usually a safe bet) that intelligence is overrated for survival in the universe, and that we are most likely alone.

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March 19, 2006

New podcast available [19-Mar-06]

The latest Sentient Developments podcast is now available.


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Neat sociohack: make a career playing contests

Carolyn Wilman has got a neat racket going on: play as many contests as possible. Wilman, who lost her job five years ago after the dot-com bust, now devotes her working hours to finding and entering various contests.

Last year she won more than 150 contests, bring in about $34,000 in cash and prizes. In 2004, she won 125 of them worth much the same. She plays everything from 99-cent music downloads to $10,000 Greek Island getaways.

"I actually think I'm on the cusp of where I want to be," Wilman says. "I'm with my family a lot. I've parlayed a passion into a career. For me this hobby is more than a hobby — it's now my life."

Entire article.

Whiny kids grow up to be conservatives

This was too good to pass up:

How to spot a baby conservative
Whiny children, claims a new study, tend to grow up rigid and traditional. Future liberals, on the other hand ...

By Kurt Kleiner
Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.
Entire article.

The future of science

Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation has organized a series of seminars which he hopes will build a "coherent, compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking, to help nudge civilization toward Long Now's goal of making long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare."

One such seminar has recently been published on by Kevin Kelly. Titled, "Speculations on the Future of Science," Kelly tries to predict how science and the scientific method will change over the next 50 years.

As a starting point, he looks at how recursion is at the heart of science; Kelly compiled a list of new recursive devices in the history science:

2000 BC — First text indexes
200 BC — Cataloged library (at Alexandria)
1000 AD — Collaborative encyclopedia
1590 — Controlled experiment (Roger Bacon)
1600 — Laboratory
1609 — Telescopes and microscopes
1650 — Society of experts
1665 — Repeatability (Robert Boyle)
1665 — Scholarly journals
1675 — Peer review
1687 — Hypothesis/prediction (Isaac Newton)
1920 — Falsifiability (Karl Popper)
1926 — Randomized design (Ronald Fisher)
1937 — Controlled placebo
1946 — Computer simulation
1950 — Double blind experiment
1962 — Study of scientific method (Thomas Kuhn)

Looking to the future, Kelly makes some predictions (details can be found in the article):

1) There will be more change in the next 50 years of science than in the last 400 years
2) This will be a century of biology
3) Computers will keep leading to new ways of science
4) New ways of knowing will emerge
5) Science will create new levels of meaning

More specifically, Kelly comes up with possible breakthroughs in how science is done:

Compiled Negative Results - Negative results are saved, shared, compiled and analyzed, instead of being dumped.

Triple Blind Experiments - In a double blind experiment neither researcher nor subject are aware of the controls, but both are aware of the experiment. In a triple blind experiment all participants are blind to the controls and to the very fact of the experiment itself.

Combinatorial Sweep Exploration - Much of the unknown can be explored by systematically creating random varieties of it at a large scale.

Evolutionary Search - If new libraries of variations can be derived from the best of a previous generation of good results, it is possible to evolve solutions.

Multiple Hypothesis Matrix - nstead of proposing a series of single hypothesis, in which each hypothesis is falsified and discarded until one theory finally passes and is verified, a matrix of many hypothesis scenarios are proposed and managed simultaneously.

Pattern Augmentation - Pattern-seeking software which recognizes a pattern in noisy results.

Adaptive Real Time Experiments - Results evaluated, and large-scale experiments modified in real time.

AI Proofs - Artificial intelligence will derive and check the logic of an experiment.

Wiki-Science - The average number of authors per paper continues to rise.

Defined Benefit Funding - The use of prize money for particular scientific achievements will play greater roles.

Zillionics - Ubiquitous always-on sensors in bodies and environment will transform medical, environmental, and space sciences.

Deep Simulations – As our knowledge of complex systems advances, we can construct more complex simulations of them.

Hyper-analysis Mapping – Just as meta-analysis gathered diverse experiments on one subject and integrated their (sometimes contradictory) results into a large meta-view, hyper-analysis creates an extremely large-scale view by pulling together meta-analysis.

