#HolyHexes

Wrestling with Transhumanism

from metanexus.net: Transhumanism for me is like a relationship with an obsessive and
very neurotic lover. Knowing it is deeply flawed, I have tried several
times to break off my engagement, but each time it manages to creep in
through the back door of my mind. In How We Became Posthuman,1 I
identified an undergirding assumption that makes possible such
predictions as Hans Moravec’s transhumanist fantasy that we will soon be
able to upload our consciousness into computers and leave our bodies
behind. I argued that this scenario depends on a decontextualized and
disembodied construction of information. The disembodied information
Claude Shannon formalized as a probability function, useful for specific
purposes, has been expanded far beyond its original context and
inappropriately applied to such phenomena as consciousness. With this
argument, I naively thought that I had dismissed transhumanism once and
for all, exposing its misapprehensions to my satisfaction and delivering
a decisive blow to its aspirations. But I was wrong. Transhumanism has
exponentially more adherents today than it did a decade ago when I made
this argument, and its influence is clearly growing rather than
diminishing, as this workshop itself testifies.

How can we extract the valuable questions
transhumanism confronts without accepting all the implications of
transhumanist claims? One possibility is to embed transhumanist ideas in
deep, rich, and challenging contextualizations that re-introduce the
complexities it strips away. The results re-frame the questions, leading
to conclusions very different than those most transhumanists embrace.
In these encounters, transhumanism serves as the catalyst—or better, the
irritant—that stimulates a more considered and responsible view of the
future than it itself can generate.

As a literary scholar, I consider the locus classicus
for re-framing transhumanist questions to be science fiction and
speculative fiction, jointly signified by SF. To initiate my inquiry, I
will focus on the critical area of reproduction—reproduction of
individuals through children, reproduction of the species through
technology as well as biology, and reproduction of psychological,
philosophical, social and economic institutions that facilitate and/or
threaten the continued existence of humans as a species. To see why
reproduction is at the center of transhumanist concerns, we need only
consider the rhetoric of the “singularity,” a term introduced by SF
writer and mathematician Vernon Vinge to indicate a decisive break in
which advanced technology catapults us into a future qualitatively
different from all previous human experience. Within a few years, Vinge
predicts, we will confront a change comparable to the rise of life on
earth; “the precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by
technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.” 3 So
different will our future be, the story goes, that it is impossible for
us accurately to predict it from our position on this side of the break.
Insofar as reproduction implies continuities between past and future,
it challenges the idea of a cataclysmic break, while simultaneously
acting as a privileged site for visions of radical ruptures and
transformations. Reproduction, then, is where the rubber hits the
road—where issues of what will change and what will endure are imagined,
performed, and contested.

Before demonstrating that SF
re-contextualizes crucial issues surrounding reproduction, I will find
it useful to review briefly the ideologies implicit in transhumanist
rhetoric. Transhumanism, sometimes signified by <H or H+, is an
international movement dedicated to the proposition that contemporary
technosciences can enhance human capabilities and ameliorate or
eliminate such traditional verities as mortality. It holds that human
evolution is incomplete and, moreover, that we have a responsibility to
further our evolution through technology. As a sample of transhumanist
rhetoric, consider the following passage from Max More, a prominent
movement spokesperson:

We seek to void all limits to
life, intelligence, freedom, knowledge, and happiness. Science,
technology and reason must be harnessed to our extropic values to
abolish the greatest evil: death. Death does not stop the progress of
intelligent beings considered collectively, but it obliterates the
individual. No philosophy of life can be truly satisfying which
glorifies the advance of intelligent beings and yet which condemns each
and every individual to rot into nothingness. Each of us seeks growth
and the transcendence of our current forms and limitations. The
abolition of aging and, finally, all causes of death, is essential to
any philosophy of optimism and transcendence relevant to the
individual.4

 Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford
University and one of transhumanism’s more thoughtful practitioners,
gives a two-fold definition on the World Transhumanist Association
website:

(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that
affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the
human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and
making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly
enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. (2)
The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of
technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human
limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in
developing and using such technologies.5

As these
examples illustrate, transhumanist rhetoric concentrates on individual
transcendence; at transhumanist websites, articles, and books, there is a
conspicuous absence of considering socioeconomic dynamics beyond the
individual. Bostrom, for example, writes of “making widely available
technologies to eliminate ageing,” but what this would do to population
growth, limited resources, and the economics of the young supporting the
old are not considered.

