Every few decades, a new ism comes along that many people see as a threat to the bedrock principles of Western civilization. Communism was one of the big ones, and led to years of widespread hysteria during the Red Scare. In the 80s, a similar panic arose when evangelical Christians became convinced that a secret network of Satanists controlled secular society. In the present day, transhumanism is emerging as the new existential threat to Western civilization—at least in the minds of a certain subset of religious conservatives. In this case, however, the fear might actually be warranted. If transhumanism accomplishes even its most modest aims, it will bring about the death of the conservatives’ bedrock belief in human exceptionalism.
Human exceptionalism is a flawed concept at best; some even see it as a morally offensive form of speciesism. Yet, it still enjoys wide acceptance. If you ask someone how she feels about the notion of human exceptionalism, she’ll probably scoff at you—while quietly believing that humanity is indeed God’s gift to the world. It’s like the belief that orange juice is good for you. Even though anyone paying attention knows that orange juice is barely healthier than Coke— it’s full of ungodly amounts of sugar and the health benefits from vitamin C are overhyped—people generally continue their old habit of taking a glass at breakfast.
Human exceptionalism posits that humans are categorically unlike, and fundamentally better than, any other animal. It’s not an explicitly religious claim, but it’s very close to one. In practical terms, it often functions as shorthand for we are special because we are created in God’s image. From an evolutionary perspective, this is preposterous. The fact that humans are different from other animals is a distinction of degree, not of kind. Once we properly orient ourselves on the evolutionary tree, it becomes clear that we can learn more about ourselves by focusing on our similarities with other animals than by perpetuating the myth that we’re categorically unique.
Science has shown the concept of human exceptionalism to be flawed; however, it will likely be the force of transhumanism that will ultimately topple it. Some advocates of human exceptionalism have picked up on this, and they’re terrified.
Transhumanism would shatter human exceptionalism. The moral philosophy of the West holds that each human being is possessed of natural rights that adhere solely and merely because we are human. But transhumanists yearn to remake humanity in their own image—including as cyborgs, group personalities residing in the Internet Cloud, or AI-controlled machines. That requires denigrating natural man as unexceptional to justify our substantial deconstruction and redesign. Thus, rather than view human beings as exclusive rights-bearers, the [Transhumanist Bill of Rights] would grant rights to all “sentient entities,” a category that includes both the biological and mechanical.
While the Discovery Institute is clearly fearmongering, this depiction is fairly accurate. As a philosophical movement, transhumanism advocates for improving humanity through genetic modifications and technological augmentations, based upon the position that there is nothing particularly sacred about the human condition. It acknowledges up front that our bodies and minds are riddled with flaws that not only can but should be fixed. Even more radically, as the name implies, transhumanism embraces the potential of one day moving beyond the human condition, transitioning our sentience into more advanced forms of life, including genetically modified humans, superhuman cyborgs, and immortal digital intelligences.
Despite philosophical fears surrounding the transhumanist movement, humans have been augmenting their bodies and minds for centuries. Eyeglasses, for instance, have been around since about 1290. It’s only natural that we’d continue to develop this technology, as indeed we have. In fact, we’ve gone beyond improving eyesight with glasses to fully restoring eyesight by implanting bionic eyes. The Discovery Institute may fault transhumanism for undermining the moral philosophy of the West, but even they have to admit that advances like this are pretty incredible.
People who call themselves transhumanists are still a rather eccentric group. There’s Rich Lee, who has implanted invisible ear buds in his ears and a vibrator in his penis. There’s Zoltan Istvan, founder of the Transhumanist Party, who ran for president in a coffin-shaped bus and invented the sport of volcano surfing. And then there’s the list of eccentric people around the world recently featured in Wired, who are turning themselves into futuristic cyborgs of various kinds.
Most people aren’t rushing to sign up to this movement. However, practically everyone in the modern world is unwittingly barreling straight into the transhumanist age, whether they like it or not. We all have smartphones, which, as Elon Musk has noted, already makes us cyborgs. It may not be long before we ditch our devices and connect to the cloud through neural lace. From there, how long will it take before we become more digital than biological? To the extent that we maintain our physical bodies, how long before we avoid all diseases and massively increase our intelligence through genetic modification?
It remains to be seen whether we will lose our humanity in this process, but it is a safe bet that the concept of human exceptionalism will become a thing of the past. To be purely human (without any type of genetic modification or tech augmentation) will likely become either untenable or immoral. When that happens—when various iterations of cyborgs and digital intelligences exist—the only option will be to take the Transhumanist Bill of Rights seriously, and grant moral value not merely to humans, but to all sentient beings.