I came across an opinion piece in the Catholic San Francisco Online Edition this week written by Sandro Magister. He was, according to the head notes, summarizing part of a talk by French philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj. Fabrice argues that the term “transhumanism” was coined by Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous Huxley, of Brave New World fame); the first director of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and supporter of eugenics. This seems to be roughly correct (there is some disagreement, but most sources I can find verify the basic information) and I’ll take it as true for the purposes of this article.
Fabrice argues that Huxley (Julian, for the remainder of the article) coined the term to talk about eugenics without using the dirty ‘E’ word so tarnished by Nazi atrocities. He then goes on to say: “Nonetheless, the same thing [eugenics] is intended: the redemption of man through technology” and “It is precisely a matter of improving the “quality” of individuals, as one improves the “quality” of products, and therefore, probably, of eliminating or preventing the birth of everything that would appear as abnormal or deficient.”
There are, it seems to me, two major problems with Fabrice’s argument.
First, as the wiki linked above indicates, eugenics was a respectable idea up until the end of WWII, when the Nazi’s perverted the idea and applied it to traits that most people don’t see as defects. While the Nazis were interested in a so-called ‘master race’ and took eugenics to be the elimination of ‘inferior racial and other undesirable groups’, eugenics prior to WWII focused on a much tamer idea of ‘undesirable traits’ including traits like hemophilia and Huntington’s disease. Even the tamer idea of eugenics carries significant ethical questions concerning people’s right to reproduce, and entails difficult determinations about what traits are ‘desirable’ and which are ‘undesirable’ to whom, and why.
Today, many people would probably agree that traits like autism are largely undesirable (that is, few people if any would choose to have an autistic child, given the choice to have a child without autism) but would balk at the idea of labeling traits like homosexuality undesirable (Fred Phelps and others aside.) At the core, however, eugenics seems to be about the right to reproduce: Who should, and who shouldn’t, given the genetic code that will be passed on. No less than US President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes supported the general idea, though some of the policies set forth by these otherwise great men might today be considered unethical. See, for instance, Buck v. Bell, a US Supreme Court case from 1927 upholding a Virginia forced-sterilization law for the mentally ill. The point, however, is that the general idea of eugenics might be defensible if one doesn’t immediately point to the Nazi’s as the primary supporters of the idea; an move known on the internet as Godwining the argument.
Second, and more importantly, whatever the ethical status of eugenics, it seems to me that most transhumanist ideas represent something different. A large part of transhumanism revolves around individual choice: A particular person might choose to implant a piece of technology, or replace a biological limb with another, or even ingest a pill that rewrites some part of their genetic code such that their own traits are changed. Changing one’s own traits, however, is fundamentally different from telling other’s that they are not allowed to reproduce for the good of the species. The ethical problems inherent in a eugenic ‘master plan’ that tells others that they can or cannot reproduce because some traits that they will pass on to their child are simply not present when an individual, already fully formed, rational, and competent, chooses to change their own appearance or genetic code.
There are non-transhumanist ideas with some similarity to eugenics to which people already subscribe which don’t involve personal choice, but instead choice over another (usually a fetus). For instance, people largely seem to be morally OK with screening for ‘undesirable’ traits in their children like autism and Huntington’s disease. Today, a positive result on such a test largely informs the parents that their child might be afflicted with some disease, but there is little that can be done about the disease itself. If the screening is completed early enough, many women are comfortable with the idea of aborting a would-be child but many others, uncomfortable with the ethical implications, are not. As the traits identified become less and less serious (say, Down syndrome or other life affecting traits on the ‘serious’ extreme, and hair color on the ‘trivial’ extreme), the corresponding number of people willing to accept abortion as an option drops. Rightfully so, as abortion really is an ‘all-or-nothing’ scenario, with no middle ground.
Transhumanism presents the possibility of that middle ground and, when transhumanism is viewed as an extension of current medical technology, likely leads to an extension of current medical attitudes. Thus, it might be morally acceptable to rewrite the genetic code of an infant (or fetus, or embryo, or whatever) to remove serious genetic defects, but less acceptable to rewrite the genetic code of an infant to change their hair color. See, for instance, the ‘designer baby‘ controversy. Because genetic rewrites are not necessarily an all or nothing affair like abortion is, it provides the ability for a parent to have a child without a life altering disease like Downs syndrome without forcing the parents to choose between having a baby with the genetic disease on the one hand, and aborting what would become their child on the other hand.
Further, depending on how many times (and how successfully, and how cheaply, and safely, etc) genetic rewrites can be accomplished, the moral status of even trivial decisions might become a non-issue. Where traits like hair and eye color, skin tone, and maybe even memory and intelligence can be rewritten at will, particularly through cheap, safe drugs that can be taken at any time, a parent’s preference for a (say) brown haired, green eyed child might be but a default setting, freely changeable when that child reaches the age of majority (or the parents are willing to sign the permission forms.) The more traits that can be changed (perhaps sexual preference, gender itself, height, weight, whatever) the less moral stigma is attached to parents choosing any particular traits for their child.
If traits like these are freely, cheaply, and safely changeable, then ‘eugenics’ both ceases to mean what it previously meant (controlling traits through restrictive reproductive permissions) and ceases to carry the attached social stigma (because having an ‘undesirable’ trait, or not, is wholly a matter of personal preference.) Far from code for eugenics, transhumanism might be the idea that makes eugenics itself irrelevant.