Superhuman: The Uncharted Territory of Transhumanism
by Eric Pavlat
"By responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman."
"The moral challenge of transhumanism will transcend those of abortion and euthanasia. For this reason, the pro-life movement must become the pro-human movement."
Cryonics. Neural implants. Designer babies. Welcome to the future of transhumanism. This energetic movement, comprising thousands of adherents, actively promotes the enhancement of humans via cybernetics, genetics, medicine, surgery, nanotechnology, and a full panoply of other scientific advancements. This enhancement would, according to Nick Bostrom’s "Transhumanist Declaration," seek to advocate "the moral right for those who wish to do so to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. [They] seek personal growth beyond [their] current biological limitations" (see www.transhumanism.org).
This may sound like science fiction, but the philosophy behind the movement—improving or extending human life by whatever means possible—has already taken hold in society. Advances in modern medicine seem to offer us the very Fountain of Youth, and we seem fully prepared to embrace it. But at what cost?
The question is not an easy one. Other issues touching on human life—abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia—have all been clearly defined by Church teaching. But the questions become more nuanced when we move from wholesale destruction of the person to varying degrees of interference with or enhancement of the body. The Church has not definitively spoken on many areas of the transhumanist agenda, nor have bioethicists made many public proclamations. "We’re not even asking the right questions yet," admits Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, a bioethicist at Providence College.
Radical Anti-Aging Technology
The search for eternal youth is an ancient human impulse, going back to the world’s earliest recorded epic, Gilgamesh. But with modern medical technology, we now seem closer to achieving that end than ever before.
The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, claiming more than 11,000 members, "seeks to disseminate information concerning innovative science and research as well as treatment modalities designed to prolong the human life span" (www.worldhealth.net). Among the most common lines of research are gene therapy, stem cell therapy to grow everything from new nerves to hair, the injection of human growth hormone, and cryonics, in which technicians would freeze people’s bodies in the hopes of reviving them after years of suspended animation or even death.
But does this go too far? Theological critics of anti-aging technology have pointed out that aging has long been considered a consequence of the Fall, and that we are undoing God’s command when we radically extend life through medical means. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, sees other, more philosophical problems with anti-aging research: "The desire to prolong youthfulness is not only a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it. . . . It seeks an endless present, isolated from anything truly eternal, and severed from any true continuity with past and future. It is in principle hostile to children, because children, those who come after, are those who will take one’s place; they are life’s answer to mortality" (First Things, May 2001). Meanwhile, in apparent agreement with Kass, a 2002 document edited by then–Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, states, "Disposing of death is in reality the most radical way of disposing of life."
On the other hand, Father Austriaco points out, "A careful reading of Communion and Stewardship does not seem to suggest that anything in Catholic tradition would oppose longevity research that seeks to delay aging in the human being." He also says that while it is true that at the Fall, God withdrew "supernatural gifts we would have had had we not sinned," he points out that, despite God’s injunction that women would suffer in childbirth, the Church allows pain relief for women in labor per Pope Pius XII’s 1957 "Allocution to Doctors on the Moral Problems of Analgesia," which states: "Man keeps, even after the fall, his right to dominate the forces of nature, to use them in his service, and thus to make profitable all the resources that it offers him to avoid or remove the physical pain [of labor and delivery]." By this reasoning, it would seem, anti-aging technology could be morally acceptable. "We do all kinds of things in anticipation of the resurrection," says Father Austriaco, who is currently conducting research into the aging mechanisms of yeast, in the hopes of one day applying that research to humans.
Pro-life bioethicist Nigel M. Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future (www.thehumanfuture.org), agrees: "There’s something very human, and very properly human, about the desire to keep the human machine going." However, he adds a caveat: Supporting life extension is different than supporting efforts to eliminate death altogether.
But other parts of Communion and Stewardship are less clear, such as the Vatican’s apparent nixing of any strategies that "chang[e] the genetic identity of man as a human person." On one hand, the document says that such changes clearly contradict Catholic bioecthical tradition, as they "imply that man has full right of disposal over his own biological nature." On the other hand, the document also points out that "germ line genetic engineering with a therapeutic goal" might be acceptable if it is accomplished in a way that does not harm human embryos. Is extending the human lifespan beyond its current limits a "therapeutic goal"? No document answers that question fully.
