Transhuman Utopias and De-Extinction

Transhuman Utopias and De-Extinction October 4, 2019

by Celia Deane-Drummond

Delving into the deep past in order to help understand the present implies that there are, to a degree at least, anthropological constants about what makes us human. Evolutionary anthropology is helpful as it brings insights into how and in what circumstances humanity’s fascination with tool use emerged. Newer evolutionary theories such as the extended evolutionary synthesis theory recovers the importance of agency in evolutionary philosophy. Instead of understanding creatures as just being subject to the random walk of Darwinian natural selection, an agent makes choices about where to live, who to associate with etc. that enables that individual to be acted upon by different evolutionarily significant environments. To put it bluntly:  Homo sapiens moving out of Africa into cold or extreme climates evolved in a different way compared with staying put.

This raises of course, the question of whether such decisions of ‘free will’ are genuinely free or not. What does that question really mean? Mary Midgley suggests in her final book, What is Philosophy For? (2018) that the question of trying to explain free will is one of those questions that cannot really be answered in a satisfactory way. The ‘constant puzzling about free will’ may come down to the extent to which we prefer a left-brain stance, which prefers determinism, or not. Imagining Einstein’s discoveries just as an inevitable performance by his brain cells doesn’t make much sense. [1] There is a possibility, at least, that there are some questions like free will which our minds simply cannot resolve.[2] Midgley rejects this in favour of arguing that it is part of a much bigger problem of trying to extend the category of a narrowly conceived concept of science into other territories.

It would be naïve to think that the development of tools in pre-history was morally benign, and it is only in our present era that destructive tendencies have become unleashed, unfettered from the small communities in which those tools served to enable social bonding and perhaps the development of language. Over time tools became used for violence and organized warfare against other conspecifics and not just basic needs such as foraging and construction. Organised deliberated warfare is a distinctive aspect of human societies.[3]

Positive emotions such as wonder can lead to innovation and creativity, features which are integral to the transhuman enterprise. At the same time there are limits to that wonder, and working out when and in what circumstances wonder in technology is moving beyond its proper scientific and cultural limits is, I suggest, a task that is particularly relevant for the theological ethicist, since wonder implies a theological sense of awe, that is, of intimations of the transcendent.

I will use the example of recent attempts at de-extinction, which is one of the family of cultural practices which I suggest have been heavily influenced by transhumanist philosophies. This drive to repair the loss of species arising from human habitation of the planet is an interesting case study in transhumanism, as it reflects similar attitudes of asserting human supremacy and power over what seem to be inevitable biological processes of change. Such changes are often indirectly or directly triggered by human activities, such as through habitat loss, adding to the moral compulsion to address the problems. Early genetic engineers believed that they could ‘beat evolution.’ When applied to human societies this led to eugenic strategies to purge the human race of its so-called defects. De-extinction goes a step further, it is about what some of its advocates call a ‘Lazarus’ ideal: to bring back to life what is known to be dead.

The implicit theological features of such desire are rather too obvious to mention. Are high profile cases of trying to re-generate woolly mammoths genuine attempts to repair ecological damage, public stunts to raise awareness and funding for science, or something rather more sinister? Lisa Sideris has criticised the drive for wonder in de-extinction projects, believing that it serves to separate science from religion, rather than bringing them together.[4] The specific examples she uses do allow for that conclusion to be valid, and certainly a shrill form of wonder seems to be the emotion most often expressed. Here are a few citations from prominent de-extinction advocates:

“we’re not passive, we’re not helpless. We’re earth-movers … our mistakes are legion but our imagination is immeasurable.” “We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers.” [5]

“The last benefit [of de-extinction] might be called “wonder,” or more colloquially, ‘coolness.’ This may be the biggest attraction, and possibly the biggest benefit, of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living woolly mammoth. And while this is rarely viewed as a substantial benefit, much of what we do as individuals—even many aspects of science—we do because it’s cool.” [6]

However, I am far less convinced that wonder as used in this context is really wonder at all. It seems to me to be far more like the curiositas that Augustine warned against as a vice. It is also worth noting that all the books and articles Sideris cites are from popular science works. Perhaps such rhetorical writing allows motivations to come to the surface more readily, but it is not necessarily aligned with scientific research. A similar problem is inherent in transhumanism in general: it is grounded in science fiction, but the point is that it pushes actual, serious scientific research in that direction. For example, Sideris allows for some use of de-extinction where it could genuinely be used to protect coral reefs. So, “Technologies available to de-extinctionists should be used, if at all, only in the service of halting extinction of endangered species.”[7]

I suspect that the majority of scientists would support that, but how might that be related to the showier attempts at mammoth resurrection? Wonder is a complex emotion that has meant different things through history, aligning more with religious awe in the early period, and only becoming associated with curiosity subsequently.[8] Although Augustine’s hostile reaction to curiositas might seem to suppress scientific creativity, the point about curiositas as a vice is that it is directed towards a celebration of the powers of the self, rather than God.

