Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Able to leap tall paradoxes in a single bound . . .

As the comments on the Sunday post demonstrate, there are a whole mess of issues tangled up in this human enhancement problem. People come at it from various directions, although we mostly wind up in the same knot.

So, my first proposal is that it's counterproductive to treat this as a single, general problem. The most prevalent attempt to generalize is a conservative take -- one that we hear not only from religious thinkers but also from a certain strain of environmentalists who have what I would call a quasi-religious or mystical view of nature. This is the claim that there is some entity called "human nature" which has a kind of sacrality. If we set out to make a new kind of human being, or a post-human, we will either be offending God, or destroying ourselves, however you want to look at it.

The liberal view of human nature, in contrast, is as always more reality based. That is, human nature is what we make of it. For as long as we have been capable of the requisite self-reflection, planning, and cultural development, we have been transforming our nature. The invention of writing, for example, produced a revolution in human nature. Literate people are very different from people in pre-literate societies. Command of fire, clothing, agriculture, all of the basics, created new kinds of creatures. Nowadays it is commonplace to change human nature -- it's what we do through education, military basic training, football camp. Cro Magnons couldn't fly, couldn't play saxophones, couldn't make a perspective drawing, and couldn't run a four minute mile. Does that make us no longer human?

Even so, it's fair to ask whether any particular enhancement is for better or for worse. There is even a respectable argument to be made over whether we are in fact better off than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Disclosure alert: that was the precise subject of my master's thesis and I came down firmly on the side of ambivalence. But if we aren't, it isn't because we have offended God -- who according to all the religions I know about came along through one or another incarnation or prophet no more than 3,000 years ago at the outside, to endorse a social order and human nature that was very far removed from Eden.

We have to look at each of these questions separately, and on their merits. An extended life span is a different issue from enhanced mental capabilities, or physical strength, or whole new functional elements such as wings or X-ray vision. So, I'll take on the longevity thing first, with the next post.

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