Because the Vatican has not yet spoken definitively on this issue, several key questions remain unanswered: What kinds of radical anti-aging technology, if any, would be morally licit? If it becomes readily available, and the methods being used respect human dignity, will the use of this technology be obligatory for Catholics, under our moral requirement to take care of our health (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2288 and 2290)? How long a life is too long—or is there any such thing? How would married couples express their openness to new life if radical life extension meant that women were fertile for 50 to 100 years instead of 30? In terms of the Church’s social doctrine, how would one address the increased socioeconomic gap between rich and poor that could follow the advent of anti-aging technology, or the impact that anti-aging technology would have on Medicare, much less health insurance?
Although we can give a cautious "thumbs up" to some anti-aging technologies, we need to be cognizant of just how many questions currently have no answers.
Human-machine interfaces are becoming ever more intimate. Amazing progress has been made in integrating technology with biology, progress that has helped people tremendously. For example, former football player Jesse Sullivan, who lost his arms in a utility line accident, now has two bionic arms that can move in response to his thoughts. Claudia Mitchell, who lost an arm in a motorcycle accident, now has a prosthesis so precise that she can peel an orange. Researcher William Craelius, working on a different track, has developed the Dextra, an artificial hand that allows users to type and even play the piano. The next generation of limbs will even allow wearers to sense touch and temperature.
Going a step further, consider the case of quadriplegic Matthew Nagle, who "can now pick up objects, open e-mails, change the channel on the television and play computer games" using only a link between a computer, a robotic arm, and electrodes implanted in his brain, according to London’s Independent. Scientists are also hard at work on a wearable exoskeleton that would respond to his thought commands, allowing him to move his body again.
But what if technology is doing more than simply correcting a medical condition? Dr. Steve Mann of the University of Toronto has been called "the first cyborg" by DK Publishing for his "WearComp"—wearable hardware that runs personal-applications software. "The assumption of wearable computing," reported Mann at a 1998 keynote speech, "is that the user will be doing something else at the same time as . . . the computing. Thus the computer should serve to augment the intellect, or augment the senses."
Award-winning scientist and author Ray Kurzweil—an avid transhumanist and proponent of radical life-extending technology—has pointed out that, when it comes to computer interfaces, "We already have people with computers in their brains—for example, Parkinson’s patients—and the latest generation of this FDA-approved neural implant allows you to download new software to your neural implant from outside the patient. . . . In the future we will have non-invasive ways of extending our physical capabilities as we merge with nonbiological systems."
So where do we draw the line? At what point does the interface between human and computer present a challenge for human personhood? Going back to Communion and Stewardship, we are told that "the being created in [God’s] image cannot be the object of arbitrary human action," and that four guidelines in particular apply: "(1) there must be a question of an intervention in the part of the body that is either affected or is the direct cause of the life-threatening situation; (2) there can be no other alternatives for preserving life; (3) there is a proportionate chance of success in comparison with drawbacks; and (4) the patient must give assent to the intervention."
However, the document also points out that "the fundamental faculties which essentially belong to human beings are never sacrificed, except when necessary to save life." In other words, the Vatican, via a tradition called the "therapeutic principle," gives an enthusiastic green light to prosthetics that aim to restore "the fundamental faculties" of injured persons, such as the ability to see, hear, and manipulate objects with one’s hands.
That being said, David Plotz of Slate.com claims that "the distinction between therapy and enhancement isn’t as clear as ethicists contend. Doctors practice enhancement all the time—even frivolous enhancement." There are certainly those who would argue that vasectomies and tubal ligations are "therapeutic."
Father Austriaco is interested in applying the traditional Catholic teaching on reproductive technologies—"you can assist but not replace"—to these newer technologies. Under this theory, someone who, in the future, was pursuing elective amputation in favor of an advanced prosthetic device should be rejected on ethical grounds because that would be intentionally "replacing." However, the types of applications pursued by Sullivan and Mitchell seem to fit the "assisting" test perfectly, and would therefore be perfectly moral, as long as the programs did not become "idols" to us.
As to Kurzweil’s ideas, the Vatican has not yet clearly articulated a position, but Pope Benedict XVI recently used a visit to Lateran University to warn about the apparent "primacy" given to "a sort of ‘artificial’ intelligence which becomes more and more overshadowed by experimental technique." He likened the "appetite for discovery without keeping in mind the criteria which derive from a more profound vision" to the tragic flight of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. However elegant the pope’s observation, it remains more philosophical than doctrinally applicable.
As Father Austriaco points out, transhumanists like Kurzweil are "raising questions that are unprecedented in the Catholic moral tradition."
