Article - Winter 2023

The End Is Only the Beginning

Our species may soon evolve, with the help of technology, into something more than human

By Adam Kirsch | January 19, 2023
Illustration by David Plunkert
Illustration by David Plunkert

If humanity’s technological progress can be compared to climbing a mountain, then the Anthropocene finds us perched on a crumbling ledge, uncertain how long we have until it collapses. The most obvious way out is to turn back and retrace our steps to an earlier stage of civilization, with fewer people using fewer resources. This would mean acknowledging that humanity is unequal to the task of shaping the world, that we can thrive only by living within the limits set by nature.

But this kind of voluntary turning back might be so contrary to our nature that it can never happen. It is far more plausible that the human journey was fated to end up in this dangerous spot ever since we first began to change the ecosystem with farming and fire. Such a view forms the basis of antihumanism, a system of thought that removes humans from their pedestal and contends that, given our penchant for destruction—not only of ourselves but also all other species—we are less deserving of existence than are animals, plants, rocks, water, or air. For antihumanists, the only way off the precipice is a fall, with the survivors left to pick up the pieces. And if there are no survivors, that wouldn’t be a tragedy; there will always be beings in the world, even if there are no human beings.

Australian philosopher Toby Ord uses the image of the crumbling ledge in his book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (2020). “Fueled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves,” Ord writes. He believes that the odds of this happening in the next 100 years are about one in six, the same as in a game of Russian roulette. “Humanity lacks the maturity, coordination and foresight necessary to avoid making mistakes from which we could never recover,” he concludes.

Ord is not an antihumanist but rather a transhumanist, a research fellow at the world’s leading center for transhumanist thought, Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, which looks to scientific and technological advances as the only path forward. Transhumanists agree with antihumanists that human nature is morally and physically circumscribed in ways that make it impossible for us to get past the precipice. They likewise agree that Homo sapiens is doomed to disappear. But for transhumanists, this is a wonderful prospect because we will disappear by climbing instead of falling. As Ord writes, “Rising to our full potential for flourishing would likely involve us being transformed into something beyond the humanity of today.” That something will no longer be “us” in the strictest sense, but our posthuman successors will preserve what is best and most important about us. “I love humanity, not because we are Homo sapiens, but because of our capacity to flourish,” Ord writes.

Ideas like radical life extension, mind uploading, and interstellar exploration now have powerful supporters among the billionaires of Silicon Valley, for whom the potential of technology is self-evidently good.

Assuming that our technological capability continues to grow at the same pace as it has over the past 200 years, it will become the means of our salvation. “If we can last long enough,” Ord declares, “we will have a chance to literally save our world.” And that’s just the beginning. The future holds “possible heights of flourishing far beyond the status quo, and far beyond our current comprehension.” Transcendent happiness and wisdom are beckoning, just as distant galaxies are waiting for us to colonize. Homo sapiens has existed for about 200,000 years and has recorded history for just 5,000, but “trillions of years lie ahead of us,” Ord promises. “The future is immense.”

There’s only one catch, and it lies in the word us. We can imagine “heights of flourishing” that tower above the life we know now, but human minds and bodies are capable of climbing only so high. There is a limit to how much we can feel, how deeply we can think, how fast we can move. As for those other galaxies, as long as our bodies need oxygen, water, and food, reaching them is impossible; even a trip to Mars is hard going. In this way, transhumanism soon runs up against the same problem of limit that defines the Anthropocene. At some point, the limitless human will must confront the limited capabilities of nature, including human nature.

Transhumanism emerged as a distinct school of thought in the 1980s, when philosophers, scientists, and artists began to think intensively about how technology might transform human bodies and minds. By the 1990s, it had its own publications and nonprofit organizations, including the Extropy Institute, now defunct, and the World Transhumanist Association, which was renamed Humanity+ in 2008. In his book To Be a Machine (2017), Slate columnist Mark O’Connell profiled some of the leading personalities in the transhumanist movement, finding an eerie comedy in the “extremity and strangeness” of its ideas.

A concise statement of the movement’s ambitions can be found in the Transhumanist Declaration, issued in 1998 by a group of about 20 scientists and writers. Starting from the premise that “humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized,” the declaration calls for using technology to “[broaden] human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” While acknowledging the “serious risks” that come with new technologies, the declaration unequivocally endorsed an ambitious program of species transformation, which will make possible “wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.”

