Sun. Aug 18th, 2019

Beyond Human: The Politics of Transhumanism

Two years after Transhumanism’s rise to prominence at the US presidential elections, we explore the relationship between technology and politics, and what a post-human age may look like.

A version of this article first appeared in the Feb/18 issue of The Capital magazine.

Copious amounts of name calling, numerous plot twists, and an ending that – still – doesn’t quite make sense. To the casual observer, the 2016 US presidential election was as strange and as entertaining as politics could get. One particular moment sticks to memory, when Donald Trump oddly held his hands up during a debate and remarked “Look at those hands, are they small hands?”

But while some candidates were debating the size of their appendages, one man was quietly running his own presidential campaign from – what was strangely enough – a coffin shaped bus. For four months, Zoltan Istvan toured the country on the “immortality bus” to promote his presidential bid with the Transhumanist Party. A former National Geographic journalist turned futurist and entrepreneur, Istvan founded the party in 2014, and ran for the 2016 elections with the slogan “Putting science, health, and technology at the forefront of American politics”. In an interview with Dave Rubin, Istvan explained his motivations. 

“Most scientists and technologists aren’t stepping up to voice their opinions or sending lobbyists to Washington, so that’s really what my campaign is about and what the Transhumanist party is trying to do,” says Istvan. 

“We’re trying to be, you know, the first organisation that puts its foot in Washington DC and says ‘hey pay attention to science and technology!’ We represent that.”

With a climate sceptic administration running the White House, American politics is in need of science now more so than ever. But Istvan’s science isn’t just any science. Transhumanism’s goal is, as its name suggests, to go “beyond” human, with the ultimate aim of conquering death using modern techniques. We’re talking about gene editing, bionic limbs, and possibly even, uploading our consciousness to machines. In a way, Transhumanism isn’t just a fancy 21st-century quest for the elixir of life; it’s a journey of self-directed evolution from human to cyborg. 

Zoltan Istvan’s campaign poster

Old Problems, New Solutions

Not surprisingly, the Transhumanist Party performed poorly at the polls, failing to make any of the state ballots and receiving just 84 write in votes. Most people would write that off as a spectacular failure, but Istvan believes the campaign was a huge victory for the movement. He estimates that at least a hundred million people were exposed to his campaign, and since then the Transhumanist movement has grown exponentially. While it hasn’t quite managed to bring science to the forefront of American politics, it did highlight important questions: should politicians pay more attention to science to solve political problems, rather than defer to standard practices? More pertinently, should science be an end in itself rather than just a means? Transhumanists like philosopher Nick Bostrom are quick to emphasise that science is no panacea to complex problems of inequality and income redistribution, but it can “make the pie that is to be divided enormously much [sic] greater”.

Take gene editing for instance. Certainly this is nothing new, but the breakthrough with CRISPR technology in recent years has led to cheaper and more precise methods, with vast medical applications. In 2015, a team of Chinese scientists experimenting on non-viable embryos made waves when they managed to delete an aberrant gene that causes the blood disorder beta-thalassemia. That same year, doctors in London successfully eliminated leukaemia in an infant girl using the gene editing technique known as TALEN, after she failed to respond to traditional treatment methods. Though its success is still limited, gene editing has the potential to eradicate hereditary disorders in humans like HIV, treat blindness, and even prevent mosquitoes from transmitting malaria. And in places like Sub-Saharan Africa – where HIV and malaria are leading causes of child mortality – such technology has the ability to lift whole communities out of mass poverty. Even for developed countries, a natural immunity to diseases would significantly reduce government healthcare expenditure. Transhumanists even speculate that such technology could one day be harnessed to augment human intelligence, allowing us to innovate better solutions to seemingly intractable problems like climate change. 

In a Huffington Post article announcing his candidacy, Istvan boldly declared that “[the] future is less about social security, climate change, immigrant border traffic, taxes, terrorism, the economy, and the myriad other issues that flash across news headlines every day  – and more about how far we are willing to use science and technology to fundamentally alter the human being and experience.”

In essence, old problems cannot be solved using old methods, and governments should pay attention to new, technologically driven ways of doing things. 

