Gennady Stolyarov II
Gennady Stolyarov II
Editor’s Note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party features this article by our guest Steve Hill, originally published by at the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) on July 19, 2018. In this article, Mr. Hill does an excellent job explaining why the lack of the definition of aging as a disease under the FDA is not so bad as is sometimes feared. Personally, I do not agree with this. Relying on off-label use is not a good idea because that is much slower of a process than doctors quickly seeing that a drug has FDA approval. Once the FDA considers aging as a disease, pharmaceutical companies will quickly enter this arena and make increasingly better drugs. Mr. Hill makes some excellent points, though, and I highly recommend this article.
~ Bobby Ridge, Assistant Editor, June 29, 2019
A common concern in the community is that the FDA, the EMA, and other bodies, such as WHO, do not classify aging as a disease and that this poses a problem for developing therapies that target aging. However, this is not really as serious an issue as some people would suggest; today, we will have a look at why that is.
Why this will not stop progress
Aging is a variety of distinct processes, damages, and errors; therefore, simply treating aging in clinical terms is not a viable endpoint. For a clinical trial to be conducted, it requires a verifiable indication, and aging is too general for the FDA and EMA to classify it as a disease.
It also is not a major challenge for damage repair-based approaches, such as those proposed by SENS and the Hallmarks of Aging, as these approaches are not focused on an all-in-one therapy with the indication of “aging”. They are based on a strategy of dividing damages into manageable groups and developing a suite of rejuvenation therapies that addresses each of them.
No single therapy will reverse or halt all of the aging processes when used alone, nor will it prevent all age-related diseases that accompany them. So, to have aging as an indication in any clinical trial would be pointless for any damage repair therapy.
Researchers are free to target aging processes
That said, researchers are very well aware that the processes of aging, which lead to the familiar diseases of aging, are a problem, and this is where the focus lies. There has been considerable effort to classify these processes and precursors of pathology as diseases themselves.
A prime example is the inclusion of sarcopenia (frailty and muscle loss) in the World Health Organization International Classification of Diseases (ICD) a few years ago thanks to lobbying by members of our community. Adding more general codes to the ICD that include these aging processes and precursors is an ideal solution, as it could potentially make it easier to organize trials and develop drugs that target the aging processes.
Back in June 2018, the World Health Organization released the new International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The previous version, ICD-10, was published in 1983, and the new ICD-11 will likely be the standard for years to come. The new ICD-11 now includes the extension code “Ageing-Related” (XT9T) for age-related diseases, and this should go a long way towards making focusing on aging easier for future drugs and therapies. Again, this is thanks to work by members of our community, who have spent countless hours researching and pushing for change.
Most aging hallmarks are very clearly linked to specific age-related diseases, such as beta-amyloid protein and malformed tau in Alzheimer’s, lysosomal aggregates in foam cells in atherosclerosis, and alpha-synuclein in Parkinson’s disease. Companies are perfectly welcome to target these aging processes directly, and indeed more and more researchers and big institutions are doing just that in order to treat age-related diseases.
Therefore, not classifying aging itself as a disease poses few barriers to developing therapies that address aging; it’s simply a case of working within the existing framework. UNITY Biotechnology is a prime example; this company is targeting senescent cells and applying its method to multiple age-related diseases; as everyone gets senescent cells, these therapies will be broadly applicable once they become available, and off-label use is likely to expand rapidly.
Also, rejuvenation therapies could, at first, be licensed as treatments for genetic disorders, even though the root cause of the pathology underlying those diseases is not aging. An example of this is the inherited mitochondrial disorders, known as mitochondriopathies, many of which are caused by mutations in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). While these mutations are inherited and are not the result of age-related, deleterious damage to the mtDNA, the same repair-based approach can be applied: the allotopic expression of the protein in the nucleus, as proposed by MitoSENS, could potentially be used to repair the mtDNA allowing normal cellular function to resume.
The majority of damage repair therapies, if not all, could be developed as therapies for diseases with accepted indications and verifiable endpoints, which should satisfy bodies such as the FDA and EMA. Therefore, whether regulatory agencies perceive aging as a disease or not is of no consequence to the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies that address the aging processes.
This does not mean regulatory changes are not needed
Even though classifying aging as a disease is unnecessary, significant reform in the regulatory system is still needed in order to encourage investors and companies to put the time and money into researching and developing rejuvenation therapies.
One area in need of reform is the establishment of aging biomarkers, which indicate the repair or removal of age-related damage, as acceptable endpoints for rejuvenation therapies. Studies that use these biomarkers would also need to include long-term follow-up studies to ascertain the effects of a therapy over a longer period of time.
This would deviate from regulators’ normal requirements that therapies have to prove an effect on hard outcomes to be approved. In an ideal situation, patients should get rejuvenation therapies long before they are in immediate danger and once diseases have manifested, but this makes trials more time consuming and more costly to run.
However, back in February 2018, the FDA published a new guidance document detailing how early-stage Alzheimer’s patients might be identified, which, if accepted, would represent a significant change in policy and a step in the right direction. The document suggests that the results of imaging tests or suitable biomarkers could be enough to consider Stage 1 Alzheimer’s patients as suitable subjects for clinical trials.
This is a positive move as it means that therapies can be tested on people in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s rather than on those who have already suffered considerable if not irreparable damage to the brain, damage that no therapy could hope to address alone. This could mean that these early-stage patients could enroll in a clinical trial and take a therapy that could potentially prevent the disease from ever progressing further or reaching the point where cognitive decline begins.
In the case of repair-based therapies, it would then be a case of demonstrating that the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease were improved via the removal or repair of the underlying age-related damage, and suitable biomarkers would show this.
Moving with the times
Another area where regulatory bodies have struggled is keeping up with the rapid march of technology and medicine. Technologies such as gene therapies have struggled to gain traction due to an antiquated regulatory framework struggling to cope with them. Thankfully, this is also being acknowledged, and the regenerative medicine advanced therapies (RMAT) framework published earlier this year seeks to address this issue and make large-scale changes to how its regenerative medicine policy framework operates as a whole.
According to new FDA regulations, a drug is eligible for designation as an RMAT if:
Aging not being classified as a disease by the FDA, EMA, etc. is not a major issue; the real need is for policy changes that make developing drugs and therapies that target the aging processes easier and more financially viable. It is good that changes are being made to current frameworks and that progress will almost certainly continue in these areas.
Meanwhile, we can continue to support the development of repair-based approaches to aging knowing that such therapies, if they work, will be approved even in the current regulatory landscape.
Steve Hill serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor-in-Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 500 articles on the topic as well as attending various medical industry conferences. In 2019 he was listed in the top 100 journalists covering biomedicine and longevity research in the industry report – Top-100 Journalists covering advanced biomedicine and longevity created by the Aging Analytics Agency. His work has been featured in H+ Magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, and, Keep me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project. In 2015 he led the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP) for the International Longevity Alliance and in 2016 helped the team of the SENS Research Foundation to reach their goal for the OncoSENS campaign for cancer research.
We are smack-dab in the middle of what might be the oddest period of our planet’s history thus far. The last 200 years have seen more rapid technological and scientific advancement than all the 3.5 billion prior years of life on Earth combined. And that technological progress is set to increase even more exponentially within our lifetimes. In the span of my grandmother’s life, humanity has put a man on the Moon, and now we’re having serious discussions about Moon bases and terraforming Mars to start a colony there. Within my own life thus far, I’ve gone from using a dial-up box-shaped computer in my kindergarten years to learning about the exponential progress made in quantum computing and the invention of a material that could potentially be a non-organic substrate to download human thoughts into.
I think that John L. Smart is essentially correct in the theories he puts force in his evolutionary-developmental (“EvoDevo”) transcension hypothesis. There seems to be a kind of biological Moore’s law that applies to human intelligence. If you chart the developments in human evolution from 200,000 years ago till the present, the jump from hunting and gathering to civilization occurred at an immensely fast rate. And the subsequent jump from pre-scientific civilization to the contemporary technological age has been the most astronomical one thus far. And with that astronomical jump in humanity’s technological progress has come an incredible leap in humanity’s moral progress.