Transhumanists recognize, of course, that
contemporary technoscience is not an individual enterprise, typically
requiring significant capitalization, large teams of workers, and
extensive networks of knowledge exchange and distribution, but these
social, technoscientific, and economic realities are positioned as if
they are undertaken for the sole benefit of forward-thinking
individuals. In addition, there is little discussion of how access to
advanced technologies would be regulated or of the social and economic
inequalities entwined with questions of access. The rhetoric implies
that everyone will freely have access (as in the quotation cited above),
or at least that transhumanist individuals will be among the privileged
elite that can afford the advantages advanced technologies will offer.
How this will play out for the large majority of people living in
developing countries that cannot afford access and do not have the
infrastructure to support it is not an issue. Indeed, the rhetoric often
assumes that, as Iain Banks puts in his transhumanist far-future novel Look to Windward,6
the Age of Scarcity is a passing phase in human evolution that our
descendants will leave far behind, with death, hunger, disease, and
other afflictions brought under control and subject to the whim of
individual choice.

Resisting these utopian visions are the
sociological, philosophical, and psychological complexities (a
constellation that Iain Banks has usefully called “metalogy” ) that
operate at their most fraught with reproduction. Consistent with the
transhumanist emphasis on the individual, reproduction typically figures
in transhumanist rhetoric as the reproduction of the individual through
cloning, cryogenic suspension, radical life extension, and uploading
human consciousness into a computer. In all these versions, the rhetoric
assumes that the individual will maintain his identity intact. As Hans
Moravec’s fantasy scenario of uploading in Mind Children makes
clear, not only is identity is preserved, but the uploaded consciousness
is represented as seamlessly continuous with the embodied mind.8
Whether a reproduced consciousness would in fact be identical (or even
similar) is a point of intense interrogation in SF. In Greg Egan’s Permutation City,
for example, an uploaded consciousness finds the awareness that it has
become a computer program unbearable, and all such consciousnesses
commit suicide (or try to) within fifteen minutes of coming to
awareness.9 

Equally controversial are issues surrounding the
reproduction of the species. Transhumanist rhetoric assumes that “we”
will become citizens of a transhuman future, an assumption existing in
uneasy tension with the decisive break implied by the singularity. Who
or what will be left behind, and what global conflicts might result from
class and economic disparities, are seldom discussed. When such issues
are entertained, as in Moravec’s claim that intelligent machines will be
our evolutionary successors and that we will embrace them as “mind
children,” the rhetoric implies that these silicon progeny will inspire
the same emotional investment, love, and pride that (sometimes)
accompanies biological reproduction. Whether deep-seated responses
evolved through millennia of biological reproduction would map
seamlessly onto intelligent machines created through entirely different
mechanisms is typically not a concern.

The metalogical (i.e., the
psychological, physiological, and philosophical) contextualizations SF
performs draw thee assumptions into question. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,
the issues surrounding reproduction are enacted in multiple ways,
including through the surrogacy of animal procreation.10 Rick Deckard’s
argument with his neighbor about whether it is immoral to own more than
one animal when others (like him) own none is precipitated by the
neighbor’s announcement that his Percheron mare is pregnant. A similar
dialogue occurs when Deckard negotiates with Rachel Rosen for part of
Scrappy the owl’s brood—until he realizes that the owl is a mechanical
replica, biological owls having been extinct for decades. These minor
incidents serve as a backdrop to the major issue of human reproduction.
Deckard dons a lead codpiece when he goes outside to protect his gonads
from the radioactive dust that has covered the planet since World War
Terminus. He undergoes regular testing and has so far managed to
maintain a sperm count that allows him to be classified “normal” within
the limits defined by law, but thousands fail each month as their
reproductive (and intellectual) capacities plummet below the line,
condemning them to the category of “specials,” who are not allowed to
emigrate off-planet and can look forward only to further decline. The
biological reproductive future of humankind appears doomed; their
evolutionary successors will clearly be the androids, now so
sophisticated and intelligent that they already surpass human
capabilities in many respects.

