November 10, 2009
More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
By Ramez Naam
New York: Broadway Books
Johnny Ray was a healthy Vietnam vet who, one day, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him from the neck down. In More Than Human, Ramez Naam describes the miraculous intervention of technology, whereby Ray, in 1998, received a neural implant, permitting him to move a cursor on a computer monitor using nothing but his own thoughts, imagining he was moving his hand. As time went on, Ray stopped having to even think about his hands: he simply willed the cursor to move, and it moved. As Naam describes it, “In some sense, the computer had become a part of him.”
This, to me, is the crux of Naam’s book about the promise of re-engineering the human organism. Who could possibly deny someone like Johnny Ray the ability to regain some small part of his existence? But then, where does the line get drawn? The unthinkable possibilities of one generation become the avant-garde of the next, and the mundane realities of the generations to follow. As Naam would have it, this is a good thing. A very good thing. In fact, he sees future biological enhancements as the next step in the great human tradition of using technology to improve our lives, from the Stone Age onwards.
In a recent post, I’ve traced the near-mystical vision those who believe in the benefits of a merged cyber-human future, back to the mind-body dualism of Plato and his followers. Naam is clearly in this camp, but he deserves a considered hearing. He writes his book with humanity and sensitivity. He’s interested in the improvement of people’s real human condition in the here-and-now, and believes he’s simply exploring the path that we’re destined to take to a benevolent future.
But what a future! Naam describes in some detail a sci-fi type of scenario where getting a neural implant becomes the de rigeur activity of the time, a bit like getting a smartphone in 2009. The neural implant essentially puts your conscious mind on steroids, improving your power over your own bodily drives in addition to turning you into a power-web surfer simply by thinking your queries. But then, when you and your implant communicate with other equally-empowered individuals, you’re in a whole new world. In just the way that the network of the Internet transformed the power of an individual computer, so neural-implant communication with others would transform the very definition of being a human. As Naam puts it:
You routinely trade memories and experiences with other implanted humans. You learn to view the world through other people’s eyes. You let others see through yours… You can no longer imagine a disconnected life.
What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that it’s really the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) and its “conceptual consciousness” that’s being enhanced. (You can see the pfc’s unique attributes summarized in another post.) Ever since the rise of what neuroscientist Merlin Donald describes as “external symbolic storage” – humanity’s entire collection of symbolic constructs ranging from cave art and necklaces to writing and computer code – each individual consciousness is structured from birth by what I can the “external pfc”. In Naam’s future, this external pfc breaks down the barrier between external and internal and begins to morph into a gigantic superorganism. Here’s how Naam describes it:
We individuals are, in a sense, like neurons in a global brain – a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and innovations. The more power we gain to communicate with one another, the more integrated that aggregate brain becomes. In the last few centuries, we’ve taken tremendous steps, from small isolated pockets of computation in individual tribes and civilizations to the World Wide Web… The next step is the integration of our biological brains: unlocking the inner ideas and experiences we have, and allowing us to share them with one another, to weave them together into thoughts in a world wide mind.
The pfc’s “tyranny” over our consciousness transforms, in this scenario, into utter domination. “L’état, c’est moi,” in the immortal words of Sun King Louis XIV – “The state? It is me.”
To me, what’s most interesting is to see how people like Naam eliminate the distinction between our humanity and the attributes of the pfc. If you think of yourself as a pfc housed in a body, then of course you’ll be delighted to consider a future world where your pfc is enhanced. To understand what I mean, consider this passage, where Naam quotes from bio-ethicist Leon Kass:
The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some conditions, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life. Our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us.
Here, Kass is describing “our soul” purely in terms of pfc-mediated functions: forward planning, aspirations, abstractions. This is to be expected, since our Western notion of “soul” is so closely interlinked with the Cartesian, dualistic notion of “mind” (as described in another post.)
But now let’s see where Naam takes this idea:
This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world. It has produced our art, our music, our philosophy. It has built our deepest understanding of the mysteries of the universe. Never to say enough, always to want more – that is what it means to be human. (My italics.)
Now, here’s where I profoundly disagree with Naam. What he’s describing is not “our humanity”; it’s one of the consequences of the dominance of the pfc in our human consciousness. As I’ve argued in another post, even this seemingly defining human characteristic, roughly comparable to what the Buddhist name dukkha, may have emerged in its current form only with the development of sedentism, agriculture, and the consequent rise of the notion of private property and hierarchy.
Have you ever experienced moments when everything seemed just right? After making love, perhaps, or in the middle of playing sports, or hiking in the countryside? Have you ever looked at a sunset and lost yourself in its beauty? Did you stop being human during those moments? Or did you, perhaps, experience the sensation of what life feels like when the never-ending grasp of our pfc quiets itself, and harmonizes with the rest of our consciousness?
I would argue that our humanity is, in fact, the result of the dynamic interaction between our animate and conceptual consciousness. When we’re taking a piss or enjoying a meal, we’re still human. These are just aspects of our humanity that our pfc-dominated culture tends to ignore, because they’re, well, like all the other animals. What’s going on is that Naam – along with most people in Western culture – has conflated the features that make humans unique among animals with the definition of our humanity. And those things that make humans unique are, by and large, incorporated in our conceptual consciousness, the attributes of the pfc. The result of this conflation is that humanity becomes defined by the pfc. And if we humans are our pfc, then what’s wrong with biological enhancement, neural implants, and the full-blast acceleration to cyber- immortality that (in another post) I’ve called “infinition”?
Naam chose an interesting title to his book: More Than Human. If you think about it, it gives the game away. Our humanity is implicitly defined as a collection of attributes that differentiate us from our animate consciousness: our rationality, our will-power, our intelligence. Therefore, permitting technology to enhance those attributes makes us “more than human.” But if, in fact, our humanity also incorporates our animate consciousness, then what do these enhancements make us? Less than human? Dehumanized? New form of human? Human 2.0? This, I think, it the crucial issue we need to delve into as we debate the implications of biological enhancement. Are we as a species making ourselves extinct in paving the way for Ramez Naam’s future? And if so, is that a good or a bad thing?
 Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.