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July 7, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: It may sound loopy, but a group of people
calling themselves 'transhumanists' seeks to replace humans with an
artificial form of life. The group is aggressively opposing the
precautionary principle, hoping to substitute their own 'proactionary
principle.' We dismiss them at our peril.]

By Jerry Salyer

"Throw caution to the winds" is the motto of a technology-infatuated
group which wants to improve the human race.

Transhumanism has changed considerably since the word was first coined
by British scientist Julian Huxley in 1957. Huxley, an ardent
humanitarian, described the concept as a methodology by which eugenics
and social conditioning could improve the human race. His heirs today
are considerably more ambitious.

In broad terms, transhumanism advocates replacing the human race with
an artificial life form using artificial intelligence (AI),
cybernetics, genetic engineering, advanced pharmaceuticals, and
nanotechnology. It contends that man is destined for metamorphosis
into a superior life form with an unlimited lifespan, better memory,
faster computing power, and freedom from the bounds of traditional

For over a decade the Extropy Institute has been one of the
foundation stones of the transhumanism. ("Extropy" is the opposite of
entropy, the thermodynamic principle of decay.) In keeping with
transhumanism's commitment to endless flux, the Extropy Institute has
now metamorphosed, and its members have signed on to a manifesto which
they describe as the "proactionary principle".

The proactionary principle is intended as a replacement for the
precautionary principle of bioethics. The precautionary principle
advises restraint; the proactionary principle encourages the
aggressive pursuit of technological change. The spiritual,
psychological, and environmental dangers of ramping up the pace of
change, according to transhumanists, are best met by moving faster.

The Extropy Institute supports its views with a potted history of
human progress:

"Throughout history, the advancement of science has always been met
with superstition and fear. For every improvement to the human
condition, there have always been those who thought it would be better
for things to remain in their former condition. This led to the long
Dark Ages, where no progress occurred at all. The Renaissance and
Enlightenment finally broke us free from that grim era."

But clouds, principally from the Christian right and other
"conservative" interests around the world, threaten to block the
sunshine shed by the Enlightenment:

"Transhumanists were born into an enlightened world where perpetual
progress based on science and creativity seemed inevitable. However,
recent years have seen a backlash against advancement toward extending
health, enhancing intelligence, understanding emotions, and the ever-
increasing control we now can take over our own destinies. We face now
an unprecedented battle for the future of humanity."

In its discussion of human sexuality, the proactionary principle takes
mainstream attitudes on the topic toward their logical conclusion:

"The new sexual landscapes will bring about different types of
sexuality, different types of genders. In the future, we may still
want to perform the traditional types of sex, or we may want to
participate in the reconstituted and reconfigured gender roles and
sexuality that will radically change us. We may do away with our
bodily nerves, but keep some sensations, the ones for pleasure or
perhaps some for pain to remind us not to do something. Yet,
eventually we will begin to shuttle more and more parts of ourselves
as we become post-biological."

Before one dismisses the proactionary principle as the invention of
kooks who have seen too much Star Trek, it should be considered that
many transhumanists are very prominent indeed. MIT artificial
intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky is a leader of the movement, as
is former USC philosophy professor Max More. Minsky has written many
works of fiction and nonfiction which depict the supplanting of human
beings by robots as both inevitable and desireable. More has spread
the message via high-profile interviews and appearances on cable
networks such as The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, and
CNN's Futurewatch.

Other are Bart Kosko, of the University of Southern California,
Gregory Stock, of UCLA; Jose Cordeiro, a Venezuelan academic and
columnist for the newspaper El Universal). Peter Thiel, former CEO of
Paypal, offers business advice. Affiliates include groups such as the
Friends of the United Nations, and UNICEF-Africa.

Another group, the World Transhumanist Association, is a close ally.
Its executive director, James Hughes, is professor of Health Policy at
Trinity College. Hughes is attracted to the political ramifications of
changing human nature, as evinced by his recent book Citizen Cyborg:
Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the
Future. In one unintentionally ironic essay, Hughes promises a fix for
the political disasters that ensue from demagogues' exploitation of
human hopes and fears: "The cure for demagoguery will be a spam filter
on our cerebellum."

The proactionary principle is largely a response to heightened public
awareness about the moral and spiritual dangers of technology; the
transhumanists understand that their goals require a public relations
campaign to counter the forces of darkness, whom they describe as the
"neo-luddites". A new magazine, The New Atlantis, a journal of the
Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, is one of the
leading organs for neo-luddite thinking and contains refreshing
analyses of the origins of transhumanism. In a recent issue Dusquene
University political science professor Charles Rubin cogently argues
that transhumanism is basically a fantasy of egocentric libertarians:

"It starts with something that sounds so sensible: who would not want
a longer, healthier, happier life? The modern world has long been
committed to this goal. But then we're off to the enhancement races.
If you don't want an implant that allows you to feel the feelings of
your sexual partner, or that gives you a direct feed to your brain of
whatever the Internet will become, or if you don't want to design
children with a genetic leg up in the world, fine -- nobody is going
to make you. But don't try to tell me that if I do want it, I can't
have it... And...if you choose to remain a 'Natural,' don't expect
much consideration from the ranks of the 'Enhanced.'"

The transhumanists' quest to "make a better man for a better tomorrow"
may sound loopy. But it is a potent and exhilarating drug of the
spirit for many intelligent but technology-infatuated people. You can
expect to hear more from them in the future.

Jerry Salyer writes from Annapolis, Maryland.

Copyright 2006 MercatorNet