In Defense of Humanity:

Against Transhumanism

In the course of my exploration of cyberspace, I discovered an ideology called "transhumanism," a term redolent of (seemingly harmless) crankishness. Some of it was interesting and appealing: its emphasis on the power of science to improve the human condition. Some of it was disturbing and repulsive: the notion of moving beyond humanity. Suddenly I realized: "Ye gods -- they're Mutationists!"

Mutationism, you see, was something I had invented, as part of a science-fiction scenario, on which I have fitfully tried to base a series of stories. I felt nothing but shock and horror when I realized that my prophecy was starting to come true, decades before the time it was set in. You will understand my horror when you read the scenario:

The early Space Age was a period of rapid scientific and technical progress in every field. In most areas, this progress was but a continuation of earlier developments: but biological technology, or biotech, was a radically new departure. It was even more fraught with peril than atomic energy, since it could be, and inevitably was, applied to man himself. The unleashing of these strange and terrible new powers interrupted the conquest of space with a fourth and final World War.

The advance of biotech revived, in a new form, many old, half-forgotten ideas about the social implications of biology. These had traditionally been associated with the political Right (first with aristocracy, and later with racism), and as such, they had been banished from intellectual discourse for political reasons after the defeat of National Socialism. Along with it had gone eugenics, although it was ambiguous in Left/Right terms: a progressive, rationalist plan for the secular salvation of humanity through selective breeding.

Now applied biology could take shortcuts, and avoid the invidious implications of eugenics; for even the defectives, through genetic surgery, could have healthy and superior offspring. The new powers and opportunities inspired a large, multifarious ideological movement, generally called Mutationism. The Mutationists embraced the new technologies of biological engineering to reshape the human race. Different Mutationists naturally proposed different mutations, dividing the movement into quarrelling factions, each spawning a new race in the image of its particular ideal. ...

The full development of Mutationism ... was [very] diverse, but its overall tendency was to divide the human race into two (or more) species: a master-race of supermen, and a slave-race (or races) of submen. To make matters worse, of course, there were dozens of rival master-races, each seeking to reproduce itself faster, to grow stronger, than its rivals.

Mutationism in turn aroused a contrary movement, Humanism, comprised of all those concerned about the perils of applying these techniques to man himself. They warned that this threatened to abolish man's very nature, and feared the chaos and void this would leave. Could man, once unmade, be remade? they asked. What standard of value could be used to judge biological "improvements" in the absence of a fixed human nature? ...

At first it seemed possible to find a middle ground between the two sides. Haphazard attempts were made to limit or control the new techniques, while numerous piecemeal changes, each small enough in itself, proved so desirable as to be objects of nearly universal consensus, accepted even by the doubters. Hereditary diseases such as hemophilia were rooted out, and tendencies towards longevity were reinforced. The human body was improved by eliminating such vestigial, useless, and sometimes harmful items as the appendix, tonsils, wisdom teeth, foreskin and hymen....

Finally, however, the conflict escalated beyond all reason and compromise. The peril was obvious: normal humanity would be supplanted; and then the various master-races would be unwilling to share the honors with each other, and would covet each other's lands and slave-races. Race-war followed inevitably: a war to the death. Any sense of common humanity with or between these bioengineered races was long since lost.

The Humanists grew stronger with the general reaction against such excesses, and more militant in campaigning for the control of biotech. States were torn apart, or one party or the other came to power. Once again, nearly a century of peace was broken by a series of immense and unprecedented wars. The Mutant and Clone Wars were the most ruthless of all wars, for the stakes were the very existence of humanity.

Fortunately for the cause of natural man, the Mutationists worked against each other as often as together; their internal disunity, again and again, thwarted them on the verge of victory, and at last brought them down in defeat. The losers in the race-wars were exterminated, unless they were resourceful or lucky enough to go into hiding, and ultimately escape to other planets. ...

The Mutant and Clone Wars were truly a global civil war, for both parties were international, and every advanced nation was divided within itself. Therefore, the victorious Humanist governments promulgated the uniform Genetic Laws, codifying the new and more literal "crimes against humanity," and established a single global state, the World Federation, to enforce these laws stringently and uniformly.

