In 1957, in an essay published in London, English biologist and writer Julian Huxley, the first director of UNESCO, coined a new model of eugenics, transhumanism. In his paper, he wrote that “[t]he human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself […] in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature”.(1)
Almost fifty years later, seduced by the lure of so-called emerging technologies — biotechnology (genetic engineering), nanotechnology, information sciences (artificial intelligence), and knowledge sciences or neurosciences — we are witnessing the rebirth of a new eugenics that seeks to modify the characteristics of human beings, as Julian Huxley said. It is the field of nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) that has driven some researchers and philosophers towards applications unimaginable until recently, and which form the basis of transhumanism.
Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, one of its main proponents and director of the Future of Humanity Institute, defines transhumanism as:
“a cultural, intellectual and scientific movement that affirms the moral duty to improve the physical and cognitive capacities of the human species, and to apply new technologies to human beings, so that undesirable aspects of the human condition can be eliminated, such as suffering, illness, aging and even mortality”.
It is not simply about improving health, eliminating disabilities or curing diseases, but about producing stronger, faster and more athletic, smarter and longer-lived human beings.
At the Global Future 2045 meeting on transhumanism held in New York in June 2013, taglines such as the following were displayed: “It’s a human right. People need to have the right to live, and to not die”; and “Intelligent self-directed evolution guides mankind’s metamorphosis into an immortal planetary meta-intelligence”.
In reality, transhumanism transcends the realm of genetics and even science.
Specifically, the actions that transhumanists seek to perform can be classified into five types:
- Actions on genes (or DNA molecules in general),
- Actions on cells and tissues.
- Actions on organs and systems.
- Actions on cognitive ability, mind or intelligence.
- Actions to prolong life.
Regarding the level of gene modifiers, the aim is to transform the genetic characteristics of multiple traits through the application of techniques such as those that have been used for years in gene therapy, but for broader purposes than those corresponding to an improvement in health, aimed at the acquisition of physical or intellectual abilities superior to natural ones. These include altering physical characteristics, increasing intelligence and prolonging life.
This is wishful thinking, since many of the desired traits that transhumanists wish to manipulate cannot be managed using either gene therapy techniques, or with the recent CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, which does not permit the modification of multiple genes (or polygenic systems), as are all those that transhumanists would like.
In particular, prolonging life or increasing intelligence is a utopian vision because, as far as we know based on molecular markers in the known genomes of more than 40 million human genomic profiles stored in the large GWAS database, there are no single genes involved, but in all cases, multiple additive action genes. They are also highly influenced by environmental factors, etc.
In this respect, Dr. Sydney Brenner, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine, has said that “current attempts to improve the human race through genetic manipulation are not dangerous, they’re ridiculous… Suppose we want a more intelligent man. The problem is we don’t exactly know which genes to manipulate… There is only one instrument to transform humanity in a lasting way and that is culture”.
Regarding actions on cells, tissues, organs and systems, these seek to modify structural and functional aspects of the human organism. In principle, these actions are related to the possibilities offered by emerging technologies, including gene therapy and genome editing, to modify people’s physical or health conditions. Many of them offer undeniable improvements in health, and present no ethical or moral concerns when it comes to curing or alleviating the consequences of a disease. Herein we can frame all the innovations for fixing organs as vital as those for sight or hearing, such as artificial retinas or bionic hearing, or prosthetic arms, legs, etc. These are acceptable as long as the limits of what would be considered normal function (and not superior function for spurious purposes) of the affected natural organ are not exceeded.
The fourth category refers to actions on the neuromotor apparatus, mainly addressed through the use of drugs. In the inventory of transhumanists, any method is valid in order to produce an effect on human mental capacities, in this case on sensory and neuromotor functions, with psychological and emotional consequences. Drugs are used to enhance cognitive ability, memory, mental concentration, etc. This is ethically reprehensible if directed for purposes other than health, and if it is about controlling the will or behavior of people, as may be the case for what has been called chemical submission, such as in cases of sexual abuse or espionage.
With regard to longevity, even immortality, this is a utopian vision, although there are some valid initiatives, such as that of the English geneticist and gerontologist Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University, who leads a project called Engineered Negligible Senescence. His idea is to prolong life indefinitely and achieve longevity for years on end by applying a series of methods for the repair of human cells and tissues, although it is based on the reductionist conviction that man is a chemical compound and old age is the result of self-poisoning, which can be avoided with actions on a number of fronts.
We are overlooking other initiatives such as preventing telomere shortening or editing the genes involved in longevity. If what we want is to prolong life, rather than through unimaginable genetic enhancement procedures (and given that the influence of genes is only 20% in aging), it would be better to address environmental causes, good nutrition, physical exercise, medical care and good lifestyle habits.
One important aspect of what transhumanists want is that the actions taken can be inherited. Therefore, they accept modifications that are intended to improve future human beings through genetic manipulation, especially in the germline, as beneficial. Gene editing in the germline or in embryos obtained by IVF and chosen after preimplantation genetic diagnosis would allow the “enhancement” of any genetic trait, whether or not health-related, and, above all, that would be maintained in subsequent generations.
From transhumanism to posthumanism
Transhumanists think that “transhumanism” is not the ultimate goal, but a phase of transition to “posthumanism.” Nick Bostrom describes posthumans as “future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards”.
The factor that would make the transition to posthumanism possible would be artificial intelligence.
Computer science engineer Raymond Kurzweil, a famous inventor and entrepreneur linked to California’s Silicon Valley, says the human species is about to make an evolutionary leap through artificial technologies to become a new species. This moment is what the technologist calls technological singularity, which will be achieved when the fusion between artificial intelligence and natural intelligence occurs.
