Is the Transhumanist Pursuit of Immortality Coercive?

I debated the excellent libertarian author Ronald Bailey over this question at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.  Ron has already responded to me here.  Before I respond to him, I thought I'd give you a better idea of what I actually said by sharing my talking points with you.  Excuse, please, all the shortcomings of talking points:


  • Here's what the debate is about:  THE FUTURE OF HUMAN LIBERTY.
  • Here's Mr. Bailey's position:  Our pursuit of personal immortality through biotechnological eugenics—through the enhancement and eventually the transformation of our natural beings—is nothing but a new, unprecedented birth of freedom.  So there’s no need to worry about it or regulate it or limit in some way or another.
  • Everything about our lives will be more and more about free choice.  Eventually we'll be able to choose whether to LIVE OR DIE—we won't be stuck with death, as we are now. 
  • Mr. Bailey, of course, will choose LIFE—meaning his life.  But nothing will prevent me or anyone else from choosing DEATH.  Nothing will keep any of us from choosing death for ourselves or our children, however unreasonable Mr. Bailey might think such choices to be.
  • Here's my position:  As we move toward indefinite longevity through biotechnology,  we will be more free in some respects, but less free in others.  It will be very difficult, maybe impossible, for anyone to choose against enhancement for themselves and their children.  Because the world will be more pro-life in some ways, it will be less pro-choice in others.
  • Here's some background:  Biotechnological eugenics, for Mr. Bailey and many others today, is PERSONAL.  It's not about improving citizens or the race or the species—the goals of the eugenics of Plato's REPUBLIC and the Nazis and the Progressives.  It's about improving each particular person's chances to remain a person as longer as possible or just to be as personal as possible.
  • Nothing, in Mr. Bailey's mind, trumps the imperative to keep the people alive right now alive for as long as possible. 
  • So Mr. Bailey is at war against nature.  It's out to make him suffer and die for no good reason.  To live according to nature is to submit to random indignities. Nature doesn't care about ME.  It treats me as species fodder.  It's out to take me out—all particular persons out—for its own purposes.  Because I’m PERSONAL, I don’t want to be NATURAL.
  • From a personal or unnatural view, nothing is more important than ME.  That's why we, in our freedom, are using technology and biotechnology to replace cruelly impersonal natural evolution with conscious and volitional evolution.  We self-conscious beings are willing change into being that we can really believe in, changes that will keep particular persons around for a lot longer than nature intends.
  • So, it follows, the more we enhance who we are to make each of us more free from our natural or biological limitations, the more free we will be as persons.
  • But is it really true that free persons will be able to choose against enhancement?
  • Consider that we don't think that parents are free to choose against making their kids' lives as risk-free as possible.  We don't let parents, for religious reasons, choose against indispensable medical treatment.  We don't let two deaf parents choose deafness for their kid, that is, choose to make their kid’s life more risky than it need be.
  • So we won't let parents, soon enough, choose against genetic testing and genetic enhancement. They will be choosing against changes, in Mr. Bailey’s words, any reasonable person would want.  And we can’t let parents choose unreasonably when it comes to their children.
  • What if we reach a stage of scientific development where it's safe and easy to enhance kids—or give them genetic advantages that point toward much longer and less risky lives—by implanting upgraded embryos into wombs?
  • That process means, of course, the complete separation of sex from reproduction.  To maximize health and safety, all sex would have to become safe sex.  Unprotected sex would result, after all, in the birthing of unenhanced babies. 
  • Right now, the pro-lifers say, we’re all too ready to abort “defective” babies.  But maybe the progress of science will allow for the correction of defects before the baby enters the womb, making the “therapeutic” reason for abortion obsolete.
  • What about Catholic or Mormon parents who want to be free to choose to have babies the old-fashioned way—by having unprotected sex and hoping and praying for the best?
  • We won't let them do it! Having all those comparatively stupid and disease-ridden Mormon and Catholic kids running around would be a danger to us all!
  • Sure, it's true enough that parents will usually feel compelled to enhance their kids just so they will be competitive in school.  But the bigger point is that the other parents will demand that their kids not be exposed to the risky behavior and bodies of unenhanced kids. 