The irony of our strange epoch
One of the most ironic aspects about the current climate crisis I like to point out is this: thank goodness that the climate crisis is happening now, and not in the 1500s. That seems like a rather ironic or even flippant thing to say. But thank goodness that the two greatest existential threats to all sentient life on Earth, the existence of nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and global warming, are occurring in the 21st century. Because we are living in a time period where democracies are the most common political model across the globe. Public protests such as those led by Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s climate strike movement have proliferated across the globe. Can you imagine what would have happened if this order of climate catastrophe had occurred a thousand years ago, when monarchies were the default political model? Can you imagine what would happen if you had tyrannical monarchies across the globe, with kings and lords as the primary stakeholders in climate-destroying corporations? It doesn’t seem likely that Greta Thunberg and her ilk would have made much progress in pushing for a pro-climate action zeitgeist in a regime where criticizing the reigning monarch automatically meant decapitation.
Furthermore, we’re extremely fortunate to be living in an era where science is accelerating fast enough to pioneer carbon-capture technology, and more recently, the geoengineering as a viable solution. To paraphrase Michio Kaku, “the dinosaurs got wiped out by the meteor shower; but they didn’t have advanced technology which could detect and disintegrate meteors long before they enter the Earth’s orbit. That’s something current human beings can work on building.” The same is true of the current scramble for climate engineers to churn out anti-pollution and temperature-lowering technologies.
How the technological pursuit of a post-scarcity world is encourages altruism and egalitarianism
I often write about how the last 150 years of global society have seen an exponential jump in the perpetuation of universal human rights. And that’s because it’s nothing short of amazing. Most of the world’s major civilizations which had political and economically subjugated women, ethnic minorities, and the working class for the past 6,000 years suddenly had a change of heart overnight, seemingly. It’s no coincidence that the proliferation of universal civil rights and the criminalization of interpsersonal violence against women and minorities coincided with the Post-Industrial Revolution. As resource scarcity has been drastically reduced in the contemporary technological era, so, too, has the Darwinian impetus towards domination and subjugation of minority groups.
We have shifted from a violent Darwinian greed in the form of the colonization of minority groups, to a kind of altruistic greed. Altruistic greed is characterized by an unabetting desire for ever-higher qualities of life; but which can be made widely available to the masses. The clearest example of this is the advent of modern healthcare, beginning with the mass administration of vaccinations for diseases like polio. As Steven Pinker points out, infant mortality rates and deaths from child birth have plummeted throughout that world in the last 50 years. Across the world, the proliferation of technological infrastructure has made public transport systems faster and safer than they ever were before. Altruistic greed is a major driving force for many in the transhumanist community. Most transhumanists are advocates of making radical life extension and cutting edge medical therapies affordable and accessible to everyone. The fundamental driving principle behind transhumanism is that humanity can transcend its biological limitations through rapid technological advancement; but the benefits reaped must be made as accessible as possible.
A reason often cited by nihilists who say that we should accept human extinction is on the grounds that human beings hold the glaring track record of being the most gut-wrenchingly cruel of all the species on Earth. This is empirically and philosophically indisputable. No other species shares a historical laundry list of genocide campaigns, slavery, rape, domestic abuse, and egregious socio-economic inequality on par with human beings.
But since the post-World War II era, something miraculous happened. We became kind and peaceful; and this impetus towards kindness and peace proliferated globally. After 10,000 years of treating women as the property of their husbands, it became possible for women to get voted into positions of power across the globe, and marital rape became criminalized in an increasing number of countries. After 10,000 years of holding corporal punishment as an essential part of child-rearing in nearly every human society, an increasing number of democracies have begun to enact child-abuse laws against striking children.
We still have long ways to go.
Sweatshop labor exploitation and the sex trafficking of females remain major human-rights issues today. But an increasing number of international law bodies and humanitarian groups are cracking down on them and fighting to eradicate them permanently. They are no longer seen as “business as usual” practices that are essential parts of human society which shouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eye; despite the fact that slavery has been a staple institution of nearly every civilization for the last ten millennia.
There are, of course, many aspects of ethical progress in which human beings are still lagging sorely behind, besides human trafficking. Although wars are far less common and less glamorized than they were in millennia past, conflicts are still raging on in Congo, and dictatorial regimes still exist. Income inequality is now greater than it was at any other time in human history. Another of the great ironies of the contemporary technological era is that we now produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, but there are still 795 million people in the world suffering from malnutrition. As much as 40% of all the food we produce is wasted unnecessarily.
The exploitation of animals and the thoughtless destruction of their habitats is one respect in which humanity has actually backslid in terms of ethical progress in the last 70 years. Since the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of the human population, humans have radically decimated the earth’s natural biomass, and one million species are now facing the threat of extinction due to human industrial activity.
Nevertheless, one hopes that Steven Pinker is essentially correct in his assessment of humanity’s rapid moral growth over the last 200 years. It could be said that it’s not necessarily the case that primates are inherently more predisposed to cruelty than all other species. Rape, infanticide, and killing rival males during mating season are common amongst many species of birds, reptiles, and mammals, as David Pearce points out. It’s just that human beings have the capacity to inflict exponential amounts on damage on other humans and animals because of our exceptional intelligence. Intelligence makes possible exploitation. Human intelligence has allowed us to exploit other human beings and sentient beings for millennia. But human intelligence is what has also enabled us to radically improve healthcare, longevity, and universal human rights across the globe.
The long history of suffering endured by sentient life on Earth is why the far-flung topic of technological resurrection is a major point of discussion amongst transhumanists. We believe that all sentient creatures which have endured considerable physical suffering, manmade or naturally-inflicted, deserve a second shot at life in the name of humanitarian justice.
There’s still much room for progress.
At present we seem to be entering a bottleneck era where we might have to drastically reduce our currently excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources, in light of the current climate crisis. The good news is that a growing number of us are realizing the looming existential threat of climate change and doubling down on combating it, as I’d mentioned earlier. The even better news is that an increasing number of bioethicists, particularly in the transhumanist movement, are now touting a permanent solution to the worst of humanity’s selfish, overly aggressive monkey-brain impulses. This seems to be just in the nick of time, given that this coincides with an era where humanity has access to nuclear arms capable of obliterating all life on Earth with the press of a Big Red Button.
My biggest hope for humanity is not only that our exponential technological progress will persist, but that our ethical and altruistic progress will continue in tandem with it. We have gotten to a stage of technological development where the forces of nature have become almost entirely subjugated, and our own impetus towards aggression has become the single greatest existential threat. It could be that every single sufficiently advanced alien civilization that is capable of exploiting all the natural resources on its home planets or inventing WMDs is eventually forced to cognitively recondition itself towards pacifism and altruism.
There is an ongoing debate in the existential-risk movement about whether or not SETI or METI could be unintentionally endangering all life on Earth by attempting to make contact with alien civilizations several orders of magnitude more advanced than ours. The analogy commonly cited is how the first European explorers of the Americas massacred scores of indigenous tribespeople who didn’t have guns. But the opposite could also be true. It could be that once other alien civilizations achieve a post-scarcity global economy, the neurobiological Darwinian impetus to colonize less developed groups gets steadily replaced by an altruistic impetus to ensure the survival and flourishing of all sentient species on that planet. We can’t tell for sure until we meet another alien species. But on our part, we’ve yet to ride out the tidal wave of the strangest period of Earth’s history. As we take our next steps forward into a radically different phase of human civilization, we gain an ever greater ability to control our own development as a species. Here’s to Pinker’s hope that we’re going in the right direction, and will do our best to head that way indefinitely.
Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.
This essay has been submitted for publication to the Journal of Posthuman Studies.
This essay is written in support of the ideas presented by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson in their book Unfit for the Future: the Need for Moral Enhancement. I will argue that Savulescu and Persson’s arguments for moral bioenhancement should be given more serious consideration, on the grounds that moral bioenhancement will most likely be humanity’s best chance at ensuring its future ethical progress, since our current achievements in rapid ethical progress have been highly contingent on economic progress and an increasing quality of life. As a vehicle for for ethical progress, this is becoming increasingly untenable as the world enters a new period of resource scarcity brought about by the ravages of climate change. This essay will also respond to some of the claims against human genetic enhancement, and transhumanism in general, made by critic John Gray. Finally, the concluding remarks of this essay will examine a possible long-term drawback to moral bioenhancement which has not net been raised by Savulescu’s critics thus far – namely, that genetically altering future human beings to be less aggressive could unintentionally result in them becoming complacent to a point of lacking self-preservation.
