Criticisms of transhumanism take two main forms: those objecting to the likelihood of transhumanist goals being achieved (practical criticisms); and those objecting to the moral principles of transhumanism (ethical criticisms). However, these two strains sometimes converge and overlap, particularly when the ethics of changing human biology in the face of incomplete knowledge is considered.
Critics or opponents of transhumanism often see transhumanists' goals as posing threats to human values. Some also argue that strong advocacy of a transhumanist approach to improving the human condition might divert attention and resources from social solutions. As most transhumanists support non-technological changes to society, such as the spread of civil rights and civil liberties, and most critics of transhumanism support technological advances in areas such as communications and health care, the difference is often a matter of emphasis. Sometimes, however, there are strong disagreements about the very principles involved, with divergent views on humanity, human nature, and the morality of transhumanist aspirations. At least one self-described socially progressive organization, the Center for Genetics and Society, has come into existence with the specific goal of opposing transhumanist agendas that involve transgenerational modification of human biology, such as full-term human cloning and germline genetic engineering.
Some of the most widely known critiques of the transhumanist program refer to novels and fictional films. These works of art, despite presenting imagined worlds rather than philosophical analyses, are used as touchstones for some of the more formal arguments.
Table of Contents
- 1 Futurehype argument (infeasibility)
- 2 Playing God arguments (hubris)
- 3 Peter Pan argument (flight from corporeality)
- 4 Enough argument (trivialization of human identity)
- 5 Gattaca argument (genetic divide)
- 6 Brave New World argument (erosion of morality)
- 7 Frankenstein argument (dehumanization)
- 8 Eugenics Wars argument (specter of old eugenics)
- 9 Terminator argument (existential risks)
- 10 See Also
Futurehype argument (infeasibility)
In his 1992 book Futurehype: The Tyranny of Prophecy, sociologist Max Dublin points out many past failed predictions of technological progress and argues that modern futurist predictions will prove similarly inaccurate. He also objects to what he sees as scientism, fanaticism, and nihilism by some in advancing transhumanist causes, and writes that historical parallels exist to millenarian religions and Marxist doctrines.
Major paradigm shifts seem to show that many technologies are evolving in an exponential pattern.
Despite his sympathies for transhumanism, biophysicist Gregory Stock's book "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future" (2002) is skeptical of the technical feasibility and mass appeal of the cyborgization of humanity predicted by figures such as Raymond Kurzweil, Hans Moravec and Kevin Warwick. He believes that throughout the twenty first century, many humans will find themselves deeply integrated into systems of machines, but will remain biological. Primary changes to their own form and character will arise not from cyberware but from the direct manipulation of their genetics, metabolism, and biochemistry.
Those thinkers who defend the likelihood of massive technological change within a relatively short timeframe emphasize what they describe as a past pattern of exponential increases in humanity's technological capacities. This emphasis is clear in the work of Damien Broderick, notably The Spike (1997), which contains his speculations about a radically-changed future. Kurzweil develops this position in much detail in his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near. Broderick points out that many of the seemingly implausible predictions of early science fiction writers have, indeed, come to pass, among them nuclear power and space travel to the moon. He also claims that there is a core rationalism to current predictions of very rapid change, asserting that such observers as Kurzweil have a good track record in predicting the pace of innovation.
Playing God arguments (hubris)
There are two distinct categories of criticism, theological and secular, that have been referred to as "Playing God" arguments:
The first category is based on the alleged inappropriateness of humans substituting themselves for an actual God. This approach is exemplified by the 2002 Vatican statement Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, in which it is stated that, "Changing the genetic identity of man as a human person through the production of an infrahuman being is radically immoral," implying, as it would, that "man has full right of disposal over his own biological nature." At the same time, this statement argues that creation of a superhuman or spiritually superior being is "unthinkable", since true improvement can come only through religious experience and "realizing more fully the image of God". The Biocomplexity Spiral is a depiction of the multileveled complexity of organisms in their environments.The second category is aimed mainly at attempts to pursue transhumanist goals by way of genetically modifying human embryos in order to create "designer babies". It emphasizes the issue of biocomplexity and the unpredictability of attempts to guide the development of products of biological evolution. This argument, elaborated in particular by the biologist Stuart Newman, is based on the recognition that the cloning and germline genetic engineering of animals are error-prone and inherently disruptive of embryonic development. Accordingly, it would create unacceptable risks to apply such processes to human embryos. Performing experiments, particularly ones with permanent biological consequences, on developing humans, would thus be in violation of accepted principles governing research on human subjects (see Declaration of Helsinki). Moreover, because improvements in experimental outcomes in one species are not automatically transferable to a new species without further experimentation, there is claimed to be no ethical route to genetic manipulation of humans at early developmental stages.