Return of the Subjective - Existence seems to be a paradox of self-causality, and any science exploring the origins of existence will eventually have to embrace the subjective, without become irrational.

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The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the Brain, by Robert Pepperell (2003)

This highly readable update to a 1998 release unites the postmodern and the posthuman in a provocative but limited piece of speculation

By George Dvorsky, November 3, 2003

The philosophical struggle to grab hold of and understand what is real and what is not is as old as civilization itself. Today, in light of the potential for radical human redesign and the reimagining of the human organism and condition, perspectives as to what constitutes the self, the body and the environment are becoming increasingly vague and inadequate.

Author Robert Pepperell, in this revised version to his 1998 book The Post-Human Condition, explores these particular themes while challenging the traditional assumptions of human uniqueness and superiority in consideration of 21st century technologies. As Pepperell notes, "the possibilities suggested by synthetic intelligence, organic computers and genetic modification are deeply challenging to that sense of human predominance."

Moreover, through the application of a discernibly postmodernist bias to futurist issues, The Posthuman Condition reads like a critique of rigid scientific methodologies and traditional humanism. Questions of machine consciousness and sentience are difficult to answer, writes Pepperell, "given the redundant concepts of human existence that we have inherited from the humanist era, since many widely accepted humanist ideas about consciousness can no longer be sustained." New theories about nature and the operation of the Universe, he argues, are "starting to demonstrate the profound interconnections of all things in nature where previously we had seen separations."

Considering that most futurists and transhumanists adhere to the legacy of rational humanism and Enlightenment notions of perpetual progress, Pepperell takes his life into his own hands by co-opting the posthuman and claiming it as his own. He even includes his own posthuman manifesto.

Consequently, The Posthuman Condition, while it reads lucidly and vibrantly, is a book that infuriates as much as it titillates. Pepperell offers an interesting but problematic fusion of skeptical epistemology with the latest thinking in the sciences, including cybernetics, artificial intelligence and chaos and complexity theories. Ultimately, while he offers provocative insight into the nature of knowledge and consciousness, he offers very little in terms of practical futurology, while completely misunderstanding and ignoring the valid humanistic roots of today's practical posthumanism.

The real and the artificial

The founder of the Hex multimedia collective and the coauthor of The Postdigital Membrane, Pepperell recognized the inexorable collision of postmodernist thinking with futurism back in 1998 when he wrote the initial version of The Posthuman Condition.

For Pepperell, posthumanism is more than just the attainment of a post-biological state of being, it also marks the end of the humanist period of social development, because of "the fact that our traditional view of what constitutes a human being is now undergoing a profound transformation."

The profound transformation that he speaks of is the fusion of humans and machines and the rise of artificial intelligence. Pepperell exposes the lines that are about to blur and wonders how thinkers will distinguish between the real and the artificial, the original and the simulated, the organic and the mechanical. He suggests that very soon these will become little more than semantic distinctions.

To bring his readers up to speed on the technologies that will bring these changes, Pepperell devotes the introduction of his book to a concise summary of the pending technologies, including quick notes on robotics, communications, prosthetics, intelligent machines, nanotechnology, genetic manipulation and artificial life. Once he gets this formality out of the way, Pepperell gets down to the nitty-gritty, and tackles one of the hardest problems in modern science, that of consciousness. And true to his scientific skepticism, he takes a philosophical approach to the problem of mind.

The fuzzy human

In spite of his avoidance of any substantive discussion of the mechanics behind human consciousness, Pepperell offers a fascinating account of how consciousness should be understood, defined and circumscribed. In Stelarc-like fashion, he declares that there are no boundaries that divorce humans from their environment. Pepperell advocates a form of "embedded" or "embodied" intelligence, arguing that consciousness cannot be understood—let alone exist—without placing it in the sensorial and perceptual context of the conscious being's environment.

"[A]n integrated continuum exists throughout human consciousness, body and environment," writes Pepperell, "such that any distinction in that contingent and arbitrary." The general implication, he argues, is that we can never determine the absolute boundary of the human, either physically or mentally. "In this sense, nothing can be external to a human because the extent of a human can't be fixed," he writes. The implication is anything but trivial, suggesting that "human beings do not exist in the sense in which we ordinarily think of them, that is as separate entities in perpetual antagonism with a nature that is external to them."

