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Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto
by simon young
prometheus, 417 pages, $28

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by ray kurzweil
viking, 672 pages, $29.95

If the transhumanists are right, the story of humanity is drawing to a close. Transhumanists are those who hope for the day when the combined capacities of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics will open amazing new doors—overcoming the necessity of eating, strengthening the body’s self-repair abilities, allowing direct transfer of thought from mind to mind, and creating artificial realities indistinguishable from the real world. An ever closer merging of man and machine will lead to fundamental alterations in our biology, if not to a complete transfer of the human mind into machine form, providing those who make the switch with a kind of immortality.

Transhumanist confidence in the inevitability of their future is based on the rapid rate of technological change over the past century—a rate of change that is accelerating. Even if we eschew the most outlandish of the transhumanist aspirations, we are still gaining the capacity to achieve them. The cutting-edge technologies are being developed not for the transhumanists, but for widely held and attractive goods. The first step toward reading each other’s minds, for example, is already being taken in compassionate experiments to see if quadriplegics can use computers through brain implants. Who wants to argue with that?

Certainly not the transhumanists, who are riding the wave of compassion toward their goal. Take a look at Simon Young’s Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto , for example. There is much not to like about the book: It’s repetitive and filled with awkward neologisms of the author’s invention. But beneath its defects are the key premises of the transhumanist vision. The centerpiece is the claim that “superbiology” (advanced biotechnology) will create a “New Modernity” in which people will at last be able to be happy and healthy and “perhaps defeat death itself.” Young’s “totalized philosophical system” supports a “new ethic of self-enhancement” that will guide “homo cyberneticus” to become “the steersman of his own destiny.”

Young thinks some of the most powerful schools of thought in the modern world do not want people to be happy and healthy. Postmodern antirationalism, theistic resignation, psychological environmentalism, nature worshiping environmentalism, New Age self-denial, Darwinian selfishness, Freudian reductionism, bioluddite conservatism, liberal statism, existentialist despair, and various other “memes” all contribute to maintaining the chains of our “biological servitude.” It may seem odd that people are so ready to be miserable and sick, but Young is quite serious about it. Religion (“Is there anything quite as nonsensical as religious belief?”) is particularly hard hit. For Young, faith is nothing other than an effort to deflect attention away from, justify, or redeem in some other world, the many nasty (and historically preponderant) realities like disease, suffering, and death.

Young recognizes that one can be wealthy and healthy and yet miserable; he is most interested, thus, in what superbiology will do for us psychologically. Psychology, he argues at length, has yet to come to grips with the fact that mental health is essentially a matter of neurochemistry. He has his own theory about how personality types stem from the balances and imbalances of various neurochemicals, so the argument proceeds on the assumption that making unhappy people happy requires reconstruction of the chemical balance of the brain.

Young accounts for human feelings both in terms of their genetic origins and evolutionary significance (love means “Stay and protect this person—he/she is likely to help you complete your programming for survival and reproduction”)—as well as the neurochemistry behind them (love is the product of serotonin and oxytocin). He provides genetic/evolutionary explanations for seven “positive” and thirteen “negative” feelings. Obviously Young is not the first to attempt a mechanistic and materialistic account of mind and human personality, but his account is noteworthy both for the reductionism of what is “explained” and for the complex passions he does not even attempt to explain.

As Young builds his transhumanist ethics on his transhumanist psychology, this thinness in the one infects the other. The “nurethic” of a good life comes down to a defense of the possibility and desirability of benevolence as a basis for feeling good about oneself and one’s place in the world. Young acknowledges that there is nothing new about preaching benevolence, although he believes he has a scientific defense for it. So “designer evolution” means designing ourselves to be ever more benevolent by getting our neurochemistry right and by promoting developments that will allow more people to be happier, healthier, and longer lived. Then we will all be able to live as we choose, so long as our choices do not harm social harmony. “Nurethics” is an ethic, then, in the same way that “make your dreams come true” is an ethic.

Starting from the ethical wisdom of the greeting card, Young at least claims to have learned the lesson of totalitarianism. He is not interested in drugging the water supply, and like many transhumanists he is libertarian in being wary of state power. He wants to win the meme war because he wants people to be convinced to go to “BEST Centers” (“Bioenhancement Self-design Technologies”) for themselves. Free choice is the way human beings will take hold of their evolutionary future and fulfill the Will to Evolve, the very meaning of life: “Live to Evolve, Evolve to Live!”