Another unprecedented situation is discussed in Alexandra Robbins’s latest book, The Overachievers, which describes the hyper-competitive world of high school academics. Robbins relates how today’s children, either self-driven or pushed by their parents, go to sometimes radical extremes to achieve their goals. Her book includes discussions of college-level classes and competitive sports, but it also focuses on chronic stress, teen suicide rates, and the phenomenon of Ritalin and Adderall abuse. Apparently, these medications (created to treat Attention Deficit Disorder), when taken by people without the disorder, produce a clarity and goal-orientation that can provide a competitive edge. Doctors have reported students asking for prescriptions who obviously do not suffer from ADD, and anecdotal reports of the drug’s use on college campuses and in the business world are common.
Another drug in vogue for its off-label uses is Modafinil, a narcolepsy drug more popularly known as Provigil. The New York Times reports that the drug—which enables one to skip naps or even entire nights of sleep while staying alert and non-jittery—is "becoming a fixture among college students, long-haul truckers, computer programmers and others determined to burn the midnight oil." It is also used by soldiers on patrol in Iraq, according to the Ottawa Citizen. When it comes to Ritalin and Adderall use, the World Transhumanist Association’s (WTA) Joseph Bloch says, "Assuming—and it is a huge assumption—that there are no longer-term side effects, I see nothing wrong with providing my children with any competitive advantage. The fact that it is pharmaceutical in nature is irrelevant."
When is a drug that enhances human abilities unacceptable for use? Steroid use for athletic enhancement has been nearly universally deemed unethical, and the Catechism expressly states that "the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense" (2291).
However, there may be some "wiggle room" in the Catechism’s language that would allow people, for example, to enhance their own thinking abilities. Ampakines, which may in the next decade be available for Alzheimer’s patients, aid in the formation of new memories. Apparently they could also help a 40-year-old who simply wanted to regain the mental quickness of youth. Father Austriaco says that the use of ampakines for this reason may be licit, as it involves restoring "the preternatural abilities of Adam and Eve before the Fall." Pointing out that the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 includes the punishment that women would be dominated by men, he says it would be absurd to insist that the repression of women is in allegiance with Scripture. Therefore, he says, we can use science, including medicine, to mitigate the effects of the Fall.
Cameron stakes out a middle ground, stating that steroids "manipulate" human nature, while diet, nutrition, and exercise respect "human integrity" and "perfect the givenness of human nature." When it comes to giving Ritalin to healthy children, Cameron allows that the trend is "inevitable and understandable, but still bad."
Of course, even regular "healthy living" can be taken to excess; the Catechism refers to this "cult of the body," which "idoliz[es] physical perfection," as a "neo-pagan notion" (2289). Matthew Eppinette, assistant director of the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (www.cbhd.org), develops the idea further by saying, "Society rightly recognizes conditions like anorexia and the Adonis complex as unhealthy, not just physically unhealthy, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually unhealthy." In this light, one could accuse some purveyors of these trends of an unhealthy focus on what they wish bodies could do, rather than what is natural or healthy for them to do.
Dennis Avner is the Stalking Cat. No, not a comic book character, but a part-Huron, part-Lakota Native American who has gone through tattooing and multiple surgeries—including subdermal and transdermal implants, upper lip bifurcation, and the pointing of his ears—in order to increase his physical resemblance to a tiger, his totem animal (see photos at www.stalkingcat.net). "I’m just taking a very old tradition, that to my knowledge is not practiced anymore," he told the Seattle Times. However, the same article quotes bioethicist Glenn McGee of Albany Medical College in New York as saying, "It is possible to have a coherent view that is nonetheless detrimental to one’s well-being. This is a patient who’s being harmed by medicine in the interest of his tradition."
Of all possible types of body modification, none perhaps makes us as uncomfortable as surgery. It seems so radical, so risky, to go "under the knife," that we normally think of surgery as a last resort.
That may well change. Dr. Stephen Genuis reports in Family Foundations that "in 2005, there were more than 10 million cosmetic procedures undertaken in the United States, representing a 38 [percent] increase compared with 2000." As of 2002, almost 24 percent of all married women in the United States had been made surgically infertile (the vast majority through elective tubal ligation), while about 15 percent of their male partners had had vasectomies ("Contraceptive Sterilization," EnGenderHealth).
