Wednesday, 4 November 2009


“We have the technology” – a stock phrase from the old sci-fi show Bionic Man that might serve as the headline for this reflection. But if a thing can be done, should it be done? If there is money to be made, it most certainly will. There is a growing “transhumanist” movement – described by Peter Snow in a recent issue of Oxford Today – that indicates the shape of things to come. The radical enhancement of human beings through technology has already begun. Athletes often resort to treatments to enhance their physical performance. Now we are developing techniques to alter moods, eliminate depression, enhance memory and cognition, and extend life expectancy to two or three hundred years. The genetic engineering of human beings for specific professions and tasks is also becoming possible. Direct interface between brain and computer – and the worldwide web – is on the cards. You may not need your laptop for much longer. The more extreme transhumanists predict and advocate the replacement of the human species by other, superior forms of life developed artificially to improve on the slow efforts of Mother Nature. (See my earlier blog “The Rise of the Machines”.) But such developments will almost certainly create new forms of “wealth” and “poverty”, or reinforce the existing divide. It is only the rich who will be able to give themselves these advantages – if that is what they are.

To my mind, the deeper question raised by all this is not so much the social effects of transhumanism (which will, of course, be disastrous), but what it reveals about the spirit and philosophy of the age. Believing that natural forms are randomly generated by the algorithms of evolution, people have no intellectual defence against these ideas. They are unable to discern any spiritual message in the material world, any divine wisdom in the realm of nature. The ink on the pages of the world has become invisible, leaving them free to scribble whatever they like. Where do we draw the line between legitimate medical treatment and the creation of monsters, if for us the natural forms do not represent some kind of meaningful norm? There is no solution to all this in legislation.


  1. The mistaken assumption here is that a "radical change of the species" is only beginning. In fact, the moment the precursors to homo sapien sapiens became endlessly curious and started making and using tools we began the long accelerating path to something other than what we were to what we are now. In other words, technology has been shaping us for tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of years just as we in turn have shaped and continue to shape our technologies. Each new technology starting from stone and wooden tools, the discovery of fire, clothing, language, artificial "caves", the wheel, metal, agriculture and on and on has put us on this path. Our newest technologies are only accelerants to a process that is anything but new for the species and not entirely unknown by other hominids now unfortunately extinct because they could not keep up with our own cleverness and agility. Some might say even now we are a different species than where we began. Do we lament our primitive past? Would we choose to return to the days of bare feet, sore hands, bad hygiene, short life, bad teeth, wooden clubs, animal skins, smelly caves, cold nights, constant hunger, constant fear and grunting?

    The question "if a thing can be done, should it be done" has probably been with us since the first primitive tools and will be with us no matter what it is we become. That we've likely always been asking the question hasn't stopped our acceleration to our future and isn't likely to now. Between you and me, technological advancements of the past have given us the rich and prosperous lives most of us have and could not survive without today and I'm not about to run scared the other way simply because the "chicken littles" among us are afraid of where we're going.

    When the cold nights come, remember: it is only technology that enables you to survive long enough to make it to the warm days of summer. All life on the planet has adapted to the seasonal and other cyclic changes to the environment. For us human beings, technology is our peculiar adaptation without which we would not survive. When that great and inevitable cosmic calamity comes to utterly destroy the Earth, it will be those forward thinking technologists who save the species - in whatever form it happens to take - from total extinction.

    It wouldn't hurt many to be appropriately grateful. That would be a good well-earned step toward the "new human".

  2. I hope it is clear to others that I am no Luddite. If I were, I would probably not be blogging. I give thanks for laptops, CDs, Pixar, anaesthetics, and astronomy (to name a few things at random). I agree technology has been advancing ever since Homo became Sapiens. However, the distinction between this kind of development and the alteration of our own geneline, or other radical changes now proposed, is something else. Just saying.

  3. When I hear the expression "on the cards" I reach for my revolver...
    It smacks of Carl Sagan prophetism, quaint fifties science fiction magazines, and PR from technology companies.
    One case in point from personal observation: depression drugs don't work. Curiously, they still sell, which is interesting.
    Ritalin doesn't work either, unless by "work" you mean act as a chemical cosh with which to zombify children (again, personal observation: I've seen this prescribed en masse in a school where I worked). But as an "enhancer" of the children's humanity, not by any stretch of the imagination.
    I think in the final analysis we can take comfort in the fact that though they claim to "have the technology", in most cases it doesn't work (or can't work because of the hard logic of reality: nature won't allow it to work). Whether they believe it or not themselves is almost immaterial: so long as investors and the consumer believe it, they'll go laughing to the bank.
    Don't believe everything that's written in Oxford Today; isn't it really just a PR and fund-raising magazine, part of that hype circus almost indispensable even for prestigious universities to survive financially these days?

  4. Good points. And I apologize for the lazy cliche 'on the cards'. I was taking the Oxford Today piece as representative of many things one reads in popular science magazines and newspapers - none of them to be believed either, of course. But I think we'll be shocked by how much of this ultimately unworkable technology gets inflicted on us in the next few years.