To Be, Or Not To Be (Human)

Charles Rubin’s "Eclipse of Man" demonstrates the right way for scholars to grapple with the multi-faceted questions raised by advances in biotechnology, robotics, and computing

[photos: | © lculig © jim]

“The only reason we are still alive is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition.” – Gerhard Kruger (1902-72)

In Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel Childhood’s End (1953), a mysterious alien race known as the Overlords land on Earth. Swiftly establishing a benevolent dictatorship, the Overlords put an end to war and want and transform the world into a tranquil, rationalist utopia.

They do this not for the sake of mankind per se, however, but to pave the way for the next leap in human evolution—a leap which occurs years later, when human parents mysteriously beget superhuman children. With the watchful Overlords as their guardians, these children eventually abandon human form and merge into a disembodied collective supermind which roves the galaxy at the speed of thought. Meanwhile and for reasons not entirely clear, the human race loses its will to live, which is just as well since the transformation of the mutant children into a new collective life form unleashes terrible cosmic forces. Said forces destroy the Earth.

As Charles Rubin suggests in Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress, Clarke’s Childhood’s End possesses virtues that should not be casually dismissed, however objectionable the novel might be in many ways. C. S. Lewis, of all people, regarded the novel with admiration. Whatever else Clarke got wrong, felt Lewis, his story was at least motivated by a sense of man’s ultimate aim being grander and more marvelous than a cozy world of well-manicured lawns and secure pensions. That said, the story also reflects a regrettably fideistic attitude toward Progress. Such fideism remains strong to this day, even after all the ecological, social, and political catastrophes of the 20th century. Concerns about nuclear war, the greenhouse effect, and bioterrorism have even led some to “double down” on progressive ideology by calling for the transformation of man into an alien being.

The growing number who call for such a transformation are known as transhumanists. As Rubin explains,

Transhumanists argue not only that modern science and technology are giving human beings the power to take evolution into our own hands to improve the human species, and then to create some new species entirely, but also the ability to improve on all of nature. Much like the older apocalyptic visions [of the environmentalist movement], the transhumanists believe that mankind as we know it and nature as we know it are on their way out; but for most transhumanists, that is the deliberate goal sought, not a consequence of our hubris to be avoided. Indeed, the transhumanists believe that if we are to prevent some of the more common apocalyptic visions from becoming reality, we must redesign humanity so that our ruinous flaws can be eliminated. To avoid mere destruction, we must embrace creative destruction.

As with any movement, the sub-ideologies found within transhumanism are legion. Some transhumanists believe the future lies with a deified artificial intelligence based upon unimaginably powerful nanotechnology; others anticipate cybernetic and genetic enhancements leading to human-animal hybrids and indefinite lifespans; still others more modestly dwell on the possibility of using new pharmaceutical techniques and virtual reality to alter man’s consciousness. What all share is the conviction that man must use his powers to radically reinvent himself—the sooner, the better.

Responding to this conviction, Rubin warns that “[a]nything we actually accomplish will be the product of limited and flawed creators, so the odds are that our creations will of necessity perpetuate those limits and imperfections.” He even suggests that in some cases technology does not merely perpetuate our imperfections, but aggravates and magnifies them:

How much confidence is appropriate, then, in our abilities to wield the great powers that are being promised to us? We can hardly afford to act on the basis of thinking that because we can imagine a day when we are without human vices, we can therefore ignore their reality when presented technologies that could be used to help them flourish.

Where the utopian progressive sees in overconsumption, pollution, and nuclear stockpiles a need for even greater power over nature, others might suggest that what is called for is a greater commitment to restraint and self-discipline. Rather than covet a set of more powerful tools, modern man might instead pause to master the extraordinary ones he already has—a very challenging, arduous project, especially if we understand “mastery” to have moral, spiritual, and cultural dimensions. Rubin explores these dimensions by considering Tolstoy’s critique of Enlightenment abstraction in War and Peace, as well as by way of artistic treatments of the legend of Daedalus and Icarus. Such forays into the humanities seem to me especially appropriate for an attempt to champion the human inheritance, and so without reservation I can recommend Rubin’s book. It demonstrates the right way for scholars to grapple with the multi-faceted questions raised by advances in biotechnology, robotics, and computing.

There is one thing I should emphasize more strongly than does Rubin—namely, the fact that transhumanism is hardly a deviant conspiracy against a basically sound liberal democratic milieu. On the contrary, the transhumanists I have met were not so much misanthropic freaks as they were persons intellectually honest enough to carry America’s liberal universalist orthodoxy to its logical conclusion. When Rubin characterizes transhumanists as seeking to “embrace creative destruction,” I cannot help observing that the doctrine in question is the normative principle of America’s political and intellectual leaders—even including, strangely enough, many of those who identify themselves as “conservative”.

Consider, for example, the following sentiments, expressed by highly regarded conservative pundit Michael Ledeen in his 2002 book The War Against The Terror Masters:

Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep pace. Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone. They cannot feel secure so long as we are there, for our very existence— our existence, not our politics—threatens their legitimacy. They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission.

Were the author of these words himself a card-carrying transhumanist, it is difficult to imagine him being more implacably hostile toward any tradition (whatever it may be) or more indifferent to the concerns of those who find trends in modern art and cinema and politics alienating. Indeed, I’m not sure even a transhumanist would be quite so quick to lump the traditional Christian homeschooling mother of eight in with Islamic terrorists. And lest any reader mistake Ledeen’s commentary for a mere anomaly from the Bush II Era, let it be noted that even more responsible figures like Rand Paul have been known to express uncritical enthusiasm for “the creative destruction of the marketplace.”

My point? Far from being radically opposed to the ideals of 21st-century liberal democracy, the transhumanist agenda is a natural outgrowth of America’s bipartisan consensus, a consensus neatly summarized a few months ago by President Obama: We are “people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.”

And let me add that Childhood’s End is much less removed from real-world experience than one might think. Whatever other significance it has, Clarke’s novel is a revealing parable of the experience of “flyover country” at the hands of America’s economic and cultural elite. To this elite the ongoing disintegration of traditional small-town American life seems not only inevitable but desirable, a necessary stage in America’s metamorphosis into a supposedly higher mode of existence. Hence local economies have been assimilated by giant anonymous corporations; motherhood has been displaced by careerism and daycare centers; coherent neighborhoods within which maturing children might find existential bearings have given way to hypermobility; folk tales and family history have been supplanted by TV programming and comic book mutants manufactured in New York City.

Would-be bioconservatives must not kid themselves, then. Genetic engineering and cybernetics and transhumanist schemes entirely aside, a great deal of dehumanization has been accomplished already, and coping with this dehumanization must be our first priority. Whatever President Obama or anyone else may say, the past was never a trap from which to escape; it is a foundation upon which to build. It is through tradition that we expand our imaginations, reach beyond our limited individual experiences, and avoid the real traps of amnesia and narcissism.

Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress
by Charles T. Rubin
Encounter Books, 2014
Hardcover, 200 pages


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About Jerry Salyer 54 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.