Is transhumanism the most dangerous idea in the world? (Hint: probably not.)

Paul Raven @ 27-09-2010

Kyle Munkittrick is making waves over at the Discover Magazine Science Not Fiction blog; he decided to air the transhumanist movement’s ideas in a post entitled “The Most Dangerous Idea In The World“.

Given that Discover is a fairly mainstream (if geeky) publication, there was a fair bit of fervent push-back in the comments thread, so Munkittrick collected together the five most common riffs for rebuttal, creating one of the most lucid and reasonable “don’t panic” posts about transhumanism in a mainstream publication that I think I’ve ever seen. His bounce-back against accusations of [transhumanism=eugenics=evil] is particularly good, and broadly applicable:

Eugenics, like any technology, is neutral. “Eu” is actually the Greek root for “good.” The problem is that over history a lot of nasty people felt that they should be able to force their definition of “good” on others. Though Hitler is a common example, there was a eugenics program in the US for quite sometime that coercively sterilized those deemed unworthy to reproduce, due to race, economic status, and mental condition. Both programs are considered “negative eugenics” in that they prevent unwanted individuals from reproducing. Positive eugenics is different in two key ways. The first is that it is entirely voluntary. Whether parents want to merely screen for potential diseases, fine-tune every detail of their child’s traits, or leave the whole thing to chance is their prerogative. The second difference is that there is no “ideal”–the process is open ended. Instead of eugenics having a state-decreed goal like blond hair and blue eyes, every parent would decide what is best for their child. As most people want healthy, intelligent, happy children, those traits are what would define the “good” of positive eugenics.

It’s interesting to watch transhumanism entering mainstream consciousness; there was that widely-linked “Open Letter to Christian Leaders on Biotechnology and The Future Of Man” doing the rounds a week or so ago, and it’s a topic that keeps cropping up in non-geek media channels with increasing regularity, probably because it pushes every future-shock techno-fear button on the switchboard.

It’s also going to be interesting to watch how transhumanism reacts to increased scrutiny, because it’s a long way from being a monoculture. The last few years have seen the more serious and level-headed advocates (I’m thinking of folk like George Dvorsky and Mike Anissimov, who are the two I’ve been reading for the longest) working hard to present a coherent, rational and non-incendiary platform for debate… but just as with any subculture, there are some real oddballs in the architecture, and it’s the cranks who tend to shout loudest and attract attention, often negative. Interesting times ahead…

Bonus: Michael Anissimov points to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “5 minute introduction” to the concept of the Technological Singularity, which is also pretty plainly-put. Of course, the Technological Singularity shouldn’t be conflated with transhumanism, but it’s a closely related idea, and is sometimes treated as an ideology rather than a theory by those more vocal and marginal elements to whom I referred earlier… so it behoves the wise to understand both as best they can. 🙂

Neo-eugenics – the ethics of pre-natal screening

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2009

babyThe better we get at sequencing and manipulating the genetic codes that make us who we are, the more inevitable it is that we find ourselves faced with opening the Pandora’s Box of eugenics. Indeed, you could argue we’ve already cracked the lid and peeked; this report from the European Molecular Biology Organization points out that screening unborn kids for Down’s Syndrome is a form of eugenics:

These abortions are eugenic in both intention and effect—that is, their purpose is to eliminate a genetically defective fetus and thus allow for a genetically superior child in a subsequent pregnancy. This is a harsh way of phrasing it; another way is to say that parents just want to have healthy children. Nevertheless, however it is phrased, the conclusion is starkly unavoidable: terminating the pregnancy of a genetically defective fetus is widespread. Moreover, because none of the countries mentioned above coerce parents into aborting deformed fetuses, these abortions—which number many thousands each year—are carried out at the request of the parents, or at least the mothers. This high number of so-called medical abortions shows that many people, in many parts of the world, consider the elimination of a genetically defective fetus to be morally acceptable.

There are plenty of other mutations that can be screened for as well, but the nature of the tests means they’re not done across the board:

However, such tests probably do not markedly decrease the mutational burden of a nation’s newborns. Usually, a fetus is only tested for a specific mutation when its family medical history indicates that there is a clear risk. If, as must often be the case, parents are oblivious to the fact that they are carriers of a genetic disorder, they will have no reason to undergo a prenatal diagnosis, which is both expensive and invasive. Fetuses are also not tested for de novo mutations. However, given that many—perhaps most—parents want healthy children, should all fetuses be screened for many disease-causing mutations?

To myself at least, the question’s a total no-brainer – of course they should. If science isn’t for improving the quality of life of as many people as possible, then what is it for? [via FuturePundit; image by Hammer51052]

But as we well know, not everyone would agree – and recent events have demonstrated the extreme measures people are willing to take to voice and defend that belief, despite the inherent hypocrisy of murdering someone you consider to be a murderer. Thankfully such extremists are a minority, but abortion remains an emotionally charged issue, especially where religion comes into the picture. Rational logic dictates that giving every parent the choice is the fairest compromise, but rational logic fails when one side of the debate uses an appeal to a higher authority to deny the right of choice to everyone, regardless of their belief set.

Unlike Creationism – which I’m unafraid to label as a provably delusional philosophy – the ethical borders in debates around eugenics and abortion are fuzzy, based as they are on spiritual ideas that cannot be measured and tested in the same way as the geological age of the Earth. I don’t think anyone who believes that abortion is a form of murder should be forced to have one against their will, but nor do I think that those people should be permitted to deny that choice to others, be it by legal force, intimidation or worse. Whether there is a solution that will satisfy everyone remains to be seen – but as genetic science progresses, the need to reach that compromise will become more urgent. Let’s just hope we can find it without further bloodshed.

The power of autism… and the danger of selecting against it

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2009

maths calculationsNew Scientist has a fascinating interview with record-breaking autist savant Daniel Tammet, where – among other stuff – he discusses the way in which he’s able to perform what seems to us like mathematical magic:

You wouldn’t use a word like “giraffe” without understanding what the words “neck” or “tall” or “animal” mean. Words only make sense when they are in this web of interconnected meaning and I have the same thing with numbers. Numbers belong to a web. When somebody gives me a number, I immediately visualise it and how it relates to other numbers. I also see the patterns those relationships produce and manipulate them in my head to arrive at a solution, if it’s a sum, or to identify if there is a prime.

Somehow I suspect that when Tammet talks of visualising numbers, he doesn’t see little piles and stacks of units like I do! Strange to think that what seems to us to be the only way to do something is not only one of many ways, but a horribly inefficient one as well. [image by Robert Scarth]

Meanwhile, a British autism expert warns that screening for autism in utero could deprive us of geniuses like physicist Paul Dirac:

… if this test led to some kind of prenatal treatment, such as the use of drugs to block the effect of testosterone which is already medically possible, would this be desirable? Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.

Then again, maybe we’ll just be able to use drugs to induce autism as necessary in the near future, whether for personal gain or for society at large…

Has anyone here read David Zindell’s Requiem for Homo Sapiens series, by the way? It features a sort of art cult that voluntarily lives in a pseudo-autistic state, among many other weird ideas. Superb set of books, but a real head-f*ck.