The risk of curiositas is particularly prevalent when thinking about how to solve what seem intractable problems, such as climate change and ecological destruction. Insofar as transhumanist ideas creep into such debates they appear to be somewhat at odds ethically with another strong movement towards human life extension, as the two goals of ecological flourishing and extended human lives clash, at least from a practical point of view.  I suggest what binds all of these together is a drive towards a self-interested curiositas in the interests of what, at least in isolation, look on the surface like good human desires. While not everyone would welcome the thought of living for a few hundred years, many do, and often this is based on a fear of death. Extinction is somehow symbolic of that fear of death, so de-extinction then becomes less about saving the planet, and more about trying to prove the power of human ingenuity in the face of death.

Curiositas can also creep into the use of what are, from a scientific perspective, positive developments, such as the movement towards extended evolutionary synthesis. Just as Darwinian theories in the form of social Darwinism has proved to have moral implications when used for eugenic purposes, so the extended evolutionary synthesis theory, when saddled with eco-modernism aspirations, becomes for proponents the means through which intractable environmental problems are solved. The so called ‘Anthropocene’ is resolved not by less human agency, but by more. Such arguments are, of course, hubristic.

Are all these tendencies a way of trying to avoid death, as John Behr and many other participants in this seminar have helpfully suggested?. If so, then Christology has rather more to offer than we might think, at least from the perspective of the Christian community. In depth reflection on the power of Christ to overcome death and the solidarity of the Christian in and through death satisfy the desire to avoid death at its roots and so take away the constant striving after death denying forms of curiositas. However, there is a caveat. I suggest that Behr’s strategy could work well in the context of Christian communities, but it is harder to imagine such an approach being convincing in the public square. None the less, in the context of de-extinction even this idea of not avoiding death has come to the surface through Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose’s notion of “keeping faith with the dead.”[9]

My final point, which I cannot possibly develop, relates to aspirations towards moral improvement through transhumanism.[10] Arguments that we are basically too selfish and self-interested to make the kind of sacrifices required in a post-carbon age has encouraged some transhumanists to look for technological solutions to the difficulties of engendering mass moral movements. I find such arguments fall short, not least because they have failed to understand the basis and the development of moral agency. A quick fix solution to complex vices is both unlikely from the perspective of evolutionary science and threatening to the prospect of protecting human freedom. So, we are back to the notion of free will again, but now in the name of a scientifically engineered reduction of that freedom for the sake of the common good.

[1] Midgley, What is Philosophy For? (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 27-30.

[2] Midgley, What is Philosophy For? p. 33.

[3] Though some research suggests that structured violence is possible in wolf communities as well.

[4] Lisa Sideris, Consecrating Science (San Francisco: University of California Press, 2017) and lecture delivered to Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing, May 17th, 2019.

[5] Diane Ackerman, The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (London: Headline, 2015), p. 308.

[6] In the new volume Resurrecting Extinct Species: Ethics and Authenticity (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature, 2017), editors Douglas Ian Campbell and Patrick Michael Whittle devote space to and serious engagement with what they call the “argument from coolness” (98).

[7] Lisa Sideris, ‘De-Extinction Technologies as Theological Anthropology: The Uses and Misuses of Wonder’, CTSHF special lecture, University of Notre Dame, May 15th 2019.

[8] See Celia Deane-Drummond, Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Science, Spirituality and Theology (London: DLT, 2006).

[9] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Keeping Faith with the Dead: Mourning and De-extinction’, Australian Zoologist, 38, no. 3  (2017), pp. 375-378

[10] See Celia Deane-Drummond, ‘The Myth of Moral Bio-Enhancement: An Evolutionary Anthropology and Theological Critique’. In Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values, and Morality, edited by Tracey Trothen and Calvin Mercer, 175-190.  Berlin: Springer/Palgrave Macmillan, 2018


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