The Catman Cometh
Among the Transhumanists.
Jun 26, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 39 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what it feels like to wander into a Salvador Dali painting, try attending a conference of transhumanists. Case in point: the symposium "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights" hosted May 26-28 by the Stanford Law School.
Transhumanism is a radical movement emanating from the universities that seeks to enhance human capacities via technology. The ultimate goal is a utopian world of "post-humans," such as human/robot hybrids and human consciousnesses downloaded into computers that will live for thousands of years.
But getting from here to post-humanity will exact a steep moral price. James Hughes, a professor of health policy at Hartford's Trinity College and author of the transhumanist manifesto Citizen Cyborg, insists that we must cast off "human racism," the belief that humans possess unique moral status flowing from their humanity.
In place of humanness as the conveyor of rights, Hughes urges society to substitute "personhood"--a status earned upon achieving "brain birth" and becoming self-aware. Under personhood theory, some humans would be excluded, but all self-aware entities--whether human, post-human, machine, chimera, or robot--would qualify for the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship.
The conference was rife with such futuristic mumbo-jumbo. Nick Bostrom--cofounder of the World Transhumanist Association--wants to protect "post-human dignity." Bostrom once taught at Yale but got promoted to Oxford, where he directs the Future of Humanity Institute. He is currently working out the ethical issues involved in the creation of artificial minds.
While his thoughts remain "a work in progress," Bostrom stated that society must understand that discrimination "based on substrate"--the kind of material from which a being is made, whether organic, silicon, or other--is as odious as racism. Ditto discrimination based on "ontogeny," that is, how a consciousness comes into existence, which I guess means whether it is born, assembled, or hatched.
Other presentations revealed transhumanism to be obsessively solipsistic. The Catman was held up as an example of early transhumanized recreationism. Catman--whose real name is Dennis Avner--has tattooed his face, sharpened his teeth, undergone cosmetic surgeries, had "whisker" implants, and reportedly wants a tail implant--all to make himself look like a cat.
Catman is weird, but of no real concern except for the harm he has done himself. His transhumanizing, after all, is merely skin deep. If he sired a son, the child wouldn't be Kittenboy. But transhumanists ultimately want to do more than make Halloween costumes of their own bodies. Posthuman enhancements are meant to flow down the generations, including through the genetic design of offspring, resulting eventually in the yearned for, radically individualized posthuman species. (Of course, given the power of peer pressure, successful transhumanizing might well result in stultifying sameness, a concern acknowledged by at least one presenter at the conference. Indeed, many of the male transhumanist attendees looked a lot alike, with shaved heads and close-trimmed Vandyke beards.)
No gathering of radical academics would be complete without attacks on the patriarchy. Thus, Annalee Newitz, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, told conferees that a proper feminist transhumanism should "fix" female biology so that women can exert "better control over female evolution." It will also permit "reimagining the family." Posthuman women "will not have to rely on men for genetic material" if they want babies, and men will be able to become biological mothers by being surgically altered. Artificial wombs are a must so that gestation does not keep women from "important work." Until that great day dawns, women can at least be freed from "unnecessary" menstruation through a new birth control pill that inhibits menses for up to three months.
A near-absolute right to be "enhanced"--even if it is physically harmful--was advocated by Susan Stryker, an expert in transgender studies, and Nikki Sullivan, an Australian college lecturer and author of books on tattooing and body modification. Their joint paper on "transsexual surgery and self-demand amputation" seemed to favor--though it was hard to figure out exactly what they were saying--allowing people to have healthy limbs removed if they want to, by analogy with transsexuals, who are permitted to surgically change their sex. The idea, Stryker told me later, is to allow people with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) to become "whole"--even if that means becoming a one-armed man or a legless woman.