Transhumanism and the Death of Human Exceptionalism

Every few decades, a new ism comes along that many people see as a threat to the bedrock principles of Western civilization. Communism was one of the big ones, and led to years of widespread hysteria during the Red Scare. In the 80s, a similar panic arose when evangelical Christians became convinced that a secret network of Satanists controlled secular society. In the present day, transhumanism is emerging as the new existential threat to Western civilization—at least in the minds of a certain subset of religious conservatives. In this case, however, the fear might actually be warranted. If transhumanism accomplishes even its most modest aims, it will bring about the death of the conservatives’ bedrock belief in human exceptionalism.

Human exceptionalism is a flawed concept at best; some even see it as a morally offensive form of speciesism. Yet, it still enjoys wide acceptance. If you ask someone how she feels about the notion of human exceptionalism, she’ll probably scoff at you—while quietly believing that humanity is indeed God’s gift to the world. It’s like the belief that orange juice is good for you. Even though anyone paying attention knows that orange juice is barely healthier than Coke— it’s full of ungodly amounts of sugar and the health benefits from vitamin C are overhyped—people generally continue their old habit of taking a glass at breakfast.

Human exceptionalism posits that humans are categorically unlike, and fundamentally better than, any other animal. It’s not an explicitly religious claim, but it’s very close to one. In practical terms, it often functions as shorthand for we are special because we are created in God’s image. From an evolutionary perspective, this is preposterous. The fact that humans are different from other animals is a distinction of degree, not of kind. Once we properly orient ourselves on the evolutionary tree, it becomes clear that we can learn more about ourselves by focusing on our similarities with other animals than by perpetuating the myth that we’re categorically unique.

Science has shown the concept of human exceptionalism to be flawed; however, it will likely be the force of transhumanism that will ultimately topple it. Some advocates of human exceptionalism have picked up on this, and they’re terrified.

For example, the Discovery Institute (a think tank for creationist propaganda) recently wrote a takedown piece of the Transhumanist Bill of Rights—or “the bill of wrongs.” As they see it:

Transhumanism would shatter human exceptionalism. The moral philosophy of the West holds that each human being is possessed of natural rights that adhere solely and merely because we are human. But transhumanists yearn to remake humanity in their own image—including as cyborgs, group personalities residing in the Internet Cloud, or AI-controlled machines. That requires denigrating natural man as unexceptional to justify our substantial deconstruction and redesign. Thus, rather than view human beings as exclusive rights-bearers, the [Transhumanist Bill of Rights] would grant rights to all “sentient entities,” a category that includes both the biological and mechanical.

While the Discovery Institute is clearly fearmongering, this depiction is fairly accurate. As a philosophical movement, transhumanism advocates for improving humanity through genetic modifications and technological augmentations, based upon the position that there is nothing particularly sacred about the human condition. It acknowledges up front that our bodies and minds are riddled with flaws that not only can but should be fixed. Even more radically, as the name implies, transhumanism embraces the potential of one day moving beyond the human condition, transitioning our sentience into more advanced forms of life, including genetically modified humans, superhuman cyborgs, and immortal digital intelligences.

Despite philosophical fears surrounding the transhumanist movement, humans have been augmenting their bodies and minds for centuries. Eyeglasses, for instance, have been around since about 1290. It’s only natural that we’d continue to develop this technology, as indeed we have. In fact, we’ve gone beyond improving eyesight with glasses to fully restoring eyesight by implanting bionic eyes. The Discovery Institute may fault transhumanism for undermining the moral philosophy of the West, but even they have to admit that advances like this are pretty incredible.

People who call themselves transhumanists are still a rather eccentric group. There’s Rich Lee, who has implanted invisible ear buds in his ears and a vibrator in his penis. There’s Zoltan Istvan, founder of the Transhumanist Party, who ran for president in a coffin-shaped bus and invented the sport of volcano surfing. And then there’s the list of eccentric people around the world recently featured in Wired, who are turning themselves into futuristic cyborgs of various kinds.

Most people aren’t rushing to sign up to this movement. However, practically everyone in the modern world is unwittingly barreling straight into the transhumanist age, whether they like it or not. We all have smartphones, which, as Elon Musk has noted, already makes us cyborgs. It may not be long before we ditch our devices and connect to the cloud through neural lace. From there, how long will it take before we become more digital than biological? To the extent that we maintain our physical bodies, how long before we avoid all diseases and massively increase our intelligence through genetic modification?

