I received the latest issue of the essential journal The New Atlantis yesterday, and was honored once again to appear in its pages. The essay in question – entitled “The Science of Politics and the Conquest of Nature” – is extensively based upon a lecture I delivered as part of Peter Lawler and Marc Guerra’s “Stuck With Virtue” conference. My essay appears as one of a number of papers that were presented at that conference.
In the article, I argue that “transhumanists” make many political assumptions that their own scientific assumptions disallow. They argue that we can rely upon liberal democracy to avoid the threat of state-sponsored eugenics that was pursued during the first great wave of euphoria over the prospect of biological self-transformation. Their rejection of a “human nature” thus disallows them from the easy assumption that liberal democracy will persist.
I argue in my article that we can see a close connection between the assumptions about the science of man and the science of nature that informed, respectively, ancient and early-modern thought. In the case of the ancients, the natural world was an object for contemplation and understanding, while the human world – noteworthy for the fact of human liberty – required extensive consideration of how humans were to act given the fact of human freedom and the boundaries of nature (including human nature). Their conclusion was that humans required an extensive education in virtue, in order to understand their appropriate use (and the potential abuse) of their freedom.
The early-moderns instead begin by assuming that humans are, like the planets, predictable. Human motivation consists exclusively of desire (for pleasure) and fear (of pain). On that basis, a secure and predictable political system can be built – liberalism. The hard discipline of virtue (or self-limitation) is unnecessary; instead, a new scientific project is proposed, one that aims at the mastery of nature to the end of fulfilling desires and lessening harms. Science becomes the effort to conquer nature for the relief of the human estate.
Inasmuch as transhumanists hold not only that the natural world, but human nature itself, is subject to our mastery and transformation, then they would break the link between the fixed view of human nature and the liberal political project that follows upon it. Yet, they insist that we can continue to rely upon the persistence of liberal institutions and belief that will thwart the effort to pursue inegalitarian and potential cruel outcomes. I conclude the article by arguing that they grant themselves a set of political beliefs that their scientific approach does not necessarily permit them:
[The assurances of the liberal-minded transhumanists sound] well and good — but on what basis can it be assumed that liberal political institutions will remain relevant or applicable to a creature that we do not yet know we will become? What sense can we make of appeals to our “democratic traditions” when those traditions rest on a fundamentally different set of anthropological assumptions? Liberal forms and institutions are the consequence of a particular scientific and political understanding, one that would be fundamentally altered by a neo-Darwinian transformation. Unlike the ancient or modern views I’ve described, this new understanding aims at the fundamental alteration of humanity itself. How can it be predicted or assumed in advance that political institutions and practices derived from a pre-transhumanist scientific and political understanding will continue to apply or be regarded as relevant? Is it not just as likely that our future selves will come to regard the liberal regime as even more of an antiquated curiosity than we now regard the city-state? For all of the futurism of the neo-Darwinians, when it comes to their political assumptions, they reveal themselves to be utter nostalgists, clinging to a provincial form of belief that is utterly unjustified and unwarranted by their own scientific assumptions.
Neo-Darwinians often resort to explaining our social condition as the result of a long process of social evolution, which gave us the capacity to cooperate with strangers and eventually to establish institutions and behaviors that permit increasingly global forms of governance. Thus, Simon Young argues, “diversity and cooperation have evolved because they increase our ability to survive.” The confidence of various transhumanists in the ability of liberal institutions to resist any authoritarian or inegalitarian outcomes arising from an enhancement regime seems to derive from a belief in the continuation of this evolutionary trend. But if humans are now going to actively alter our very composition, to what extent can we have confidence that the institutions and processes that have developed by a very different evolutionary track, for very different creatures, will not be regarded as fundamentally disposable? Again, the assumptions about a liberal future seem to be more a matter of faith than science.
Finally, further and deeper reflection on the sedimentation of our various political traditions ought to give pause. The most thoughtful liberals — perhaps above all, Tocqueville — recognized that liberalism contained an internal logic that threatened its own self-destruction. The anthropological individualism at the heart of its theory could be given institutional credence so long as those assumptions did not colonize every aspect of human life. Liberalism rested fundamentally on pre-modern and pre-liberal institutions and practices, ranging from family to community, from church to civil society. In spite of the official rejection of the pre-modern tradition, liberalism assumed and benefited from a kind of “unofficial” continuity of the pre-modern, Aristotelian-inflected inheritance. Thus, Tocqueville observed, though Americans justified their actions in terms of self-interest, they continued to act altruistically. He wrote that “they would rather do honor to their philosophy than to themselves.”
The proposed new scientific settlement would introduce an even thinner human anthropology. In this view, humanity is reduced largely to physical bodies that seek life and health. Families, where they make an appearance, are generally composed of parents who seek to enhance their children. Society is envisioned as composed of near-immortal autonomous individuals who pursue their own ends, forever.
Ironically enough, transhumanism gains a great deal of its persuasive and intuitive force from its reliance upon our widespread experience of self-sacrificial parental love. We are asked, who would not want to prevent a child from being born with a terrible disease? And what parents don’t want to give their children every advantage in life, whether SAT preparation, or, if it comes to it, genetic enhancement?
Yet the motivation of transhumanism is finally selfish: each of us wants, or should want, to live forever in a condition of perfect health and expanded faculties. What then becomes of the relationship between the generations? In a world of limited resources, space, and opportunity, would not the next generation now be experienced as a threat? Would not every inclination cry out against reproduction? Would not our experience of humanity as generational creatures, bound ceaselessly in relationship to the past and to the future, cease to be a fact of our existence?