The Magazine

The Catman Cometh

Among the Transhumanists.

Jun 26, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 39 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Matters became even more surreal when George Dvorsky, deputy editor of the online transhumanist journal Betterhumans, asserted that people have a moral duty to use genetic and other enhancements to "uplift" animals to human levels of intelligence--at which point animals, too, are to achieve some sort of engagement with the Internet. "Nature causes suffering," Dvorsky said. "The goal is to end all suffering," including animal predation against other animals. Thus, all mammalian life--including us--must become "post-biological," and so eliminate suffering by moving us all beyond the "hazards of nature."

For all of its emphasis on enhancement, the emotional core of transhumanism is a yearning for immortality. This obsession with defeating death made the eccentric transhumanist anti-aging researcher, Cambridge professor Aubrey de Grey, the clear star of the conference. De Grey's presentation was entitled "Our Right to Life." It had to do not with abortion or euthanasia but with humans' putative right never to die.

To actualize this right, de Grey--whose long, dark beard and ponytail make him look like a cross between ZZ Top and Rasputin--is working on a "cure" for human aging that will erase the "physiological differences between older and younger adults." This effort, along with his cofounding of the Methuselah Mouse Prize that will award millions to scientists who break records for extending the lifespan of mice, has made de Grey something of an international media darling, in particular the subject of an admiring segment on 60 Minutes.

De Grey is obsessed with his work and believes we should be too. He told the conferees that inaction--society's unwillingness to make the arresting of aging its top scientific funding priority--is really a form of action, akin to killing the people who would be saved if the research were bounteously supported. He even asserted that anti-aging research is more important than access to health care in Africa, and he likened the withholding of funds from anti-aging research to "killing with a time bomb in a car."

We shouldn't take all of this too seriously, of course. Transhumanism is mostly an intellectual game, a fantasy. The technological breakthroughs necessary to create a true post-humanity will almost surely never come.

But this doesn't mean that transhumanism is benign--far from it. Dismissing the intrinsic value of human life is always dangerous, and presuming to determine which human traits are desirable and which not leads to very dark places. Thus, a new eugenics has arisen. About 90 percent of Down's syndrome babies are aborted in the United States. In Brave New Britain, late-term babies with correctable conditions such as cleft palates and clubfeet are being aborted, while embryos are destroyed because they exhibit a genetic propensity to adult onset cancer. Meanwhile, many bioethicists urge that we redefine death to include a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state so that the organs of the cognitively devastated can be harvested.

Perhaps predictably, government is being seduced by transhumanist fantasies. In 2002, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Commerce issued a report--"Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance"--that recommended government spend billions pursuing technologies that transhumanists crave. Sounding a lot like Aubrey de Grey (and Al Gore), the report warns that success "is essential to the future of humanity." If we but pursue the dream, it enthuses, "the twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment. . . . [H]umanity would become like a single, distributed and interconnected 'brain' based in new core pathways of society."

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, a $773,000 down payment on those billions was just paid by the National Institutes of Health to Case Law School in Cleveland for a two-year project to determine whether and how "ethically acceptable rules" could "establish the safety and efficacy of genetic technologies intended for enhancement rather than therapy," enhancement being defined as improving "form and function beyond the base-line of normalcy." By paying bioethicists to contemplate and perhaps draft guidelines for future human enhancement research, NIH is encouraging scientists to embrace the transhumanist dream.

Transhumanists like to say that their movement cannot be stopped, that we are already on the slippery slope to the posthuman future, so we might as well enjoy the ride. And it is true: We increasingly use technologies and medications intended originally for therapeutic purposes to "enhance" ourselves. Cosmetic surgery is a growth industry, steroid use is rampant, and Viagra isn't just used to treat impotence anymore. And medical advances will continue to increase life expectancy and health in old age.