The Politics of Human Enhancement Today

Photo by Owen Beard on Unsplash

James J. Hughes

Abstract: Most debates over the politics of enhancement are ahistorical, assuming wrongly that enhancement and its consequences are imminent dilemmas rather than a part of the human condition since we became human. We have used technologies to extend our health and longevity, control our reproduction, and enrich our senses and cognition for hundreds of thousands of years. Genetic engineering, psychopharmaceuticals, artificial limbs and organs, and brain-computer interfaces are simply the latest ways to accomplish these ancient aims. Critics often believe enhancement technologies will have predictable social consequences. The politics of enhancement will most likely be the same political debates that determine access to all medical therapies. Access to reproductive and longevity technologies will be shaped by the global crisis of falling fertility and rising old-age dependency. The debates over body modification and cognitive liberty will take place within a global political polarization between cultural traditionalists and cosmopolitans.

What are Enhancement Technologies?

The most important step in understanding our imminent technological evolution is to have the proper historical context. Enhancement technologies are not something we invented yesterday or will invent tomorrow. We are in the middle of our transition from ur-humanity to posthumanity, a period we could call “transhuman” although it is the only condition of humanity that we are familiar with. Between a million and two million years ago our hominid ancestors mastered fire, which unleashed the ongoing co-evolution of human physiology and technology. The mastery of fire allowed our hungry prefrontal cortices to expand, and now they consume a third of our calories. As our prefrontal cortex expanded we discovered new abilities for tool use, hunting and agriculture, and eventually written symbols. The invention of writing and literacy was when we became cyborgs, capable of downloading the contents of our brains to external storage media and uploading it again later.

In this historical context, our current technological innovations are mostly elaborations. We have been crafting and using prosthetics for thousands of years, from artificial arms and legs to face masks and armor. We are discovering increasingly precise ways to manipulate the brain, but our ancestors mastered psychoactive drugs and practices hundreds of thousands of years ago. The transformative potentials of genetic engineering, tissue engineering, artificial organs, and nanotechnology are well beyond the capacity of our predecessors’ imaginations, but they invented and imagined many magics, potions, and practices intended to provide long, healthy life, superpowers and wisdom. The methods of human enhancement are new, but the aspirations they address are ancient. The European Enlightenment turned our ancient utopian aspirations from spiritual or alchemical means, to technologies and empirical scientific methods.

Understanding that enhancement technologies are part of an old co-evolutionary story does not mean that we are not in fact at an historical turning point in this century. The rate of technological change is both exponential and unpredictable. The sudden discovery of CRSPR gene-editing tools in the last decade reveals that sudden discontinuous innovations can make abstract intellectual debates, such as over inheritable genetic enhancement, suddenly pressing. Even more unpredictable is the steady convergence of innovations from multiple sciences, as was famously demonstrated by the startlingly transhumanist conclusions of the NSF-funded Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno (NBIC) collaboration of 2002 (Roco & Bainbridge, 2002). Scientists tasked with figuring out ways to combine their siloed research projects — genetic engineering, cognitive science, information technology, and nanotechnology — were able to propose innovations in brain-computer interfaces.

Given this discontinuous and unpredictable course of innovation, it is safer to discuss ethical and policy implications of our growing ability to satisfy basic goals through some technological innovation, rather than trying to precisely anticipate the invention and diffusion of specific technologies. The specific ends we will certainly be pursuing are (a) health and longevity, (b) control of reproduction, and © expanding our sensory and cognitive abilities, including brain-computer interfaces.

Health and Longevity

Once agriculture allowed larger settlements, and trade between them, our ancestors’ lives got a little harder. Although agriculture sustained larger populations, the average farmer was shorter and less healthy than the average hunter-gatherer. For the next ten thousand years, mortality from infectious disease was high, as was mortality from conflict and childbearing. It was only with the invention of toilets and sewers, and more broadly public health systems, that infectious disease mortality declined in the last century. As political bodies became larger and established a monopoly of violence, our likelihood of dying violently declined. As women entered education and work outside the home, birth control and healthcare spread and families shrank, maternal mortality also declined.

