A Survey of the Ideology Surrounding Man-Made Evolution

Lucas A. Schuman
Nov 29, 2020 · 9 min read

Existence as you know it is over. Resistance is futile.

A haunting message transmitted by the Borg in the year 2373 shortly before their ship, The Cube, is flamboyantly destroyed by Species 8472. A recurrent plot device equipped with a sundry of body-augmenting devices, the formidable Borg species in Star Trek is Gene Rodenberry’s substantiation of the now century-old plight to engineer the cybernetic humanoid, to engender the next stage of evolution: homo sapien qua biotechnology. Written as a technology-hungry people that are central to the pathogenesis of evil in Star Trek, the Borg were a seminal landmark in the cyberpunk movement and are loved by science-fiction consumers the world over.

The Trekkies’ affinity for the Borg cannot be attributed to their uniqueness. Caricatures of the posthuman in media have a strong tendency to be cybernetic beings abetted by biosuits, laboratory technology, or some sort of computer-facilitated wetware. This increasingly prominent artistic interfacing and conceiving of the futuristic idea reflects a collective observation-turned-rumination: the posthuman seem imminent, what can be said deontologically about their arrival? While the Borg’s celebrity may seem reason enough to mention them in a discussion of human-enhancing biotechnology, there is a nuance of their ontology that itself manages to recapitulate a significant portion of what has become perhaps the most far-reaching and profound offshoot of the futuristic idea: the ethics and policy dialogue. The Borg, as popular symbols of the posthuman, are framed and proffered to the public as one of the most heinous antagonists in the franchise; as malpracticing colonists of the vacuum with the tunnel-visioned objective of assimilating the inhabitants of the universe. Working with full creative license in the molding of a posthuman plot component, writers chose to make them bloodthirsty, technologically antinomian, paradoxically atavistic, and intellectually only an egregore. Considering that the progression of technology is beginning to make these media archetypes correspond to real-world people and ideas which have in particular played the role of egalitarian and human rights heros, this monster-esque penning means the corruption of the posthuman’s virtues. And Rodenberry is not alone in this ostensible smear-campaign, much-loved and culturally influential works like Terminator, Ghost in the Shell (the 1995 film and the 2020 Netflix series), Lucy, and Dune all contain technologically-altered humanoid characters whose development reveals them to be felonious, antagonistic, megalomaniacal, or frighteningly unstoppable. This is not to say that works have not been published fethishizing the posthuman — it may be that, in the public’s selection of works to signalize, these works have coincidentally fallen through the diachronic cracks. But, whether or not the result of the public’s love for hating the posthuman, this aggregate popular media portrayal gives the impression of an apparent jihad against man-made evolution, and one that is happily disseminated throughout the world.

In theorizing transhumanism, or the belief that humanity can achieve its next stage of evolution through scientific reason and biotechnology, a camp of rhetoricians referred to (sometimes pejoratively) as techno-conservatives and containing many prominent thinkers (Marcel Gauchet, Luc Ferry, André Comte-Sponville, Hans Jonas, and Jürgen Habermas) argue in the very same spirit as our popular media. That is, they push a line of reasoning that frames the pursuit of transhumanism as the construction of dystopia, the inauguration of the panoptic society, the exacerbation of (the ails of) capitalism, and similarly apocalyptic tropes. In particular, popular ideas floated by this school include: posthumans will regard humans as obsolete, retrograde beasts who are only obstacles to real progress; the ablation of death will quickly and overwhelmingly lead to overpopulation; and immortalization will nullify the culturally consecrated and theologically hallowed institution of death. These classic and mostly fear-inducing arguments are what one might hear when discussing transhumanism at an evening soirée or on an online messaging board. It should be noted that, as with most issues, the casual dialogue and the academic dialogue differ in substance but have comparable undercurrents. A breaching of the academic canon surfaces ornate, fleshed-out, and diverse arguments substantiated by evidence from all facets of our intellectual and phenomenological world. Some academics, like nanophysicist Richard Jones, do not lash out by prophesying dystopia, but rather by invalidating the fundamental ethos and efficacy of the movement, painting it as a pipe-dream chimera with points like, “transhumanism’s claims that we’re in sight of abolishing ageing and death are hollow,” “the ideological roots of the movement are dubious, and the wide circulation of transhumanist views is damaging to the way we talk about technology,” and “impossible dreams about eternal life just divert attention from these pressing here-and-now problems.” According to some techno-conservatives, replacing the Starship Enterprise with 2020s America and the Borg with transhumanists makes Star Trek suddenly assume an uncanny prescience (not to mention that the Borg’s fundamental raison d’etre is dripping with the popular techno-conservative paranoia of endocytosistic AI Takeover).

