May 20, 2008

The Sociology Annual Debate: Human Folly over Transhumanism

“There is no scientific basis to the concept of humanity” was this years proposition at the Annual Sociology Debate. Hardly a topic I knew much about, but soon I discovered that was not necessary.

John HarrisSpeakers and audience were, to use a metaphor on the shortcomings of the human being, all feeling their way around in a dark room at this debate. Professor Harris from the University of Manchester (Law) and a co-editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics was invited to speak in favour of transhumanism, scetching a science-fiction type of future that had the audience both grinning and incredulous. The human being as it now exists, was prof. Harris’ proposition, will die out, and a very similar type of being that is better adapted must take his/her place. And if I understood him correctly, he argued that, if that is to happen anyway, we might as well participate proactively in the “shaping” of this “transhuman”. We are now working on the strengthening of regenerative capacities of the body (an arm chopped off will grow back again), our eyesight should not have to deteriate any longer, and the gaps in our memory would be bridged by synthetic implants that enable us to access memory at will. The audience was, I may say, a little flabbergasted. Beyond all the technological rifraf I was having some trouble understanding what it was that prof. Harris was really after: to transcend the human species, and to defend human interests at the same time? And if he, as he claimed “frankly did not care about the human being per sé”, how could he so easily assume that there was not also another type of animal specie “essence” that would be worth preserving in some evolved form?

Steve FullerProfessor Fuller from Sociology at Warwick, instead of arguing against, took a different route of critique. As might have been expected of him, he questioned the understanding of the concept “human being”, and the imminent self-glorification implicit in this understanding. Yes, we are essentially animals, he admitted, but the way we speak about ourselves and our experiences is in no way systematically connected to our bodies. In court, it is our story that the judge wants to hear. (Note the gap in reasoning here: for example dna-tests can provide “hard evidence” that overrides any sort of social narrative.) Through institutionalisation (what Fuller called the “universitas”, or “corporation”), human beings have created projects that exist as independent interests outside of their personal need for survival, as is common for other animals. Institutions, as Fuller noted, have historically included as well as excluded people, but the overall tendency has been towards greater inclusion and overcoming of social barriers: in our institutional roles we more and more often meet and interact with people of other backgrounds. However, we have not yet overcome all barriers and inequalities. And now we’re already looking at the next elite project of growing “beyond our species”?

These two stories seemed to provide two vivid panels of a larger painting. Or rather, perhaps, two corners of a huge mural. The questions from the floor revealed something about the very limited extent to which we had dug into the topic just yet. If we seek to become “fitter, more efficient”, asked one, why don’t we simply evolve into a photo-synthesising sponge? Fuller answered that what he wanted to know, was whether future species would still identify themselves with the “human project” as he set it out. Harris was more ambiguous. Yes, he would future beings to have some of our human aspects, a sort of likeness. But only millions of years ago, our ancestors looked like apes. How much do we have in common? Questions about guarantees against the abuse of such future potentials seemed poorly thought out. Harris believed these developments should take place within a Hobbesian-Bethamian framework: utilitarian equality and the welfare state. Admittedly, Fuller was in the comfortable position, not having to fend off such remarks. A last, and most interesting point came from a Warwick psychologist. We have up to now discussed the transhuman potential in terms of individuality, the “improvement of the human being”. But what improvement of human interaction does transhumanism bring?

From the debate, I took two major lessons home. One: sociologists need to start understanding and positioning themselves in ethical debates around bioscientifical developments. Two: all participants, and surely prof. Harris too, were still engaging in this debate with obvious partiality towards the human being as it is now, and not some higher truth. And that is a somewhat reassuring social observation.

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