If, through biotechnology, we could drastically enhance ourselves—such that our ability to absorb and manipulate information was unlimited, we experienced no disquiet, and we did not age—would we? Should we? For advocates of radical enhancement, or “transhumanism,” answering “yes” is a no-brainer. Accordingly, they press for the development of technologies that, by manipulating genes and the brain, would create beings fundamentally superior to us.
Transhumanism is far from a household term, but, whether or not they use the word publicly, its adherents are in places of power, especially in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, is devoted to boosting “cognition” and co-founded the company Neuralink toward that end. Having raised more than $200 million in new funding in 2021, in January, Neuralink proclaimed its readiness to start human trials of brain-implantable computer chips for therapeutic purposes, to help those with spinal-cord injuries walk again. But Musk’s ultimate target in exploring brain-computer connections is “superhuman,” or “radically enhanced,” cognition—a top transhumanist priority. Those with radically heightened cognitive ability would be so advanced that they wouldn’t even really be human anymore but, instead, “posthuman.”
In transhumanist fantasy, posthumans could, philosopher Nick Bostrom assures us, “read, with perfect recollection and understanding, every book in the Library of Congress.” Similarly, according to futurist and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil—who has worked at Google since 2012—they would rapidly absorb the entire contents of the World Wide Web. Pleasure would be pervasive and boundless: Posthumans will “sprinkle it in [their] tea.” On the flip side, suffering wouldn’t exist, as posthumans would have “Godlike” control of their moods and emotions. Of course, posthuman bliss would not be supreme absent immortality. This last facet, the quest to conquer aging, already garners substantial backing from Silicon Valley. In 2013, Larry Page, Google’s co-founder—and CEO of its parent company, Alphabet, until December 2019—announced the launch of Calico Labs, whose mission is to understand aging and subvert it. A growing list of startups and investors, dedicated to the “reprogramming” of human biology with the defeat of aging in view, has entered the mix. This list now includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who, in January, contributed to the $3 billion that launched Altos Labs.
Today, transhumanism’s name recognition has spread beyond Silicon Valley and academia. In 2019, an opinion piece in the Washington Post stated that “the transhumanism movement is making progress.” And a 2020 essay in the Wall Street Journal suggested that, by making “our biological fragility more obvious than ever,” COVID-19 may be “just the kind of crisis needed to turbocharge efforts” to achieve transhumanists’ goal of immortality.
You’re probably already familiar with certain enhancements—like athletes using steroids to gain a competitive advantage, or individuals using ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall off label in search of a cognitive boost. But a chasm separates such enhancements from transhumanism, whose devotees would have us engineer a species-level upgrade of humanity into posthumanity. And key to all of transhumanism’s planned advancements, mental and physical, is a specific understanding of “information” and its causal dominance in relation to features that advocates prize. This focus on information is also transhumanism’s fatal flaw.
Arguably, transhumanism’s closest antecedent is Anglo-American eugenics, inaugurated by Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883. Among the many substantive parallels between transhumanism and Anglo-American eugenics are an insistence that science set humanity’s guiding aspirations and that human intelligence and moral attitudes (such as altruism and self-control) require major, biological augmentation. The term transhumanism was first used by a British eugenicist, Julian Huxley (also the brother of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World). Transhumanism as we know it, however, is a marriage of sorts between substantive commitments shared with Anglo-American eugenics and the notion that living things and machines are basically alike—the latter stemming from developments in computing and information theory during and after World War II.
Here, the key idea is that animate entities and machines are, in essence, information, their operations fundamentally the same. From this perspective, brains are computational devices, genetic causality works through “programs,” and the informational patterns constituting us are, in principle, translatable to the digital realm. This informational lens is the crux of transhumanism—its scientific convictions and confidence in prospects for humanity’s technological self-transcendence into posthumanity.
Some of transhumanism’s greatest promises rest on the assumption that genes, as information, drive and dominate people’s standing in relation to complex phenotypic traits, such as intelligence, self-control, kindness, and empathy: in other words, that they “code for” these features. Thus construed—transhumanists assure us—these traits are manipulable. The roots of these ideas go back more than 50 years. For instance, in The Logic of Life (1970), François Jacob announced that, “with the accumulation of knowledge, man has become the first product of evolution capable of controlling evolution.” Jacob’s expectation of boosts to complex mental features, once we pinpoint “the genetic factors involved”—in other words, attain due familiarity with the informational “mechanisms” playing key roles in their causation—is palpable in transhumanism. Today, however, the perspective represented by Jacob is increasingly rejected by scientists, philosophers of science, and historians.