Other elective medical procedures on the immediate horizon involve the use of stem cells. The theory, according to the Centre Daily Times, is that "injecting stem cells into healthy muscles might increase [muscles’] size and even restore them to their youthful capacity. ‘You could potentially find a 40-year-old man with 20-year-old legs,’ [Paul] Griffiths [of CryoGenesis International] said." The article focuses mostly on applications in the world of sporting, which is regularly rocked by steroid scandals. But bioethicist John Harris contends that "enhancement in sports is only problematic because there are rules against it." (The article, while implying that adult stem cells were being discussed instead of embryonic, did not specify.)
Another way to keep in shape without exercising is through regular injections of such compounds as insulin-like growth factor (IGF), artificial hemoglobin, and EPO, "a natural compound whose function is stimulating the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells," according to Plotz. Striking at the philosophical underpinnings of such practices, Eppinette asks, "What is the ultimate goal one is striving for? Is it to be healthy? Is it to live a very long life? Is it to maximize the competitiveness of one’s offspring? Is this the ultimate attainment? For people of faith, none of these seem to me to be ultimate."
This observation lies at the center of the argument surrounding surgical alterations: How would elective surgery bring us closer to God? Restorative surgery such as LASIK is remarkable, and the successes of plastic surgery have brought relief to many survivors of disfiguring accidents. However, some elective surgeries, such as sterilization, are plainly immoral, while plastic surgery techniques such as breast enhancement, while perhaps not "grave matter," seem to serve vanity and promote the valuing of women for their bodies instead of their full personhood. It is vital that the moral implications of future elective surgical techniques are examined now, before they come upon us.
Genetics and Eugenics
When it comes to beginning-of-life questions, Church teaching is clear. Still, the current state of affairs is bleak: England now permits "preimplantation genetic diagnosis," a technique where IVF-created embryos are diagnosed not only for birth defects, but for the potential of adult-onset diseases, even treatable ones. Prenatal testing has become common in Western nations, with the tacit assumption that a poor test result will prompt an abortion. Researchers estimate that 90 percent of all prenatal diagnoses of Down Syndrome result in abortion. On the flip side, those with sufficient wealth can "shop" for sperm, eggs, and even embryos based on specific characteristics of the donors.
Debate over some of these developments has already begun. For example, at a recent dinner in Washington, D.C., bioethicist Adrienne Ashe said that when people try to artificially create children with specific genetic traits, they are "letting one trait stand in for a whole person," which depersonalizes the child. "The whole child-to-be is not imagined, just one or two characteristics," she adds. Eppinette further contends that "‘designer babies’ are quite a change from how children have been traditionally viewed, namely as gifts to be received and nurtured."
Furthermore, genetic engineering and artificial chromosomes open the door to "not just designer babies but designer baby boomers, something I am personally more interested in," says Kurzweil. One question, of course, is what should happen to those who do not get "treated." Princeton professor and futurist Lee Silver opines, "The economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry [will be] controlled by members of the GenRich class. . . . Naturals [will] work as low-paid service providers or as laborers."
Cameron sees genetic manipulation as leading to a "new feudalism," wherein a "very small number of people, basically a global elite," will take advantage of a "law of compounding," using their genetic advantages to create a society with "far greater disparities" in wealth and power than currently exist. Once a certain proportion of the population has had fundamental genetic or mechanical enhancements, these societal changes will become, he says, "absolutely inevitable."
Some foresee an Earth in which natural reproduction is viewed as irresponsible, with IVF being the responsible choice for both society (since you’re selecting only the best genes) and your children (since you’re choosing what is best for them). Others, such as author John Glad, view eugenics as "an integral component of an environmentalist policy" (Future Human Evolution, 2006). He continues, "Abortion should be actively promoted, since it often serves as the last and even only resort for many low-IQ mothers."
The Vatican has been emphatic in its stance against nearly all eugenic plans and techniques. Even as far back as 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s "Instruction on Respect for Human Life" stated, "Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. These manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his or her integrity and identity." Communion and Stewardship repeats the stance: "Changing the genetic identity of man through the production of an infrahuman [i.e., inferior] being is radically immoral. The use of genetic modification to yield a superhuman or being with essentially new spiritual faculties is unthinkable." More recently, this teaching was rearticulated by Castrillón Cardinal Hoyos late in 2006, when he said, "Genetic manipulation, when it is not therapeutic, that is, when it does not tend to the treatment of pathology of the genetic patrimony, must be radically condemned. . . . It pursues modifications in an arbitrary way, inducing to the formation of human individuals with different genetic patrimonies established according to one’s discretion. Eugenics, the creation of a superior human race, is an aberrant application."