In sharp contrast to Moravec’s
vision of a humanity that embraces its postbiological successors, humans
in Dick’s novel cling to every possible vestige of superiority, however
spurious, and ruthlessly oppress the androids, condemning them to lives
of slavery in the hellish conditions of Mars and other off-world
colonies. Humans will not, it appears, go gently into that good night.
Ridley Scott’s brilliant film adaptation11 picks up on this theme,
representing Roy Baty, leader of the rebellious androids, as the errant
son of Tyrell, CEO of the company that created him and the other Nexus-6
androids. Although the androids do not manage to wrest a longer life
span from their “father” and eventually are all killed, as they are in
Dick’s novel; the novel makes clear that this postbiological species
will nevertheless triumph as humans fade from the scene, victims of
their own environmental folly.

The empathic (and viscously
competitive) bond in the film between father and postbiological child
plays out differently in the novel, with empathy partitioned among
species and alleged to be possible only with humans and animals, with
androids positioned outside and exterior to this privileged emotion.
This ideological configuration, promoted by the government as a
justification for human superiority and android oppression, is
confounded when Deckard realizes he feels empathy for at least some
androids. The resulting ethical and psychological complexities entwine
reproduction with political ideology, species identification with
cross-species empathy, and the individual with global dynamics that
dictate the outcome of the war, regardless of individual contests such
as those waged by Deckard.

When the child is not an android but a
biological progeny, the prospect of a transhuman future is, if possible,
even more contentious. Novels exploring the parent-biological child
relationship range from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End,12 in which the children become a successor species, to Vernon Vinge’s near-future world in Rainbows End,13
where the generations are separated only by technological expertise and
quickness in adapting to it. At the passionate end of the spectrum is
Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio and the sequel, Darwin’s Children
14 Rather than imagine a future in which technology creates a
postbiological future, Bear speculates that the human genome can
function as a non-conscious genetic engineer of sorts, responding to
global factors such as “stress” by activating an ancient human
endogenous virus (significantly nicknamed SHEVA) that causes genetic
mutations in fetuses. In ironic inversion of the AIDS virus, SHEVA
infects only couples in monogamous committed relationships and has its
epicenter in the US and Europe, while Africa is not hit nearly as hard
hit. With the threat looming close to home, emotional tensions are
exacerbated when the mutational process causes a two-step pregnancy. The
first fetus, initially mistaken as the virus’s final product, is
horribly malformed by conventional standards, with virtually no brain,
rudimentary appendages, a Cyclopean head formation, and a functional
ovary. It invariably aborts at the end of the first trimester, and
images of the miscarried fetuses cause worldwide panic among pregnant
women and their partners. The first fetus’s purpose, it turns out, is to
release an egg that initiates a second pregnancy without further
fertilization from sperm. The emotional thumbscrews are tightened when
male partners refuse to believe that their women could become pregnant
for a second time without having sex with other men, and violence
against women spikes worldwide. Further complicating these dynamics is
the possibility, trumpeted by the dangerously ambitious governmental
functionary Mark Augustine, that the SHEVA virus is activating other
ancient retroviruses in the human genome, releasing a pandemic of
diseases unknown for millennia. The resulting world-wide riots,
corporate intrigue, and global panic lead to unprecedented crises in
which the civil rights of SHEVA children and their parents are shredded.

Against
this backdrop is set the drama of Mitch and Kaye, who knowingly have a
SHEVA child, Stella Nova (the new species, they decide, should be named Homo sapiens novus).
Stella evokes from them the traditional desire to protect, nurture, and
love her, so the tension here is not so much between the parents and
child as between the family unit and the society that fears,
stigmatizes, and hunts them. Although Bear could be accused of
sensationalism, insofar as he relies on the raw emotional impact of
aborted fetuses, children born dead with monstrous deformities, and
societal witch-hunts, he nevertheless recognizes the inherent tensions,
conflicts, and social upheavals that would be unleashed by the
appearance of a new generation of children so superior to their parents
that they will obviously be the successor species, spelling the eventual
doom of Homo sapiens sapiens.