That genes influence human features is not in question. Where transhumanists err is in the disproportionate role assigned to genes in creating their favored traits. In contrast to clear-cut physical features, such as eye color, the relationship of genetic “information” to characteristics such as intelligence and kindness is nuanced and indirect. Today, developmental systems theory supersedes the dominant, unidirectional causality previously lodged with genes. From this vantage point, development spans a range of levels and a wealth of factors, biological and nonbiological, that interact in complex ways. Crucially, as philosopher of science Susan Oyama observes, none of these factors—genes included—“is privileged a priori as the bearer of fundamental form or as the origin of ultimate causal control”; rather, “everything [the] organism does and is rises out of this interactive complex, even as it affects that very complex.”
Transhumanists’ understanding of the brain is similarly flawed. Their presumption that particular mental capacities are tethered to specific areas of the brain—and could, therefore, be targeted for manipulation—is increasingly outdated. Indeed, a monumental shift in the focus of neuroscientific research, from discrete areas with dedicated functions to complex functional networks, is well underway. As is now well documented, mental tasks such as attention, memory, and creativity engage numerous areas of the brain; individual regions are pluripotent, meaning that they have multiple roles; and various areas function as “hubs.” To give but one example, as neuroscientist Luiz Pessoa observes, the amygdala, long deemed a strictly emotional area—tied to the processing of fear-related information in particular—“is increasingly recognized as playing important roles in cognitive, emotional, and social processes.”
Transhumanists’ outdated conceptualization of the brain also drives their claim that elevating quantities of individual hormones and neurotransmitters makes us better thinkers and more moral. Though trivial for them in its own right, transhumanists see off-label usage of psychostimulants by those seeking cognitive boosts as practical proof of concept for more dramatic cognitive enhancement. Yet substantial research on task performance when subjects are given psychostimulants reveals cognitive trade-offs between memory and attention, and attention and flexibility. This research also documents what are called “baseline-dependent effects” on tasks including memory and creativity: While the performance of those with lower baselines has been shown to improve, that of subjects with higher baselines deteriorates.
For transhumanists, devoted as they are to capacities’ maximization, this finding for those with higher baselines should be concerning. Devastatingly for them, the likely explanation of this deterioration is a built-in feature of the brain: the operation of a “U-shaped curve,” whereby elevating quantities of dopamine, which psychostimulants do, eventually overtaxes subjects’ systems, worsening performance. This curve operates, as well, for oxytocin and serotonin, which transhumanists tout as “moral enhancers.” More generally, their understandings of oxytocin and serotonin are greatly oversimplified; for example, scientists increasingly view oxytocin not as fostering prosociality per se, but as “increasing the salience of social cues”—prosocial and antisocial alike.
The scientific failures of transhumanism, in relation to genes and the brain, are striking and interconnected. For transhumanists’ failed proofs of concept in both arenas have a single source: their conviction that across the board—whether one’s domain of inquiry is computing, genes, or the brain—units of “information” comprise what’s real. Thus, when transhumanists speak of “cognitive enhancement,” they define “cognition” in terms of facility in the absorption and deployment of information—the capacity for which is presumed to operate, and thus be improvable, in a self-contained, or “modular,” way. It is this very notion that the above findings for psychostimulants belie. Similarly, transhumanists’ conviction of genes’ dominance and manipulability in relation to intelligence, kindness, and the like stems from their position that genes transmit the compartmentalized information that is these traits’ governing cause.
Far from embodying a timeless truth, the view that computers and living things are fundamentally alike—being, in essence, entities that transmit and process information—is a historical and cultural product of World War II and its aftermath. Transhumanists’ supposedly cutting-edge view of genes reflects early molecular biology, which was quickly appropriated and applied to living things concepts derived from computing, information theory, cryptology, and cybernetics. Biology was coronated an information science—a designation spurring conviction that, through informational manipulation, human biology could be upgraded. Molecular biologists’ embrace of the informational picture as literally correct was fostered by their reliance on metaphors—such as “program,” “magnetic tape,” “code,” and “decipherment”—whose metaphorical nature was stripped away. Transhumanists treat this increasingly outdated vantage point as patently correct. The same applies to their notion that “information” will be fully translatable, for their purposes, across the living-nonliving divide, which is traceable, historically, to a view expressed by Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics, in 1950: “The fact that we cannot telegraph the pattern of a man from one place to another” represents a “technical” challenge, not “any impossibility of the idea.” Channeling this perspective, transhumanists embrace projects such as “whole brain emulation,” which, as described by Peter Eckersley and Anders Sandberg, would involve “taking an individual human’s brain, scanning its entire neural … structure into a computer, and running an algorithm to emulate that brain’s behavior.”
For those committed to human flourishing, absorbing that transhumanism is a scientific nonstarter would be a major boon. But a singular focus on information is not limited to this arena. It increasingly pervades our day-to-day existences, in terms of how we proceed in our professional and social lives, as well as when others decide what counts about us (or even who we “are”), often without our awareness. Prospects for societal improvement depend, in part, on our becoming more conscious of this informational frame, especially where it is a mismatch with the nonlinear and richly contextual nature of what matters most to us as human beings.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.