CRISPR/Cas9 (CRISPR-associated 9) is a technology that can be used to edit genes within organisms by recognising and cleaving specific strands of DNA complementary to the CRISPR sequence | Genetic Literacy Project

Hubris

In reality though, we’re still at least decades away from attaining this technology, let alone harnessing it mass scale. Government funding for research is still relatively low, with the average government spending on R&D for G20 countries at a paltry 0.65 per cent of GDP. More pertinently, prevailing public attitudes towards transhuman technology is still one of suspicion, and in some cases, outright rejection. A 2016 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt that such technologies were “meddling with nature” and morally repugnant. It’s hardly surprising when you consider that much of the world is still religious, and even for secular folk, the thought of humans playing god can be equally unpalatable. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and declared it sacrosanct, and by extension unalterable. 

Underlying this conservatism is the Greek concept of hubris, which warns of the dangers of excessive pride and overreach; some things aren’t meant to be attempted for doing so will lead to dire consequences. And it’s a concept that’s well illustrated in popular literature too. In Greek mythology, Prometheus’ act of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity earns him the ire of Zeus and an eternity of torment. Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein tells of Victor Frankenstein’s botched attempt at playing god, which results in both his death and the creature’s. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort’s displays of arrogance, as well as his vain attempts at conquering death ends with his demise from – what was ironically – his own killing curse. 

As punishment for his transgressions, the immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day. | Pixshark

Social Darwinism

Over the course of the past century, man’s hubris has been well documented. Our attempts at creating utopia led to the eugenics programmes of the early 20th century and culminated in Hitler’s obsession with engineering an Aryan master race. It’s a sure testament to the kinds of acts humans are capable of when they think themselves superior, and one shudders at what might happen when this superiority is no longer perceived, but real. In a post-human world, what rights will the less evolved humans have? Mankind has made great strides in combating racism, but the arrival of the first posthumans may threaten to unleash a new kind of social Darwinism. In a Foreign Policy article, political scientist Francis Fukuyama notes that “the first victim of Transhumanism might be equality”.

“Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality…but modifying that essence is the core of the Transhumanist project,” he says. 

“If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow?” 

Unfortunately, the stark reality is that there will be many who cannot afford to follow. In a world where only the rich can augment their physical and cognitive functions, the idea of meritocracy may well hold lesser value. Our jobs and roles may even be determined before birth based on our biological ability, in almost Huxleyan fashion. There is a real danger that in a post-human world, being human itself will become synonymous with poverty. A Transhumanist approach poses complex questions, to which the answer cannot simply be more technology. It advocates a kind of irresponsible techno-optimism – one that supposes everything can be solved by technology if we just let it run its course, similar to the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s imaginings. 

The answer of course, is not to embrace a Luddite approach. While Istvan’s techno-optimism may be slightly wrong-headed, it’s a clarion call for politicians to place greater emphasis on science. The ability of transhuman technology to ameliorate is without question, and it is imperative that governments remain at the frontiers of its development. Private organisations simply don’t have the same kind of resources to fund groundbreaking innovation, and even if they did, few would embark on such high risk ventures with little guarantee of profit. In addition, governments can shift public attitudes on transhuman technology over time with increased public engagement. Democratic politicians ride on the votes of their electorate, and a more informed public would allow governments greater license to tap on scientific enterprise, whilst remaining accountable custodians of this technology. In his book Citizen Cyborg, sociologist James Hughes argues that biopolitics is emerging as a fundamental new dimension of political opinion, and there is a need for it to join with the more familiar dimensions of culture and economics. In Hughes’ words, democratic societies must adapt to “respond to the redesigned human of the future”. 

As our technology changes, so too must our brand of politics. Ultimately, we need to understand how to capitalise on technology to solve our political and economic problems, while enabling equal access to this technology so we don’t end up becoming a society of haves and have-nots. Like Caesar’s mighty army, mankind’s slow march to the post-human era is one for the history books. But if we’re not careful, we might just drown ourselves crossing the proverbial Rubicon. 

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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