Indeed, there is undoubtedly much truth to embodied intelligence theory. It is impossible to deny that the mind cannot exist without a body and an environment, whether real or simulated. The mind feeds and reacts off the information that is fed to it by its body and surroundings.

So powerful is this conception that, as Pepperell concedes, it is quite possibly the most dominant paradigm in artificial intelligence research today. The human, the mind and the environment are indistinguishable, says Pepperell, leading him to conclude that posthuman intellects will continue to migrate and blend into their surroundings.

Attacking scientific reductionism

Continuing with this line of inquiry, Pepperell declares that there are no determinate origins, ends, complete answers or final reasons for the existence of anything. "It's not that we can't find them," he writes. "But that they're just not there."

Along the lines of fuzzy knowledge, Pepperell notes that recent scientific ideas have upset conceptions of order and disorder, continuity and discontinuity—namely chaos, catastrophe and complexity theories. It is because of these insights, argues Pepperell, that humanist notions of mechanism, reductionism and determinism have become dated.

However, Pepperell's disapproval of scientific reductionism should be taken with a grain of salt, and not just because he replaces it with its bipolar cousins, expansionism and extensionism. These types of deconstructionist and postmodernist lines of inquiries often venture far too close to radical skepticism for my liking. Accusing scientists of reductio ad absurdum can come perilously close to denying the measured, calculated and predictable observations of the Universe. As evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins once said, "reductionism is explanation."

On humanism and posthumanism

Pepperell's take on the humanist legacy isn't entirely fair or accurate. He declares posthumanism to be the philosophical and methodological successor to humanism, but fails to acknowledge how humanist thinking has in many ways contributed to progressive posthumanist thought; in many respects, posthumanism is the transitional successor to humanism, and not postmodernism as Pepperell insinuates. In fact, while most of those who call themselves posthumanist tend to be critical of the humanist movement, more and more humanists have, with relative ease, shifted their thinking in favor of progressive or transhuman thinking.

In one example, Pepperell characterizes humanism as a philosophy that places humans in a combative relationship with nature. Posthumanism, says Pepperell, suggests that people are not in opposition to nature, but an intrinsic part of it. While this is interesting from a philosophical perspective, particularly as it pertains to human consciousness, it does very little to explain how we are to deal with such things as disease, asteroid impacts and gamma ray bursts.

For centuries now, humanists have insisted that it is through the comprehension of our surroundings that we can better deal with the dangers of nature. Thinkers such as Marquis de Condorcet, David Hume, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius and Benjamin Franklin insisted that nature was not necessarily something to be fought or resisted, but something to be understood in order for humanity to better survive and prosper.

In some respects, this is an issue of semantics. Pepperell considers the post-biological or transhumanist element to be one facet of his brand of posthumanism, the other parts being the end of humanism and the beginning of a new (or is that old?) form of epistemological skepticism. It is because of Pepperell's proprietary definition of posthumanism that a number of futurists and transhumanists will have serious problems with his analysis.

Future persons

To bolster his argument, Pepperell includes a very interesting chapter on art, aesthetics and creativity. His analysis of Einsteinian relativity and cubism reveals that perceptual relativity can cross mediums, and is a developmental trend that has now entered into our cultural artifacts.

Pepperell, an artist himself, aptly observes that art forms exist outside of speculative fiction that contributes to our sense of our present and future selves. That being said, his subsequent chapter on automating the creative process felt somewhat out of place and forced. If Pepperell was trying to argue that creativity is a requisite for consciousness, he did so in an unconvincing and incomplete way.

Still, as do many futurist and transhumanist thinkers, Pepperell predicts a time when synthetic and cybernetic creatures will walk the earth. Where he and other futurist thinkers diverge, however, is in how these intellects and posthumans will conduct their affairs.