Today we are reaching the limits of extending healthy longevity through purely behavioral and public health interventions. In fact, countries like the United States are beginning to see a reversal in life expectancy as our ability to consume rich foods without physical activity overwhelms our Paleolithic bodies. To push average life expectancy beyond 90 years will require technological modification of the body. Vaccination, for instance, is the technological upgrading of our immune system’s intelligence. While most people admitted to hospitals in 1900 did not survive, many life-saving and misery-reducing surgeries today are safe and routine. We are unraveling the mechanisms of aging itself, and developing therapies to slow and reverse those processes, and the myriad diseases aging generates. We can not only decode the genetic codes that cause diseases and disabilities but rewrite them. We have codified the many ways the brain can malfunction and have thousands of drugs, surgeries, gene therapies, and devices to fix it. We can even take steps to change fundamental biological characteristics like sex, aligning our bodies more closely to our own preferences.

We will only be able to say in the 22nd century, looking back, whether gene therapy or nanotechnology or tissue engineering or something we don’t have a name for yet will make the biggest impact. But it is likely that by the end of this century we will be able to ensure healthy longevity for most people well past one hundred years, at a higher level of health and well-being than we can currently imagine, if we survive, and if we take the steps to make these innovations widely available.

Reproductive Technologies

Methods of encouraging fertility and determining the characteristics of a baby were ubiquitous in pre-agricultural societies, and abortifacient drugs are thousands of years old. Once we transitioned from agriculture to 20th-century industry, children became luxury consumer goods instead of indispensable investments in defense and farm labor. Family sizes are shrinking rapidly worldwide, and we want to ensure that every child is healthy and capable. One way we have been doing that is by exercising control over the timing and number of pregnancies with birth control and abortion. Then we added prenatal testing to reduce the number of children with congenital anomalies. Fertility treatments and germinal choices (sperm banks, egg freezing, and ex vivo genetic screening) allow more choices over when we have children and what kind. We are now on the cusp of changing the genomes of our children before or just after we conceive them, and being able to gestate them outside of women’s bodies.

Sensory & Cognitive Enhancements

Progress in managing a psychiatric illness, from depression and schizophrenia to attention deficit disorder and anxiety, has been slow and steady. Stimulant medication for ADD increases alertness and learning, and therapies to slow and reverse memory decline are being tested and improved. Cochlear implants have allowed deaf children to participate in hearing society, and retinal transplants and prosthetic retinas will soon be joined by artificial eyes. Psychedelic research and brain stimulation are even illuminating ways to induce spiritual experiences and unlock creativity.

If there is a truly novel technological transformation of the human condition, however, it will come from brain-computer interfaces. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world now have deep brain stimulation devices to suppress tremor disorders or treat intractable depression. Neuralink and its numerous competitors are devising smaller, smarter brain implants with ever-expanding numbers of neural connections. Brain-computer interfaces will first be made available to people with severe neurological disorders and brain injuries, and then access will gradually liberalize. These devices will be able to supplement memory, enable brain-to-brain and brain-to-computer communication and augmented reality, and control mood and sensation.

Do Enhancement Technologies Have a Politics?

A key question in the debate over the social consequences of enhancement technologies is whether they have inevitable political consequences. Some critics point to the politics of their advocates, such as the tiny and diverse transhumanist movement, or identify the technologies with larger social dynamics such as the commodification of the body or the empowering of elites. Clearly every technology is developed within the constraints of existing economic and political systems, and technologies that threaten those systems, or just aren’t profitable investments, are less likely to be developed. On the other hand, even when technologies are presumed to have certain effects, their actual impacts are often disruptive in unexpected ways. Technological innovations change the terrain of social power, creating new identities and conflicts.