Maslow and Malthus
Ethical philosophers in Steven Pinker’s camp may argue that the consideration of moral bioenhancement is absurd because moral education has apparently been sufficient enough to bring forth radical moral progress in terms of civil liberties in the 20th and 21st centuries. The 20th century heralded in never-before-seen progress in terms of the civil rights granted to women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people, and the working class. As Pinker points out, crime rates plummeted over the past 150 years, and so has the total number of wars being fought throughout the world. Savulescu admits that this is a valid point.
However, Savulescu’s main point of contention is that while the overall rates of violent crime have been drastically reduced, rapid advancements in technology have enabled rouge individuals to inflict more mass damage than at any other point in human history. While overall rates of interpersonal violence and warfare are decreasing, advancements in technology have exponentially increased the ability of individual actors to inflict harm on others to a greater extent than at any other point in human history. It takes just one lone Unabomber-type anarchist to genetically engineer a strain of smallpox virus in a backyard laboratory, to start a pandemic killing millions of innocent people, argues Savulescu. A statistic he constantly cites is that 1% of the overall human population are psychopaths. This means that there are approximately 77 million psychopaths alive today.
I would like to raise a further point in support of Savulescu’s argument. I would argue that the exceptional progress in ethics and civil rights that the developed world has witnessed in the last century has been the result of unprecedented levels of economic growth and vast improvements in the average quality of life. The life spans, health spans, and accessibility of food, medicine, and consumer goods seen in developed economies today would have been an unbelievable utopian dream as little as 250 years ago. One of X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis’s favorite quips is that our standard of living has increased so exponentially that the average lower-income American has a far higher quality of life than the wealthiest of robber barons did in the 19th century.
As Pinker himself points out, the first moral philosophies of the Axial Age arose when our ancestors finally became agriculturally productive enough to no longer worry about basic survival. Once they had roofs over their heads and sufficient grain stores, they could begin to wax lyrical about philosophy, the meaning of life, and the place of the individual in wider society. Arguably, the same correlation was strongly demonstrated in the post-World War II era in the developed economies of the world. Once the population’s basic needs are not just met, but they are also provided with access to higher education and a burgeoning variety of consumer goods, they’re much less likely to be in conflict with “out” groups over scarce resources. Similarly, incredible advancements in maternal healthcare and birth control played a major role in the socio-economic emancipation of women.
Our ethical progress being highly contingent on economic progress and quality of life should concern us for one major reason – climate change and the resource scarcity that follows it. The UN estimates that the world’s population will hit 9.8 billion by 2050. At the same time, food insecurity and water scarcity are going to become increasingly common. According to UNICEF, 1.3 million people in Madagascar are now at risk of malnutrition, due to food shortages caused by cyclones and droughts. There could as many as 25 million more children worldwide suffering from climate-change-caused malnutrition by the middle of this century. This is on top of the 149 million malnourished children below 5 years old, who are already suffering from stunted growth, as of 2019.
This is the worst-case scenario that climate-change doomsdayers and authors of fiction revolving around dystopian civilizational collapse keep on warning us of. There is a legitimate fear that a rapid dwindling of access to food, medical care, and clean water could lead currently progressive developed economies to descend back into pre-Enlightenment levels of barbarism. Looting and black markets for necessities could flourish, while riots break out over access to food and medical supplies. Ostensibly, worsening scarcity could encourage the proliferation of human trafficking, especially of females from desperate families. The idea is often dismissed as wildly speculative alarmist screed by a considerable number of middle-income city dwellers living in developed nations. Food shortages caused by climate change have mostly affected the sub-Saharan Africa and India, where they’re far out of sight and out of mind to most people in developed economies.
However, the World Bank estimates that 140 million people could become refugees by 2050, as a result of climate change. These populations will predominantly be from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but it is likely that a significant percentage of them will seek asylum in Europe and America. And developed Western economies will only be spared from the worst effects of climate change for so long. North Carolina has already been afflicted by severe flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018, just as it was affected by Hurricane Matthew which had struck two years earlier. Climate journalist David Wallace-Wells has gone so far as to claim that a four degree increase in global temperature by 2100 could result in resource scarcity so severe, that it will effectively double the number of wars we see in the world today.
Savulescu argues that the fact that we’ve already let climate change and global income inequality get this bad is itself proof that we’re naturally hardwired towards selfishness and short-term goals.
A Response to John Gray
As one of the most well-known critics of transhumanism, John Gray has said that it is naive to dream that humanity’s future will somehow be dramatically safer, more humane, and more rational than its past. Gray claims that humanity’s pursuit of moral progress will ultimately never see true fruition, because our proclivities towards irrationality and self-preservation will inevitably override our utopian goals in the long run. Gray cites the example of torture, which was formally banned in various treaties across Europe during the 20th century. However, this hasn’t stopped the US from torturing prisoners of war with all sorts of brutal methods, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gray claims that this is proof that moral progress can be rolled back just as easily as it is made. Justin E. H. Smith makes similar arguments about the inherent, biologically-influenced cognitive limits of human rational thinking, although he does not explicitly criticise transhumanism itself. And Savulescu agrees with him. Throughout their argument, both Savulescu and Persson hammer home the assertion that humans have a much greater predilection towards violence than altruism.
But here Gray is making a major assumption – that future generations of human beings will continue to have the same genetically-predisposed psychology and cognitive capabilities as we currently do. Over millennia, we have been trying to adapt humanity to a task that evolution did not predispose us towards. We’ve effectively been trying to carry water from a well using a colander. We might try to stop the water from leaking out from the colander as best we can by cupping its sides and bottom with our bare palms, but Savulescu is proposing a radically different solution; that we should re-model the colander into a proper soup bowl.
It seems that Gray is overlooking some of his own circular reasoning which he uses to perpetuate his arguments against transhumanist principles and genetic enhancement. He argues that humanity will never truly be able to overcome our worst proclivities towards violence and selfishness. However, he simultaneously argues that endeavoring to enhance our cognitive capabilities and dispositions towards rationality and altruism are a lost cause that will be ultimately futile. Following Gray’s line of reasoning will effectively keep humanity stuck in a catch-22 situation where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Gray is telling us that we need to resign ourselves to never being able to have a proper water-holding vessel while simultaneously discouraging us from considering the possibility of going to a workshop to weld the holes in our colander shut.
Windows of Opportunity
There is one final reason for which I will argue for greater urgency in considering Savulescu’s proposal seriously. Namely, we are currently have a very rare window of opportunity to execute it practically. If Gray is right about the likelihood that moral progress can be rolled back more easily than it is made, then he should acknowledge that we need to take full advantage of the current moral progress in developed economies, while we still have the chance to. Rapid advancements in CRISPR technologies and gene-editing are increasing the practical viability of moral bioenhancement without the consumption of neurotransmitters. Savulescu argues that we need to strike while the iron is hot; while the world economy is still relatively healthy and while STEM fields are still receiving billions in funding for research and development.
If nothing else, a rather intellectually sparse appeal to novelty can be made in defence of Savulescu’s proposal. Given that climate change could be the greatest existential risk humanity has ever faced in its whole history to date, we should begin considering more radical options to deal with its worst ravages. The limited faculties of rationality and altruism which nature has saddled us with have brought us millennia of warfare, genocide, radical inequality in resource distribution, and sexual violence. We keep on saying “never again” after every single cataclysmic man-made tragedy, but “again” still keeps on happening. Now is as good a time as ever to consider the possibility that humanity’s cognitive faculties are themselves fundamentally flawed, and inadequate to cope with the seemingly insurmountable challenges that lie ahead of us.