Traditionally, when people speak of “the human condition,” they are thinking about lack and limit. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,” the book of Job says. The biblical story of the fall of man explains why we are condemned to be born in pain, earn bread by the sweat of our brow, and finally die. But technology has already palliated Adam’s curse, and transhumanists believe that the next few decades will begin to complete our liberation from “involuntary suffering.” Aging will be dramatically slowed or abolished, so that we will measure our lives in centuries rather than decades. Our senses will be refined, giving us access to colors, sounds, and feelings for which we currently have no vocabulary. Our brains will be supercharged, so that the average person will think more rapidly and deeply than Einstein. We will be able to redesign our bodies to make them more efficient or simply more aesthetically appealing.

These changes will make the lives of our descendants immeasurably better than our own. They will be the supermen Nietzsche could only dream about. Nick Bostrom, the leading academic philosopher of transhumanism, outlined this future in his 2006 essay “Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up”:

You have just celebrated your 170th birthday and you feel stronger than ever. Each day is a joy. You have invented entirely new art forms, which exploit the new kinds of cognitive capacities and sensibilities you have developed. You still listen to music—music that is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak.

Such aspirations have already spread far beyond the transhumanist subculture. Ideas like radical life extension, mind uploading, and interstellar exploration now have powerful supporters among the billionaires of Silicon Valley, for whom the transformative potential of technology is self-evidently good. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and of the data analytics company Palantir, is an investor in life-extension research and a member of Alcor Life Extension, an Arizona nonprofit that cryogenically preserves its members’ brains when they die, in the hope that the technology to resurrect them will one day be invented. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, established a division called California Life Company, or Calico, devoted to anti-aging research; Time magazine reported on it in 2013 under the headline “Can Google Solve Death?” Elon Musk created SpaceX in 2002 with the aim of lowering the cost of space flight to enable the colonization of Mars.

It’s no coincidence that transhumanism took off in the early 21st century at the same time as the concept of the Anthropocene. Both ideas rest on the intuition that human life can’t continue the way it is now, that our world is on the brink of a fundamental transformation. This gives them the appeal of all apocalyptic thinking, which endows the present with extraordinary significance by seeing it as the hinge of history, the most important time of all. Ord writes that “we stand at a crucial moment in the history of our species.” Physicist Max Tegmark, associate director of the Foundational Questions Institute at MIT, writes in his 2017 book, Life 3.0: “Perhaps life will spread throughout our cosmos and flourish for billions or trillions of years—and perhaps this will be because of decisions that we make here on our little planet during our lifetime.” Physicist Michio Kaku agrees. “Humanity is about to embark on perhaps its greatest adventure,” he writes in The Future of Humanity (2018).

In the past, apocalyptic belief systems have been religious in nature, looking to God to bring about the end times. Transhumanism maintains that we ourselves hold the keys to the future, in the form of the technologies abbreviated as GNR—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Soon, genetic engineering will make it possible for us to eliminate many diseases, halt the aging process, and enhance our physical and mental abilities. Nanotechnology will enable us to build atomic machines measurable in nanometers—one millionth of a millimeter. Robots on this scale can be injected into the bloodstream to continuously repair damage on the cellular level, preventing disease and aging. In his 2009 essay “Welcome to the Future of Medicine,” nanotechnology researcher Robert Freitas wrote that “performance improvements up to 1000-fold over natural biological systems of similar function appear possible.”

The imminence of these technologies means that human beings alive today have a chance to become effectively immortal. English longevity researcher Aubrey de Grey believes that we will soon achieve “longevity escape velocity,” the point at which life-extension technology will outpace biological aging, making death from old age a thing of the past. In 2008, de Grey posited that the first person to live to be 1,000 years old had already been born. Inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, a leading popularizer of transhumanist ideas, declared in his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near, that he intended to be one of them. “I take 250 supplements (pills) a day and receive a half-dozen intravenous therapies each week,” Kurzweil wrote. By aggressively “reprogramming [his] biochemistry,” he hoped to extend his natural lifespan until the advent of technologies to reverse aging “in the second decade of this century.”

What transhumanism rejects isn’t simply mortality and suffering but the very idea of a fixed human nature. Our minds and bodies should be endlessly plastic, able to assume whatever shape our ingenuity can invent.

That target has already been missed. Freitas wrote in 2009 that he expected “the design and manufacture of medical nanorobots for life extension” to happen “perhaps during the 2020s,” and that goal too now looks unlikely. As these examples suggest, transhumanism has an innate tendency to overpromise. The big breakthroughs always seem to lie just over the horizon, inviting the suspicion that they’re as unreal as a receding mirage in the desert. As Bostrom sardonically observed in Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014), “Two decades is a sweet spot for prognosticators of radical change: near enough to be attention-grabbing and relevant, yet far enough to make it possible to suppose that a string of breakthroughs, currently only vaguely imaginable, might by then have occurred.”