As a practical matter, however, international protocols on human subject research may not present a legal obstacle to attempts by transhumanists and others to improve their offspring by germline genetic engineering. According to legal scholar Kirsten Rabe Smolensky, existing laws would protect parents who choose to enhance their child's genome from future liablility arising from adverse outcomes of the procedure.
The first argument does not trouble secular transhumanists, who reject it as irrelevant to public policy in a society that embraces freedom of religion. To the extent that it relies on a supposed sin of defying God's will, secular thinkers argue that it is not morally binding on non-believers and is inappropriate as a political argument. Religious thinkers allied with transhumanist goals, such as the theologians Ronald Cole-Turner and Ted Peters, also reject the first argument, holding that the doctrine of "co-creation" provides an obligation to use genetic engineering to improve human biology.
Transhumanists and other supporters of human genetic engineering do not dismiss the second argument out of hand, insofar as there is a high degree of uncertainty about the likely outcomes of genetic modification experiments in humans. However, transhumanists say that a greater risk lies in not using genetic engineering and other emerging technologies, because present technologies threaten the environment and large numbers of humans die from potentially solvable problems. The implication is that the potential benefits of enhancement technologies outweigh the potential harms, with the moral imperative, if any, being to use the technologies as quickly as possible. Further, transhumanists add that "tampering with nature" is something that humans have done for millennia with every technology, with tangible benefits. Some transhumanists argue that parents have a moral responsibility called procreative beneficence to make use of genetic engineering methods, assuming they are safe and effective, to have healthy children with maximum potential. They add that this responsibility is a moral judgment best left to individual conscience rather than imposed by law, in all but extreme cases. In this context, the emphasis on freedom of choice is called procreative liberty.
Peter Pan argument (flight from corporeality)
Philosopher Mary Midgley, in her 1992 book Science as Salvation, traces the notion of achieving immortality by transcendence of the material human body (echoed in the transhumanist tenet of mind uploading), to a group of male scientific thinkers of the early twentieth century, including J.B.S. Haldane and members of his circle. She characterizes these ideas as "quasi-scientific dreams and prophesies" involving visions of escape from the body coupled with "self-indulgent, uncontrolled power-fantasies." Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo refers to what she terms "contemporary obsessions with slenderness, youth, and physical perfection", which she sees as affecting both men and women, but in distinct ways, as "the logical (if extreme) manifestations of anxieties and fantasies fostered by our culture”.
Nick Bostrom asserts that the desire to transcend the material body is pan-cultural and pan-historical and is therefore not uniquely tied to the culture of the twentieth century. He argues that the transhumanist program is rather an attempt to channel that desire into a scientific pursuit and achieve humanity's oldest dream, rather than some ephemeral and childish fantasies. Transhumanists assert that the impulse to remain healthy and vigorous, and not die, is a fundamental drive of our biological existence and not equivalent to seeking Peter Pan-like perpetual immaturity.
Enough argument (trivialization of human identity)
In his 2003 book Enough, environmental ethicist Bill McKibben has argued at length against many of the technologies that are postulated or supported by transhumanists, including germline genetic engineering, nanomedicine, and radical life extension. He claims that it would be morally wrong for human beings to tamper with fundamental aspects of themselves (or their children) in an attempt to overcome universal human limitations, such as vulnerability to aging, maximum life span, and biological constraints on physical and cognitive ability. Attempts to "improve" themselves through such manipulation would remove limitations that provide a necessary context for the experience of meaningful human choice. McKibben claims that human lives would no longer seem meaningful in a world where such limitations could be overcome technologically. Furthermore, even the goal of using germline genetic modification for clearly therapeutic purposes should be relinquished, since it would inevitably produce temptations to tamper with such things as cognitive capacities. He argues that it is possible for societies to benefit from renouncing particular technologies, using as examples Ming China, Tokugawa Japan, and the contemporary Amish.
Transhumanists and other supporters of technological alteration of human biology, such as science journalist Ronald Bailey, reject as extremely subjective the claim that life would be experienced as meaningless in a world where some human limitations are overcome with enhancement technologies. They argue that although these technologies may ease certain of life’s burdens they will not remove the bulk of the individual and social challenges humanity faces. They suggest, however, that a person with greater abilities would tackle more advanced and difficult projects and continue to find meaning in the struggle to achieve excellence. Bailey also claims that McKibben's historical examples are flawed, and support different conclusions when studied more closely. For example, no group is more cautious than the Amish about embracing new technologies, but though they shun television and use horses and buggies, they are welcoming the possibilities of gene therapy since inbreeding has afflicted them with a number of rare genetic diseases.