A Possible Future Negative Consequence of Moral Bioenhancement to be Considered
Multiple objections to Savulescu’s proposal have been raised by authors such as Alexander Thomas and Rebecca Bennett. I would like to raise another possible objection to moral bioenhancement, although I myself am a proponent of it. A possible unforeseen consequence of radically genetically reprogramming homo sapiens to be significantly less selfish and prone to aggression could be that this will simultaneously destroy our drive for self-improvement. One could argue that the only reason human beings have made it far enough to become the most technologically advanced and powerful species in our solar system was precisely because our drive for self-preservation and insatiable desire for an ever-increasing quality of life. You could claim that if we had just remained content to be hunter-gatherers, we would never have gotten to the level of civilization we’re at now. It’s more likely that we would have gone extinct on the savannah like our other hominid cousins, who were not homo sapiens.
Our inability to be satisfied with the naturally-determined status quo is the very reason the transhumanist movement itself exists. What happens, then, if we genetically re-dispose homo sapiens to become more selfless and less aggressive? Could this policy ironically backfire and create future generations of human beings who become complacent about technological progress and self-improvement? Furthermore, what happens if these future generations of morally bioenhanced human beings face new existential threats which require them to act urgently? What happens if they face an asteroid collision or a potential extraterrestrial invasion (although the latter seems to be far less likely)? We don’t want to end up genetically engineering future generations of human beings who are so devoid of self-preservation that they accept extinction as an outcome they should just peacefully resign themselves to. And if human beings become a space-faring species and end up making contact with a highly-advanced imperialist alien species bent on galaxy-wide colonization, our future generations will have to take up arms in self-defence.
This raises the question of whether it might be possible to simultaneously increase the human propensity towards altruism and non-violence towards other human beings, while still preserving the human predisposition towards ensuring our overall survival and well-being. If such a radical re-programming of humanity’s cognitive disposition is possible, it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act. This major shortcoming is one that proponents of moral bioenhancement have not yet formulated a plausible safety net for. Techno-utopian advocates claim that we could one day create a powerful artificial intelligence programme that will indefinitely protect humanity against unforeseen attacks from extraterrestrials or possible natural catastrophes. More serious discussion needs to be devoted to finding possible ways to make moral bioenhancement as realistically viable as possible.
The arguments put forth by Savulescu in Unfit for the Future should be reviewed with greater urgency and thoughtful consideration, and this essay has argued in favour of this appeal. We cannot take the great strides in civil rights made in the last 100 years, which have been heavily dependent on economic development and the growth of the capitalist world economy, for granted. As resource scarcity brought about by climate change looms on the near horizon, the very system which the 20th and 21st centuries’ great ethical progress has been contingent upon threatens to crumble. Gray is right in arguing that the human animal is fundamentally flawed and that repeated historical attempts at better models of moral systems have failed to truly reform humanity. And this is where Savulescu proposes a controversial answer to Gray’s resignation to humanity’s impending self-destruction. We must consider reforming the human animal itself. As the field of gene-editing and the development of impulse-controlling neurotransmitter drugs continue to show great promise, world governments and private institutions should begin to view these as viable options to creating a less short-sighted, less-aggressive, and more rational version of homo sapiens 2.0. There are only so many more global-scale man-made catastrophes that mankind can further inflict upon itself and the planet, before this radical proposal is finally undertaken as a last resort.
Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.
Gennady Stolyarov II
R. Nicholas Starr
Watch the video containing 73 minutes of excerpts from the Cyborg and Transhumanist Forum, held on May 15, 2019, at the Nevada State Legislature Building.
The Cyborg and Transhumanist Forum at the Nevada Legislature on May 15, 2019, marked a milestone for the U.S. Transhumanist Party and the Nevada Transhumanist Party. This was the first time that an official transhumanist event was held within the halls of a State Legislature, in one of the busiest areas of the building, within sight of the rooms where legislative committees met. The presenters were approached by tens of individuals – a few legislators and many lobbyists and staff members. The reaction was predominantly either positive or at least curious; there was no hostility and only mild disagreement from a few individuals. Generally, the outlook within the Legislative Building seems to be in favor of individual autonomy to pursue truly voluntary microchip implants. The testimony of Anastasia Synn at the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 26, 2019, in opposition to Assembly Bill 226, is one of the most memorable episodes of the 2019 Legislative Session for many who heard it. It has certainly affected the outcome for Assembly Bill 226, which was subsequently further amended to restore the original scope of the bill and only apply the prohibition to coercive microchip implants, while specifically exempting microchip implants voluntarily received by an individual from the prohibition. The scope of the prohibition was also narrowed by removing the reference to “any other person” and applying the prohibition to an enumerated list of entities who may not require others to be microchipped: state officers and employees, employers as a condition of employment, and persons in the business of insurance or bail. These changes alleviated the vast majority of the concerns within the transhumanist and cyborg communities about Assembly Bill 226.
From left to right: Gennady Stolyarov II, Anastasia Synn, and Ryan Starr (R. Nicholas Starr)
This Cyborg and Transhumanist Forum comes at the beginning of an era of transhumanist political engagement with policymakers and those who advise them. It was widely accepted by the visitors to the demonstration tables that technological advances are accelerating, and that policy decisions regarding technology should only be made with adequate knowledge about the technology itself – working on the basis of facts and not fears or misconceptions that arise from popular culture and dystopian fiction. Ryan Starr shared his expertise on the workings and limitations of both NFC/RFID microchips and GPS technology and who explained that cell phones are already far more trackable than microchips ever could be (based on their technical specifications and how those specifications could potentially be improved in the future). U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II introduced visitors to the world of transhumanist literature by bringing books for display – including writings by Aubrey de Grey, Bill Andrews, Ray Kurzweil, Jose Cordeiro, Ben Goertzel, Phil Bowermaster, and Mr. Stolyarov’s own book “Death is Wrong” in five languages. It appears that there is more sympathy for transhumanism within contemporary political circles than might appear at first glance; it is often transhumanists themselves who overestimate the negativity of the reaction they expect to receive. But nobody picketed the event or even called the presenters names; transhumanist ideas, expressed in a civil and engaging way – with an emphasis on practical applications that are here today or due to arrive in the near future – will be taken seriously when there is an opening to articulate them.
The graphics for the Cyborg and Transhumanist Forum were created by Tom Ross, the U.S. Transhumanist Party Director of Media Production.
Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party free of charge, no matter where you reside.
• “A Word on Implanted NFC Tags” – Article by Ryan Starr
• Assembly Bill 226, Second Reprint – This is the version of the bill that passed the Senate on May 23, 2019.
• Amendment to Assembly Bill 226 to essentially remove the prohibition against voluntary microchip implants
Editor’s Note: In this article, Mr. Steve Hill highlights a recent webinar where Dr. Aubrey de Grey, the Biogerontology Advisor of the U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party, revised his projections for the arrival of rejuvenation treatments in a more optimistic direction. This article was originally published by the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF).
~ Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman, United States Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party, April 16, 2019
On January 28, 2019, we held a webinar with the SENS Research Foundation as part of a new ongoing series of research webinars. During the webinar, we asked Dr. Aubrey de Grey how close we might be to achieving robust mouse rejuvenation (RMR) and robust human rejuvenation, and his answer was somewhat surprising.
RMR is defined as reproducibly trebling the remaining lifespan of naturally long-lived (~3 years average lifespan) mice with therapies begun when they are already two years old.
Dr. de Grey now suggests that there is a 50/50 chance of achieving robust mouse rejuvenation within 3 years from now; recent interviews and conversation reveal that he’d adjusted this figure down from 5-6 years. He has also moved his estimation of this to arrive from around 20 years to 18 years for humans.
So, what is the basis for this advance in schedule? Dr. de Grey is more optimistic about how soon we might see these technologies arrive, as the level of crosstalk between damages appears to be higher than he originally anticipated a decade ago. This means that robust mouse and human rejuvenation may be easier than he previously believed.
We also asked Dr. de Grey which of the seven damages of aging was the most challenging to address. Originally, he thought solving cancer through OncoSENS methods was the biggest challenge in ending age-related diseases. However, intriguingly, he speaks about his enthusiasm for immunotherapy and how it may potentially solve the cancer issue and negate the need for Whole-body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres (WILT), which was always considered a last-resort approach to shutting down cancer.
There are two main components of the WILT approach. The first is to delete telomerase-producing genes from as many cells as possible, as human cancers lengthen telomeres through one of two available pathways, and the second is to avoid the harmful consequences of our cells no longer having telomerase by periodically transplanting fresh stem cells, which have also had their telomerase-associated genes knocked out, to replace losses.