This is another way that the prophets of transhumanism mirror those of the Anthropocene: those who warn of an impending climate catastrophe also tend to locate the planet’s point of no return in the middle distance. But in both cases, they are extrapolating from developments that are undeniably real. Biochemists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on CRISPR, a tool for deleting and replacing individual genes that makes “gene editing” a practical possibility for the first time. In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had used CRISPR to create the world’s first genetically edited babies, twin girls designed to be resistant to HIV.

Far from being welcomed as a transhumanist breakthrough, however, this development was greeted with worldwide condemnation, and the scientist was sentenced to three years in prison. Clearly, most of us aren’t yet prepared for such a dramatic blurring of the distinction between nature and technology—what Kurzweil calls “reengineering the computer of life.” And there is a good argument for caution. When technology gave us the power to extensively reshape the planet in the service of our desires, the result was the devastation of the Anthropocene. If we start to reshape our bodies and minds, the result might be equally dismaying.

One of the most eloquent opponents of transhumanist ambitions is Leon Kass, a molecular biologist who emerged in the 1990s as a leading conservative bioethicist. In his book Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity (2002), Kass asserts that “in some crucial cases … repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power completely to articulate it.” Our instinctive revulsion toward incest, for instance, goes beyond a rational critique of the genetic dangers of inbreeding; we see it not as a mere error but in terms of “horror” and “defilement.” If cloning provokes a similar repulsion in most people, Kass writes, that proves it involves a “violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.”

This idea, which has come to be known as “the wisdom of repugnance,” accurately captures the basis of many people’s instinctive opposition to transhumanism. But it also reveals the incoherence of that opposition, its inability to give a convincing account of itself. Racial mixing and homosexuality also once looked like defilement to most people; slavery and the caste system were things humanity held dear for millennia. Entrenched evils can be overcome only when they are subjected to rational scrutiny, which is exactly what Kass seeks to avoid in the case of genetic engineering and cloning. The wisdom of repugnance means that reason falls silent when it most needs to be heard.

For Kass, human nature is constituted by limits—to our rationality, our power, the satisfaction of our desires. If science and technology succeed in abolishing those limits, we will forfeit what we value most in ourselves, the quality Kass calls “human dignity.” Dignity may elude exact definition, but he is certain of “what a dignified human life is all about: engagement, seriousness, the love of beauty, the practice of moral virtue, the aspiration to something transcendent, the love of understanding, the gift of children and the possibility of perpetuating a life devoted to a high and holy calling.”

It’s not immediately obvious what all these things have in common, or why a cloned human being couldn’t experience them as authentically as an identical twin, who is also the genetic duplicate of another person. But Kass’s objection becomes clearer if it is understood as a defense of the value of striving. The good life would be cheapened if technology could give it to us on a silver platter, no effort required. To use Bostrom’s example, there’s no glory in being Mozart if genetic engineering makes everyone as superior “to Mozart [as] Mozart is to bad Muzak.”

Transhumanists have long experience with this kind of moralizing opposition, which is one reason why they tend to be libertarians. As the Transhumanist Declaration states, “We favor allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives.” People who feel that their dignity is impaired by too much power, health, and pleasure should be free to avoid transhuman enhancements, but they shouldn’t be able to limit the options of those who feel otherwise.

In a 2001 essay titled “Morphological Freedom: Why We Not Just Want It, but Need It,” neuroscientist Anders Sandberg goes further, asserting that there is a human right to “modify oneself according to one’s desires.” This right follows logically from the beliefs we already hold about bodily autonomy. Disabled people shouldn’t be compelled to have surgery to correct their disabilities, since that would be a violation of their autonomy and dignity; people have the right to keep the bodies they want, regardless of society’s view of what is most desirable. By the same token, Sandberg continues, people shouldn’t be prevented from having surgery or other treatments to achieve the bodies they want, even if society sees them as abnormal. As Sandberg puts it, “If I want to have green skin, it is my own problem—nobody has the moral right to prevent me.”

Even if governments want to ban such procedures, it may be too late to draw a clear line between human beings and the human-machine hybrids known as cyborgs. The word cyborg, short for “cybernetic organism,” has long been associated with sci-fi villains like Star Trek’s Borg who warn their enemies that “resistance is futile.” So it was a transgressive gesture when feminist literary theorist Donna Haraway, in her influential 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” recast the cyborg as a liberating role model for “a post-gender world.” “My cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work,” she wrote.

