The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama called it the world's most dangerous idea.1 He was talking about transhumanism.
Just what is transhumanism and why is it so dangerous?
Like many other ideas, it can imply different things to different people. But generally, transhumanism refers to an attempt to free humanity from its biological limitations. Today, transhumanists advocate the use of various types of rapidly developing technology, especially bioengineering, to accomplish this purpose. Some transhumanists imagine the creation of a new type of human being. That is, a human being with biological features so far removed from natural human biology as to warrant classification as "post-human."
Transhumanists hold firmly to Darwinian materialism. We know that Darwinian evolution is predicated upon the assumptions of random variation and natural selection. But suppose, through genetic engineering, we can create our own genetic variations perhaps with inheritable traits. The transhumanists hope to achieve an artificial, human-guided evolution, at least on the level of microevolution, as well as the creation of "post humans."
Ask a person what he considers to be the most dangerous thing in the world and most probably the answer would be atomic weapons they can eradicate several hundred thousand human beings in a flash. But with transhumanism, you can displace nature with technology and subvert natural human biology.
Sir Julian Huxley is credited with coining the term transhumanism in 1957.2 He wrote:
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism with remaining man, but transcending himself by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.
As we shall see later, use of the term transhumanism predates Sir Julian Huxley by several centuries. Nevertheless, we can credit Sir Julian with putting the name to a modern movement that seeks to modify human beings through technological manipulation in order to transcend human biology. The technology can include genetic engineering and interfaces between the human body and machines.
One definition offered by the World Transhumanist Association3 is this:
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities.
Transhumanists see it as an ethical imperative to use technology to transcend physical barriers to human potentials, and to proceed with their project of humanly guided evolution.
What has happened in the past century is the development of science and technology at a pace so fast and in so many different specialties that one scarcely has the opportunity to understand one development before it is made obsolete by another development.
There are four areas especially in which we've seen such rapid advancement in the past twenty to thirty years: biotechnology, information technology, wireless technology and nanotechnology.
In biotechnology we see the genetic manipulation of life. In information technology we see the ever-expanding reach of digital information processing to the point where hardly any household in the developed world is without some type of personal computer. Artificial Intelligence (AI) enables computers to "learn" from experience and modify their own operational procedures without human intervention.
As for wireless, the Internet is accessible without land lines or physical hook-ups. Everywhere you turn there is someone talking on a cell phone. Nanotechnology deals with the manufacture and use of very small particles, which can include simple materials or even tiny machines with interacting parts machines, for example, that can be introduced into the human body to cut away arterial plaque or perform operations on a submicroscopic level. We still don't know all of the potentials of nanotechnology. Keep in mind, also, that these technologies can be merged.
These technologies enable us to do things inconceivable even a few decades ago. These new potentials present new dimensions of ethical dilemmas.
Suppose you can insert portions of the genetic material of one type of being into the genetic material of another type of being. In fact, this has been done. Who would have thought to introduce the genes of fireflies into a tobacco plant to create a plant that glows in the dark? Yet this was done over twenty years ago. The cloning of animals, transgenic plants and a host of other developments are historical events, not futuristic speculations. A U.S. patent application is on file detailing the creation of an artificial life form.4
Genetic engineering enables us to use living organisms bacteria for example as miniature drug factories to manufacture pharmaceuticals that otherwise could not be produced. Genetically modified viruses can be used to introduce modified DNA into target organisms.
But suppose one merges portions of human genetic material with portions of the genetic material of an animal an animal, say, with the genetic instructions for growth of human organs, or humans with animal features. What have we produced? And suppose that the chimerical being we've created can reproduce itself. What is the moral status of such beings? What is one to think about the deliberate creation of "subhuman beings" or "superhuman beings" through genetic engineering? We believe that the human soul does not arise from matter but that God creates and infuses a rational soul into a human being at conception. This is clear enough from human procreation. But what of the prospect of artificially assembling DNA, inserting that DNA into a cell, and letting that cell grow into an organism? How close do we have to be to the DNA characteristic of human beings for the organism to be considered human? Suppose a gorilla body can be combined with a human brain. Does God implant a human soul into it? How do we know unless we let the organism grow and see if it matures into a rational being? Does the possibility of salvation apply to homo artificialis as it does to homo Sapiens?
Yet genetic engineering can have legitimate therapeutic purposes, for example, to overcome naturally occurring genetic abnormalities, or to provide new cancer therapies.5 Genetic engineering and other technologies also might be used to enhance the genetic potential of healthy people, for example, to increase lifespan.
There is also now the possibility of implanting computer chips in the human brain. Neural implants, human-computer interfaces these are concepts that just a few years ago were the subjects of science fiction. Today, they are the subjects of U.S. patents.6 One should also consider the possibility of wireless communication between a neural computer implant and some remote control center. How do Catholic moral principles apply to such things? Until now, we've not had to think about a coherent moral position in the face of such possibilities. That's changed.