This approach has always been considered extreme, and Dr. de Grey has always acknowledged that this was the case. However, over a decade ago when Dr. de Grey and Michael Rae originally proposed this in the book Ending Aging, immunotherapy was simply not on the radar. Now, there are alternatives to WILT that show true potential and less need for radical solutions, and it is reassuring to see that Dr. de Grey is so enthusiastic about them.
He now suggests that MitoSENS is probably the most challenging to tackle of the seven types of damage in the SENS model of aging. This is no surprise given that DNA and mtDNA damage are highly complex issues to fix.
On that note, we asked Dr. Amutha Boominathan from the MitoSENS team which mitochondrial gene was their next target after they had successfully created nuclear copies of the ATP-6 and ATP-8 genes.
MitoSENS will be launching a new fundraising campaign on Lifespan.io later this year with the aim of raising funds to progress to more of the mitochondrial genes. This time, the aim will be to move the approach to an animal model and demonstrate how it could be used to correct mitochondrial defects.
Finally, if you are interested in getting involved directly with these webinars and joining the live audience, check out the Lifespan Heroes page.
About Steve Hill
As a scientific writer and a devoted advocate of healthy longevity technologies, Steve has provided the community with multiple educational articles, interviews and podcasts, helping the general public to better understand aging and the means to modify its dynamics. His materials can be found at H+ Magazine, Longevity reporter, Psychology Today and Singularity Weblog. He is a co-author of the book “Aging Prevention for All” – a guide for the general public exploring evidence-based means to extend healthy life (in press).
About LIFE EXTENSION ADVOCACY FOUNDATION (LEAF)
In 2014, the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation was established as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting increased healthy human lifespan through fiscally sponsoring longevity research projects and raising awareness regarding the societal benefits of life extension. In 2015 they launched Lifespan.io, the first nonprofit crowdfunding platform focused on the biomedical research of aging.
They believe that this will enable the general public to influence the pace of research directly. To date they have successfully supported four research projects aimed at investigating different processes of aging and developing therapies to treat age-related diseases.
The LEAF team organizes educational events, takes part in different public and scientific conferences, and actively engages with the public on social media in order to help disseminate this crucial information. They initiate public dialogue aimed at regulatory improvement in the fields related to rejuvenation biotechnology.
Ariel VA Feinerman
Aubrey de Grey
This interview was originally published here.
What is ageing? We can define ageing as a process of accumulation of the damage which is just a side-effect of normal metabolism. While researchers still poorly understand how metabolic processes cause damage accumulation, and how accumulated damage causes pathology, the damage itself — the structural difference between old tissue and young tissue — is categorized and understood pretty well. By repairing damage and restoring the previous undamaged — young — state of an organism, we can really rejuvenate it! It sounds very promising, and so it is. And for some types of damage (for example, for senescent cells) it is already proved to work!
Today in our virtual studio, somewhere between cold, rainy Saint-Petersburg and warm, sunny Mountain View, we meet Aubrey de Grey, again! For those of you who are not familiar with him, here is a brief introduction.
Dr Aubrey de Grey is the biomedical gerontologist who researched the idea for and founded SENS Research Foundation. He received his BA in Computer Science and Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Cambridge in 1985 and 2000, respectively. Dr. de Grey is Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, is a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organizations. In 2011, de Grey inherited roughly $16.5 million on the death of his mother. Of this he assigned $13 million to fund SENS research.
Note: If you have not read “Ending Aging” yet I suggest you to do it as soon as possible, and to be more comfortable with the ideas we are discussing below I highly recommend you to read short introduction to SENS research on their web page. Also if you are interested in recent news and up-to-date reviews about [anti]ageing and rejuvenation research the best place to look for is Fight Aging! blog. Finally, if you are an investor or just curious, I highly encourage you to take a look at Jim Mellon’s book “Juvenescence”.
Ariel Feinerman: Hello, Dr Aubrey de Grey!
Aubrey de Grey: Hello Ariel — thanks for the interview.
Ariel Feinerman: How do you feel 2018 year? Can you compare 2018 to 2017 or early years? What is changing?
Aubrey de Grey: 2018 was a fantastic year for rejuvenation biotechnology. The main thing that made it special was the explosive growth of the private-sector side of the field — the number of start-up companies, the number of investors, and the scale of investment. Two companies, AgeX Therapeutics and Unity Biotechnology, went public with nine-digit valuations, and a bunch of others are not far behind. Of course this has only been possible because of all the great progress that has been made in the actual science, but one can never predict when that slow, steady progress will reach “critical mass”.
Ariel Feinerman: In 2017 SENS RF have received about $7 million. What has been accomplished in 2018?
Aubrey de Grey: We received almost all of that money right around the end of 2017, in the form of four cryptocurrency donations of $1 million or more, totalling about $6.5 million. We of course realised that this was a one-off windfall, so we didn’t spend it all at once! The main things we have done are to start a major new project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, focused on stem cell therapy for Alzheimer’s, and to broaden our education initiative to include more senior people. See our website and newsletters for details.
Ariel Feinerman: What breakthroughs of 2018 can you name as the most important by your choice?
Aubrey de Grey: On the science side, well, regarding our funded work I guess I would choose our progress in getting mitochondrial genes to work when relocated to the nucleus. We published a groundbreaking progress report at the end of 2016, but to be honest I was not at all sure that we would be able to build quickly on it. I’m delighted to say that my caution was misplaced, and that we’ve continued to make great advances. The details will be submitted for publication very soon.
Ariel Feinerman: You say that many of rejuvenating therapies will work in clinical trials within five years. Giving that many of them are already working in clinical trials or even in the clinic (like immunotherapies, cell and gene therapies) do you mean the first — maybe incomplete — rejuvenation panel, when you speak of early 2020?
Aubrey de Grey: Yes, basically. SENS is a divide-and-conquer approach, so we can view it in three overlapping phases. The first phase is to get the basic concept accepted and moving. The second phase is to get the most challenging components moving. And the third phase is to combine the components. Phase 1 is pretty much done, as you say. Phase 2 is beginning, but it’s at an early stage. Phase 3 will probably not even properly begin for a few more years. That’s why I still think we only have about a 50% chance of getting to longevity escape velocity by 2035 or so.
Ariel Feinerman: Even now many investors are fearful of real regenerative medicine approaches. For example pharmacological companies which use small molecules, like Unity Biotechnology, received more than $300 million, in much more favour than real bioengineering companies like Oisin Biotechnologies, received less than $4 million, even though the biological approach is much more powerful, cheap, effective and safe! Why is this so in your opinion, and when can we see the shift?
Aubrey de Grey: I don’t see a problem there. The big change in mindset that was needed has already occurred: rejuvenation is a thing. It’s natural that small-molecule approaches to rejuvenation will lead the way, because that’s what pharma already knows how to do. Often, that approach will in due course be overtaken by more sophisticated approaches. Sometimes the small molecules will actually work well! It’s all good.
Ariel Feinerman: Do you agree that the small-molecule approach is generally the wrong way in the future rejuvenation therapies? Because they have many flaws — especially their main mechanism via interference with human metabolism. Unlike them SENS bioengineering therapies are designed to be metabolically inert — because they just eliminate the key damage, they do not need to interfere with metabolism, so it is much easier than usual to avoid side effects and interactions with other therapies. They just eliminate the key damage, which means they are easier to develop and test — and much safer.
Aubrey de Grey: Ah, no, that’s too simplistic. It’s not true that small molecules always just “mess with metabolism” whereas genetic and enzymatic approaches eliminate damage. Small molecules that selectively kill senescent cells are absolutely an example of SENS-esque damage repair; the only thing against them is that it may be more difficult to eliminate side-effects, but that’s not because of their mode of action, it’s because of an additional action.
Ariel Feinerman: In recent years many countries gave the green light for regenerative medicine. Fast-track approval in Japan, for example, allows for emerging treatments to be used so long as they have been proven safe. The similar approach works in Russia. What about the EU or USA?
Aubrey de Grey: There’s definitely a long way to go, but the regulatory situation in the West is moving in the right direction. The TAME trial has led the way in articulating an approvable endpoint for clinical trials that is ageing in all but name, and the WHO has found a very well-judged way to incorporate ageing into its classification.