The dinner-party arguments for transhumanism are straightforward, beginning with the abolitionist contention that, with the right initiative and funding, biotechnologies can easily become the preeminent method of abdicating somatic suffering globally. Envisioned technologies include powered-exoskeletal palliatives for body dysmorphia, the hardware unriddling of sensory dysfunction, appendants achieving the much-coveted clinical autarky, and the amelioration of mental health prescription practices via AI cartography. A formidable faction of transhuman politics containing such figureheads as Zoltan Istvan, the libertarian transhumans argue that the individual indulgence in body-enhancing technologies constitutes an exercising of fundamental rights, namely the right to levy decisions about one’s own body, and any private or public impedance to this indulgence is, in reality, a nullification of basic human liberties. In the philosophical colosseum, a renowned argument known as the Proactionary Principle and published by philosopher Max More makes the case that a “people’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies a range of responsibilities for those considering whether and how to develop, deploy, or restrict new technologies. Assess risks and opportunities using an objective, open, and comprehensive, yet simple decision process based on science rather than collective emotional reactions … give a high priority to people’s freedom to learn, innovate, and advance.” Similar arguments characterize transhumanist opposition as the stymying of well-natured curiosity, an intellectual institution that should be unambiguously supported.

An approach to transhuman criticism that is worth giving special attention to proffers the exhortation that any realistic realization of transhumanism will likely only reflect and amplify the grim patho-socioeconomic, antiegalitarian, and oppressive modes of functionality that already vitiate our societies. Many believe that, as with most progressive technologies, the privatization and commodification of transhuman capabilities will make them available only to the elite. The corollary to this fear is that transhumanism will only serve to enable the elite’s already disproportionately salient right-to-life, only solidifying the realm of the upper-upper class as the milieu of the world’s development. This has implications in the arena of gender equality as well, as there is overwhelming evidence for a global gender wage gap, putting the average man higher on the socioeconomic ladder than the average woman, and thereby preferring his ability to consume costly technologies. A popular article published by writer and sex worker Charlotte Shane channels these disparities in considering a realistic unfolding (some of which has already occurred) of transhuminism, and consequently prognosticating “a bleak future: more white men.”

These egalitarian concerns are derivative of the possibility that transhumanist technologies will be overseen by private corporations and organizations rather than being democratized and overseen by publicly-accountable officials. Consequently, an ideational insurgence supporting the publicization of transhumanism has shown face to ensure that, when the issue actually appears on the legislative docket, the argument that these technologies necessitate democratic oversight has a profound and orotund presence. In an optimistic take on transhumanism and gender politics, movements such as Sadie Plant’s cyberfeminism and its more modern counterpart, Laboria Cuboniks’ xenofeminism envision and advocate for a world where progressive technologies are used directly for the rectification of demographic injustices. In the domain of transhumanism, this plight materializes in a stunning way through possibilities of achieving postgenderism, or the cybernetic abrogation of gender entirely — an uncompromising solution to the obstinate and historically ubiquitous phenomenon of androcentrism.