It's not only personal morality that needs to be addressed. We also have to think about social and political effects. One of the criticisms of all this genetic enhancement is that it will be available only to the wealthy. Will we have society stratified into classes of the "genetically enhanced" and the "genetically deprived"? What new weapons will be unleashed upon us in future wars?
As I stated earlier, Sir Julian was not the first person to conceive of a process of transhumanization. Let's go back several centuries. Before there was a Julian Huxley there was a Dante Alighieri. Dante expressed the idea of transhumanization in Canto I of Paradiso, written sometime in the early 1300s. Dante wrote, "Transhumanizing cannot be signified in words therefore let the example suffice him for whom grace reserves the experience."
Transhumanization is something ineffable, something beyond the ability of words to encompass. It can only be experienced, and that is a matter of grace. One can also refer to the Epistles, where St. Paul often talks about being a new creation in Christ and being sons of God through faith in Christ.7
Transhumanization is not a concept alien to Christianity. Quite the contrary, it is our Christian hope. But in Christianity transhumanization is a matter of God's grace. Although we can begin the process of transhumanization in this life by living in the state of God's grace, completion of the process is meant for a future life, an eternal life, of intimacy with God. In our present life in this world, grace does not destroy or change human nature, but works through human nature and perfects it. Through grace we are transformed into images of Christ. But we must await our resurrection for final transformation in the world to come. In the journey of our lives we must take as our companions the Christian virtues of patience and perseverance.
How, then, did we get from Christian transhumanization to biological transhumanism?
I want to offer a very cursory review of certain philosophical developments that have led up to secular humanism, which has become the de facto religion of the Western world. Transhumanism is an extension of secular humanism. If we use the image of a tree, secular humanism is the trunk, transhumanism one of the branches and the roots are planted in the soil of unbelief. This unbelief is not just ordinary atheist materialism. That's been around for millennia. Rather, it is something just a few centuries old. It is not so much a non-God view as it is an anti-God view. More particularly, it is an anti-Christianity percolating through modern culture.
First, let's turn to the Enlightenment, which is a foundation of modern secular humanism. The Enlightenment embraced a turning away from religion in general and Christianity in particular. The Enlightenment thinkers weren't all atheists. Many were deists who believed in a creator, but one not personally involved with creation on an ongoing basis.
However, the question arises: if you don't put your trust in a God who takes a personal interest in the world, then in what do you put your trust? Throughout history there runs the theme of salvation and the hope of it. In what do we place our trust? Where is our hope?
The Enlightenment thinker places his trust in the human potential to remake society by human reasoning and human will.8 The basis for hope is science and technology. Remember that the Enlightenment period of the 1700s was also a period of the rapid growth of scientific discovery. It must have been intoxicating. Here was the way to truth in the scientific method. One aspect, then, of the Enlightenment is positivism, a philosophy based upon sense experience and relying only on scientific observations for knowledge about the external world. Concomitantly, Enlightenment thought rejects tradition, the supernatural and revelation.
Now, social order cannot be achieved without values. So, where do values come from? The scientific method doesn't provide values, only data. Also, for some time philosophy in Europe had been turning inward, away from the objectively knowable external world into the subjective operations of the mind. Eventually, there came from this a subjectivity with respect to values, or moral relativism.
A post-Enlightenment philosopher, Nietzsche, saw inherent weaknesses in Enlightenment liberalism. But, instead of turning back to the pre-modern, common sense philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, he followed the thread of modern philosophy to a logical end point. God is dead. What's more, according to Nietzsche, we killed him. God and religion became our enemies by limiting our freedom. In the end there is nothing but will to power. We are what we will to be.
The twentieth century atheistic philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was very influential in promoting existentialism.9 He was not an optimistic person. The concluding observation in one of his plays was, "Hell is other people." Sartre defined existentialism by asserting the principle that existence precedes essence. This was the reversal of centuries of philosophical understanding that held that essence was first. This may seem like an academic issue of concern only to ivory tower philosophers, perhaps arguing over the matter at two o'clock in the morning in some cafe. But ideas have consequences, and one of the consequences of this idea is the slaughter of millions of unborn children each year.
Pro-lifers, for example, argue that the fertilized human ovum is, from the moment of conception, in essence, a human being. The attributes and powers we normally associate with fully developed humans a nervous system, the ability to move and think, self awareness, etc. are present in the human embryo as potentialities that, in the course of natural development, unfold or outwardly express themselves. In an ontological ordering essence precedes existence.
The pro-choice position, at least among some, is that an unborn child does not have the attributes and powers of a human being and is therefore not morally equivalent to a human being. In other words, existence precedes essence.
The dictum that existence precedes essence means that there is no human nature. According to Sartre, we invent and make ourselves. Sartre, like Aquinas, held that there can be no human nature unless there is a God who designs it. But Sartre took his atheism to its logical conclusion and denied the objective existence of human nature. If we do not believe that there is a human nature created by God, there is no level of dehumanization to which we cannot fall in our headlong rush to engineer human evolution.
