The problems with transhumanism
Transhumanism is another form of techno-optimism.
Posted July 7, 2009
I have pondered writing about the transhumanism movement for a while, and the opportunity has finally landed on my desktop when I read a brief article by Kyle Munkittrick of the Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technologies. The article is in the form of a FAQ expressly addressing the question of whether aging is a moral good, and in it Munkittrick briefly explains and (thinks that he) refutes some of the standard arguments against transhumanism. Let’s take a look.
To begin with, what is transhumanism? It is a type of futurist philosophyaimed at transforming the human species by means of biotechnologies. Transhumanists think of disease, aging and even death as both undesirable and unnecessary, and think that technology will eventually overcome them all. I must confess that — despite being a scientist always fascinated by new technologies (hey, I am writing this on a MacBook Pro, I carry an iPhone with me at all times, and I read books on the Kindle!) — I have always been skeptical of utopias of any kind, not excluding the technological variety. Which is why I am using Munkittrick’s short essay as a way to clarify my own thoughts about transhumanism.
Munkittrick begins his own response to critics of transhumanism by stating that if anyone has a problem with technology addressing the issues of disease, aging and death then “by this logic no medical intervention or care should be allowed after the age of 30.” This, of course, is a classic logical fallacy known as a false dichotomy. Munkittrick would like his readers to take one of two stands: either no technological improvement of our lives at all, or accept whatever technology can do for you. But this is rather silly, as there are plenty of other, more reasonable, intermediate positions. It is perfectly legitimate to pick and choose which technologies we want (I vote against the atomic bomb, for instance, but in favor of nuclear energy, if it can be pursued in an environmentally sound way). Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable — indeed necessary — for individuals and society to have a thorough discussion about what limits are or are not acceptable when it comes to the ethical issues raised by the use of technologies (for instance, I do not wish to be kept artificially alive at all costs in case of irreparable damage to my brain, even if it is technologically feasible; moreover, I think it immoral that people are too often forced to spend huge amounts of money for “health care” during the last few weeks or months of their lives).
Munkittrick continues: “Transhumanists are trying to escape aging — and its inevitable symptom, death — because we actually acknowledge it for what it is: a horror.” Well, I personally agree with the general sentiment. As Woody Allen famously put it, I don’t want to be immortal through my work, I want to be immortal through not dying. But to construe death as a “symptom” to the disease of aging is far fetched, and biologically absurd. Aging and death are natural end results of the lives of multicellular organisms, and in a deep sense they are the inevitable outcome of the principles of thermodynamics (which means that we can tinker and delay them, but not avoid them).
There are several problems with the pursuit of immortality, one of which is particularly obvious. If we all live (much, much) longer, we all consume more resources and have more children, leading to even more overpopulation and environmental degradation. Of course, techno-optimists the world over have a ready answer for this: more technology. To quote Munkittrick again: “Malthus didn’t understand that technology improves at an exponential rate, so even though unaided food production is arithmetic, the second Agricultural Revolution allowed us to feed more people by an order of magnitude.” Yes, and how do we explain that more people than ever are starving across the world? Technology does not indefinitelyimprove exponentially, and it must at some point or another crash against the limits imposed by a finite world. We simply don’t have space, water and other prime materials to feed a forever exponentially increasing population. Arguably, it is precisely technology that created the problem of overpopulation, as the original agricultural revolution (the one that happened a few thousand years ago) lead to cycles of boom and bust and to the rapid spread of disease in crowded cities. This may be an acceptable tradeoff (I certainly don’t wish to go back to a hunter-gatherer society), but it does show that technology is not an unqualified good.
Yet, the transhumanist optimist can’t be stopped. Here is more from Munkittrick: “One of the key goals of transhumanism is to get the most advanced and useful technology to developing countries, allowing them to skip industrialization (and the pollution/waste associated) and go straight into late capitalist, post-industrial society, where population growth is negative and mortality rates extremely low.” Besides the fact that with the current global economic meltdown a late capitalist society doesn’t really sound that appealing, do we have any evidence that this is happening, or even possible? The current examples of such transition come from countries like India, China, and Brazil, and those don’t look at all encouraging, as the result seems to be increasing economic disparity and massive amounts of additional pollution. How exactly are transhumanists planning on skipping industrialization?
As for post-industrial societies having negative population growth, this is true of only a very few countries, and certainly not of one of the most massively polluting of them all, the United States. It is true that birth rates are dramatically lower in post-industrial countries in general, but this is the result of education not technology per se. It happens when women realize that they can spend their lives doing something other than being perennial baby factories. Despite this, the world population is still going up, and environmental quality is still dropping dramatically. Technology can surely help us, but it is also (perhaps mostly) a matter of ethical choices: the problem will be seriously addressed only when people abandon the naive and rather dangerous idea that technology can solve all our problems, so that we can continue to indulge in whatever excesses we like.
One last point: Munkittrick depicts what he thinks is an idyllic scenario of people living to 150 (this may not be possible without significant alterations of the human genome, which of course raises additional questions of both feasibility and ethics). He says that “any technology that would extend life beyond the current average of 70-100 would do so by retarding aging as a whole, that is, the degradation that begins to occur after about age 27. Maturation would occur at the same rate, peaking between 22 and 26 depending on the person, but after that preventative medicine and repair techniques would slow aging, resulting in a much longer “prime” age, say extending youthful adulthood (what we think of now as 20’s and 30’s) well into the 50’s and perhaps 60’s. Because these techniques will be far from perfect, aging will still occur to some degree. Like youthful adulthood, middle-age would presumably begin much later and last much longer. So lets say a person reaches genuine old age at 100, with all the problems that reduce one from ‘thriving’ to surviving, leaving them 50 years of old age instead of 20 or 10.” Hmm, I like the first part (extending my prime through my ‘60s), but the latter one seems ghastly. Both from a personal and a societal perspective, fifty years of old age are a hefty price to pay, and one that would be psychologically devastating and further bankrupt our resources. Now if we could consider euthanasia for the really old, non-functional and suffering people... but that’s another discussion.
I do not wish to leave the reader with the impression that I am a Luddite, far from it. But I do think that techno-optimists the world over really ought to fantasize less and pay much more attention to the complexities not just of the logistics, but particularly of the ethics implied by their dreams. Better and longer lives are certainly a worthy goal (though I personally would put the emphasis on quality rather than quantity), but this doesn’t license a mad pursuit for immortality. Besides, true immortality (the ultimate goal if you think of death as a “symptom”) must be unbearable for any sentient being: imagine having so much time on your hands that eventually there will be nothing new for you to do. You would be forced to play the same games, or watch the same movies, or take the same vacation, over and over and over and over. Or you might kill time by reading articles like the one by Munkittrick literally an infinite number of times. Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but at least at the moment we don’t have to live in Hell forever.