Ariel Feinerman: Do you think of working with USA Army? As far as we know they conduct research on regeneration and are very interested in keeping soldiers healthier for longer. And they have much money!
Aubrey de Grey: The Department of Defense in the USA has certainly funded a lot of high-impact regenerative medicine research for many years. I’m sure they will continue to do so.
Aubrey de Grey: No — in the end that program was not successful enough to continue with, so we stopped it. There is now more interest in ALT in other labs than there was, though, so I’m hopeful that progress will be made. But also, one reason why I felt that it was OK to stop was that cancer immunotherapy is doing so well now. I think there is a significant chance that we won’t need WILT after all, because we will really truly defeat cancer using the immune system.
Ariel Feinerman: Spiegel Lab has recently published an abstract where they say they have found 3 enzymes capable of breaking glucosepane. Very exiting info! When can we hear more on their research? Revel LLC is a very secretive company.
Aubrey de Grey: They aren’t really being secretive, they are just setting up.
Ariel Feinerman: When can we see the first clinical trial of glucosepane breaker therapy?
Aubrey de Grey: I think two years is a reasonable estimate, but that’s a guess.
Ariel Feinerman: What do you think of the Open Source approach in rejuvenation biotechnology? The computer revolution in the early 2000s has taken place only because Open Source caused an explosion in software engineering!
We have many examples when Big Pharma buys a small company which has patents on technology and then cancels all research. In the Open Source approach you cannot “close” any technology, while everyone can contribute, making protocol better and everyone can use that without any licence fee! Anyway, there are countries where you cannot protect your patents. Maybe it will be better to make technology open from the beginning?
Famous biohacker Josiah Zayner said: “In the gene therapy world most treatments are easy to replicate or pirate because you can reverse engineer the DNA from scientific papers or patents. Same exact treatment, same purity and quality I could give to someone rejected from the clinical trial. The cost? Hundreds or a few thousand dollars at most. Same deal with immunotherapy.”
Aubrey de Grey: I think you’ve pretty much answered your own question with that quote. The technologies that will drive rejuvenation are not so easy to suppress.
Ariel Feinerman: Is the SENS RF going to begin new research programmes in 2019?
Aubrey de Grey: Sure! But we are still deciding which ones. We expect that our conference in Berlin (Undoing Aging, March 28–30) will bring some new opportunities to our attention.
Ariel Feinerman: What are your plans for 2019?
Aubrey de Grey: I’d like to say less travelling, but that doesn’t seem very likely at this point. Really my goal is just to keep on keeping on — to do all I can to maintain the growth of the field and the emerging industry.
Ariel Feinerman: Thank you very much for your answers, hope to see you again!
Aubrey de Grey: My pleasure!
Ariel VA Feinerman is a researcher, author, and photographer, who believes that people should not die from diseases and ageing, and whose main goal is to improve human health and achieve immortality. If you like Ariel’s work, any help would be appreciated via PayPal: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Is AI the future of politics? The U.S. Transhuman(ist) Party features this TED talk, in both English and Spanish, by César Hidalgo, Director of MIT’s Collective Learning group, where he presents the idea of Augmented Democracy – a system to automate and enhance democracy by empowering citizens to create personalized AI representatives to aid in legislative decision-making.
Mr. Hidalgo has launched a contest with cash prizes where participants are encouraged to submit proposals to explore new ways to practice democracy and direct participation in collective decision-making using AI. Below, you can find a statement from Mr. Hidalgo and a link to the contest. We encourage members of the USTP, and non-members, to look into this opportunity to participate and collaborate in building a more just future!
~ Dinorah Delfin, Director of Admissions and Public Relations, United States Transhuman(ist) Party, March 27, 2019
Source: TED en Español
“Imagine that instead of having a (human) representative that represents you and a million of other people you can have a representative (AI) that represents only you. With your nuanced political views […] liberal on some […] and conservative on others.” – Cesar Hidalgo
What I Learned a Week After Publishing a Talk about Augmented Democracy
Last week I released a talk presenting the idea of Augmented Democracy. Since then, I have been looking at people’s reactions to understand how this idea fits the larger context. Here are three things I would like to rescue:
First, the idea was received much better than I expected. I received many encouraging emails and replies. This honestly surprised me. I’ve noticed that the idea was received surprisingly well in South America and among young people. In fact, it appears that for many people, the idea of augmenting the government through data and A.I. technologies seems natural. Of course, people imagine this differently, and some are quick to paint a doomsday scenario. But I think that this is an idea that may be flying under the radar, because the people that are activated by it do not align neatly along the left-right axis of politics. As such, they do not have the shared political identity that is key to left-righters, and hence, go undetected. That may change as post-millennials come of age, and may be unexpected to many people.
Second, despite the talk receiving a large number of views, surprisingly few people visited the FAQ. This is interesting, because it leads to a funny but also important contradiction. Many critical comments were phrased as rhetorical questions of the form: “But how would you do that?!” Yet, all of the rhetorical questions I’ve seen so far were in the FAQ. What is funny here is that the talk is about the use of technologies to help people augment their cognitive capacities, by, for instance, reading text they don’t have time for. Yet, the people skeptic about the idea are also people who did not read the text. Of course, this does not mean that there are no questions missing in the FAQ (I have many of these), what it means is that, in the comments I’ve seen, I’ve yet to encounter a question that was not in the FAQ.
Third, going forward my focus–on this front–will be on the Augmented Democracy prize. What I want to do next, is to encourage people to imagine future users interfaces and systems of technologically augmented democracy. For that, I am giving up to USD 20,000 in prizes. If I get less than 100 proposals, I will give away two team prizes of 4,000 USD and two individual prizes of USD 1,000. If I receive more than 100 proposals I will open two more teams and two more individual prizes. So in the next days, I will start sharing links directly to the prize page. If you know of students, creatives, designers, artists, scientists, and writers, please help me share the prize-related posts.
José Luis Cordeiro
Gennady Stolyarov II
Leading transhumanists from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives provide concise, powerful statements as to why they are transhuman. The Transhuman Era has arrived; some of us are aware of this already, whereas others are transhuman but do not know it yet. The #IAmTranshuman campaign helps illustrate how emerging technologies and the accompanying shifts in thinking are already transforming everyday life.
This video was compiled and formatted by Tom Ross, the U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party’s Director of Media Production.
The following transhumanists are featured, in order of appearance:
– B.J. Murphy, Director of Social Media, U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party
– Ira Pastor, Regeneration Advisor, U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party
– Tom Ross, Director of Media Production, U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party
– José Luis Cordeiro, Technology Advisor and Ambassador to Spain, U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party
– Charlie Kam, Director of Networking, California Transhumanist Party
– Bill Andrews, Biotechnology Advisor, U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party
– Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman, U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party
Learn more about the #IAmTranshuman campaign, the Transhuman Present Project (#TranshumanPresent), and how you can readily participate here.
You can participate in the #IAmTranshuman campaign by submitting still images or video recordings of one minute or less (15 seconds or less for Instagram stories, one minute or less for Instagram-compatible videos). Use the hashtag #IAmTranshuman, and let us know if you would like your video included in a subsequent compilation!
Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free, no matter where you reside. Apply here in less than a minute.
Become a Foreign Ambassador for the U.S. Transhumanist Party. Apply here.
Part 5: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty
The Enlightenment, with its confident efforts to fashion a science of man, was archetypal of the belief and quest that humankind will eventually achieve lasting peace and happiness. In what some interpret as a reformulation of Christianity’s teleological salvation history in which the People of God will be redeemed at the end of days and with the Kingdom of Heaven established on Earth, most Enlightenment thinkers believed in the inevitability of human political and technological progress, secularizing the Christian conception of history and eschatology into a conviction that humanity would, using a system of thought built on reason and science, be able to continually improve itself. As portrayed by Carl Becker in his 1933 book The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, the philosophies “demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials.” Whether this Enlightenment humanist view of “progress” amounted merely to a recapitulation of the Christian teleological vision of history, or if Enlightenment beliefs in “continual, linear political, intellectual, and material improvement” reflected, as James Hughes posits, “a clear difference from the dominant Christian historical narrative in which little would change until the End Times and Christ’s return”, the notion, in any case, of a collective progress towards a definitive end-point was one that remained unsupported by the scientific worldview. The scientific worldview, as Hughes reminds us in the opening paragraph of this essay within his series, does not support historical inevitability, only uncertainty. “We may annihilate ourselves or regress,” he says, and “Even the normative judgment of what progress is, and whether we have made any, is open to empirical skepticism.”
