What does it mean to be human? To have the capacity to ask the question, perhaps. However smart a chimp might be, none has had the audacity to leave its troop and ponder what it means to be Pan troglodytes.
Our question, however, has just got harder. As the gadfly sociologist Steve Fuller puts it, “biology is shifting from being a spectator sport to a creative enterprise”.
The title of his new book, Humanity 2.0, makes clear what is being created: a second version of Homo sapiens that could be a subtle upgrade or a major reconfiguration, from the human to the “transhuman”. Students and frazzled executives already pop memory and attention-boosting “cognitive enhancers”, while athletes look for competitive advantage via pills and syringes.
More radical interventions are on the horizon, such as altering the very composition of our DNA or replacing organic body parts with better performing synthetic ones. Some even think we will eventually upload ourselves into silicon brains or virtual worlds and escape our carbon bodies altogether.
You might expect Fuller’s book to give some indication of where this experiment could take us, where it should take us, and how to close the gap between the two. But, as Fuller has stated elsewhere, his priority is to say what he thinks needs to be said, not what he happens to believe is true. As a consequence, Humanity 2.0 is not so much a sustained argument for a coherent position but a set of provocative interventions, designed to steer the discussion about our future in more fruitful or urgent directions.
Often this is illuminating. For instance, he points out that our conception of ourselves is sometimes merely descriptive of what we are but often captures a sense of what we want ideally to be. In describing certain actions as inhuman, we are not denying that humans carry them out but indicating that they fall short of the minimal aspirations we have for our species. This insight explains why people who object to radical new interventions, such as designer babies, are doomed if they do so by appeal to “violations of human nature” alone. Principled objections need to express specific values we want to associate with humanity.
But Fuller is far too fond of spotting parallels and assuming that their existence points to something profound. He can get away with this when the connections are at least interesting. For instance, he often sees in the secular transhumanism debate echoes of older theological ones. Do we see our destiny as reabsorption into nature or transcendence of nature? Are we “intellects that happen for now to possess animal bodies” or “animals that happen for now to possess distinctive minds”?
But on other occasions his connections are forged via a kind of sociological psychoanalysis, revealing the supposedly hidden motivations of intellectual agents. So, for instance, he claims that “our fixation on science as a long-term collective quest for the ultimate truth … looks suspiciously like a secular version of Christianity salvation narrative”. Only to someone who has worked hard to become professionally suspicious of the possibility of a secular idea that isn’t somehow a religious one in disguise.
Fuller is on to something when he says that intellectuals need to shake up our thinking more than they need to tell us what they personally think. But this playing down of self in one sense serves only to elevate it in another. By adopting the role of the perennial critic swift to point out what is paradoxical or self-undermining in the positions of others but coy about his own stance, Fuller sets himself apart from those who dare to engage with one another more directly and sincerely.
Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)
Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future, by Steve Fuller, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£19.99, 280 pages