Transhumanism: Will our current human nature be a mere phase?
Part of the Philosophy Papers series
Our current understanding of human nature will be a mere phase to future generations for three main reasons. First, the unstoppable development of technology will ensure that elements of transhumanism will be incorporated into human nature. Second, the extrinsic properties of human nature are constantly developing. Finally, our future generations may not be human but posthuman. However, the implications of the increasing cyborgisation of human bodies will have problematic consequences. Individuals will have less control over themselves due to possible actions taken by hackers, governments, and corporations. Furthermore, society will see a greater increase in inequality due to the differing quality and exclusivity of certain human enhancements, which will impact class structures and sexual relationships. After arguing these points, I will respond to some objections. First, I will explore how our current understanding of human nature will be considered a phase.
Technological development cannot be stopped. The competitive nature of our globalist era means that pursuing technological development is an advantage over other governments or corporations. The only way for the development of technology to be stopped is if everyone agreed to it, which is unrealistic. Will this unstoppable development of technology necessarily lead to a transhumanist future? Max Tegmark (2018, pp. 134-160) and Nick Bostrom (2014, pp. 22-51) both outline similar paths as to how technology could develop. They both discuss transhumanist futures around brain-computer interfaces, eugenics, and cyborgisation and come to similar conclusions. While these ideas are not the best way to accelerate technological growth, there is enough interest in these areas to make them genuine possibilities. So, will these developments in transhuman technologies lead to a change in human nature?
Here it is important to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of human nature. By intrinsic aspects, I mean the essence of what it means to be human. By extrinsic aspects, I mean the characteristics of being human such as the thoughts, emotional expression, and actions that humans do. While I disagree that the essence of being human could ever change, the extrinsic properties of human nature are constantly developing. Human thought, artistic expression, and accomplishments have progressed drastically over the ages. There is no doubt that the developments in cyborgisation will continue to alter these extrinsic aspects of human nature. The stage where humanity becomes posthuman will be a significant change in this development. Just as we currently view Neanderthals as a mere phase in the understanding of how we have become human, posthumans will also view us in the same light. I would even argue that the fact that we are even discussing the ideas of transhumanism is an indication that this development in human nature has already begun. Individuals break up their life into phases. Society will divide its history based on significant events. It seems only natural that humanity, as a whole, would do the same. However, this new phase of humanity will not come without serious consequences.
The consequences for Individuals seem to stem from a lack of control as the cyborgisation of humans will create vulnerabilities in the parts of the body where technology is integrated. This could then lead to possible exploitation from malicious individuals, governments, and corporations. The irony of transhumanism being an individualist pursuit of self-transcendence (Giesen, 2004)[i], then leading to greater restrictions on liberty, is not a novel joke. Slavoj Zizek (2018, p. 21) details how new technology is presented in such a way as to emphasise its benefits while surreptitiously hiding the new forms of control that it brings. This can be seen in Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a body-machine interface (BMI), which describes itself as a medical device (Neuralink). However, this BMI could have serious consequences.
In Black Mirror’s Shut Up and Dance (Netflix, 2016), a hacker blackmails people into doing various jobs for him by threatening to release compromising material of them to friends and family. While this hacker only used data from phones and laptops, a hacker with access to someone’s internal thoughts, memories, vision, and other neurological processes would be in an even greater position to blackmail people. However, this is not the only threat that could come from a hacker. Scientists have recently been able to control the movement of mice through a similar technology (Munshi et al., 2017). So, what would stop a hacker from hijacking an entire person’s body with a BMI? This new relationship between technology and the mind leaves a person vulnerable to a greater exterior influence.
Governments could exploit this new relationship in the name of security by monitoring if someone is about to commit a crime. This could lead the government to hijack a person’s body to prevent them from continuing their crime and make it easier for police to arrest them. This Orwellian future may seem outrageous to many people, but this is a logical step to what many governments already do regarding surveillance. Furthermore, this can also lead to exploitation by corporations. The Social Dilemma (Orlowski, 2020) shows that companies have been using technology to manipulate people’s behaviours to get them to buy more products. With a device that can potentially connect to an individual’s Mesocorticolimbic circuit, a corporation’s ability to manipulate behaviour will exponentially increase. A company could offer a free program to entice customers to install into their BMI, which may provide a valuable service while monitoring the brain for information that can be sold or directly manipulating the brain to increase desire for certain products. This loss of control for the individual is a significant risk for the implementation of cyborgisation. However, there are also societal consequences when viewed from a wider perspective.
