“The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.” – G.K. Chesterton
If you could enhance your intelligence, significantly extend your lifespan, or overcome a moral flaw with the help of surgery or pharmaceuticals, would you do it? What if you could make these same improvements in your children before they are even born?
Herein lies the question at the center of the growing movement known as transhumanism: if technology could enable you to enhance your life in some way, would you do it, even if it meant losing part of your humanity in the process?
Transhumanism has been called everything from a cultural impulse to a formal school of thought by those who study it. “It is the desire to use technology to go beyond, to transcend, the current condition of humanity to give human beings greater intellectual, physical, and even moral powers,” said Michael Cook, editor of MercatorNet, an online magazine focused on bioethics and the dignity of the human person.
“In explaining this, its advocates sometimes say that we are all transhumanists,” said Cook. “We use glasses; we wear dentures; we take caffeine; we have pacemakers. This is true, but the nub of transhumanism is extending human capacities, not just repairing defects in the way we are now.”
“For instance, some transhumanists want to live for a thousand years. They believe that ageing is not inevitable. Some want…to be Olympic athletes, or Einsteins,” said Cook.
The means proposed to do this, typically, are surgery, drugs, and genetic engineering, with the last of these being the most dangerous, according to Cook. “If—and it’s a bit of an ‘if’—you can genetically engineer children for intelligence, strength, speed, and longevity, would they become a different species? Maybe,” he said.
“Transhumanists, in general, aren’t too worried about this. Their future will divide homo sapiens into two sub-species, the gen-poor (genetically poor) and the gen-rich. To me, it’s a bit like the ghastly scenario envisaged by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine—a world divided into the Eloi and the Morlochs.”
The transhumanism narrative is becoming more mainstream. Pop culture references and commercials (such as this one from Verizon) hyping men and women becoming “one” with their latest technological toys abound; last year an Italian transhumanist was elected to parliament.
“Human life is shaped by a balance of abilities and liabilities flowing from our given nature. We enter a world not of our own making, under conditions we did not choose, in circumstances over which we have little control,” said Dr. John Haldane, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “These limit our options but they also make possible human virtue and through that, human happiness. Courage, fidelity, fortitude, generosity, hope, moderation, perseverance, are all cultivated in response to the limitations of circumstance and nature.”
“Transhumanists, however, urge us to reject these limitations using science and technology to go beyond our natures,” said Haldane. “But first, this may involve violating our deepest values; and second, the belief that it may free us to be happy is illusory for happiness only comes with wisdom, and wisdom involves living within limits.”
When it comes to improving our lot in life, what is morally acceptable? “Things that are remedial for disease or [health] conditions [are morally acceptable]. We can use technology to make our lives more human,” said Father Edward Richard, a moral theologian and pastor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Sulphur, Louisiana. “We don’t want to serve technology; we want it to serve us. When we enter the realm of eugenics or trying to supplant or ignore God’s providential plan for humanity, we have clearly exceeded the limits of what is morally acceptable.”
“Tranhumanism falls essentially into the broader pattern of thinking…we call eugenics. Eugenics has been around over 100 years as a movement,” said Father Richard. “It was very strong in the US in the early 20th century, and led to the whole idea of a ‘super race’ in Germany.” Unlike old-school eugenics, however, transhumanism is able to take advantage of previously unimaginable technologies, he said.
Atheism, along with the blending of evolutionary theory and technology, is at the heart of transhumanism, Cook said. “The central idea of transhumanism is that the destiny of our species is completely, wholly, up to us,” he explained. “There is no sense of the divine providence, God looking after us, which is so characteristic of Christian thinking. So now that we have the technology, it is time to take responsibility for our evolution. Until now, the evolution of man has been random, but from now on, man can take responsibility for choosing what powers he can have.”
Everything old is new again
Is transhumanism a new idea? Not at its core, according to Father Richard and Cook. “Transhumanism has a gnostic element to it,” said Father Richard. “It seems to have a contempt for our humanity as it is ‘confined’ in or limited to the present state of our corporeal existence. Our higher selves are being limited by the capacity of our bodies. There is a contempt for the flesh.” All of these ideas are characteristic of gnostic and Manichean thought, he said.
One idea that proponents of transhumanism recycle is as old as humanity itself. “[T]he phrase ‘ye shall be as gods’ springs to mind,” said Cook. “Take Ray Kurzweil [director of engineering for Google], for instance. He predicts that we will be able to upload our entire brains to computers within the next 32 years—an event known as [the] singularity. Eventually we will become immortal. Yes, it does sound familiar.”
Father Richard said one of the problems is that until you have specific proposals—such as attempting to make the consciousness of a person immortal, or replacing normal human reproduction with a technological process—it is difficult to say when a line has been crossed. “However, transhumanism constitutes a rejection of the providence of God, so activities motivated by transhumanist goals will be considered immoral,” Father Richard explained. “If the only conceivable purpose of a particular act is transhumanist, no matter the intention, it would be intrinsically evil.”