Aside from saying that it will act creatively and artistically, Pepperell is surprisingly vague on future life, except for such statements as, "Science will never achieve its aim of comprehending the ultimate nature of reality. It is a futile quest...[t]he posthuman abandons the search for the ultimate nature of the Universe and its origin (thus saving a lot of money in the process)."

Pepperell is less concerned with pragmatics than he is in formulating the philosophical rudiments of what he believes will be the next era in the social development of intelligent life. Essentially, Pepperell takes a science studies approach to futures issues while also taking the opportunity to slam scientific reductionism, including conventional notions of what is meant by consciousness and humanity, all the while touting postmodernist notions that proclaim the limitations to what can realistically be known.

What makes this work so interesting and perplexing is that Pepperell uses the latest science to reveal the limitations of science. It would seem that the more we know, the less we know—or, as Pepperell would claim, the more we know, the more we realize what we can't know.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, November 3, 2003.

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Better Living through Transhumanism

More than just a philosophy and social movement, transhumanism is for many a way of life

By George Dvorsky, November 10, 2003

Some experts believe that all genetic-based diseases will be eliminated by 2030. The widespread application of genetic and other technologies, it is thought, may also result in significant increases to human intelligence, memory, physical health and strength. Some expect the achievement of indefinite lifespans this century and believe that immortals already walk among us.

Researchers suspect that the development of strong nanotechnology in the coming decades will result in molecular assemblers that effectively function like Star Trek replicators. A number of experts are hopeful that medical nanotechnology will be used to revive those who are preserved in cryonic stasis. It is also suspected that advances in both nanotechnology and robotics will greatly alter the current socioeconomic infrastructure, potentially resulting in such things as massive unemployment, the need for a basic guaranteed income, and the general rethinking of how people should coordinate their activities and leisure time.

Steady advances in computing processing power are leading many experts to conclude that human-equivalent artificial intelligence may be attainable by the year 2040, if not sooner. After that, as intelligent machines continue to redesign themselves and recursively improve, they will likely develop into superintelligences, with cognitive capacities thousands of times greater than that of humans. No one knows what this will mean to humanity, causing futurists to dub the hypothesized event the "technological singularity," or simply the Singularity.

These predictions are nontrivial to say the least. Of course, they are just predictions, and most casual observers maintain that these things will never come—or at least not within their lifetime. Futurists such as myself tend to be less skeptical, recognizing the remarkable upward trends in technological research and development; things are set to change quite dramatically and quite quickly.

In consideration of these predictions, a growing number of people are turning to transhumanism, which aims to promote and encourage human enhancement through the application of science and technology. They maintain that this is a good thing, and that we should encourage and work towards the attainment of a posthuman condition.

While many—including me—have written often about transhumanism, few have elaborated on how the transhumanist mindset has an impact on how people live their life in the present. Not ones to dwell on the future while passively waiting for it to happen, transhumanists engage in foresight, activist and promotional activities.

Just as significantly, the day-to-day lifestyle choices of transhumanists such as me reflect anticipated change. I am in my early 30s, which means that barring some unfortunate accident (with no cryonic or other backup plan) I'll be around to witness, participate and take advantage of future radical developments. Consequently, everything from my ethical and moral foundations to my eating and exercising habits are in some way influenced by how I think the next 50 years will go.

And I am hardly alone. Transhumanism is in many respects a burgeoning lifestyle choice and cultural phenomenon.

Transhuman spirituality and ethics

Without unforeseen conceptual or political impediments to scientific and technological progress, or some kind of manmade or natural catastrophe, some if not all of the predictions I listed above are likely to come to fruition this century, possibly even during the next 50 years.

For society in general, this will represent a mixed blessing at best. People who cling to dated, comforting and static worldviews, including those who suffer from scientific illiteracy, are heading for serious bouts of future shock. Cyborgs, transgenic human-animal hybrids, sentient machines and uploaded consciousnesses can do that.

To be fair, some of the more radical notions and predictions even make me squirm in my seat. To help me deal with future shock, and to objectively assess the changes that humanity is about to undergo, I often rely on some good ol' fashioned Buddhism to help me through.

