Reprinted from the June/July 2004 issue of Free Inquiry magazine.

Suppose you were offered a photographic memory, perfect pitch, ultraviolet-spectrum vision, heightened disease resistance, customized skin and eye color, and a one-thousand-year life-expectancy. Would you accept? Now suppose you were told that by doing so you would cease to be human. Would this make you less willing to accept? If you're like me, you'll answer "Yes" to the first question and "No" to the second. I could stand the improvements, and if they make me more than "human," so what? If you answer "Yes" to the first question but say that leaving humanness behind would actually make you more willing to accept, you may be a "transhumanist," the new breed of perfectionists who aim at collective self-improvement through direct modification of "human nature."According to Nick Bostrom, a young philosopher at Oxford and a leading transhumanist: "Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become post-human, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.1Whereas humanists for centuries have settled for trying to perfect humanity, transhumanists want to transcend it
. "Transhumanism has roots in secular humanist thinking, yet is more radical in that it promotes not only traditional means of improving human nature, such as education and cultural refinement, but also direct application of medicine and technology to overcome some of our basic biological limits."Every day, real scientific breakthroughs suggest that transhumanist hopes are no longer merely the stuff of William Gibson's science-fiction novel "Neuromancer." Life spans of laboratory mice have been doubled; transgenic animals are commonplace; jellyfish genes have been inserted into the hair follicles of mice to make them glow; a network of snail brain cells has been connected to a silicon chip, perhaps speeding the day when microchip implants can control artificial limbs, restore sight, and revive memory. Highly prominent cultural commentators like bioethicist Leon Kass, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and even Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy have begun calling for caution, or even preemptive prohibition of human "germ-line" genetic engineering (transhumanists label such attitudes "bioconservatism"). An increasingly public debate over our "posthuman future" has ensued. Unfortunately, it has often lacked the clarity of computer-mediated vision.One obstacle to discussion is that transhumanism is not just a philosophy; it is also a grassroots movement. The movement, which has gathered force in the last ten years and coalesced around organizations like the Extropy Institute, the online magazine BetterHumans, and the World Transhumanist Association, is a motley crew of serious academics, journalists, and scientists, cyber self-help gurus, nanotech venture capitalists, polyamorists and gender-benders, cryonics freaks, and artificial intelligence geeks.
Like other iconoclastic movements, organized transhumanism attracts its share of sheer goofiness. The co-founder of Extropy Institute, a Southern California body-builder and Ayn Randian named Max, had his last name changed from O'Conner to More, because "I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier." The co-mingling of serious theory and policy consideration with a grab bag of techno-utopian projects makes for easy targets for the biocons, diverting the debate from core substantive issues.Additionally, the prominence of organized transhumanism in the debate reinforces the illusion of an all-or-nothing choice between the bio-Luddites and the Borg. Grand Zarathustran dreams of becoming posthuman may leave you cold, though you might nonetheless favor some of the specific developments being proposed. You might be for life extension and gene therapy while being indifferent to whether nanotechnology will ever materialize and opposed to colonizing Mars. Unfortunately, this moderate, piecemeal approach is seldom represented by the ideological camps now squaring off.Our Genes, Our Selves?

What would it mean to become posthuman? That depends on what "being human" amounts to. There is what might be called a moral sense of humanity defined by conventional values, somewhat of the kind Captain Kirk tried repeatedly to explain to Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek. There is also a vaguely biological notion of humanity, and it is this notion that has gotten the most ink.

Biocons have made the permissibility of direct intervention in the germ line a touchstone issue, and many transhumanists have followed them in framing the debate in these terms.It is bad philosophy to identify the human essence with the human genome in its present state. To do so is to buy into the antiquated notion that a creature's nature is immutable or unchanging. This intellectual vestige of the eternal, Platonic "species essence" was undermined by Darwinian biology and its insistence on the primacy of change and mutation. Incrementally changing the genome is a way of changing the species, not creating a new one.