While living for hundreds of years or merging with a computer may sound crazy, there are plenty of intelligent, influential, and sometimes wealthy people who are proponents of transhumanism, according to Cook. “[A] leading transhumanist, Nick Bostrum, a Swede, teaches philosophy at Oxford University, a stronghold of transhumanist thinking. He heads up the Future of Humanity Institute there, which looks into our journey towards a new kind of humanity and preparing for global catastrophes,” he said. “There are a number of institutes and think-tanks which promote the study of transhumanist futures.”
“Peter Thiel, billionaire co-founder of PayPal, donates to transhumanist projects,” Cook continued. He also mentioned Ray Kurzweil. “[Kurzweil] is one of the best-known theorists of transhumanism. He was the subject of a recent mainstream documentary called Transcendent Man. He was recently hired by Google as a director of engineering precisely because of his ‘visionary’ ideas.”
Where is transhumanism taking us?
Just where have transhumanists taken us thus far, and how much has our own culture allowed them to achieve? “Cloning, immoral stem cell research, combining of human and animal genes” are all activities that complement transhumanism, according to Father Richard.
“Adult stem cell research is moral and useful,” Father Richard explained. “Things like cloning, though, or combining of genes in the laboratory—that [is where] transhumanism is going to take shape. Work like this is already being attempted.”
According to Haldane, “transhumanist thinking is guaranteed to produce discontent, but rather than respect limits, it seeks to remove them, so it will be ever-more denigrating of incapacity and disability, urging genetic engineering, preimplantation screening and selection—‘seeding and weeding’ and neo-eugenics.”
“Beware the phrase ‘No one would want to be born in such a state,’ for it is a moving standard and today’s normals will become tomorrow’s handicapped,” said Haldane.
Others want to solve moral problems on a large, transhumanist scale. “For example, another Oxford professor, Julian Savulescu, is worried about original sin,” said Cook. “Of course he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what he means: our ineradicable tendency to screw things up, to be violent, predatory, and uncooperative. His solution is drugs in the water and genetic engineering. If people were to take his proposals seriously, society would suffer. People with defects, physical, intellectual or moral, would be regarded as sub-human.”
According to Father Richard, tranhumanism is presenting moral dilemmas for those in the scientific and medical fields. “I have gotten calls from medical students and researchers who are being challenged by the directions their fields are taking them,” he said. “What I always tell them is that the Church needs you, and needs you in these fields, so that the evangelizing can take place. Then, we try to work out as clearly as possible what morality will allow.”
Father Richard said it is important to have scientists who are faithful to the Church. “We see what can be used that is consistent with the Gospel, and what isn’t, we transform. By doing this we contribute to civilization.”
Transhumanism in its more subtle forms
Francis Fukuyama, political scientist and author, has called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea.” “In theory, that’s probably true,” said Father Richard. “[It would mean] the end of the human race.”
Cook said he does not believe transhumanism is the world’s most dangerous idea, but that, as a cultural impulse, it has many perils.
“[I]t is dangerous because we have all absorbed a bit of transhumanist thinking,” said Cook. “It is widely believed that we need technology to make us normal and happy, and this is a deeply flawed and dangerous notion. For instance, how should we combat obesity? With drugs and bariatric surgery, or with willpower and exercise? How do you get kids to behave? Give them Ritalin. How do you solve the epidemic of teen pregnancies? With the morning-after pill. This kind of thinking is dangerous and deeply inhuman.”
We know what the Church teaches about the use of the morning-after pill, but is the use of Ritalin or bariatric surgery always immoral? “This question is a bit more complicated than one might think,” said Father Richard. “Even if there is a moral issue involved, medical assistance is not thereby morally prohibited. If there is no valid medical reason that justifies the use of a drug or surgery, their use would be sinful, considering the possible harm that might come from the drug or the mutilation of the body in the surgery.”
“There have been all sorts of little things that take place in the culture, maybe somewhat subtle,” said Richard. “People who don’t possess certain characteristics or aren’t productive enough should receive the same kind of treatment as others.”
“I think that Western society is slowing losing its sense of community and its traditional, rich sense of humanity, based on centuries of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” said Cook. “Transhumanism, in its weak and strong forms, attempts to supplement this. I think it is doomed to failure and obscurity as a footnote to history, but its solutions might seem plausible for a while and they will cause much suffering.”
Dr. Jose Perez Adan, a sociologist at the University of Valencia in Spain, believes that transhumanism should be of grave concern to Catholics and everyone else. We should be concerned “from a theological point of view because Christ, the measure of all things, was and is human, not transhuman,” said Adan. “And from a secular point of view, [we should be concerned] because transhumanism implies the destruction of humanity. It is far worse than abortion, crime, war, and sectarian genocide put all together.”
Earlier this year in Madrid, Dr. Adan and other pro-life and pro-family supporters got together for the first congress to examine the global abuse of science and technology in transhumanist and futurist efforts. Out of this congress came the Madrid Declaration, a document that upholds the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person.
According to Adan, transhumanism and futurism present many long-term dangers. “From the moment we understand that every scientific experiment, project, patent, or discovery is good and positive if the intention is good…[if we] do not pay attention to long-term consequences, side-effects, or deontological reasons, we end up justifying the unjustifiable,” said Adan. “That was the very same ‘justification’ of the Holocaust, and that is why transhumanism is wrong: it has terrible consequences and side-effects for humanity and is deontologically unsound.”