A capacity for self-led evolution?

Dear friends,

It’s been a while! I’ve been up to a lot over here in London, from delving into reading for my dissertation (slowly getting to actually writing anything) to seeing some of my favourite London musicians play at venues on the Southbank, to auditioning for the London Street Orchestra in Greenwich (a ‘beachy’ part of town that is almost an escape from the bustling city life of central London).

I’m having some trouble knowing where to take this post, as I have a month’s worth of thoughts to share that won’t fit into the ~1000 words to which I try to limit my blog posts. But for this post, I want to focus on the idea of inclusion and justice. I recently just finished Michael Sandel’s “The Case against Perfection”, as my dissertation is, to an extent, focusing on human enhancement and bioengineering. I’ve also managed to make it to several performances and shows that follow a prominent and expanding social movement for the rights, recognition and empowerment of black, asian and minority ethnic people in London, the UK, and the rest of the world (not to mention binge-watching the show Dear White People on Netflix – a phenomenal watch indeed).

I don’t see it as a coincidence that I’ve happened to start my reading on human enhancement with technology (commonly referred to as “Transhumanism,” which can mean many things, from cryogenically freezing one’s body to picking the gender of one’s children before undergoing in-vitro fertilisation) while also being so influenced by the social movement I just mentioned above. While making my way through the first ten chapters or so of a book, the Transhumanist Reader, I noted specifically one of the main goals of transhumanism was to “improve the human condition,” to allow the human to realise its potential, to take Darwinian evolution into one’s own hands, fuelled by a capacity for rational thought that gives us the ability to realise our own future as (non)biological beings.

I realised that the foremost thinkers on human enhancement come from highly educated, Western backgrounds, which worries me. Is transhumanism truly aimed at helping move forward the human condition, or is it only help make the lives of the best-off in society even better, at the detriment of those who have 1) perhaps no access to the technology that is needed for human enhancement or 2) no interest in bettering a body whose needs are not being satisfied in the first place (e.g. the hungry body)? This is a question I continually asked myself whilst studying biomedical engineering. Who is this “new and innovative” technology actually helping? Is it not just improving already good technology and ignoring the more systemic issues at play, those that are preventing the dispersion of already good medical technology to those who might need it more than one needs the benefits that come from a slightly improved surgical method?

Humans have evolved in such a way that our biologies are so incredibly complex and intricate, such that this biology has led to a capacity for rational thought. Many argue that our capacity for rational thought (or being able to overcome natural urges or motives that one might deem “animalistic”) gives humans a moral high ground over other non-rational (distinguished from non-sentient) beings. Whether we do actually stand on the moral high ground is another conversation, and another post, but what I want to focus on is the idea that humans gaining a rational capacity has justified us in an endeavour to take control of our own evolution.

Some might say that humans have the capacity to know what is best for us, to use bioengineering to move humankind to a healthier overall state, to push out genetic defects and let parents decide what is ‘ideal’ in a newborn child as opposed to leaving the child’s characteristics up to a well-intentioned chance of genetic probability. I might agree that if we can decide between a child being born with a heart defect that will predispose them to an early death, or a child with a healthy heart, then it makes complete sense to do all in our power to give birth to the child with a healthy heart. However, these clear-cut medical cases only exist in a small subset of what society sees as a ‘disease’, hence we want to be careful about how we use technology to move humanity forward in a way that we see as ‘best’ for our own offspring.

Even up until today, we have seen that the heralded “human rationality” has not led to equality and justice for all of humanity. In fact, humans with as much rational capacity as you or I have managed to conceive and create the eugenics movement, mass genocide, forced sterilisation campaigns, and slavery, to name a few examples. Just because we have rational capacity does not by any means say that humans know what is best for themselves. I might add that even today racism is far from gone, that commercial, educational, and global structures are thriving at the cost of the poor, the marginalised of society, that universities pride themselves as being “diverse, inclusive environments” when in reality they are doing much less than is necessary to address an ingrained and recursive power that comes with being a person with privilege in our society.

We don’t necessarily know exactly what is best for all humans, and as shown through the transhumanist movement, we have an idea of the human being that we want to be, and enhancement allows us to enact this vision. However, I fear that those who are leading the movement for human enhancement might mistake a ‘disability’ or a ‘disease’ for a genuine difference, one that doesn’t need to be ‘corrected’ to fit an existing social structure. Enhancement risks being a direct pathway to excluding all that we see as unfit for humanity, when in reality we are viewing others’ shortcomings in a certain framework, one that puts the ‘other’ at a lower level than what is perceived as ideal.

We have an entire history of examples that show us what happens when the powerful decide what is best for the rest of the world, and in this case, I cannot help but see that those who are most interested in transhumanism and human enhancement are those who have money, privilege, and undue social power in our society, and it would be highly questionable for these people to determine the fate of all others in our society.

However, despite this great fear, I still trust that science and technology have the power to yield great benefits for humankind. Moving forward, we might only be extremely careful with what we consider to be beneficial for humanity, as ‘humanity’ is merely a notion that, by nature, can be reached by many means of ‘being human.’

 

I’m going to leave the post here, as any conclusion I reach will probably be that which concludes my dissertation. Hopefully I have left some food for thought, though!

 

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