Hereby, we are introduced to a conflict that exists, at least since after the Enlightenment, between a view of progressive optimism and that of radical uncertainty. Building on the Enlightenment’s faith in the inevitability of political and scientific progress, the idea of an end-point, salvation moment for humankind fuelled all the great Enlightenment ideologies that followed, flowing down, as Hughes traces, through Comte’s “positivism” and Marxist theories of historical determinism to neoconservative triumphalism about the “end of history” in democratic capitalism. Communists envisaged that end-point as a post-capitalist utopia that would finally resolve the class struggle which they conceived as the true engine of history. This vision also contained the 20th-century project to build the Soviet Man, one of extra-human capacities, for as Trotsky had predicted, after the Revolution, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise”, whereas for 20th-century free-market liberals, this End of History had arrived with the final triumph of liberal democracy, with the entire world bound to be swept in its course. Events though, especially so far in the 21st century, appear to prove this view wrong.
This belief moreover, as Hughes would convincingly argue, in the historical inevitability of progress has also always been locked in conflict with “the rationalist, scientific observation that humanity could regress or disappear altogether.” Enlightenment pessimism, or at least realism, has, over the centuries, proven a stubborn resistance and constraint of Enlightenment optimism. Hughes, citing Henry Vyberg, reminds us that there were, after all, even French Enlightenment thinkers within that same era who rejected the belief in linear historical progress, but proposed historical cycles or even decadence instead. That aside, contemporary commentators like John Gray would even argue that the efforts themselves of the Enlightenment on the quest for progress unfortunately issued in, for example, the racist pseudo-science of Voltaire and Hume, while all endeavours to establish the rule of reason have resulted in bloody fanaticisms, from Jacobinism to Bolshevism, which equaled the worst atrocities attributable to religious believers. Horrendous acts like racism and anti-Semitism, in the verdict of Gray: “….are not incidental defects in Enlightenment thinking. They flow from some of the Enlightenment’s central beliefs.”
Even Darwinism’s theory of natural selection was, according to Hughes, “suborned by the progressive optimistic thinking of the Enlightenment and its successors to the doctrine of inevitable progress, aided in part by Darwin’s own teleological interpretation.” Problem, however, is that from the scientific worldview, there is no support for “progress” as to be found provided by the theory of natural selection, only that humanity, Hughes plainly states, “like all creatures, is on a random walk through a mine field, that human intelligence is only an accident, and that we could easily go extinct as many species have done.” Gray, for example, rebukes Darwin, who wrote: “As natural selection works solely for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress to perfection.” Natural selection, however, does not work solely for the good of each being, a fact Darwin himself elsewhere acknowledged. Nonetheless, it has continually proven rather difficult for people to resist the impulse to identify evolution with progress, with an extended downside to this attitude being equally difficult to resist the temptation to apply evolution in the rationalization of views as dangerous as Social Darwinism and acts as horrible as eugenics.
Many skeptics therefore hold, rationally, that scientific utopias and promises to transform the human condition deserve the deepest suspicion. Reason is but a frail reed, all events of moral and political progress are and will always remain subject to reversal, and civilization could as well just collapse, eventually. Historical events and experiences have therefore caused faith in the inevitability of progress to wax and wane over time. Hughes notes that among several Millenarian movements and New Age beliefs, such faith could still be found that the world is headed for a millennial age, just as it exists in techno-optimist futurism. Nevertheless, he makes us see that “since the rise and fall of fascism and communism, and the mounting evidence of the dangers and unintended consequences of technology, there are few groups that still hold fast to an Enlightenment belief in the inevitability of conjoined scientific and political progress.” Within the transhumanist community, however, the possession of such faith in progress can still be found as held by many, albeit signifying a camp in the continuation therefore of the Enlightenment-bequeathed conflict as manifested between transhumanist optimism in contradiction with views of future uncertainty.
As with several occasions in the past, humanity is, again, currently being spun yet another “End of History” narrative: one of a posthuman future. Yuval Harari, for instance, in Homo Deus argues that emerging technologies and new scientific discoveries are undermining the foundations of Enlightenment humanism, although as he proceeds with his presentation he also proves himself unable to avoid one of the defining tropes of Enlightenment humanist thinking, i.e., that deeply entrenched tendency to conceive human history in teleological terms: fundamentally as a matter of collective progress towards a definitive end-point. This time, though, our era’s “End of History” glorious “salvation moment” is to be ushered in, not by a politico-economic system, but by a nascent techno-elite with a base in Silicon Valley, USA, a cluster steeped in a predominant tech-utopianism which has at its core the idea that the new technologies emerging there can steer humanity towards a definitive break-point in our history, the Singularity. Among believers in this coming Singularity, transhumanists, as it were, having inherited the tension between Enlightenment convictions in the inevitability of progress, and, in Hughes’ words, “Enlightenment’s scientific, rational realism that human progress or even civilization may fail”, now struggle with a renewed contradiction. And here the contrast as Hughes intends to portray gains sharpness, for as such, transhumanists today are “torn between their Enlightenment faith in inevitable progress toward posthuman transcension and utopian Singularities” on the one hand, and, on the other, their “rational awareness of the possibility that each new technology may have as many risks as benefits and that humanity may not have a future.”
The risks of new technologies, even if not necessarily one that threatens the survival of humanity as a species with extinction, may yet be of an undesirable impact on the mode and trajectory of our extant civilization. Henry Kissinger, in his 2018 article “How the Enlightenment Ends”, expressed his perception that technology, which is rooted in Enlightenment thought, is now superseding the very philosophy that is its fundamental principle. The universal values proposed by the Enlightenment philosophes, as Kissinger points out, could be spread worldwide only through modern technology, but at the same time, such technology has ended or accomplished the Enlightenment and is now going its own way, creating the need for a new guiding philosophy. Kissinger argues specifically that AI may spell the end of the Enlightenment itself, and issues grave warnings about the consequences of AI and the end of Enlightenment and human reasoning, this as a consequence of an AI-led technological revolution whose “culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.” By way of analogy to how the printing press allowed the Age of Reason to supplant the Age of Religion, he buttresses his proposal that the modern counterpart of this revolutionary process is the rise of intelligent AI that will supersede human ability and put an end to the Enlightenment. Kissinger further outlines his three areas of concern regarding the trajectory of artificial intelligence research: AI may achieve unintended results; in achieving intended goals, AI may change human thought processes and human values, and AI may reach intended goals, but be unable to explain the rationale for its conclusions. Kissinger’s thesis, of course, has not gone without both support and criticisms attracted from different quarters. Reacting to Kissinger, Yuk Hui, for example, in “What Begins After the End of the Enlightenment?” maintained that “Kissinger is wrong—the Enlightenment has not ended.” Rather, “modern technology—the support structure of Enlightenment philosophy—has become its own philosophy”, with the universalizing force of technology becoming itself the political project of the Enlightenment.