The moral substance of the imperative Evolve! can be seen when Young attempts to meet the objection that his BEST Centers will be the province of the rich and successful. That’s perfectly true, he benevolently admits, “This is called living in the free world.” Eventually the price of BEST technologies will come down, and everybody will be “leveled up.” Yet Young’s own psychology posits that unsuccessful people are unsuccessful because of the barriers set up by their neurochemical imbalances. So his soft-libertarianism means that the state will not deprive anybody of help, but those who need help most will be last to get it.

The point is not to task Young for failure to imagine some utopian plan by which all suffering is ended, but to show how he skims across the surface of human passions and interests. Competition, glory, pride, and the various other motives and pleasures of being on top he would doubtless want to design out or sublimate to higher purposes. He is confident that as designers of our own evolution, we can eliminate the bad aspects of our evolutionary heritage. Yet he is aware that benevolence is in short supply; he delights in pointing out what religious preaching has not accomplished in this regard. That’s why a transhumanist manifesto is necessary—to convince people of what they should want to become. But dress it up in as much neurobabble as you like, he is still preaching, and that is not enough to cut the knot that his own assumptions have tied. Must we not be benevolent already in order freely to design ourselves to be benevolent?

Which brings us to Ray Kurzweil, who in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology finishes the job that Young starts. It is hardly surprising that a highly successful inventor and technology maven like Kurzweil should make the primary focus of his thick tome the technical means by which humans and their machine creations will merge ever more closely. For Kurzweil, there is no problem for which some idea does not open the door to a solution. The power of human ideas to change the world is undergoing a vast acceleration. “Within several decades,” he writes, “information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency.” This new form of intelligence will then build on itself, so that by the end of this century “the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.” The result he calls “The Singularity”—“a rupture in the fabric of history” that will “allow us to transcend the limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands.”

And that is only a beginning. The descendants of human intelligence will, in search of the resources necessary to meet the ever increasing computational demands of their ever more complex virtual worlds, move out into a universe that Kurzweil believes is likely devoid of other intelligence. In barely imaginable forms they will everywhere transform into patterns the chaos that chance has created, until the universe becomes mind thinking itself.

This remarkable process starts with “reverse engineering” the human brain, modeling in computers the patterns of brain activity that make us what we are. These computers will do everything we can—but much better, because their circuits are faster, more flexible, and more readily interconnected than our neurons. As a result, scientific and technological progress will accelerate even faster when these computers take over creative design and discovery. Following their instructions, nanotechnology will allow more productive and creative manipulation of matter. More complete virtual realities will mean more intimate links between the patterns embodied biologically in our brains and the always-improving intelligence embodied in computers. Sooner or later, accepting the limitations of biological body and brain will seem foolish when one can be anything one wants in a virtual reality or through a nanotechnology-created embodiment that can be modified in a moment.

Kurzweil openly acknowledges one kind of problem with this future. He is well aware that great dangers come along with great power. Because he believes that his “law of accelerating returns” means that the technological developments creating these dangers are inevitable, however, the only thing to be done is to find technological responses. Fortunately, he argues, nanotechnology can help solve the dangers created by genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence will be necessary to solve the problems created by nanotechnology.

So that’s taken care of—except that Kurzweil admits that there is no technical solution to the problem that artificial intelligence might take a dislike to its human creators. His almost completely apolitical view of the world produces an absurd response to this dilemma: “We have no choice but to strengthen our defenses while we apply these quickening technologies to advance our human values, despite an apparent lack of consensus on what those values should be.” Caught up with thinking about technical failures, he misses that disputes over value is exactly what makes these new technologies dangerous. Is it not irresponsible simply to plead necessity in the face of those dangers?

In fact, Kurzweil is aware of this kind of irresponsibility; he co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times to lament the decision to make public the genome for the 1918 flu pandemic. But beyond his tactical willingness to keep dangerous information closely held, his strategic solution to the problem is to make human values increasingly irrelevant—by promising human extinction. He tries to argue that he doesn’t intendthis goal, but it’s clear his heart is not in it, for his argument is verbal slight of hand. Kurzweil is sure a machine-based pattern is “human,” because for him what is human is the ability to self-transcend—everything else we associate with the word is apparently not essential. So if self-transcending human beings become something else, that something else remains human. And if extinction of biological man is the price of what we can become, Kurzweil is ready to pay it.

Of course, he doesn’t want to force anyone to merge with machines. But Kurzweil cannot really imagine a good reason for failing to do so; and, as a little cartoon in the book charmingly suggests, those who reject his future will die off soon enough anyway. This is an all-too-typical form of modern philanthropy, which loves human beings not as they are but as the philanthropist believes they should be. The results are, as usual, indistinguishable from misanthropy.

Charles T. Rubin is assistant professor of political science at Duquesnes University, and author of the forthcoming Why Be Human? , a critical look at transhumanism.

Image by Evynjct licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.