It remains to be seen whether we will lose our humanity in this process, but it is a safe bet that the concept of human exceptionalism will become a thing of the past. To be purely human (without any type of genetic modification or tech augmentation) will likely become either untenable or immoral. When that happens—when various iterations of cyborgs and digital intelligences exist—the only option will be to take the Transhumanist Bill of Rights seriously, and grant moral value not merely to humans, but to all sentient beings.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:
Total
606
Shares

17 comments

  1. I’m a little late to the party, but as someone who has taken a recent interest in transhumanism, I just wanted to weigh in a bit on the side of the author. As far as I can tell, transhumanism is more of an inevitability than a potential. With the strides we’re already making in anti-aging research, prosthetic tech, medical implants and so forth, it seems all but certain (at least to me) that human beings will not only evolve beyond their own physical and psychological limitations, but that they’ll figure out how to do the same for all other sentient life. While he may be exaggerating a bit in regards to religious people’s feelings about this subject, I do think Mr. Clarke is essentially correct about human exceptionalism and its eventual demise.

    Also, he’s not entirely wrong about the satanic scare of the ’80s. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the McMartin preschool case and the horrific, indefensible response to that case by both the media and the general public.

    1. The scare was the result of alleged harm to children. Nobody was worried about Satanism. If they had claimed it was abuse by Nazis the reaction would have been similar.

  2. “Human exceptionalism is a flawed concept at best…” What are you if not a Transhumanist Propagandist? I note that my supposedly smart PC still wants to spellcheck Transhumanist as it doesn’t recognize the term. Kinda cool.

  3. Let me get this straight: this is an article in a science publication. Science, as best I know, seeks to find covering laws about material life seeking to improve life. And much good has come from this ability to abstract scientific truths: the end of deadly diseases, reattachment of limbs, medication for mental conditions, etc. I know of no animal that can do this. This article is written by someone with a legal education. The essence of many societies is the elevation of the law rather than the rule of a mercurial human being. I know no group of animals that have come up with such a concept. The denigration of the uniqueness of human beings would seem to lead to more funding for chicken feed and less funding for science. I know of no grouping of birds that catalog the music they make, teach it to non birds and even argue about the quality of the sound. I do acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to act like animals; my ancestors left Illinois for California with the Donner Party.

    3
    1
  4. “Every few decades, a new ism comes along that many people see as a threat to the bedrock principles of Western civilization. Communism was one of the big ones, and led to years of widespread hysteria during the Red Scare.” Mostly not hysteria, but lots of concern. Anyone who will say that Communism led to hysteria must disregard the murder of untold millions that Communism actually led to. I don’t know much about trans-humanism, but I know something about the English language; and hysteria is not the right word.

    1. Spot on. The author is a blatant lefty.
      “Communism was one of the big ones, and led to years of widespread hysteria during the Red Scare. In the 80s, a similar panic arose when evangelical Christians became convinced that a secret network of Satanists controlled secular society.”
      Complete tripe. Close to 100 million people were killed by their fellow countrymen in the 20th century in the name of Marx and his sick ideology
      There was also never a evangelical scare in the 1980’s.
      Conclusion: the author is a liar.

      1
      1
      1. I don’t know about an evangelical scare, but there absolutely was a panic over satanists in the 80’s. Many innocent people, many preschool staff, had their lives ruined and were prosecuted. It was widely reported, and has been the subject of many books and scholarly studies. Google “80’s satanist” and see what you get.

  5. Transhumanism sounds weird more because of its timing than because of the content of its ideas. Transhumanists now, in 2019, are trying to anticipate what people in more technologically advanced societies in the 22nd Century and beyond would probably call “health care.”

    2
    1
  6. I was expecting a reference to Nick Bostrom somewhere. Didn’t happen, so: anybody looking for good arguments from the transhumanist side should read In Defense of Posthuman Dignity (which makes reference to people on the opposite side of the argument), and Why I Want to be a Posthuman When I Grow Up. They’re philosophy papers, but he is surprisingly readable, IMO.

    My issue with a religious case like the one presented in the article, is that it reveals on some level that the person actually doesn’t care enough about the human condition to want to see it improve in ways beyond their imagining. I would understand caution about the specific form of the technology and the vices it may enable, but that’s not what their issue is.

    If you believe humans are the special handiwork of God, why don’t you want them to do what they can to be even more exceptional? Is that not something that might bring glory to Him? No, it seems, instead it’s cast as prideful and ungrateful.

    1
    1
  7. I think in criticizing the Discovery Institute you’re set up a straw man. They are a fringe group. It would be more productive to separate the wheat from the chaff and acknowledge the kernel of truth, or the allegorical dimension of their argument. That is, human beings have a “divine spark” and seeing ourselves in that light is one way/justification for treating each other humanely. To be clear, I am secular, centre-left and a big science booster (also acknowledging that both right and left have blind spots wrt scientific findings). I just don’t think this argument is particularly strong. Also, I thought it was a taken in mainstream science that human intellect and reason are what radically distinguish us from animals. Would love to learn more about that last if I’m wrong.

    1. I had the same impression.

      “While the Discovery Institute is clearly fearmongering, this depiction is fairly accurate.”

      Is a very interesting sentence.

Leave a Reply

Inline
Inline