a ‘livingskin’ prosthetic hand made by Touch Bionics. Photo courtesy Touch Bionics

I encourage you all to read this really thoughtful essay by Steven Poole on the increasing varieties of “human enhancement.” Two points strike me as being particularly important.

The first is the disturbing extent to which proponents of what they believe to be human enhancement despise embodied life:

As the inventor Ray Kurzweil (who popularised the idea of the singularity) put it, there is no reason to fear the arrival of malign super-intelligent machines, because: ‘It will not be a matter of us versus them. We will become the machines.’

For some, perhaps, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But it also reveals the essentially religious nature of much singularity-style techno-futurism: such visions constitute an eschatology in which human beings finally sublime into the cybersphere. It is the silicon Rapture — and this reminds us that ‘to enhance’ once meant literally ‘to raise up’. This desire to become machinic implicitly betrays a hatred of the flesh as severe as that of self-flagellating religious ascetics. For the devout of singularity theory, the perfection of humanity is synonymous with its destruction.

It is a whole vision of perfected humanity based on the belief that the organic is intrinsically inferior to the inorganic.

The second key point is this:

Some thinkers argue that there is actually a moral obligation on us to enhance ourselves by any means necessary. For example, Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, argues in the Superhuman catalogue that we are ethically obliged to pursue research into ‘moral enhancement’ drugs. ‘The threat to our survival,’ he writes, comes mainly ‘from the choices that we make through religious fundamentalism or excessive consumption of our resources and our climate, through our failure to bring about global equality and global justice.’ Therefore we are obliged to make ourselves nicer. ‘Unless you believe that evolution provided just the perfect number of psychopaths in our community and just the right level of selfishness within different individuals, you should believe that we should change that natural distribution for the better and use science to do that.’

This sounds splendid, until one wonders how we are all to agree on what exactly the morally ideal kind of mind is before we impose it neurochemically on others, assuming that ever becomes possible. Savulescu accepts that there will be ‘those who are sceptical about making humans morally better’, but argues that ‘at the very least we should try to reduce the distorting influences and also the natural inequality in moral capacities that already exists’.

People only ever make the kind of argument that Savulescu makes here when they believe that they, or people just like them, will be the ones making decisions about what counts as “enhancement.” Savulescu assumes without question that “we” know what is best and “we” will always be in charge. Oh Orwell, Huxley, and Burgess — you wrote in vain.