Still, there are some gray areas—for instance, in the definitions of "therapeutic," "reparative," and "augmentative" gene therapy. Kurzweil, when asked if there was a difference between genetic therapy for a person with Down Syndrome and for a person who wanted an IQ of 135 instead of 100, responded, "In my opinion, no. We are the species that goes beyond our limitations." One could take a similar approach along theological lines, but with a view toward licitly undoing the effects of the Fall through technology.
Eppinette zeroes in on this exact distinction: "We are in need of serious ethical, philosophical, and theological contemplation of where we draw the line between therapy and enhancement. The work of the late John Paul II on embodiment is both a foundation to build on as well as an example of the kind of reflection needed on just this point."
They Think We’re the Enemy
So far, except for the issue of genetics and eugenics, surprisingly many of the advancements in modern medicine and technology are compatible with Catholicism. Unfortunately, many of their more radical proponents don’t feel the same way. In fact, several notable and opinion-leading transhumanists are strongly anti-Christian.
For example, prominent transhumanist William Sims Bainbridge, the author of more than 15 books and numerous magazine and journal articles, opens an article with the following abstract: "Cognitive science immediately threatens religious faith in two ways, by explaining away religion as an error resulting from accidents in the evolutionary history of the human nervous system, and by failing to find evidence that humans possess souls. Over the coming decades, information technology may undercut people’s need for religion by offering practical forms of cyberimmortality (CI). The plausibility of religion may also be eroded by the coming unification of science and the associated convergence of [new] technologies."
Even more troubling is language on the Web site for the Future Technologies Advisory Group (www.futuretag.net), a transhumanist organization specializing in consulting and media: "While one of the objectives of the firm will be facilitating the penetration of transhumanist ideas in mainstream business and policy, we will not use the T word or insist on the transhumanist worldview too explicitly. Rather, we will focus on delivering practical advice appropriate to the intended audience." The willingness expressed here to dissemble their true intentions is disconcerting.
And yet there must be open and honest dialogue on these issues. "We are moving way beyond these old challenges to human life," argues Cameron, who says we need to change our focus of attention. We need to "ask the right questions" and work toward finding ethical answers—answers consistent with the Catholic moral tradition—before the future arrives.
Lines of communication need to be opened between Christian bioethicists and transhumanists. Cameron, for example, calls Kurzweil "a man of genius" and "no mere academic theorist," while Kurzweil makes the surprising statement that through human-driven evolution, people can "grow exponentially in intelligence, knowledge, creativity, beauty, and love, all of the qualities people ascribe to God without limit," implying that "we can view evolution as a spiritual process, moving ever closer to this ideal." Men of this intellectual stature need forums in which they can communicate with each other. (To be fair, Cameron is already in contact with WTA president Nick Bostrom and others, but he’s one of the only pro-life leaders doing so.)
Bloch writes that when transhumanist goals have been achieved, "Many of humanity’s ills will be eliminated. I find that sufficient comfort in the continuing march from lives which are nasty, brutal, and short to those which are not quite as nasty, not as brutal, and hopefully longer." Statements like this illustrate that many in this movement simply want a better future—an excellent starting point for dialogue.
Catholic journalists need to be aware of the underlying agendas in some of these scientific movements (www.bioethics.com, co-edited by Eppinette, is an excellent source for keeping up-to-date). Pro-life politicians and lobbying groups need to stay attuned to scientific progress to know which technologies to support, which to oppose, and which to treat with a laissez-faire attitude of benign neglect. (A good starting point is the 2003 government report "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness," available at bioethics.gov/reports/beyondtherapy/.) And bioethicists need to start asking the right questions.
Eppinette advises us that, "for people of faith, and Christians in particular, we know that technology is not to be our God, and technology is most definitely not our Savior. Each of us has to examine the role of technology in our own lives, and how it squares with what we consider to be most important in life. This does not mean that we become luddites, rejecting new forms of technology. What it means is that we carefully consider how technology fits into our lives, whether it helps or hinders the goals we’ve set for ourselves"—which, he adds, may involve taking a closer look at those very goals.
New technologies always bring new ethical dilemmas. We can’t afford to be unaware of the challenges facing us today. The future is almost here.
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Eric Pavlat is a convert from pro-choice agnosticism whose conversion story was printed in Surprised by Truth 2. He is also a board member of Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © Crisis Magazine
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