Reflecting at this point, having breached only the cutaneous layer of the transhumanism typhoeus, it’s apparent that this formulation of man-made evolution has emphatically drawn the attention of scientists, social theorists, and more generally the public at large; and that, wherever the topic is mentioned, it has a propensity to catalyze a complex, panoramic, and sometimes visceral contemplation on the most high-order and fundamental dimensions of our world. In studying this corner of the canon, it becomes clear that the historiography of this dialogue is deceptively deep and possibly more nuanced than the technology it philosophizes. How can the average person comfortably consume these didactics? As concrete and easily-digested descendents of this noumenal transhumanism dialectic, institutions of popular culture like Star Trek and Terminator are guilty of undue influence here — they function as the mechanism by which a considerable portion of the public interfaces inaccessible ideas like transhumanism and posthumanism, and they do not fulfill this role impartially. Portraying the technologically-augmented human as being malignant, antagonistic, or otherwise a threat to conventional life is an irresponsible hindrance of progress, and an inaccurate representation of the multipartite dialogue that we believe to have probed truth. If these issues become democratized — a considerable potentiality — voters who forgo the formal catechizing may base their opinions in popular culture’s unsavory posthuman tropes — this represents the propagandistic compromising of democratic discourse, and sidelines the century-long and rhetorically rigorous conversation that trusted scientists and circumspect philosophers have spearheaded. While some of these plot devices may be intentionally charged with posthuman rhetoric — they may be an aesthetically-pleasing (and therefore a more accessible and emotionally powerful) way for creatives to participate in the discussion — it’s conceivable that some of these artists were simply pursuing entertainment without a mind for indoctrination. As with most issues, there is a weight conferred onto the shoulders of influential entertainers: beware the propagandistic potential of your poetics.

Leaving this dizzying ideological colosseum to focus on what we can say empirically about the transhumanist industry, we observe that our modern instantiation of the Borg, real-life technologically augmented humans, are generally an empowered and progressive demographic that (as far as we know) is uninterested in taking over the galaxy. They gained a more salient presence in 2004, when contemporary transhumanism and transspecies rights advocate Neil Harbisson hit the news scene as the first person to have embedded into his skull an internet- and bluetooth-capable antenna, christened Eyeborg, ablating his birth-given achromatopsia. While the current state of experimental biotechnology and recent successes may make this augmentation seem trite and un-newsworthy, Neil was later promoted from a technological novelty to an extraordinarily significant political figure when a logistical event earned him the popular culture sash reading: First Governmentally-Homologated Cyborg. Though fun, this billing is a bit deceiving. Neil commonly wears this moniker in casual transhumanism conversations, but it should be noted that this practice was sublimated from his 2004 altercation with the UK Passport Office, who objected to his Eyeborg’s appearance in a passport photo. Neil successfully argued that his self-identification as a cyborg validates its inclusion — the Eyeborg is part of his body. In a matter of weeks, the Office acquiesced, thereby making Neil “governmentally-recognized.” Other more anonymous cyborgs are pleasingly photographed (without risk of governmental objection) and catalogued in David Vintiner and Gemma Fletcher’s five-year photobook project I Want To Believe. Among its constituents are British professor Kevin Warwick, whose nervous system is linked to a robotic hand that can be controlled from anywhere in the world; and Moon Ribas, whose feet are embellished with seismic sensors that allow her to detect earthquakes happening globally. A survey of these transhuman biographies shows that the quiescent cyborg is a prima facie improbability — seemingly ecstatic with their new bodies, a significant portion of the transhuman-capable moonlight as rights activists and research grant organizers.

In a paper that he presented at a 2009 workshop on democratic transhumanism, Ronald Baily offers a historically-substantiated argument on the reality of transhuman ontogenesis. He argues political hauntology: in the exact same way that previously progressive technologies and rights movements (abortion, STEM cell therapy, in vitro fertilization, LGBTQ rights) have been legislatively and popularly reduced to unethical and radical threats that need to be controlled, transhumanism is pre-emptively sentenced to a drawn-out and onerous uphill battle against many foes. But, much in the same way that these historical movements and technologies were seen to overcome their respective trials, transhumanism’s kismet is to trump its techno-conservative adversaries and earn a sovereign place in the future of individual rights and bodily autonomy. Corroborating this claim, and seen as a harbinger of this looming acceptance, is the first instance of transhumanist research being approved by a national regulatory agency — 2016’s HFEA approval of research into the technological alteration of genotypes.

In summary,

Existence as you know it is over. Resistance is futile.

(Published exclusively in Brown Tech Review.)

Brown Technology Review

Technology coverage by Brown students, alumni, and faculty

Brown Technology Review

Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

Lucas A. Schuman

Written by

Fourth-year math and philosophy student at Brown

Brown Technology Review

Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

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