For those who hold these ideas, the battle is in full swing, and while human intelligence remains in its natural state, with no advances other than those of the accumulation of knowledge, artificial intelligence is progressing exponentially. One of its proponents is neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, another professor at Oxford University, who believes in the transfer of the synaptic content of our brain to a computer in order to prolong human life in a kind of postbiological, and, therefore, posthuman life.
Professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Manuel Alfonseca Moreno, refers to the underlying problem, pointing out that there is nothing at all human about artificial intelligence. He wonders if we really know what natural intelligence is, the mind, because if the goal is to achieve an artificial intelligence that even surpasses it, we will have to start by knowing what nature has that we want to imitate and even surpass: “After all, artificial intelligence is a copy…: do we know what natural intelligence is, how it arises and how it develops, so that we can emulate it in our machines. Because if we don’t know what we’re looking for, we’re hardly going to achieve it.”
The truth is that we cannot hold on to the absurdity that intelligence, consciousness and everything relating to the human mind is simply like software or an epiphenomenon of the brain. Thought, the mind, is not equivalent to the brain, nor is it composed of matter, like the neurons or their connections, but is an immaterial reality. From neurophysiological and metaphysical dualism, in accordance with the Christian tradition regarding the concept of the person, the brain and the mind, body and soul, are distinct realities, although hypostatically united until they constitute a unity present in each human being.
As for artificial intelligence, the question is not as simple as thinking that the time will come when it will become equivalent or even superior to human intelligence. At least two levels should be distinguished: weak artificial intelligence and strong artificial intelligence.
Weak artificial intelligence is that of the advancing computer technology that we use to effectively, concretely, and automatically solve problems that obey routines adhered to logical algorithms that man himself has given machines. These do not think for themselves and respond to what is asked of them according to the computer routines that man himself has provided. Of course, they are extremely useful for:
- Sorting data (databases)
- Solving games (including chess games)
- Translating texts
- Processing texts
- Recognizing the spoken word
- Analyzing data and solving problems
- Recognizing images (medicine)
- Driving vehicles automatically
These are great achievements that facilitate many tasks and have made human intellectual work easier. Nevertheless, their operation is not autonomous, but dependent on algorithms and learning that humans have input into the machine.
Strong artificial intelligence is the one that some think would match or even surpass human natural intelligence; machines that think on their own, like a human, with all their capabilities and feelings.
There are many computer scientists who deny that this will happen. Thus, computer engineer Jeff Hawkins, an innovator in the world of mobile phones, says “[s]cientists in the field of artificial intelligence have claimed that computers will be intelligent when they are powerful enough. I don’t think so […] Brains and computers do fundamentally different things”.
Similarly, Ramón López Mantarás, director of the CSIC’s Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, says that “[t]he great challenge of artificial intelligence is to provide machines with common sense… However sophisticated some artificial intelligences may be in the future, 100,000 or 200,000 years from now, they will be different from human ones“.
However, posthumanists see no problem in transferring human intelligence into a machine, thus creating what they call a cyborg or avatar.
One such individual is Kevin Warwick, professor at Reading University, who explains his Cyborg project as follows: “Just as we humans split from our chimpanzee cousins years ago, so cyborgs will split from humans. Those who remain as humans are likely to become a sub-species. They will, effectively, be the chimpanzees of the future”.
This is also the case of the Avatar 2045 Project, whose goal is cybernetic immortality, so that our intangible material being, our identity, can be transferred to an avatar, a hologram, a cyborg, or a robot to achieve immortality. The intangible material expression used by the sponsors of the project is surprising because of the contradiction that something that cannot be touched has a material substance, but it is the ambiguity of the language used by posthumanists.
Their development will take place in several stages between 2015 and 2045. Supposedly, in the end, an entity with capabilities superior to human ones would be created, transformed into an avatar, a hologram or a being of light. At that point, what they call cybernetic immortality or non-transcendent immortality would have been achieved.
As time passes towards the goals of the Avatar 2045 project, attempts are already underway to retrieve the memory or brain information of deceased people by freezing their brains.
Deep down all this is very fantastic, incredible and extremely materialistic when it comes to the concept of the human mind, which cannot be reduced to the brain. Human consciousness cannot be reduced to matter; human reasoning is not concrete or automatic, but abstract. They are not simple instinctive or chemical responses, but subject to personal deliberation among multiple options.
In this respect, we can cite the criticisms of various authors, such as Julian Savulescu, Francis Fukuyama and Stephen Hawking.
Francis Fukuyama, in his work on the consequences of the biotechnological revolution, explains how posthumanism would lead to the creation of castes, opening a gap between enhanced humans and natural humans, and that they would not have to be better or worse in their moral qualities.
Stephen Hawking is more radical, directly believing that posthumanism will mean the end of humanity: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded”.
What posthumanism proposes, if at all possible, transcends what can be done to improve health, especially using knowledge of genetics and cell biology. In the supposed thinking machines there would no longer be genes, heredity, or diseases to cure. There would simply be no humankind anymore. For the posthumanists, the future successors, who are not descendants of Homo sapiens, will not be flesh and blood but machines, robots, cyborgs or avatars, made from chips, cables and nanoparticles. Perhaps intelligent in their own way — they could even be cloned and perhaps immortalized — they would nevertheless lack feelings, love and all the best that authentic human beings harbor.
The madness of this unbridled race to who knows what is summed up well in these words of physician and defender of life Jérôme Lejeune: “We are facing a dilemma that is this: technique is cumulative, wisdom is not. We will be more and more powerful. That is, more dangerous. Unfortunately, we will not be wiser”. (2)
Professor Emeritus of Genetics
Member of the Bioethics Observatory
Former member of the Spanish Bioethics Committee