Ever since the sinking of the Titanic on 14 April 1912, the disaster of the luxury liner has animated the popular imagination. Countless articles, books and documentaries have reconstructed the chain of events that led to the accident. More recently, scholars have examined the meaning of the wreck in the popular imagination. For example, Richard Howells has examined the way that such disastrous events are enfolded into and made sensible in terms of existing myth.(1) Howells sees myths as texts within which “the actual and the imaginary” are enfolded in a potent blending of “fact” and “fiction” in ways that make otherwise unintelligible, arbitrary, and senseless events meaningful. According to this understanding, myths locate confusing events within existing cultural frameworks. Howells shows how the Titanic became, post hoc, an “unsinkable ship,” as well as an emblem of the myth of technological hubris. As such, the Titanic not only became comprehensible in terms of existing myth but also became a mythic element according to which subsequent, similar events might be seen and comprehended.
“the Titanic became, post hoc, an ‘ unsinkable ship,‘ as well as an emblem of the myth of technological hubris”
In this paper, I leave the study of mythopoesis in connection with the Titanic to others and consider how the myth of hubris not only enfolds past events but is also projected onto prospective ones. In particular, I discuss the emergent field of Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics (GNR), and the way that it is enfolded within the imaginary of the hubris myth. I consider GNR as fostered and promoted by the philosophical movement largely based on these technologies, post-humanism or transhumanism.
GNR and Transhumanism
"Suppose it were possible, through some sort of instantaneous genetic engineering, to change any aspect of your nature, so that you could have any combination of capacities that has ever been in the range of human possibility: you could have Michael Jordan‘ s fade-away shot, Mozart‘ s musicality, Groucho Marx‘ s comic gifts, Proust‘ s delicate way with language. Suppose you could put these together with any desires you wanted -- homo- or hetero-, or a taste for Wagner or Eminem . . . . Suppose, further, that there were no careers or professions in this world because all material needs were met by intelligent machines. Far from being a Utopia, so it seems to me, this would be a kind of hell." -- Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (2005).
"Man is not born free, but is everywhere in biological chains. People of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your biological chains! We stand at a turning point in human evolution. We have cracked the genetic code; translated the Book of Life. We will soon possess the ability to become designers of our own evolution . . . . As humanism freed us from the chains of superstition, let transhumanism free us from our biological chains." - Simon Young, Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto (2006).
As the paired epigraphs above suggest, the possibilities posed by GNR technology involve some of the most breath-taking, complex, and controversial issues facing humanity today. As many enthusiasts and critics suggest, what may be at stake in the field is the very definition of being human. For better or worse, depending upon your perspective, GNR promises to challenge the conventional notions of human existence and “human nature.” The changes some GNR thinkers predict would be both far-reaching and extremely personal. GNR proposes to produce drastic changes in our external worlds, while simultaneously penetrating deeply into our bodies and minds. Some of these developments might be mundane, such as having regular genetic check-ups to scan for “programming errors” that may be treated with gene therapy. Others may seem like science fiction. Imagine a world full of designer babies, born of pre-implantation genetic screening and custom genetic engineering. Imagine nanorobots cleaning up the environment, recreating a green planet, and reversing global warming. What would life be like if computers exceeded human intelligence and memory chips, installed in our brains, enhanced memory by a thousand-fold? How would you feel knowing that nanorobots were coursing through your bloodstream, killing pathogens, eliminating cancer cells, repairing genetic codes, and reversing aging? Could death become a thing of the past? If you could upload your personality into a robot, and thus live forever, would you do it?
“the emergent field of Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics (GNR) . . . is enfolded within the imaginary of the hubris myth . . . promoted by the philosophical movement [called] post-humanism or transhumanism.”
The scope of GNR research and conjecture is so great that the proposals offered by enthusiasts and often feared and loathed by critics are not being left to scientific and technological thinkers alone. The field also engages moral, social, political, economic, and philosophical issues. It also necessarily taps into long-standing myths about technological hubris.
The ultimate objectives of GNR vary according to the stakeholders involved. One of the chief movements for advancing GNR technologies and harnessing them for their most far-reaching prospects is known as transhumanism. According to its proselytizers, transhumanism is the “intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”(2) Transhumanism is a philosophy that works to achieve and promote the transcendence of human limitations by harnessing the power of science and technology to advantage. The transhumanist Simon Young believes that using GNR technologies, we will soon be capable and should proceed to take over where evolution has left off to create a trans- or post-human future.(3) Most transhumanist thinkers seek the conditions for an enhanced nature harnessed and altered by technology to the extent that humanity, as we know it, will cease to exist, and become more and better than it is now.
The transhuman future is hardly one that is universally embraced. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama argues that our notion of individual rights depends on a stable human nature.(4) Changes to human nature undermine the secular foundation for morals and ethics. When some human beings are enhanced by GNR technologies, Fukuyama insists, the dignity and respect accorded to the unenhanced will diminish. Their human rights will erode as the enhanced argue for privileges based on their generally acknowledged superiority. The only reasonable solution, Fukuyama insists, is to put in place governmental policies that guard against such possibilities. On the other hand, GNR proponents such as Simon Young believe that such sanctioning is tantamount to legislating to impose infirmity, disease, aging, and death.
“The transhuman future is hardly one that is universally embraced.”
Access to GNR technologies is also an issue. Won‘t the recipients of enhancements most likely be those with the most money? GNR, some critics argue, threatens to widen an already growing gap between rich and poor. In response, advocates claim that enhancements may reach the rich first, but as technology advances, its cost will fall, opening access to the general populace. For precedence, they point to the principle widely known as Moore‘s Law, a maxim of computer scientist Gordon Moore, who predicted (with relative success) that the price-performance ratio of computer technology (particularly its processing capacities) increases exponentially over time. Extending Moore‘s Law, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that the price-performance of other GNR technologies will also improve at an exponential rate. Further, Kurzweil and others suggest that rather than increasing inequality, enhancement will actually level the playing field for those otherwise condemned to poverty based on differences in ability shown to be heritable.(5)