Perspective: A future for me and not for thee — the hubris of transhumanism
Some researchers in longevity science are trying to bypass the biological limits of the human body with no regard for the soul
If you had enough money to buy everything, would there be anything you couldn’t buy? For the ultrawealthy of America, the answer is increasingly no.
Billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel all seem convinced, if you follow the money, that you can even buy eternal life — or rather, a never-ending mortal existence.. They are reportedly investing in startups that are trying to slow or stop aging and disease. And their money is starting to produce results.
Time recently ran an article detailing the outcome of a 13-year study in the field of what is called “aging/longevity science” by Australian biologist David Sinclair, a professor at Harvard University.
Sinclair is among the authors of the study, published earlier this month in the journal Cell, which examined a treatment that both reversed and accelerated aging in mice.
The breakthrough came in our understanding of the epigenetic instructions within cells, or the codes our cells use to make “skin cells turn into skin cells, and brain cells into brain cells” from the same DNA. (Read more about this here and here).
Researchers believe that animal cells, and eventually human cells, can be “rebooted” through these codes, as if they were little machines, in order to accelerate or decelerate aging.
While this discovery is, on the surface, positive, it ultimately leads us closer to what is called transhumanism — the blending of the human body with technology. And in such a world, the “solutions” to our problems become the problems themselves.
Transhumanism aims to march past the current biological limits of humanity through technological and medicinal advances. In transhumanism, death is not an inevitable part of existence, but a condition to be treated, or even engineered out of our “systems.”
An example of these technologies is Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which builds technologies to synchronize our brains with computers. Cryonics are another pseudo-technology in which anyone with enough money can freeze their body (yes, just like Han Solo) in hopes that the future will have the technology to resurrect them. (Peter Thiel reportedly plans to do so upon his death, just in case he dies.) Some people freeze their whole bodies; others, just their brains.
In a recent podcast with Lex Fridman, billionaire polymath Balaji Srinivasan explains a theoretical technology he calls “genetic reincarnation” in which you could theoretically synthesize your DNA or genome sequence and “print someone out from disc.” He says, “It’s like a clone, but it is you in a different time” — once your genome is reprinted into a hypothetical new body, you could see videos of yourself and formulate memories based on records from your “previous” life.
Thus, according to Srinivasan, you become “reincarnated” in a new body with the same DNA, and with old memories downloaded to your new body.
Of course, amid these discussions, the most important questions, the metaphysical ones, are often ignored.
As Srinivasan discusses longevity and genetic reincarnation with Fridman, he brings up Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
The book is about a beautiful young man so obsessed with looks and hedonism that he sells his soul so that his portrait might age while he lives on forever in his youth. Srinvasan uses this story as a metaphor for what he calls our limited understanding of what “might be.” We don’t have to age like the picture of Dorian, he says; we don’t have to build wings like Icarus which melt as they approach the sun — we fly commercially every day.
What Srinivasan gets wrong, however, is that the decomposition of the picture does not reflect Dorian’s age, but the deterioration of his soul. His body lives on in youth while his soul languishes in dark ugliness on the canvas. This is the essential problem of transhumanism — the longevity of the body comes at the expense of the soul. Conveniently, the soul is a concept that transhumanists increasingly reject.
Transhumanism is a philosophy that looks for a future for me, but not for thee. The philosopher Roger Scruton calls this the ultimate act of cowardice, saying that it exhibits “a monstrous selfishness in refusing to relinquish the planet to their successors, and choosing instead to burden the earth with their unappealing presence for all time.”
Interestingly, Musk doesn’t believe in the purchase of eternal mortality. “I don’t think we should try to have people live for a really long time,” he has said. “It would cause asphyxiation of society because the truth is, most people don’t change their mind. They just die. So if they don’t die, we will be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn’t advance.”
There are, of course, old ideas that have have been proven to be of great worth: for example, eating proper foods and caring for the body as a means living to the natural end of one’s lifespan. But we cannot buy eternal life, and we should never want to buy eternal mortality. Let us not forget the end of Dorian Gray.
As his sins begin to mount, he seeks to destroy the painting that reveal them. He takes a knife and cuts through the heart of the canvas. The next day, his friends and family find a decrepit and unrecognizably old man stabbed through the heart under the painting of Dorian in his youth, fresh as the day it was painted.
Scott Raines (@scotthraines on Twitter) is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas.