- Tech trads embrace traditional values and reproductive technology
- They recognize that all scientific innovations have costs and benefits
- They support the social conditions for the formation of healthy families
Western Civilization has lost its way. Collectively, we have never been richer, and have never known more about how the world works. Science and technology continue to advance, but our societies are pervaded with pathologies that manifest themselves in many forms, including a steep rise in the use of anti-depressants1, a decline in religiosity, and a sense that life has lost its meaning2.
One consequence is that marriage is unpopular and fertility is falling.
Thoughtful people want to know what went wrong, and what we should do next. One of the most original perspectives on these topics comes from Mary Harrington, who coined the term “reactionary feminism.”3
Harrington’s friend, Louise Perry, just published a book4 that brilliantly describes her journey from a progressive feminist to a mother with more traditional views about sex and marriage. Like Harrington, Perry no longer thinks the birth control pill and the sexual revolution that it enabled have been as good for women as we’ve been told. At the very least, they think, we need to re-evaluate the forces unleashed by a technology that separated sex from reproduction.
It is no surprise, then, that Perry and Harrington are skeptical of radical innovations in the realm of reproductive technology. But Harrington goes further than Perry and blames an ideology called “transhumanism” for many of our modern maladies.
Is "Transhumanism" the Problem?
What is transhumanism? And what is an example of a technology that transhumanists endorse?
According to Harrington, “The Pill was the first transhumanist technology: it set out not to fix something that was wrong with ‘normal’ human physiology…but instead, it introduced a whole new paradigm.”5 Transhumanism, on this view, is the aspiration to use technology to improve the capacities of ourselves or our children above what is normal for our species.
I agree with Harrington’s point that the pill has had large and often unacknowledged costs—including its psychological effects on women,6 and the ways it has altered norms around dating and sex.7 But transhumanism, as she describes it, has little to do with this.
“Transhumanism” is a new term—one that most people have never heard of—so it’s not plausible to blame our current social problems on it. More importantly, if we think of transhumanism as the view that we should use science and technology to try to rise above what is normal for our species, then the transhumanist project is as old as civilization.
Technology is a tool with costs and benefits. It can be used to improve or worsen the human condition. And it can have unanticipated effects. But technologies that aim to improve our capacities need not be part of some sinister transhumanist agenda.
For example, the invention of agriculture brought a steady supply of food and enabled cities to emerge. But it also led to monocultured crops that were more susceptible to blight, and the transmission of zoonotic diseases like influenza from newly domesticated animals. Despite the problems it initially spawned, agriculture is now a key reason we live longer and healthier lives.
Without innovations in farming—including chemical fertilizers, and the selective breeding and engineering of crops and livestock—the world could not support billions of people. And without antibiotics and vaccines, we could not live in cities without a continual onslaught of plagues.
Harrington might argue that inventions like modern agriculture, and medicines like antibiotics and vaccines, are different from reproductive technologies.
I think this is wrong.
Vaccines create capacities that don’t exist in nature, and antibiotics—most of which are synthetic—facilitate surgeries that allow us to improve and extend our lives beyond what is “normal” for our species.
The desire to elevate our capacities beyond what is normal did not begin with contraception or with an abstract ideology called “transhumanism.” It is so old that it is embedded in one of the foundational myths of our civilization—the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to improve the human condition from the cruelty of nature.
Technology and Tradition
The desire to improve our capacities is especially understandable once we realize that evolution does not always select for health or happiness or longevity. In fact, it rewards wretched behaviors like rape and infanticide toward non-kin to the extent that these behaviors increase the chance that our genes will find their way into future bodies. Surely we should be free to try to improve what nature has given us. This is even more urgent when we consider the rise in mutational load in modern populations, which civilization has facilitated through subsidized medical care and social welfare programs.8
Still, Harrington is right that freedom should not override all other values when it comes to creating children, and Perry is right that sex and marriage are about more than just consent and autonomy. We have reasons to be cautious about the broader social implications of reproductive technologies.
But Harrington has another anxiety about technology that I think we should reject. The worry is egalitarian: “I predict that should we find a ‘cure’ for aging, it won’t be universally available. It will be prohibitively expensive, and serve primarily as a tool for further consolidating wealth and power.”
This objection is misguided for two reasons: First, all innovations start off expensive and clunky. But when the rich spend money on them, economies of scale emerge. Whether we’re talking about bifocals or books, markets make innovations cheaper and better, and ultimately more widely accessible. And, of course, governments can subsidize this process. A second and more important problem with Harrington’s argument is that it is guided by the egalitarian ideals that have produced our current political order.
The techno traditionalist—to coin a term in the spirit of Harrington—reaches farther back in time, to a different set of values.
Tech trads endorse the Platonic ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. They embrace the Aristotelian idea that happiness comes from a life of excellence rather than hedonism. And they understand, following Darwin and Nietzsche, that the natural abilities needed to attain a good life are unevenly distributed within and between populations. For this reason, they are willing to allow inequalities to emerge in the service of other transcendent values.
Tech trads want to use scientific innovations to improve and extend their own lives, and the lives of their children. They want to make these available to the entire community as well. They embrace these technologies even if using them violates the intuition—undoubtedly a useful heuristic in ancestral conditions—that what is normal is healthy and what is abnormal is worthy of suspicion.
Like reactionary feminism, “techno traditionalism” is a playful term in an age of memes. But the idea behind it is serious. A reproductive revolution is coming—embryo selection for mental and physical traits is right around the corner, and the technology that will supercharge it (in vitro gametogenesis) is only a few years away.
Harrington and Perry are valuable voices in an age of intellectual conformity. They are right to ask whether the “progress” endorsed by those who call themselves progressives is real. But I think they are wrong about certain aspects of reproductive technology.
I write this in a spirit of friendly disagreement, recognizing that it is better to openly debate the values we want our civilization to stand for than to wake up with a hangover in a pub, stumbling around with bleary eyes, wondering how we got there.