I was a Buddhist before I became a transhumanist, but the two idea-sets proved to be surprisingly compatible. In fact, many transhumanists describe their "spiritual" or moral beliefs as having Eastern and Buddhist influences. Personally, Buddhism works for me on a number of levels, including its humanism, compassionate tenets, and its denial of God and the soul, or the self.

I am also partial to how Buddhists encourage progress and the cultural harmonization of the observations of Western science. Like the humanists of the Enlightenment, Buddhists tend to see science and progress as a way to better comprehend reality and as a means to reduce suffering. Buddhists see no hubris with scientific research. The Universe and all that is in it is not something to be fought and resisted, nor should its components be divided into the sacred and profane, the natural and the unnatural. Einstein, who may have been a Buddhist himself, once asserted that Buddhism is the future of religion, and acknowledged that, "The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible."

The Dalai Lama himself has openly stated that Buddhist goals are "the same as those of Western science," to "serve humanity and to make better human beings." The Dalai Lama has also gone on record as saying that he believes an artificial consciousness is attainable and should be treated and respected as a person. Buddhism, unlike many other religions or philosophies, reject "yuck factor" ethics, abstractions and romantic divinations in favor of rational, pragmatic and empathetic considerations. It's no coincidence, therefore, that so many Buddhists subscribe to personhood ethics.

Transhumanists can certainly relate. Most have put their trust in science, and have no trouble imagining themselves as nonbiological or transgenic posthuman organisms. Moreover, transhumanists tend to recognize the medical potential for future technologies and how it can and should be applied to reduce diseases and disabilities and to create "better humans."

And more radically, transhumanists such as me look to science and technology as a possible means for the creation of a Nirvana-esque and quasi-utopian future—or at the very least, as a means for perpetual progress.

Live long and prosper

I became a vegetarian last year and, once again, as a transhumanist I am by no means unique in this respect. I was a very unlikely candidate for this type of change, as I used to eat meat at nearly every meal. But a number of factors conspired to lead me to this change.

Obviously, the Buddhist respect for sentient life played a significant part. Combined with recent advances in the cognitive sciences, it became obvious to me that many of the nonhuman animals that landed with great regularity on my dinner plate were once intelligent and conscious creatures. Moreover, I realized that it was unnecessary for my survival or health that animals should continue to die for my benefit.

I also became a vegetarian for health and longevity reasons. Even conservative predictions suggest that the goal of negligible senescence will be achieved at the turn of the next century, meaning that I would have to live to 130 years of age—not outrageous if you consider the advancements that are sure to come in genetics, biogerontology, cybernetics and nanotechnology. Thus, being in my 30s, I realized that if I were to reap the benefits of future life extension technologies, including the radical possibility of attaining an indefinite lifespan, I was putting those possibilities at risk by clogging my arteries with animal fat and filling my brain with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and not reaping the benefits of antioxidants and raw foods.

And true to transhumanist and Extropian principles, the conversion to vegetarianism (or any other life change) can be interpreted as an expression of ongoing personal evolution and the continual challenge to improve one's moral, intellectual and physical condition. Complacency is not a word in the transhumanist vocabulary.

When it comes to life-extending eating habits, however, there are some transhumanists who make me look like a kid after Halloween. Many immortalists practice caloric restriction, for example, which experiments have shown retards the aging process in every animal tested so far. Some immortalists carefully manage their diet, including vitamins and supplements, and even test their blood to help guide their dietary and pharmaceutical choices. Many transhumanists believe that such short-term pains will be surely outweighed by long-term gains.

Applying unconventional technologies and techniques

The idea of fooling the body's natural processes, through such things as caloric restriction, is referred to in some circles as "biohacking." Transhumanists recognize that their bodies are a kind of machine—one that can be studied, understood and subjected to hacks. A recent article by Katharine Mieszkowski on Salon, "Hackers on Atkins," showed how a number of dieters are "cheating" by going on the low carbohydrate, high protein and unintuitive Atkins diet. As Mieszkowski says, the Atkins diet is a "a sneaky algorithm for getting the body to do what you want it to do, a way of reprogramming yourself. Programmers, who are used to making their computers serve their will, are now finding that low-carb diets enable the same kind of control over their bodies."