The political impacts of enhancement technologies also have to be assessed in light of the ideas that gave birth to them, principally the techno-optimism of the European Enlightenment and its affiliated bundle of political values. One way to think about this is through the lens of the two origins of the term “transhumanism,” from FM-2030’s more anthropological use of “transhuman” (FM-2030, 1989), versus Julian Huxley’s (Huxley, 1957) more philosophical “trans-humanism.” If transhumanism is simply an acknowledgment that we are in the transhuman period, already modifying human limitations in myriad ways for millennia, then there is no necessary normative content to the enhancement project. One can agree that we are now transhumans and be unhappy about it, wanting a return to a more natural existence. Those who call themselves “transhumanists” are generally however at least advocating for the desirability of technological innovations, so the baseline of transhumanism is a commitment to techno-optimism: human enhancement technologies will generally be for the better, and their risks and downsides regulable.

A normative commitment to techno-optimism does not entail any other necessary philosophical commitments however. While most transhumanists are committed to Enlightenment liberal individualism, one could be optimistic that human enhancement technologies will enable a more perfect Islamic, Communist or fascist state. The association of enhancement techno-optimism with beliefs that individuals should control their own bodies and brains is a historical contingency, not a necessary philosophical corollary. Even for those who do see corollary philosophical commitments to a particular social or political order implicit in “trans-humanism” there is no agreement about what the ideal society looks like. Some of the most heated disputes within transhumanism are between advocates for an anarcho-capitalist society versus “technoprogressives” who argue for social democratic regulation and universal provision of enhancement. While implicit social agendas may be seen in particular human enhancement technologies, such as expensive prenatal screening for blond hair and blue eyes, human enhancement more broadly can and will be incorporated into both liberal and authoritarian regimes, with both egalitarian and inegalitarian policies.

Global Drivers of Change

The political plasticity of enhancement technologies is important in considering the fundamental drivers of global change that will shape their adoption. I will consider two such global trends, global demographics and the global democratic recession.

The demographic context is the rapid graying of the world, as a result of increases in life expectancy and falling global fertility. As a result of these trends many countries are now or soon will be facing rising fiscal pressures on the welfare state, and calls to raise the retirement age and reduce pensions. This global baby dearth also puts pressure on low fertility countries to allow more migration, which exacerbates cultural tensions. The principal driver of low fertility is the industrial and post-industrial economy, which has encouraged female education and drawn women into the paid labor force. The more education and life choices women have the fewer children they issue.

Both reproductive technologies and longevity technologies will be part of addressing this global transition. Expanding access to reproductive technologies with subsidies and liberal policies, as has been done in Denmark for instance, can help buoy the fertility rate. In less liberal countries there will be restrictions on contraception and abortion, possibly alongside liberal access to fertility assistance and prenatal screening, as we have seen in China as it grapples with its crashing birth rate.

At the other end of life, to the extent that the demographic crisis impacts healthcare policy, the concern has been that longevity therapies will exacerbate the old-age dependency ratio. Although no one openly argues that seniors should die to reduce the burden on the young, curtailing pension income and healthcare investments will nonetheless have that effect. Once age-retarding therapies demonstrate that they can reduce the burden of senior disease and disability, securing a “Longevity Dividend” through longevity therapies will become a popular policy goal. Since declining fertility rates aren’t very responsive to pronatal social policies (more parental leave and free childcare for instance) or expanding access to fertility assistance, hopefully more attention will go towards keeping seniors healthy and able-bodied longer.

The other major determinant of the adoption of human enhancement technologies will be the ongoing global fight over the expansion of liberal democracy and liberal individual rights. One driver of the rise of authoritarianism in the last decade has been the destabilizing of patriarchy and heteronormativity from changing gender roles and the gradual technological erasure of the gender binary. This is why “gender ideology” and transgender rights are so central to authoritarian politics from the US to Russia to China. Restricting access to contraception and abortion fits both into addressing the demographic crisis, as well as slowing the cultural changes they helped enable. Increasing access to fertility assistance and prenatal selection could fit a reactionary patriarchal agenda, or might also be opposed as part of a general reassertion of a “natural” reproductive order. While the liberal regimes will impose regulatory control of enhancement technologies for safety and efficacy, they will generally leave decision-making in the hands of individuals.

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James J. Hughes PhD

James J. Hughes PhD

James J. Hughes is Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a research fellow at UMass Boston’s Center for Applied Ethics.