Is techno-transhumanism our future?

At the ISI Conference I spoke at in November a student asked me whether reliance on tradition will continue to make sense if genetic engineering makes human nature more malleable.

My reply was that at this point the potential of genetic engineering is probably overstated. No doubt it will be possible to fix specific defects, like sickle-cell anemia, but controlling human nature will probably turn out to be a lot like controlling the weather. Sixty years ago many people thought that would soon be possible, but it turns out the weather is unmanageably complicated. If comprehensive genetic engineering turns out to be possible we’ll have to deal with it, but not much can be said now because it’s so hard to anticipate the shape of something so unpredictable.

My answer didn’t satisfy everyone on the panel or in the audience, so I’ve thought a bit more about it, and I still think I was right. It seems to me that redesigning the human genome to make people function better would be like redesigning the English language or Shakespeare’s plays to make those things function better. We might be able to change Shakespeare or English to make them more PC, or change human beings by drugs, lobotomies, terror, or genetic manipulation to make them more pliable in some way, but improved overall function is something else again.

So far as I can tell, the big difference among the cases is that it would be far harder to redesign the genome because what it does is so much more amazing. An actual Hamlet is a more surprising creation than a fictional one. And in any case, assuming the redesign could be done, it seems extremely unlikely that the way it’s done would look anything at all like the scientific procedures that give us modern genetics. Good design just doesn’t come about that way.

At bottom, the question’s an easy one for me and should have been easy at an ISI conference. If you’re traditionalist you believe that rationalizing interventions into complex evolved systems that display a broad range of functions don’t work. It seems that genetic engineering would be such an intervention and the human genome would be an extreme case of such a system. It follows that a traditionalist isn’t likely to expect much out of comprehensive genetic engineering.

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