Superior Human Beings?

From the BBC Magazine:

“A Point of View: Is it ever right to try to create a superior human being?”

Philosopher John Gray asks in the above article whether it’s a good idea to try to improve on humanity.  He cites a number of previous attempts – or at least ideas about how it might happen – and asks what the ultimate effect on homo sapiens sapiens might be.

Gray refers to CS Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis pointed out that progressivists’ attempts to create a ‘new’ humanity would mean that future humans would be subject to whatever whims those modern-day designers initially thought up.  Lewis – a devout Christian – was concerned that this meant abandoning many of the values of his own society as the scientists (of sorts) rejected what they saw as outmoded or restricting religious ideas.

But even without such specifically Christian concerns – from the perspective of our current, rather more secular, society – Gray suggests that if we redesign the human, we will do it based only on our current, short-sighted ideals about what we, in our own era, would most like to be: slim, beautiful by current standards… And this would become the template for all of future humanity.

These are fair concerns.  If we engineer change in what the species is, without taking full account of what it has been and what it might naturally become, then at the very least we risk removing nature’s limitations and imposing a set of our own: limitations that might prove crippling down the line, in an unknowable future.

We must be careful.  But then, even as the technological optimist I am, I’d take that as read.  Of course we must be careful.  Technology holds a lot of promise – but it can be tremendously dangerous if not treated with respect.

What threw me a little more than that basic idea, though, was Gray’s comment towards the end of the piece:

“Those who want to fashion a radically improved version of the human animal end up wanting to leave behind our species as it has always been.”

This is an odd bit of phrasing, because of course there is no ‘as our species has always been’.  There is a state of humanity as I have, or as John Gray has, always known it – but our species is the product of evolution.  Our species has never remained the same.  It’s descended from the earliest prokaryotic life, and has changed and adapted constantly, all the way through the descent of life on Earth.

We might well be at a point where we can start to consciously control the way the species changes – but it’s not within our power to stop humanity being humanity.  Whether we end up as brains in jars or sapient machines, we will remain human.  It’s just that we will have changed what a human is.

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