Report from Transforming Humanity

This past weekend (Dec 3-4), I attended the Transforming Humanity: Fantasy? Dream? Nightmare? Conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry, Penn Center for Bioethics, and the Penn Center for Neuroscience and Society. James Hughes and George Dvorsky of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies give their blow-by-blow record of the conference, but I'd like to step back and provide an overview of the field, and its position today.

The ability to use pharmaceuticals, cybernetics, and genetic engineering to alter human beings poses many complicated ethical, philosophical, and political issues about the potential deployment of these technologies. The attendees at the conference ranged from hardcore transhumanists, to left-wing bio-conservatives, and took a variety of approaches, from theology, to philosophy, to bioethics and medical regulation.

On the philosophical side, several speakers traced the philosophic heritage of transhumanism, and the demand to either find a place for man in the nature world, or the necessity of creating a unique standpoint, through the works of Thoreau, Sartre, and Cassirer. Patrick Hopkins of Millsap College gave an interesting lecture on a taxonomy of post-human bodies, Barbies, Bacons, Nietzsche, and Platos. Post-humans will have to find internal meaning in their lives in many ways, and while I appreciated the scholarship, there should have been more about the new intimacy of technology to the post-human, and its effects on daily life, beyond the obligatory references to Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto.

On the practical side, the Penn contingent (Jonathan Moreno, Martha Farah, and Joseph Powers) talked about coming developments in cybernetic devices, brain implants, and pharmaceuticals. As it stands, there exists no regulatory framework for enhancements. The FDA will only certify the safety of therapeutics, drugs that treat diseases, which means that a prospective enhancement will either have to find disease (medicalization, in the jargon), or exist in a legal limbo. Katherine Drabiak-Syed gave a great lecture about the legal and professional risks that doctors prescribing Modafinil off-label run. Despite American Academy of Neurology guidelines approving neuroenhancement, prescribing doctors are putting their patients at risk, and are violating the Controlled Substances Act.

Allen Buchanan opened the conference by suggesting that there was nothing special about unintended genetic modification, or evolution, while Max Mehlman of Case Western closed the conference by asking if humanity can survive evolutionary engineering. Dr. Mehlman posed four laws: Do nothing to harm children, create an international treaty banning a genetic arms race, do not exterminate the human race, and do not stifle future progress for understanding the universe. Good principles, but as always, the devil is in the details. International law has been at best only partially successful at controlling weapons of mass destruction or global warming.

To close on two points: The practical matter of regulating human enhancement remains highly unsettled, and leading scholars in the field are only beginning to figure out how we can judge the effectiveness and risk of particular enhancements on a short-term basis, let alone control long-term societal changes. The potential creators, users, and regulators of enhancement are spread across medicine, electrical engineering, law, education, and nearly every other sector of activity, and they are not communicating well. Basic questions such as “What does it mean to enhance?” and “Who will be responsible?” are unlikely to be closed any time soon.

On a philosophical level, the question of whether “To be human is to choose our own paths,” and “To be human is to find and accept your natural limits,” is unlikely to have a right answer. But Peter Cross was correct when he pointed out that even enhanced, humans will still need to find a source of meaning in their lives. If there is a human nature, it is to be unsettled, to always seek new questions and answers. The one enhancement we should absolutely avoid is the one that will make us content.


  1. Alexander8.12.10

    I'm not actually sure I agree with your last sentence. It seems that as automation and AI take over more and more previously-necessary tasks, and resources become more abundant, work that actually benefits society will become an increasingly scarce resource. If, with their material needs entirely met, many people turn to working towards fame and social status/recognition, then they will be in direct competition with each other. This is already a problem in the West, where the upper and middle classes arguably spend the majority of their money on zero-sum status signaling (larger houses, more expensive cars, etc), and most of the economy is devoted to providing this. If people in the future are less superficial they might try to produce art as a means of attaining fame and status, but this still puts them in direct competition with each other. If, in this context, some proportion of people are willing to opt out by taking soma all day, and thereby make everybody else's goals more achievable and less resource-intensive, why shouldn't we let them?

  2. I mean... I don't see much difference between "opting out and taking soma all day" and being dead.