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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Natasha Vita-More > Posthuman - putting transhumanist perspective into contrasting theories

Natasha Vita-More
MSc, MPhil, PhD Researcher, University of Plymouth

Recently I gave a talk on diverse theories of the future human, known as the posthuman. While I was more interested in hypothetical, speculative theories concerning the posthuman than I was about nanotechnology; I am now, in hindsight, fascinated by the credibility of any such theory which does not consider nanotechnology as an essential constituent.

August 2nd, 2007

Posthuman - putting transhumanist perspective into contrasting theories

The five speculative theories on posthuman that I investigated include: disembodied information; deconstructed DNA; prosthetic entity; science fiction characterization; and the uninterrupted progression of human evolution. These theories contain unique yet shared attributes which pertain to human nature, the future of human as a species, humanity as a social system, and revolutionizing the human condition.

Of these five theories (and certainly there are others which I did not cover), only one in my opinion, actually takes a long view and serves as a plausible description of a future human in light of our psychology, physiology, and complex human nature. This long view is the transhumanist understanding of the posthuman—a transition from human to transhuman to posthuman in an uninterrupted progression, evolving from where we are toward a future being. All other theories neglect to investigate the currents of emergent technologies, such as nanomedicine, and also neglect to take into account that people, by and large, want to live longer lives. While the rate of change has its ebbs and flow and there is currently resistance to extreme life extension for many reasons including moral and financial, even if there is a handful of people who want to remove the lock on our mortality and have the means to do so, it can and will be done. Only the transhumanist perspective takes this point quite seriously into account.

But becoming familiar with all speculative theories concerning the posthuman is necessary because conjecture concerning the posthuman often has been negatively expressed. This in and of itself warrants that those of use who view a posthuman state as a positive state take heed.

For example, N. Katherine Hayles, professor of English at UCLA and author of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999) established a theory that the posthuman is a bodiless state or disembodied information. Her theory is influenced in large part on Norbert Wiener's writings on cybernetics and literary theorist Ihab Hassan's conjecture on posthumanism, based in large part on postmodernism. In the academic world, Hayles' ideas have become pivotal and required reading for scholars in literature, theory, and feminist, gay and gender studies.

According to Hayles, we are already posthuman—a composite of digital information exchanging data within synthetic and electronic environments connected by computers. She suggests a dualist, Cartesian version of posthuman: the body as a service provider for the mind and its cognitive expressions processing information and reacting to information. In other words, we are giving up a material body to engage in an interactive cybernetic system.

However, her concept of disembodied information is questionable because all information exists within or on some type of substrate and when it is transmitted from one person to another; the transported data resides within a carrier or structure. Even roboticist Hans Moravec, who Hayles refers to and was shocked and inspired by in developing her theory, asserts that while we are at the end of our human body, we need some kind of body or structure to exist in. And Moravec, like transhumanists, finds that nanotechnology, robotics and AI (AGI) are necessary for this transition.

Biological materiality does not necessarily have to mean the known human biological body, as it can be a hybrid form comprised of biology and nanotechnology existing in synthetic realities. If disembodied information has been driven by a social trend due to a desire to communicate with fast, easy, efficient technologies and if extreme life extension is also a social trend due in large part to baby boomers, then this theory would have to begin including the incremental steps of how humans use cybernetics to live longer. Further, disembodied information relinquishes the applications of nanomedicine which I suspect will be exceedingly beneficial to the future lives of many, many people in overcoming disease. Lateral to this point, but an important point nonetheless, is that if we actually upload into cyberspace, then we would not be disembodied at all—we would become "distributed embodied-information" with the caveat that the body is any structure, shape or form through which we exchange information and feelings, including sensorial exchanges. Lastly, to obtain these sensorial exchanges, nanomedicine's nano macrosensing, as explained by Robert Freitas, would be crucial. Avoiding or intentionally not including humanity's desire to ward off disease and live longer are two brash mistakes of this theory.

Such linear thinking also affects the logic of political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his speculative theory of posthuman as a future being whose essential characteristic of dignity is missing. In his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002) Fukuyama specifically addresses biomedical advances as he speculates that manipulating DNA will change human nature, and thus our dignity. Even though each field of study has its own interpretation of what human nature means, Fukuyama, as a political scientist, emphatically proposes that altering our DNA would have profound, and potentially terrible, consequences for our political order, even if undertaken with the best of intentions. "[H]uman nature is the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors." Fukuyama assumes it is the only way that humanity can have a pan-universal morality that cuts across time and space and cultures. (Fukuyama, 2002 p130)

Which brings me to an issue which concerns biotechnology and nanotechnology, and the bioethical dilemmas that arise in protecting human nature as a human right based on genetic predisposition. If human nature is seen anthropologically, in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations, and culture, then a person's survival takes precedence over his or her genetic predisposition. And if the idea is to protect human rights and human rights are based on the factor of human nature, then it seems to me that the issue ought to be how can we protect a person's need or desire for continued existence. Further, one person's enhancement could be another person's therapy and one person's therapy could be another person's enhancement. For example, A person over 60 may want to modify her bone density to be able to play rigorous sports, which modifying agent, known as genetic engineering, is also used to cure a person who has severe degenerative bone disease. Or, a person lacking in linguistic skills may want a brain chip to assist in his bilingual, biliteracy, and cross-cultural competence on the spot, which same neurological chip is used to help person with grave speech impediment in forming words. This is the biggest can of worms we may have to face and who sets the bar on what is an enhancement for each person. Dr. Fukuyama writes, "[w]e want to protect the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self-modification." He writes "[w]e do not want to disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based on it." My concern here is if we police and abolish modifications; then that, in and of itself, would be an intentional disruption of the "unity and continuity" of human nature and most definitely human rights and human dignity. If modifying our genetics causes us to disrupt the unity of continuity of human nature, then so would existing in an amalgamation of disembodied information in cyberspace.

I decided to select the speculative theories of Hayles and Fukuyama out of the other four (the fifth being the transhumanist perspective I agree with), because these two contrast one another and, at the same time, hold some semblance of reasoning with the transhumanist perspective of posthuman. Hayles view concerning cybernetics does fall in line with a transhumanist perspective of uploading and co-existing in a simulated environment. However, the flaw in her thinking is that we are/will be bodiless, however metaphorical, because we do not need our body. To the contrary, we will most likely have a variety of options and many will incorporate a body or structure. Fukuyama's view concerning modifying DNA does fall in line with genetic engineering and removing faulty genes and, hopefully, extending life span. The flaw in his thinking is claiming that human dignity is essentially located in our genes and that modifying our genes would produce an undignified offspring regardless of the fact that there are hundreds of genetic diseases that affect millions of people. Lastly both Hayles and Fukuyama do not focus on nanomedicine, which is an essential constituent in bringing about a posthuman state of being. And neither considers the yearning of humans today who want to live longer than 70 in a healthy, vital body and with a healthy, vital mind and as these desires relate to the concept of continued existence, which is pivotal to the future human.

There will be more theories on what the posthuman could be but they will have to be a lot more focused on the needs of humanity rather than a metaphorical assumption or a slap in the face of human dignity. And they will have to research, understand and include the emergent technologies that are crucial in bringing about the type of changes that can and will affect all of humanity in order to bring about a future human, continued existence, and a better quality of life for all (which no doubt will include nanotechnology).

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