(Perhaps I should mention that I regard the very idea of world government with intense suspicion and distaste; but it would be an infinitely lesser evil than the abolition of man.)

Transhumanism today is only the embryo of the Mutationism I envisioned. So far, the transhumanists seem to have no interest in creating slave-races, and none of them have any clear idea of what sort of "posthuman" race(s) they want. Indeed, they put much stress on the fact that "posthumans" will be so far superior to us that they will be incomprehensible. Presumably this will change as technology advances and concrete options become available; but we should pause and wonder at the state of mind of people so eager to transform themselves into who-knows-what kind of utterly alien being.

Most of them (at the moment) seem to belong politically to the libertarian/individualist Left, so it is likely that each of them, given the power, would mutate himself in some unique way, and be solely concerned with his own egotistical and Narcissistic gratification: certainly no great loss, and maybe no great danger, to the human race. But egalitarian/collectivist ideas appear frequently enough to raise the specter of an attempt to transform humanity into a single gigantic hive-mind, like Star Trek's Borg. Already, then, one can see the potential for the clash of at least two über-Nazi super-races.

In any event, if the transhumanists have their way (and I doubt that there is any scientific reason why they couldn't, though I get some comfort from the probability that the technology is still decades away), we will still face the problem of a world divided between mankind and one or more "posthuman" super-races. I shudder to think of the fate of those not ready, willing or able to join their glittery, sinister utopia. If the "posthumans" are so powerful and so alien, they would have no more compunction about exterminating us than invading Martians would.

The transhumanists might or might not be psychologically pathological, but they are undoubtedly afflicted with a spiritual pathology. They are in fact the most extreme example and synthesis of a complex of spiritual pathologies: the worship of wealth, power, novelty, machinery. In short, they idolize means at the expense of ends. Such idolaters habitually conflate "can" and "should": to them it seems self-evident that if we can do something, we should do it -- regardless of the consequences. They want to leap into the dark -- into a darkness all too likely to be a bottomless abyss.

Nothing could be more dangerous than technology without morality, unlimited means ungoverned by ethical ends. Every advance of technology should be challenged with the simple question: "Why?" Transhumanists, and less extreme idolaters, ask only "Why not?" The answer to their question is that means should serve ends, and not become ends in themselves. Nothing can be good unless it serves a truly good end.

No objective standard of value is possible unless it is grounded in nature, i.e. in objective reality. Other than nature, there are only two alternative standards: whatever we happen to want, or whatever God wants (which means, in practice, whatever those who pretend to speak for God happen to want). If the standard of nature is rejected, desire is liberated from morality: no desire is either good or evil.

Transhumanists explicitly celebrate the "liberation" from nature, and at least tacitly celebrate the liberation from morality. At the same time they celebrate the potential of mind-altering drugs of the kind Aldous Huxley foresaw and called "soma," now exemplified by Prozac. Desire itself, the only standard of value that transhumanists can conceive of, will be infinitely malleable in the Brave New World they envision. This begs the question that they cannot answer: What should we desire?

Here is my own answer: We should desire to make ourselves better human beings, not "posthuman" beings. Man, at his best, is quite good enough. The problem is to enable the whole human race to live up to the potential inherent in human nature. This is the goal set by nature.

Eugenics, despite all its excesses and abuses under the Nazi regime, was benign compared to transhumanism. The eugenicists' ambition was to make the human race more fully human: stronger, healthier, more beautiful, more intelligent. Their standard was set by human nature, which was taken as given; they only wanted to enable the whole of mankind (or in the Nazis' case, only one part of mankind) to flourish according to that standard.

Properly guided, genetic engineering could achieve the same goal by less problematic means. But such is the intellectual confusion, moral imbecility, and willful ugliness of our age that the goal itself has become problematic. Transhumanism is nothing more than intellectual confusion, moral imbecility, and willful ugliness elaborated into a self-conscious ideology and deliberately applied to the whole range of potential 21st century technologies, but particularly to genetic engineering.

The ultimate irony is that in their ambition to be more than human, transhumanists can only succeed in being less than human. Their lust for wealth, power, novelty and machinery blinds them to everything that makes a human life worth living; which is, I suppose, precisely why they are so eager to become "posthumans."

© 1999 by Karl Jahn