View Full Version : A transhumanist who wrestles with the ethics of technologically enhanced human beings

05-11-2006, 04:39 AM
The World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1998 by the philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce. It describes itself as "an international nonprofit membership organisation which advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities." Its proclaimed goal is that people should be "better than well", and that human development, in evolutionary terms, has not reached anything like an endpoint: all kinds of emerging technologies - neuropharmacology, artificial intelligence and cybernetics, and nanotechnologies - have the potential, it says, to enhance human abilities. In effect, it is interested in self-improvement and human perfectibility through the ethical application of science.
In a world suffused with gloom, is the WTA project not wildly utopian, I ask Dr Bostrom, who is the association's principal spokesperson and teaches at Oxford University.

"That might be true for some transhumanists," he replies. "I personally don't think of myself as either an optimist or a pessimist. I believe that if you look at the best-case scenarios, the upside is enormous. But there are clearly major risks that humanity will have to confront in this century. I can see a downside scenario as well, reaching down as far as the level of total human extinction. The possibilities range from the wonderful to the horrible. If I had to pull a number out of a hat, I'd say a 20% probability of extinction. Non-trivial."

How is transhumanism different from discredited notions of "creative evolution" - the idea that mankind, as a species, was evolving ever higher up the ladder, passing on its acquired traits to succeeding generations?

"Creative evolution, as propounded by Lamarck, was discredited by Darwin. Traits acquired during one's lifetime - muscles built up in the gym, for example - cannot be passed on to the next generation. Now with technology, as it happens, we might indeed be able to transfer some of our acquired traits on to our selected offspring by genetic engineering."

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