  •  Right now, there’s no evidence at all that religiously observant people are less intelligent than those who don’t believe.  But what if religious belief became the cause of people being less intelligent and sicker or just more “according to nature?”  Surely we will have reached a rather obvious limit to tolerance.  Our religious tolerance is limited, everyone agrees, by the right to life.
  • Right now the progressives, the libertarians, and other trendy people are all pro-choice.  Women should be free to choose whether or not to have babies.
  • Soon they will be pro-life, wanting laws supporting the eugenics that make their kids' lives as safe as possible.  Who can deny that among our already paranoid parents today, the demand is there for health and safety legislation that limit our liberty?  Don’t we all choose health and safety over liberty?  Consider the rapidly eroding right to smoke.  Not to mention the right to ride a motorcycle without a helmet. 
  • The pro-lifers will soon enough become the pro-choicers. They will clamor, probably unsuccessfully, for reproductive freedom, for the freedom to choose how they want to reproduce.
  • Our preference for LIFE over LIBERTY will also limit the autonomy of individual decision making in many ways. 
  • Consider the physician.  What if it becomes easy to enhance the cognitive abilities, memory, and so forth of the doctor?  The libertarian view, of course, is that there's nothing wrong with the personal choice of enhancement.  But will the physician be able to choose against his personal enhancement on behalf of personal autonomy, on being who he is as a person? 
  • Would anyone go to a “natural” doctor who might kill you but has preserved his personal freedom and noble personality over an “enhanced” doctor who might be a mess personally and have a horrible bedside manner but has the souped-up skills that can actually save you. 
  • There might not be a law making physicians enhance.  But there might be, for the same reason that we now require physicians to have MDs.  In either case, anyone who wants to practice medicine really won't be free to choose not to acquire the latest enhancements.
  • Someone might say that we require physicians to enhance themselves through their education, and so we should be able to expect them to make themselves better in every possible way. But you know there's a difference between educational expectations and the one that you change your nature, who you are.  And no one can really believe that significant cognitive or even emotional enhancements won’t change who you are in many ways, affecting, for example, your relationships with the people you most know and love.
  • Consider the most unproductive profession, the one full of pretentious and self-indulgent autonomy freaks—the college professor.  Professors, or some of them, would resist enhancement on the ground that they have a right to the natural moods as indispensable clues to the truth about who we are.  The novelist Walker Percy, for example, claimed a right to his anxiety. For many or most philosophers, the issue of which mood opens us to the truth about Being and the truth about ourselves is a fundamental one.  For them, moods are a natural gift and not merely random collections of chemicals.
  •  We used to tolerate professors’ moodiness because we didn't think they could help it.  But soon enough a dean might call a professor in and say:  Your students evaluations aren't so good—students say you're a downer.  Not only that, you spend too much time brooding and not enough time publishing.
  • The dean says get yourself to the physician to get your mood enhanced.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Studies show moods are just collections of chemicals, and nowadays we're free to choose the chemical collection that makes us happiest and most productive.
  • The professor can't say no in the name of his autonomy.  His freedom to choose his mood means he's free to choose the one that makes him most productive. And so he’s free to choose for what the administrators’ require as a condition of his livelihood. 
  •  The requirements of life once again trump liberty understood as personal autonomy.  That’s bound to diminish the quality of philosophy and literature and music professors, although in the case of the computer science or accounting professor the result might be, as they say, win-win.
  • The demands of prolonging life will trump liberty in many ways.  There will be massive social pressure and actual laws that limit our right to liberty in the name of our right to life.  We won’t know of a standard of autonomy, it appears, that trumps effectively the standards of security and productivity. 
  • With Ron, I'd like to thank the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for sponsoring the debate.

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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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    Rethinking humanity's origin story

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    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

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    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.