A society that fully embraces transhuman ideas will also have to embrace greater amounts of inequality. Genetic engineering and mechanical enhancements will inevitably vary in quality and price. Those who can afford better enhancements will have significant advantages over those who may only afford basic enhancements, who will have advantages over those who cannot afford them at all. These advantages will not be linear either but compounding. Those with these biological and mechanical advantages will earn more money than their less enhanced counterparts. This extra wealth can then purchase even better enhancements for their children, and the cycle continues. This can be likened to a biological form of capital, which means the rich will inevitably be the ones who first become posthumans. The new struggle will not be between fellow men over wealth but between two different species over their future.
While this future may be centuries down the track, a more immediate form of inequality will be around sexual relationships. The movie Gattaca (Niccol, 1997) is set in a not-to-distant future where genetic manipulation is commonplace for parents who want to have the best children. The film depicts a service where finding a suitable partner based on their genetic makeup is readily available. I believe this service would be very likely if we were to pursue a future of normalising genetically altering offspring. The problem of inequality becomes evident when one starts to add this new factor in the dynamics within a relationship. Genetic ‘superiority’ in one of the partners could lead to the assumption that the genetically inferior partner must be submissive. Surrogacy may become more popular as a genetically ‘superior’ surrogate would be better than the romantic partner for producing an enhanced offspring. Sex for conceiving would become uncommon and would then change the perspective on sex towards maximising pleasure. The consequences for this could lead to the partners rarely having sex with each other as other methods may become more pleasurable. These ideas highlight the potential shifts within the dynamic of a relationship. In comparison, today, inequalities within relationships are usually due to local laws and perceptions around gender roles. Adding biological factors into the relationship dynamic would only exacerbate these inequalities.
Proponents of transhumanism have objected to these arguments around inequality. They argue that either the increase of inequality is not sufficient reason to stop this development (Bostrom, 2003; Tamburrini, 2007) or that inequality is not based on biology but political philosophies (Ronald, 2011). However, both arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. The argument about inequality not being a sufficient reason to prevent the development of this technology inherently makes a value judgement. To argue that the benefit of this technology outweighs the potential consequences of inequality only reaffirms the idea that this technology would ever be beneficial. However, Transhumanists tend to be overly optimistic about how their technology will transcend any negative consequences that may follow from them. This appeal to a utilitarian argument does not provide any substantial grounds for why we should implement this technology in the first place (Levin, 2021, pp. 137-160). The second objection about inequality not being based on biology contradicts the arguments from other transhumanists (Bostrom, 2008). If this technology aims to help humans transcend their own species, would we argue that there is no inequality among differing species? Is man equal to the fish, the dog, or the worm? However, even if we were to look at enhanced humans and say that the only way there can be inequality is if the political philosophy made it that way. What is to stop the introduction of enhanced humans leading to changes in political philosophy? While the inequality may lie in political philosophy, it was the inequality in biology that led to political changes.
In conclusion, I have argued that future generations will see our current understanding of human nature as a phase in the development of our species. This is due to the inevitability of this technology, the constant development of human nature, and future generations possibly no longer being human. I also argued that the consequences of cyborgisation would lead to a loss of control for individuals and greater inequality within society. I also responded to objections about the benefits of this technology outweighing any inequality. Therefore, we should use this remaining time to seriously consider how we will tackle these potential problems that may arise sooner than we think.
Bostrom, N. (2003). Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective. The Journal of value inquiry, 37(4), 493-506. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:INQU.0000019037.67783.d5
Bostrom, N. (2008). Letter from Utopia. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.2202/1941-6008.1025
Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (1 ed.). Oxford University Press.
Fukuyama, F. (2003). Our posthuman future: consequences of the biotechnology revolution. Profile Books.
Fukuyama, F. (2012). The end of history and the last man (20th anniversary ed. ed.). Hamish Hamilton.