For Haraway, the cyborg’s uncanniness was liberating rather than threatening. In the 21st century, however, the most notable thing about cyborgs is how banal they are. The fusion of biology and technology hasn’t taken the spectacular forms imagined in movies such as Robocop or The Terminator. Rather, as N. Katherine Hayles observed in her 1999 book, How We Became Posthuman, it has taken the innocuous form of “electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin.” By this definition, Hayles writes, “about 10 percent of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense.”

No one feels “the wisdom of repugnance” about an elderly person whose life is extended by technology, or a baby whose life is made possible by it. When the first infant was born via in vitro fertilization in 1978, the advent of “test tube babies” seemed sinister to many. Today, some eight million human beings have been born through IVF, and many insurance companies cover it as they would any other medical procedure. It’s likely that CRISPR editing will follow the same route: what now sounds like tampering with the code of life will become standard prenatal care.

Indeed, history suggests that as long as GNR technologies are understood as means of curing diseases or overcoming disabilities, people will embrace them. Who would turn down an injection of nanorobots if it guaranteed freedom from cancer and Alzheimer’s? Once gene editing is perfected, refusing to eliminate genetic diseases in an embryo will be as rare as refusing to allow a child a blood transfusion today, and might provoke equal indignation from secular, scientific-minded people. Adopting new technologies is perfectly consistent with continuing to fret about their social and ethical implications. Just look at smartphones and social media, which everybody uses even as we deplore misinformation and shrinking attention spans.

Transhumanism has an innate tendency to overpromise. The big breakthroughs always seem to lie just over the horizon, inviting the suspicion that they’re as unreal as a receding mirage in the desert.

For the most radical transhumanists, however, reengineering our bodies isn’t only about therapy or disease prevention. Aesthetic motives like adornment and self-expression are seen as equally valid. Natasha Vita-More, an early transhumanist theorist, envisions a new art form, “human biosculpture, where the human body, mind, and identity are modified by the user. … For artists and designers in the biological arts, the idea of molding or sculpting the human form has enormous potential.”

Vita-More sees posthuman bodies developing from the technologies now used for prosthetics: “robotic electronics, AI-generated programming, lightweight silicone, titanium, aluminum, plastics, and carbon-fiber composites, and aesthetic streamline design.” Rather than replacing a missing body part, why not create a “prosthetic you”?

Such ambitions make clear that what transhumanism rejects isn’t simply mortality and suffering but the very idea of a fixed human nature. Our minds and bodies should be endlessly plastic, able to assume whatever shape and enjoy whatever experiences our ingenuity can invent. As the transhumanist thinker Max More, who is married to Vita-More, wrote in 2013, “Transhumanists regard human nature not as an end in itself, not as perfect, and not as having any claim on our allegiance. Rather, it is just one point along an evolutionary pathway and we can learn to reshape our own nature in ways we deem desirable and valuable.”

According to Genesis, the human form is divine: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” But from a Darwinian standpoint, there is nothing unique about Homo sapiens. We are one of countless life forms to have emerged from the blind, purposeless play of evolution. As Israeli thinker Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Homo Deus (2015), a skeptical survey of transhumanist aspirations, “For 4 billion years natural selection has been tweaking and tinkering with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station.”

The only thing that makes humanity unique, transhumanists believe, is our ability to compensate for our biological weaknesses with the power of technology. Slower than horses, weaker than elephants, less versatile than roaches, humans dominate them all because we are able to change ourselves, while they are stuck with the abilities nature gave them. It’s not recent technologies like pacemakers that make us cyborg-like; we have always been cyborgs because technology has always been a fundamental part of human being.

A delighted admiration of humanity’s ability to explore and change is one of transhumanism’s legacies from classical humanism. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, published in 1496, imagined God telling mankind:

The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, [are] impeded by no such restrictions. … We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer.

Philosophically inclined transhumanists like to quote the Oration as a precedent for their view that the only thing permanent about us is our need to change. There is no static human nature to which we can appeal in an attempt to halt technological progress. On the contrary, in transcending Homo sapiens, we are actually preserving the most authentically human thing about us. As Kurzweil writes, “If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.”

This belief allows transhumanists to face a posthuman future without dread. In Richard Powers’s 2018 novel, The Overstory, one of the characters drinks poison as a sacrifice on behalf of the trees, demonstrating that human beings are capable of forming such a strong bond with the nonhuman that they are willing to die for it. For transhumanists, the replacement of humanity by a better, more intelligent, more capable successor species is a similarly worthy sacrifice, even if it ends up creating a world in which human beings can no longer find their own reflection.

This essay is adapted from The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us, published by Columbia Global Reports.

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