Gattaca argument (genetic divide)
Some critics of libertarian transhumanism have focused on its likely socioeconomic consequences in societies in which divisions between rich and poor are on the rise. Bill McKibben, for example, suggests that emerging human enhancement technologies would be disproportionately available to those with greater financial resources, thereby exacerbating the gap between rich and poor and creating a "genetic divide". Lee Silver, a biologist and writer on the genetic future who coined the term "reprogenetics" and supports its applications, has nonetheless expressed concern that these methods could create a two-tiered society of genetically-engineered "haves" and "have nots" if social democratic reforms lag behind implementation of enhancement technologies. Critics who make these arguments do not thereby necessarily accept the transhumanist assumption that human enhancement is a positive value; in their view, however, because it could confer additional power to the already powerful it should be discouraged or even banned. Some critics also question the social implications of the movement's focus on body modification. Political scientist Klaus-Gerd Giesen, for example, has asserted that transhumanism's concentration on altering the human body represents the ultimate form of consumerism and is thus a negative manifestation of advanced capitalism. The 1997 film Gattaca's depiction of a dystopian society in which one's social class depends entirely on genetic modifications is often cited by critics in support of a combination of these views.
Most of these criticisms are taken seriously by many transhumanist advocates, especially self-described democratic transhumanists, who believe that the majority of current and future social problems (such as unemployment or resource depletion) need to be addressed by a combination of political and technological solutions (such as a guaranteed minimum income or alternative technology). Therefore, on the specific issue of an emerging genetic divide due to body modification, bioethicist James Hughes, in his 2004 book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future, argues that techno-progressives must articulate and implement public policies (such as a universal health care voucher system that covers human enhancement technologies) in order to attenuate and even eliminate this problem, rather than trying to ban human enhancement technologies. The latter, he argues, might actually worsen the problem by making these technologies available only to the wealthy on the local black market or overseas in countries where such a ban is not enforced.
Brave New World argument (erosion of morality)
Various arguments have been made to the effect that a society that adopts human enhancement technologies may come to resemble the dystopia depicted in the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Sometimes, as in the writings of Leon Kass, the fear is that various institutions and practices, judged as fundamental to civilized society, would be destroyed or greatly altered. In his book Our Posthuman Future and in a Foreign Policy magazine article, political economist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama designates transhumanism as one of the world's most dangerous ideas because it may undermine the egalitarian ideals of liberal democracy, through a fundamental alteration of "human nature". Social philosopher Jürgen Habermas makes a similar argument in his 2003 book The Future of Human Nature, in which he asserts that moral autonomy depends on not being subject to another's unilaterally imposed specifications. This leads Habermas to suggest that the human "species ethic" would be undermined by embryo-stage genetic alteration. Bioconservatives such as Kass, Fukuyama, and Habermas hold that attempts to significantly alter the natural human state (specifically through human cloning and human genetic engineering) are not only inherently immoral but also threats to the social order.
In an article in Reason Online, science journalist Ronald Bailey has contested these claims by arguing that political equality has never rested on the facts of human biology. He asserts that liberalism was founded not on the proposition of effective equality of human beings, or de facto equality, but on the assertion of an equality in political rights and before the law, or de jure equality. Bailey asserts that the products of genetic engineering may well ameliorate rather than exacerbate human inequality, giving to the many what were once the privileges of the few. Moreover, he argues, "the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment is the principle of tolerance": in fact, he argues, political liberalism is already the solution to the issue of human and posthuman rights since, in liberal societies, the law is meant to apply equally to all, no matter how rich or poor, powerful or powerless, educated or ignorant, enhanced or unenhanced. Other thinkers who are sympathetic to transhumanist ideas, such as Russell Blackford, have also objected to the appeal to tradition, and what they see as alarmism, involved in Brave New World-type arguments.
Frankenstein argument (dehumanization)
An artist's concept of what a human-dog hybrid might look like. The provocative creatures are part of a sculpture by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini entitled "The Young Family," produced to spark reflection on the alleged perils of creating human-animal mixtures.Acknowledging the power of biotechnology to make profound changes in organismal identity, bioconservative activist Jeremy Rifkin and biologist Stuart Newman argue against the genetic engineering of human beings because they fear the blurring of the boundary between human and artifact. Philosopher Keekok Lee sees such developments as part of an accelerating trend in modernization in which technology has been used to transform the "natural" into the "artifactual". In the extreme, this could lead to the manufacturing and enslavement of "monsters" such as human clones, human-animal chimeras, or even replicants, but even lesser dislocations of humans and nonhumans from social and ecological systems are seen as problematic. The film Blade Runner (1982), the novels The Boys From Brazil (1978) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) depict elements of such scenarios, but Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein is most often alluded to by critics who suggest that biotechnologies (which currently include cloning, chimerism and genetic engineering) could create objectified and socially-unmoored people and subhumans. Such critics propose that strict measures be implemented to prevent these potentially dehumanizing possibilities from ever happening, usually in the form of an international ban on human genetic engineering.