Perhaps the most explicit
SF confrontation with transhumanist philosophy occurs in Nancy Kress’s
novella “Beggars in Spain,” later expanded to a novel and a sequel.
Kenzo Yagai is the text’s philosopher-economist who serves as the
fictional counterpart to Ayn Rand, often cited on transhumanist websites
as one of the founding thinkers of the movement.15 Initially infatuated
with Rand’s extreme individualism, its concomitant ideology of
free-market capitalism unhampered by regulation, and a Darwinian
survival-of-the-fittest in which the fit are those who can most
effectively exploit the free market, Kress became disenchanted with
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and wrote “Beggars in Spain” in
rebuttal.17 In Yagaiist philosophy,18 the contract freely entered into
by individuals is seen as the basis for a good society, in part because
it is an advance over social systems based on coercion. The premise is
tested by embedding it in a reproductive context in which Roger Camden,
self-made millionaire and confirmed Yagaiist, arranges for a genetic
intervention that will yield a daughter (intelligent, blond,
long-legged, attractive) who will not need to sleep. Unexpectedly,
however, his wife (a bit player in Camden’s life) conceives twins:
Leisha, the engineered baby, is one of the Sleepless, while Alice is a
“normal” child who requires sleep.

The match-up allows the effects
of this seemingly minor genetic alteration—eliminating the need for
sleep—to be explored and dramatized. While Alice progresses at the usual
rate, Leisha, apple of her father’s eye, zooms ahead of her twin
intellectually. She is Camden’s “special” (i.e.. “real”) daughter not
only because he paid for her genetic alteration but also because she
buys in wholeheartedly to her father’s Yagaiist doctrine of individual
achievement, allowing him to reproduce ideologically as well as
genetically. As with other SF interventions, Kress does not allow the
narrative to remain focused entirely on the individual but rather
sketches a broader social context. The Sleepless form networks among
themselves as they encounter increasing resentment and sanctions from
the majority Sleepers, who contend that the Sleepless have unfair
advantages because they have, in effect, 33% more time at their disposal
in which to study, learn, and achieve. The social landscape in which
Leisha grows up is rife with conflicts between “normal” humans and the
transhuman Sleepless, who as they grow up prove to be not only highly
intelligent and high-achieving but also resistant to aging, with life
expectancies measured is hundreds rather than decades of years. Already
numbering in the hundred thousands, the Sleepless in a dozen generations
appear to be on track to become the successor species to Homo sapiens sapiens (perhaps as Homo sapiens sleepless).

Despite
the growing tensions, Leisha struggles to retain ties to Sleepers,
including her sister Alice. The eponymous “beggars in Spain” represent a
strong challenge to that desire. Her Sleepless friend Tony argues that
high-achieving Sleepless have more to offer than Sleepers and, in the
face of increasing prejudice against them, should withdraw to form their
own society. He asks her if she would give money to a beggar in Spain;
Leisha says yes. Then what about two beggars, three, a hundred, a
thousand? The lesson Tony means to teach is to show that the basis for a
shared society—that is, the contract that reciprocally benefits both
participants—breaks down when those who have nothing to give outnumber
those who have much to give, for any contract must then be unequal and
hence unfair to the privileged.

Of course, there would be other
ways to interpret the conundrum, for example deciding that it shows the
limitations of the contract as a basis for social interactions. This is
the interpretation Leisha eventually chooses, replacing the contract,
and the individualistic ideology that underwrites it with an “ecology of
help” in which assistance is extended even to those who cannot
reciprocate in kind. This modest intervention stops short of a wholesale
critique of Rand’s Objectivism, however, for in this view society is
still be based on exchanges between willing partners, with the
modification that the exchange may be be unequal and indirect, circling
through a network before benefits are returned to the giver. That the
system might be based on entirely different principles than exchange
remains unthought and unarticulated. Despite this limitation, the story,
poignantly conceived and skillfully written, shows that reproduction is
deeply enmeshed with visions of a transhumanist future and the ethical
and social issues it raises.

More startling in its probing
implications is James Patrick Kelly’s novella, “Mr. Boy.”19 This fine
example of SF grotesque inverts the usual perspective; rather than
exploring the dynamics between a parent and transhuman child, it focuses
on the tensions between a transhuman parent and child. The protagonist
is a twenty-five year old male who, at his mother’s behest, has his
genes periodically “stunted” so that his body remains, emotionally and
physically, that of a twelve-year-old boy. Situated in a posthuman
future in which his constant companion is a robot and his best friend
has had himself “twanked” so that he resembles a dinosaur, Mr. Boy
inhabits the site of the mother—literally. She has had her body
transformed into a three-quarter scale replica of the Statue of Liberty,
and Mr. Boy resides within the multistory edifice. He communicates with
his mother via her “remotes,” robots that carry out specific functions
indicated by their names, “Nanny,” “Cook,” “Greeter,” and the sex
couple, “Lovey” and “Dear,” who express and perform Mom’s erotic urges
in a room wired to Liberty’s head, presumably the site of her conscious
(and unconscious) thoughts.

