23 January 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 641
Humanity 2.0: What It Means to be Human Past, Present and Future
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN-10: 0230233430, ISBN-13: 978-0230233430
Buy this book from Amazon UK
What does it mean to be human in an increasingly technology-driven world? This is the question that Steve Fuller, a philosopher turned sociology professor, discusses in his latest book, Humanity 2.0.
I found this to be a difficult book to read, even as a scientist some of Professor Fuller's arguments went over my head, and I often felt he was trying to sell his own ideas, rather than discuss the future of humanity. Nevertheless, he did cover a number of the theological, sociological and biological concepts that have given rise to the changing nature of humanity.
He argues that we are moving away from 'humanity 1.0', which he described during a recent teleconference as a 'taken for granted normative starting point of what it is to be a human being', towards an alternative humanity: transhuman existence. This is based more on the technological than the biological. Scientific advances are enabling what once was purely science-fiction to become reality (take cybernetic limbs for example). We are spending increasingly more time interacting with computers than directly with other humans. How then will our ethics and laws alter to cope with these kinds of changes, and what impact will it have on our humanity?
Professor Fuller takes us on a historical journey discussing what it means to be human, and how what we believe makes us uniquely human will shape our futures. Theories in biological science, such as evolution, have challenged the way we see the world - moving from an intelligent design view of our existence to one in which we are shaped by the world around us.
At least in Professor Fuller's opinion, this is a bad thing: 'I believe that Darwinism poses a much greater threat than Christianity or Islam to the future of humanity as a normatively salient category…'
What then defines the boundaries that make us human? Race and religion? Or the distance between us and other animals, such as our superior intelligence and rationality? Professor Fuller says that the way we view our humanity will ultimately shape our humanity 2.0 existence.
In one 'transhuman' existence he sees us trying to preserve our consciousness by uploading it on to microchips or abandoning our carbon based bodies entirely for more durable silicon ones. This future would come with a need to change the way we define what is human and the way we regard society, as we blur the boundaries between what we regard as life and death.
Although this all sounds very science-fiction, performance enhancing drugs such as Ritalin are abused and elite athletes are always looking for new ways to enhance their abilities. Perhaps it is not too difficult to imagine that if the technology became available it would become desirable to enhance humanity - to live longer, with better memory or more durable limbs. Would the human race embrace these changes and would there be a divide between these enhanced transhumans and the original unmodified versions?
The second future that Professor Fuller proposes is one in which our value system becomes more in sync with that of animals. In this case, our morals shift so that instead of valuing human life over any other form of life, we value all life equally. Think of an eco-harmonic existence where we become one with nature.
Professor Fuller discusses how we are already enhancing the human condition and how this is being reflected in science policy, as the Converging Technologies Agenda – where all scientific fields are working together to bring about various innovations to improve quality of life. This would relieve the stress on the welfare state by allowing humans to live healthier, longer lives, and ultimately retire later. The importance of this is reflected in the amount of funding that biomedical science receives compared to the other scientific fields.
The final part of the book concerns our altered humanity 2.0 outlook on life and science. Professor Fuller argues that neo-Darwinism is holding us back from making scientific advances. Instead we need to try and understand the universe from the intelligent design view-point, rather than an evolutionary one. When we think about the world in this way he believes we will make the scientific advances necessary for humanity 2.0.
He also says that in order to progress we need to change our theology to understand evil and 'suffer smart' in the 21st century. This means that although we can't avoid suffering, we should try and cause pain to the smallest number of people as possible. He adds that our moral viewpoints on what counts as suffering will change as we become increasingly transhuman.
While the book itself makes for challenging reading, it does discuss a number of different topics surrounding our progression to transhuman, and leads you to draw your own conclusions about what humanity 2.0 actually is.
As someone with only a basic understanding of sociology (I studied it at A-level, which is now a number of years ago) there is quite a lot of ground to cover to make sense of the arguments that Professor Fuller presents. He ultimately argues for intelligent design, saying that because we have the ability to enhance ourselves and control evolution we can distance ourselves even more from all other animals and move closer to God. He continues that, because we can understand the world around us, there must have been a creator of it. It feels like a big purpose of this book is to convince the reader of intelligent design rather than just discuss the possibility of transhumanism.
In addition to reading this book, I listened to a recent teleconference given by Professor Fuller. Most of the conference was spent discussing humanity 1.0 versus humanity 2.0 and how our values will change in a 2.0 existence. One particularly intriguing question was whether individuals or communities would have to change in order to become humanity 2.0. Professor Fuller suggested that the distinction between what is the two will break down, especially in a cyber future.
For me, although I can imagine a number of medical and technological advancements improving the quality of human life in the not too distant future, a cyborg-style silicon based existence still feels very much science-fiction for now.
Buy Humanity 2.0: What It Means to be Human Past, Present and Future from Amazon UK.