We are running up against a wall of misconceptions, prejudices, faulty valuations and linguistic confusions firmly cemented together by existentialism. It takes great ingenuity and effort to render a population oblivious to common sense and reality. But our educational institutions, mass media and public officials have proven up to the task.
Modern humanism, founded upon Enlightenment thought and modified by the influence of Nietzsche and Sartre, has several important features.
- It is secularist. The supernatural is excluded from consideration. Politically this expresses itself as the separation of Church and state.
- The scientist becomes the source of authority with respect to what we can know about the outside world.
- The outside world is nature, and only nature. The concern is for this life, and only this life.
- The social order is to be constructed by human beings based upon human reason and will. No consideration is given to any end or purpose of society or individual human life other than what we decide for ourselves.
- Humanism has its own mythology, particularly the myth of human progress progress as advancement toward something allegedly better. Progress is measured by materialist standards: technological achievements, advances in medicine and improving the materialist quality of life. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or suppressed because this myth of progress is essential to the secularist program.
- Human nature has to be regarded as something plastic in the secularist world view, something that can be molded by our manipulation of the environment or genetics. If it was something objective, created by God, the myth of progress would be a meaningless proposition and the humanist program would collapse.
- A chief value is personal individual autonomy and pluralism. As an example of how this has embedded itself into law consider this statement from the decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, a Supreme Court case in which the central holding of Roe vs. Wade was upheld:
These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the state.10
Add to these features of secularism the powers given to us by technology, and the result is transhumanism. Transhumanism is the new face of eugenics, with this difference: in the older conception of eugenics human biological reproduction is limited by law or social pressure to those deemed to have the physical and intellectual qualifications defined by the ruling elite. It is like breeding horses or dogs. But the biology of reproduction remains natural. With transhumanism the biology is engineered.
The Church has begun to deal with transhumanism. The 2002 document of the International Theological Commission entitled Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God addresses some of the issues I have mentioned. This document warns against mankind usurping the role of God. "Neither science nor technology are ends in themselves; what is technically possible is not necessarily also reasonable or ethical."11 The document also deals with cloning, germ line genetic engineering, enhancement genetic engineering and therapeutic interventions.12
But there is an ethical labyrinth to journey through that becomes ever more complex. In trying to help students find their way through complex philosophical ideas, one philosophy teacher used the metaphor of the golden string given by Ariadne to Theseus to find his way through the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.'13
What's our golden thread? How do we find our way through the ethical labyrinth of transhumanism? It has to be the fundamental principles derived from our religion. What does it mean to be a human person? What is our mission and destiny as human beings? If you exclude God from consideration there is no way through the labyrinth, even for well-meaning secularist philosophers such as Fukuyama who do see the dangers ahead.
Through it all we have to remember that the world has lost sight of something precious a vision seen only through the eyes of faith the vision of something supernatural and eternal.14 There will always be a little flame of faith shining in the wilderness of this world. The spirits of darkness are afraid of it and try to snuff it out, because as long as it shines there is the potential for the world to catch fire and for the grace of God to illuminate everything. As Catholics we have to keep this vision always in sight for ourselves and continually present it to the world.
- Fukuyama, F., "Transhumanism," Symposium on the World's Most Dangerous Ideas, Foreign Policy, Sept./Oct. 2004.
- Huxley, J., "Transhumanism", New Bottles for New Wine, London: Chatto & Windus, 1957, pp. 13-17.
- See www.transhumanism.org
- See U.S. Publication No. 2007/0122826 ("Minimal Bacterial Genome")
- Cancer cells have a genetic abnormality. If this abnormality can be targeted and counteracted by certain medications it is hoped that we can develop a "magic bullet" for treating at least some types of cancer.
- See, U.S. Patent No. 7,187,968. ("Apparatus and Method for Acquiring Neural Signals and Related Methods").
- See, 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 3:26, 4:4-7, 6:15.
- Enlightenment thinkers refused to take into account original sin and the deep pathology of the human soul that is its effect. Divorced from religion, human reasoning becomes human machinations to satisfy the aspirations of a perverted human will. At a personal level this pathology manifests itself as personal sin. At a societal level this pathology leads ultimately to conflicts in which all reason is hurled into the winds of popular resentments. Every type of savagery is let loose upon mankind with much suffering and spilling of blood.
- There is more than one type of existentialism. Here I am referring to atheistic existentialism.
- 505 U.S. 833 (1992). This passage has been dubbed "the mystery passage."
- Communion and Stewardship, §61.
- Ibid, §89-92.
- Daniel Robinson, in a course entitled "The Great Ideas of Philosophy" produced by The Teaching Company.
- See, Jessica Powers, "The Vision," The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ed. Siegfried and Morneau, ICS Publications, 1999.
Mr. Adrian Calderone graduated from Manhatten College with B. Ch. E. and M. E. degrees in chemical engineering. He spent more than three years living and traveling in Asia. Having earned his Juris Doctorate from New York Law School, he now practices intellectual property law. He and his wife Jo live in Brooklyn, New York and have three daughters. His last article in HPR appeared in October 2007.
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