Objecting to what science writer Isaac Asimov termed the "Frankenstein complex", transhumanists and non-anthropocentric personhood theorists argue that if they are self-aware, human clones, human-animal chimeras and uplifted animals would still be unique persons deserving of respect, dignity, rights and citizenship. They conclude that the coming ethical issue which must be dealt with is not the creation of monsters but what they view as the "yuck factor" and "human-racism" that would judge and treat these creations as monsters.
Eugenics Wars argument (specter of old eugenics)
"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution": Logo from the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921, depicting it as a tree which unites a variety of different fields.A trenchant argument against transhumanism comes from critics who allege social bias in the use of concepts such as "limitations", "enhancement", and "improvement." Such critics see the coercive eugenics, social Darwinist and master race ideologies and programs of the past as warnings of what the promotion of eugenic enhancement technologies might unintentionally encourage. While some acknowledge the differences between coercive and elective forms of eugenics, they argue that the social stratification that may result from the latter would still be problematic. In particular, in their view, it could present unprecedented challenges to democratic governance, even if it came about as the cumulative result of individual choices. Some fear future "Eugenics Wars", a speculative form of genetic class warfare, as the worst-case scenario. Health law professor George Annas and technology law professor Lori Andrews are prominent advocates of the position that the use of these technologies could lead to human-posthuman conflict and new forms of genocide.
For most of its history, eugenics has manifested itself as a movement to sterilize against their will the "genetically unfit" and encourage the selective breeding of the genetically advantaged. The major transhumanist organizations strongly condemn the coercion involved in such policies and reject the racialist and classist assumptions on which they were based, along with the pseudoscientific notions that eugenic improvements could be accomplished in a practically meaningful time frame through selective human breeding. Most transhumanist thinkers instead advocate a form of egalitarian liberal eugenics. In their 2000 book From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, bioethicists Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel Wikler have argued that liberal societies have an obligation to encourage as wide an adoption of eugenic enhancement technologies as possible (so long as such policies do not infringe on individuals' reproductive rights or exert undue pressures on prospective parents to use these technologies) in order to maximize public health and minimize the inequalities that may result from both natural genetic endowments and unequal access to genetic enhancements. Transhumanists holding similar views nonetheless distance themselves from the term "eugenics" (preferring "reprogenetics") to avoid having their position confused with the discredited theories and practices of early-20th-century eugenic movements.
Terminator argument (existential risks)
Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, struck by a passage from Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski's anarcho-primitivist manifesto quoted in Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, became a notable critic of emerging technologies. Joy's essay Why the future doesn't need us argues that human beings would likely guarantee their own extinction by developing the technologies favored by transhumanists. He invokes, for example, the "grey goo scenario" where out-of-control self-replicating nanorobots could consume entire ecosystems, resulting in global ecophage. Related notions are also voiced by self-described neo-luddite Kalle Lasn, a culture jammer who wrote a spoof of the Cyborg Manifesto as a critique of techno-utopianism, who claims that humanity has an inherent lack of competence to direct its own evolution and should therefore completely relinquish technology development.
British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees argues, in his book Our Final Hour, that advanced science and technology bring as much risk of disaster as opportunity for progress. However, Rees does not advocate a halt to scientific activity; he calls for tighter security and perhaps an end to traditional scientific openness. Advocates of the precautionary principle, such as the Green movement, also favor slow, careful progress or a halt in potentially dangerous areas. Some precautionists believe that artificial intelligence and robotics present possibilities of alternative forms of cognition that may threaten human life. The Terminator series' apocalyptic depiction of the emergence of Skynet, a malign computer network which initiates a nuclear war in order to kill as many humans as possible, has been cited by some in this regard.
Transhumanists do not necessarily rule out specific restrictions on emerging technologies so as to lessen the prospect of existential risk. Generally, however, they counter that proposals based on the precautionary principle are often unrealistic and sometimes even counter-productive. In his television series Connections, science historian James Burke dissects several views on technological advance, including precautionism and the restriction of open inquiry. Burke questions the practicality of some of these views, but concludes that maintaining the status quo of inquiry and development poses hazards of its own, such as a disorienting rate of change and the depletion of our planet's resources. The common transhumanist position is that society should take deliberate action to ensure the early, yet safe, arrival of the benefits of emerging technologies rather than fostering what it considers to be anti-scientific views and technophobia.
One transhumanist solution proposed by Nick Bostrom is differential technological development, in which attempts would be made to influence the sequence in which technologies developed. In this approach, planners would strive to retard the development of possibly harmful technologies and their applications, while accelerating the development of likely beneficial technologies, especially those that offer protection against the harmful effects of others.