In this grotesque tale, life and death
are systemically confused, each blending into and contaminating the
other. Mr. Boy calls the hospital staff people that oversee his stunting
“stiffs,” and his prized porn collection consists entirely of images of
the dead—preferably with their teeth showing. While his friend Stennie
practices for his first real-life romantic encounter with a girlfriend
by having sex with “Lovey,” Mr. Boy, who sets up with encounter with his
mother’s remote and watches while it proceeds, confesses “I had always
found sex kind of dull.” Turning instead to his corpse porn, he
associates the “soft wet slap of flesh against flesh” with “my mother’s
brain, up there in the head where no one ever went” (179). The mother is
thus both eroticized and “boring,” absent and present, permissive and
imprisoning, presumably alive and yet inanimate. The conflicted and
perverse contexts of reproduction represented here point to the ways in
which advanced technology has been (mis)used to disrupt the age-old
order of things: the mother, instead of watching her son grow up,
intervenes to keep him forever on the child side of puberty; the man,
trapped within a boy’s body, finds excitement in the dead and is bored
by procreation; the separation in which the man leaves the mother behind
to find a mate is forestalled because he continues literally to live
within his mother’s body, as if still in the womb.

Weary of being
stunted, Mr. Boy begins to see his life in a different perspective when
he meets Tree, a young woman whose parents are “realists,” hard-core
resistors who reason that “first came clothes, then jewelry, fashion,
makeup, plastic surgery, skin tints, and hey jack! here we are up to our
eyeballs in the delusions of 2096” (172), careening down the slippery
slope to gene twanking and uploading consciousness into a computer. The
irony of being trapped within Liberty comes to a head (so to speak) when
Mr. Boy discovers there is nothing in the head; his mother had died
years ago and has been running her operation as an uploaded
consciousness. After a final confrontation with Mom, Mr. Boy takes back
his given name “Peter” and finally leaves her, preferring to walk away
rather than go through the court proceedings that would enable him to
claim his family inheritance by declaring her legally dead, uploaders
not being considered persons and so having no legal rights.

One
need not agree with Francis Fukuyama that transhumanism is “the world’s
most dangerous idea” to appreciate the critiques of transhumanism
enacted in these SF fictions.20 When advanced technologies come together
with reproduction to reconfigure metalogical dynamics at every level,
from the individual to the family to the nation-state and globalized
society, it is impossible to predict accurately all the consequences or
to trammel them up, as transhumanist rhetoric implies, using reason,
technology, and science. As the SF fictions interrogated have shown,
evolution has twisted together biology and culture in strands of
enormous complexity, and cutting some of strands with advanced
technologies or rearranging them into pattern altogether different
almost certainly will entail unanticipated consequences and corollary
changes in other areas whose association with the primary changes were
not even known. At issue are the emotional dynamics of population change
as people confront the possibility that Homo sapiens sapiens
may not be the terminys of evolutionary processes; of parents
engendering children so different from them they can scarcely make
contact over the generation gap; of children contemplating parents whose
closely held assumptions are no longer viable in a posthuman future.
Each of these scenarios involves complexities for which the
transhumanist philosophy is simply not able to account or to understand,
much less to explain. Reason is certainly needed, but so are emotion,
systemic analysis, ecological thinking, and ethical consideration. As
Pynchon’s narrator in Gravity’s Rainbow observes, “Everything is connected.”

I
do not necessarily agree with Fukuyama’s argument that we should outlaw
such developments as human cloning with legislation forbidding it (not
least because he falls back on “human nature” as a justification), but I
do think we should take advantage of every available resource that will
aid us in thinking through, as far as we are able, the momentous
changes in human life and culture that advanced technologies make
possible—and these resources can and should include SF fictions. The
framework in which transhumanism considers these questions is, I have
argued, too narrow and ideologically fraught with individualism and
neoliberal philosophy to be fully up to the task. It can best serve by
catalyzing questions and challenging us to imagine fuller
contextualizations for the developments it envisions. Imagining the
future is never a politically innocent or ethically neutral act. To
arrive at the future we want, we must first be able to imagine it as
fully as we can, including all the contexts in which its consequences
will play out.

#PumpUpThaVolume: December 1, 2020