Giesen, K.-G. (2004). Transhumanisme et génétique humaine [Transhumanism and Human Genetics]. L'Observatoire de la génétique, 16. https://iatranshumanisme.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/no-16.pdf
Jotterand, F., & Levin, S. B. (2019). Moral Deficits, Moral Motivation and the Feasibility of Moral Bioenhancement. Topoi, 38(1), 63-71. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9472-x
Levin, S. B. (2021). Posthuman bliss?: the failed promise of transhumanism. Oxford University Press.
Munshi, R., Qadri, S. M., Zhang, Q., Rubio, I. C., del Pino, P., & Pralle, A. (2017). Magnetothermal genetic deep brain stimulation of motor behaviors in awake, freely moving mice. eLife, 6. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.27069
Netflix. (2016, 21 October 2016). Shut Up and Dance (Season 3, Episode 3). In C. Brooker, Black Mirror.
Neuralink. Applications. Retrieved 20 July 2021 from https://neuralink.com/applications/
Niccol, A. (1997). Gattaca D. DeVito, M. Shamberg, S. Sher, & G. Lyon; Sony Pictures.
Orlowski, J. (2020). The Social Dilemma L. Rhodes; Netflix.
Packman, C. (2009). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama. London: Profile Books, 2003. Rethinking Marxism, 21(2), 317-323. https://doi.org/10.1080/08935690902940270
Ronald, B. (2011). The Case for Enhancing People. New Atlantis (Washington, D.C.)(32), 16-38.
Tamburrini, C. M. (2007). What’s wrong with genetic inequality? The impact of genetic technology on elite sports and society. Sport, ethics and philosophy, 1(2), 229-238. https://doi.org/10.1080/17511320701425249
Tegmark, M. (2018). Life 3.0. Penguin Books.
Zizek, S. (2018). Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. Allen Lane (Penguin).
 If the essence of being human (intrinsic nature) were to change then it would no longer be human. This is the case with the idea of the ‘posthuman’, where posthumans are not human but something essentially different.
 Also known as the reward system.
 Or a device connected to the BMI
[i] “…les transhumanistes transposent l’approche néolibérale de l’économie à la génétique humaine: une sorte de main invisible régulerait automatiquement les microdécisions individuelles et garantirait les mutations successives de l’espèce humaine vers une nouvelle espèce. Nous avons en effet affaire à la parabole d’un marché autorégulateur qui, là aussi, supprime la sphère politique, c’est-à-dire les décisions collectives. Il est vrai que les transhumanistes sont dans leur immense majorité des libertarians anarchocapitalistes convaincus des seules vertus du marché, et que les oeuvres du théoricien neoliberal Friedrich von Hayek figurent sur pratiquement toutes les listes de lectures recommandées. Mais leurs inégalitarisme décomplexé et méritocratie implacable se réduisent en réalité à un fétiche biologique: le désespoir de trouver des solutions sociales et politiques à nos problèmes sociopolitiques d’aujourd’hui les incite à tout ramener au gène héréditaire, en tant que fantasme de la toute-puissance retrouvée de l’individu, quitte à métamorphoser le sujet (humain) en projet (posthumain).”
“…the transhumanists transpose the neoliberal approach of economics onto human genetics: a kind of invisible hand would automatically regulate individual micro-decisions and guarantee the successive mutations of the human species towards a new species. We are indeed dealing with the parable of a self-regulating market which, again, suppresses the political sphere, that is to say, collective decision-making. It is true that the vast majority of transhumanists are libertarian anarcho-capitalists convinced of the virtues of the market, and that the works of the neoliberal theorist Friedrich von Hayek is on virtually every recommended reading list. Furthermore, their uninhibited inegalitarianism and relentless meritocracy amount in reality to a biological fetish: the desperation to find social and political solutions to our current socio-political problems encourages them to reduce everything to the hereditary gene, as a fantasy of the rediscovered omnipotence of the individual, even if it means transforming the (human) subject into a (posthuman) project.” -Giesen, K.-G. (2004). Transhumanisme et génétique humaine [Transhumanism and Human Genetics]. L'Observatoire de la génétique, 16.