Similarly, although not considered technology by most, I consider yoga and meditation to be types of "software enhancements" that, when applied, strengthen both the body and mind. Yoga, aside from being extremely enjoyable, offers numerous physiological and psychological benefits, including increases to strength, endurance, balance and somatic and kinesthetic awareness. Yoga, of which I practice Hatha, also improves mood, reduces feelings of hostility, depression and anxiety, and increases feelings of self-acceptance and self-actualization.

Meditation is another powerful technique, one that not only calms the body and mind, but also improves mood and clarity of thought. It also contributes to greater cognitive awareness and happiness. Meditation helps me to better regulate my thoughts and emotions and to better understand how it is that certain ideas, feelings and motives enter into my conscious thoughts and how I can better process and act on that information. I often think of my meditation, which is derived from the Theravadan Vipassana tradition, as memetic Vipassana meditation, as it helps me better manage the competing memes that often cloud and influence my thoughts and perception.

Applying hi-tech to daily living

Needless to say, transhumanists also apply the latest technologies to their daily lives to both overcome biological limitations and to enhance individual performance and efficiency. I tend to take a Zen transhumanist approach to computer use, and I am never satisfied with my work processes. I am constantly striving to improve and refine my work habits to come up with quicker and more effective ways of working.

For example, I memorize patterns of keyboard shortcuts to increase my efficiency when working on mundane or repetitive tasks. I don't go anywhere without my handheld PDA, which acts as my memory and math skills prosthesis, an on-demand dictionary and thesaurus, and as a task scheduler. I use group collaboration tools to help me with my work and I visit personal networking sites to help me meet and communicate with people with similar interests. I know of some transhumanists who carry around small recording devices to supplement their memories, constantly recording conversations and other audible events.

As a contributor to the transhumanist blogosphere, I have to find lots of information fast, and because of my busy schedule, time is often of the essence. To help me find news items, I use the Mozilla Web browser's multiple tabs and group bookmarks functionality; when scouring the Web for information, I refer to about six different sets of preconfigured and specialized bookmark groups that contain as many as 15 Websites each. I also use the Google News Alerts feature so that the news comes to me.

Speaking of Mozilla, like many transhumanists, I am also interested in the open source movement, as it not only represents a new and innovative way of developing new technologies from a bottom-up and user-perspective, but it may come to represent an important change in the development, economy and dissemination of new technologies.

At the same time, I consciously avoid certain technologies, namely television and video games. While I recognize the entertainment and (sometimes) educational value of these mediums, they are the soma of our times, representing drug-like distractions from my goals, contributing to passivity rather and activity.

Better at assessing change and progress

Transhumanists tend to look at the world through linear-colored glasses. News items are almost exclusively evaluated based upon their short and long-term impact on the human condition. As a result, most transhumanists consider the daily headlines put out by the major media outlets to be trivial and disinteresting at best.

For example, a new item about the latest efforts to expand the lifespan of a nematode worm to the equivalent of 500 human years will reach the back pages of most news publications, but it's the kind of news that tops the lists in transhuman circles. The same goes for debates about research on stem cells, human cloning, genetics, bodily autonomy issues, the state of health care and artificial intelligence. This is the stuff, transhumanists maintain, that really matters.

Consequently, transhumanists, through their worldviews and lifestyle choices, and through their ability to deal with and better understand the changes on the horizon, are putting themselves in a better position than most to anticipate and apply the coming technologies to their lives and their bodies; they are inoculating themselves against future shock.

Transhumanists hope that future advancements will work to the benefit of humanity, and that missing out on this potential, either because of sweeping bans or preventable catastrophes, would be a travesty. Thus, a significant part of the transhumanist agenda involves getting the word out.

The more people are brought into these discussions the better. It is vital that the high degree of knee-jerk and reactionary opinion that dominates discussions of posthumanity be reduced as much in possible in favor of rational, informed and realistic discussions. By having these issues and debates enter into the popular zeitgeist, we collectively stand a better chance of avoiding the stresses and confusions sure to be posed by coming waves of radical change.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, November 10, 2003.

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