August 26, 2004 6:06 PM

Transhumanism is Dangerous, says Francis Fukuyama

Reason Online reports:

"What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?" That question was posed to eight prominent policy intellectuals by the editors of Foreign Policy in its September/October issue (not yet available online). One of the eight savants consulted was Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. His choice for the world's most dangerous idea? Transhumanism.

I'm amused to see that Transhumanism is being taken seriously enough to be denounced by the intellectual famous for telling us that we have reached the end of history. (Fukuyama's idea of the end of history is the liberal Western democracy. At least this is a more pleasant thought than that of Fukuyama's inspiration Hegel, who believed history ended with the 19th century Prussian state, or another philosopher inspired by Hegel, Karl Marx, who thought the end of history would be the dictatorship of the proletariat.)

For those not in the know, "Transhumanism" is the idea that it may be desirable for humans to transcend their current biological limitations by technological augmentation or transformation. We are all currently limited in our lifespans, and in our physical and intellectual abilities. The transhumanists ask, why be limited? We nearly have the ability to modify ourselves in wonderful new ways, ranging from biochemical modifications all the way up to uploading our consciousnesses into computers. Why not, they ask, be more than human?

I must confess that I, too, espouse this "dangerous idea". I think it would be very pleasant to have a better memory, more intellectual capacity, the ability to think more clearly, a longer (or unbounded) lifespan, etc., and I see very little wrong with taking steps in that direction.

If it offends some people who don't like the idea of changing themselves, well, they can remain as they are. Live and let live. The libertarian principle says everyone should get to live their lives in peace provided they let others do the same, and if they prefer to die after a mere 80 or 100 years, or to leave their minds at their current capacity, I have no objections — so long as they don't interfere with me peacefully pursuing life, liberty and happiness in my own way.

However, there are those out there who aren't happy about people thinking these kinds of thoughts. Fukuyama is hardly the only person worried about the strange doings in the technosphere. Bill Joy has made a bit of a name for himself spreading his own brand of technological alarmism, and there are numerous others.

Am I worried that these anti-technology maunderings will slow the rate of technological progress? Not really. Even if the majority adopts a radically luddite policy (and, in fact, especially if they do), those that disobey will gain a strong competitive advantage. There is therefore fairly strong economic (and by the same token, evolutionary) pressure towards disobedience of such a stricture. In a world with hundreds of countries, some people somewhere will do the sorts of research that the "civilized" deem inappropriate. If the civilized really forswear the same technologies, they won't have the tools with which to stop the "uncivilized" anyway — they'll be out-gunned. There is therefore a very strong reason to believe that, at best, luddism could only slow down technological progress for a while — it could not stop it.

More to the point, although people often fear change, I think that it would be very difficult for governments to organize to stop it very effectively. They would have to do things like banning scientific research, improvements in computer technology, and such. I don't think that is going to happen. Even with substantial negative attention brought to bear, it only took a few years between Dolly the Sheep and the first successful production of cloned human embryos in South Korea. I doubt other attempts to slow progress will be particularly more successful.

The transhumanist idea that Fukuyama worries about is already out there, and ideas cannot be unthought. The transformation of much of the human race will happen. The question now is only whether to join in, or to stay behind, frightened of the opportunities the future will bring.

[Thanks to Monica White for the pointer that inspired this.]

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Categories: Politics, Science & Technology