Transhumanists, as mentioned already, reflect the continuity of some of those contradictions between belief in progress and uncertainty about human future. Hughes shows us nonetheless that there are some interesting historical turns suggesting further directions that this mood has taken. In the 1990s, Hughes recalls, “transhumanists were full of exuberant Enlightenment optimism about unending progress.” As an example, Hughes cites Max More’s 1998 Extropian Principles which defined “Perpetual Progress” as “the first precept of their brand of transhumanism.” Over time, however, Hughes communicates how More himself has had cause to temper this optimism, stressing rather this driving principle as one of “desirability” and more a normative goal than a faith in historical inevitability. “History”, More would say in 2002, “since the Enlightenment makes me wary of all arguments to inevitability…”
Rational uncertainty among transhumanists hence make many of them refrain from an argument for the inevitability of transhumanism as a matter of progress. Further, there are indeed several possible factors which could deter the transhumanist idea and drive for “progress” from translating to reality: A neo-Luddite revolution, a turn and rise in preference for rural life, mass disenchantment with technological addiction and increased option for digital detox, nostalgia, disillusionment with modern civilization and a “return-to-innocence” counter-cultural movement, neo-Romanticism, a pop-culture allure and longing for a Tolkien-esque world, cyclical thinking, conservatism, traditionalism, etc. The alternative, backlash, and antagonistic forces are myriad. Even within transhumanism, the anti-democratic and socially conservative Neoreactionary movement, with its rejection of the view that history shows inevitable progression towards greater liberty and enlightenment, is gradually (and rather disturbingly) growing a contingent. Hughes talks, as another point for rational uncertainty, about the three critiques: futurological, historical, and anthropological, of transhumanist and Enlightenment faith in progress that Phillipe Verdoux offers, and in which the anthropological argument holds that “pre-moderns were probably as happy or happier than we moderns.” After all, Rousseau, himself a French Enlightenment thinker, “is generally seen as having believed in the superiority of the “savage” over the civilized.” Perspectives like these could stir anti-modern, anti-progress sentiments in people’s hearts and minds.
Demonstrating still why transhumanists must not be obstinate over the idea of inevitability, Hughes refers to Greg Burch’s 2001 work “Progress, Counter-Progress, and Counter-Counter-Progress” in which the latter expounded on the Enlightenment and transhumanist commitment to progress as “to a political program, fully cognizant that there are many powerful enemies of progress and that victory was not inevitable.” Moreover, the possible failure in realizing goals of progress might not even result from the actions of “enemies” in that antagonistic sense of the word, for there is also that likely scenario, as the 2006 movie Idiocracy depicts, of a future dystopian society based on dysgenics, one in which, going by expectations and trends of the 21st century, the most intelligent humans decrease in reproduction and eventually fail to have children while the least intelligent reproduce prolifically. As such, through the process of natural selection, generations are created that collectively become increasingly dumber and more virile with each passing century, leading to a future world plagued by anti-intellectualism, bereft of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, coherence in notions of justice and human rights, and manifesting several other traits of degeneration in culture. This is yet a possibility for our future world.
So while for many extropians and transhumanists, nonetheless, perpetual progress was an unstoppable train, responding to which “one either got on board for transcension or consigned oneself to the graveyard”, other transhumanists, however, Hughes comments, especially in response to certain historical experiences (the 2000 dot-com crash, for example), have seen reason to increasingly temper their expectations about progress. In Hughes’s appraisal, while, therefore, some transhumanists “still press for technological innovation on all fronts and oppose all regulation, others are focusing on reducing the civilization-ending potentials of asteroid strikes, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.” Some realism hence need be in place to keep under constant check the excesses of contemporary secular technomillennialism as contained in some transhumanist strains.
Hughes presents Nick Bostrom’s 2001 essay “Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards” as one influential example of this anti-millennial realism, a text in which Bostrom, following his outline of scenarios that could either end the existence of the human species or have us evolve into dead-ends, then addressed not just how we can avoid extinction and ensure that there are descendants of humanity, but also how we can ensure that we will be proud to claim them. Subsequently, Bostrom has been able to produce work on “catastrophic risk estimation” at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. Hughes seems to favour this approach, for he ensures to indicate that this has also been adopted as a programmatic focus for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) which he directs, and as well for the transhumanist non-profit, the Lifeboat Foundation. Transhumanists who listen to Bostrom, as we could deduce from Hughes, are being urged to take a more critical approach concerning technological progress.
With the availability of this rather cautious attitude, a new tension, Hughes reports, now plays out between eschatological certainty and pessimistic risk assessment. This has taken place mainly concerning the debate over the Singularity. For the likes of Ray Kurzweil (2005), representing the camp of a rather technomillennial, eschatological certainty, his patterns of accelerating trendlines towards a utopian merger of enhanced humanity and godlike artificial intelligence is one of unstoppability, and this Kurzweil supports by referring to the steady exponential march of technological progress through (and despite) wars and depressions. Dystopian and apocalyptic predictions of how humanity might fare under superintelligent machines (extinction, inferiority, and the likes) are, in the assessment of Hughes, but minimally entertained by Kurzweil, since to the techno-prophet we are bound to eventually integrate with these machines into apotheosis.
The platform, IEET, thus has taken a responsibility of serving as a site for teasing out this tension between technoprogressive “optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect,” as Hughes echoes Antonio Gramsci. On the one hand, Hughes explains, “we have championed the possibility of, and evidence of, human progress. By adopting the term “technoprogressivism” as our outlook, we have placed ourselves on the side of Enlightenment political and technological progress.”And yet on the other hand, he continues, “we have promoted technoprogressivism precisely in order to critique uncritical techno-libertarian and futurist ideas about the inevitability of progress. We have consistently emphasized the negative effects that unregulated, unaccountable, and inequitably distributed technological development could have on society” (one feels tempted to call out Landian accelerationism at this point). Technoprogressivism, the guiding philosophy of IEET, avails as a principle which insists that technological progress needs to be consistently conjoined with, and dependent on, political progress, whilst recognizing that neither are inevitable.
In charting the essay towards a close, Hughes mentions his and a number of IEET-led technoprogresive publications, among which we have Verdoux who, despite his futurological, historical, and anthropological critique of transhumanism, yet goes ahead to argue for transhumanism on moral grounds (free from the language of “Marxism’s historical inevitabilism or utopianism, and cautious of the tragic history of communism”), and “as a less dangerous course than any attempt at “relinquishing” technological development, but only after the naive faith in progress has been set aside.” Unfortunately, however, the “rational capitulationism” to the transhumanist future that Verdoux offers, according to Hughes, is “not something that stirs men’s souls.” Hughes hence, while admitting to our need “to embrace these critical, pessimistic voices and perspectives”, yet calls on us to likewise heed to the need to “also re-discover our capacity for vision and hope.” This need for optimism that humans “can” collectively exercise foresight and invention, and peacefully deliberate our way to a better future, rather than yielding to narratives that would lead us into the traps of utopian and apocalyptic fatalism, has been one of the motivations behind the creation of the “technoprogressive” brand. The brand, Hughes presents, has been of help in distinguishing necessarily “Enlightenment optimism about the “possibility” of human political, technological and moral progress from millennialist techno-utopian inevitabilism.”
Presumably, upon this technoprogressive philosophy, the new version of the Transhumanist Declaration, adopted by Humanity+ in 2009, indicated a shift from some of the language of the 1998 version, and conveyed a more reflective, critical, realistic, utilitarian, “proceed with caution” and “act with wisdom” tone with respect to the transhumanist vision for humanity’s progress. This version of the declaration, though relatively sobered, remains equally inspiring nonetheless. Hughes closes the essay with a reminder on our need to stay aware of the diverse ways by which our indifferent universe threatens our existence, how our growing powers come with unintended consequences, and why applying mindfulness on our part in all actions remains the best approach for navigating our way towards progress in our radically uncertain future.
Conclusively, following Hughes’ objectives in this series, it can be suggested that more studies on the Enlightenment (European and global) are desirable especially for its potential to furnish us with richer understanding into a number of problems within contemporary transhumanism as sprouting from its roots deep in the Enlightenment. Interest and scholarship in Enlightenment studies, fortunately, seems to be experiencing some current revival, and even so with increasing diversity in perspective, thereby presenting transhumanism with a variety of paths through which to explore and gain context for connected issues. Seeking insight thence into some foundations of transhumanism’s problems could take the path, among others: of an examination of internal contradictions within the Enlightenment, of the approach of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment”; of assessing opponents of the Enlightenment as found, for example, in Isaiah Berlin’s notion of “Counter Enlightenment”; of investigating a rather radical strain of the Enlightenment as presented in Jonathan Israel’s “Radical Enlightenment”, and as well in grappling with the nature of the relationships between transhumanism and other heirs both of the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment today. Again, and significantly, serious attention need be paid now and going forwards in jealously guarding transhumanism against ultimately falling into the hands of the Dark Enlightenment.
Ojochogwu Abdul is the founder of the Transhumanist Enlightenment Café (TEC), is the co-founder of the Enlightenment Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+ Nigeria), and currently serves as a Foreign Ambassador for the U.S. Transhumanist Party in Nigeria.