We’re All Transhumanists

>Thinking about my conversation with Alex Pang about his review of More Than Human in the LA Times.

I still think it’s a fine review, the kind that informs people about the book and calls out an honest limitation- More Than Human isn’t going to convince Leon Kass or anyone who deeply agrees with him to embrace genetic engineering tomorrow.

Where Alex and I disagree is the size of the audience that is persuadable through logical arguments. This is where the title of this post comes from: I tend to take the view that almost everyone is a closet (or at least potential) transhumanist.

That is to say, when presented with a biotech product that will produce a clear improvement in their lives and that 1) is reasonably affordable; 2) has been demonstrated as safe; and 3) doesn’t carry an awful social stigma, I believe the majority of Americans and Europeans would be willing to use the product.

Where “transhumanists” differ is that they’re excited about technologies that aren’t yet affordable or safe, and that have a social stigma – what Kass would call repugnance – around them.

Yet repugnance tends to fall away with time and familiarity. Technologies that are initially threatening simply because they’re new and “gross” have a way of becoming acceptable as people come to understand them and their benefits. This is something I talk about in chapter 7 in the book, using the example of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Eight and a half months later, on July 25, 1978, Lesley Brown gave birth to
a healthy, blue-eyed, blond-haired baby girl. Louise Joy Brown, the
world’s first “test tube baby” was born. Through IVF, science had given us
the ability to create – or at least conceive – life in the laboratory.

The initial public response to IVF wasn’t pretty. Jeremy Rifkin and other
critics of biotechnology (including Leon Kass, now chairman of the President’s
Council on Bio Ethics) criticized the technique. Edwards and Steptoe were
accused of playing God. After their second successful IVF delivery, public
protest forced Steptoe and Edwards to halt their work for two years.

After the initial shock lessened, however, the technique rapidly gained in
popularity. Since 1978, more than a million babies conceived by IVF have
been born. More than 100,000 more are born each year. One out of
every one hundred births in the U.S. is conceived through IVF. In the
United Kingdom, France, and other parts of Europe where the cost of the
procedure is more frequently subsidized, the number is one in every fifty
births. In Australia, one in every twenty births is conceived through IVF.

Of course, Leon Kass is still uncomfortable with IVF. But that hasn’t stopped the procedure from becoming hugely popular. So to come back to Alex’s point (or my previous post), I don’t think I need to convince the hardcore Kassians of anything to have a positive effect. If I can reach the people who are uncomfortable with biotech enhancements simply because they don’t understand them, and educate those people on some of the myths and realities, I think that’s enough to sway public policy.

This line of thinking also contributes to my dislike of the term “transhumanist”. I think it’s a horrible word from a PR standpoint. It adds a taint of weirndess – the very thing that makes people uncomfortable – to technologies that will either not work or will have straightforward benefits.

In my mind, there’s no need for the label at all. The vast majority of things transhumanists want, if they work as advertised, will be desired by millions of mainstream consumers. Transhumanists are just future enthusiasts.

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