The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.
By David North
I’m a human. But what makes it so? Ask a biologist and they might say, “you belong to a group of individuals who could produce offspring together. We call this group of individuals humans.” Of course, the biologist doesn’t mean that any human could have offspring with any other human —some of us are barren. Perhaps the biologist really means “an individual is a human if they belong to a species which, if normally functioning, could potentially produce offspring with humans.” For some species, this doesn’t work. The liger and the mule have parents who belong to the same genus but a different species. The mare and the donkey are different species, but they can produce offspring. “No, they must produce fertile offspring,” the biologist replies. Well, look to the red deer and the elk’s offspring—they are fertile. “But these are reproductively isolated by geography,” the biologist continues, ignoring the fertile offspring of the reproductively proximate grizzly and polar bear: the grolar bear!
There are many ways to define “species,” some cagier than others. Nonetheless, all of these definitions seek, ultimately, to establish the continuity of a species. “Speciation” is the word biologists use to define where one species ends and another begins—but why do we call some mutations mere adaptations and not the emergence of a new species? Speciation is a concept that continues to puzzle biologists, who, seeking clarity, go on and add more and more ceteris paribus clauses like the imagined dialectic above. Already there is a paradox: what makes the first member of a new species in fact the member of a new species and not a mutant of another? This is some version of Theseus’ ship. Chimpanzees are different than modern humans. But if we start with their common ancestor, at what point did the human ‘branch off’ from the chimpanzee? Which individual was the first human? There’s an appeal to vagueness to be had here: “humans are different from chimpanzees, why’s it matter where we draw the line—we won’t be able to do it accurately anyway.”
I don’t much care for the vagueness appeal. I’d rather know what makes humans different from chimpanzees rather than when along the timeline it happened. Whatever the answer to this may be, I’d like to then ask, why aren’t early humans different from today’s humans? And when will today’s humans cease to be and a new species begin? Yes, there is a scientifically recognized species called Neanderthal who we consider pre-human, but what makes me the same species as a human who lived five hundred years ago? Do I not stand in relation to some more recent humans from the last thousand years as those humans do to the Neanderthal?
Humans present a unique challenge to the idea of speciation. Let’s assume that humans uniquely possess the power of choice, though any choice-making creature poses the same threat. Humans, then, are practically self-determining to some degree. A shark can’t help but be like a shark, or else it will suffer. Is there a way of being a human as there is of being a shark? Even if we, as the ethical naturalist would, concede there is some way of being human, why should I choose to be human? Can I not choose to be human*? Am I not already human* in relation to premodern humans?
To illustrate: take the fact that we, unlike humans of five hundred years ago, have tools to correct problems with our biology. I’m nearsighted, so I wear glasses. These glasses correct my impaired vision to what is the standard of humans—20/20. This is how a human ought to see, the way a human ought to be. What if I didn’t want 20/20 vision, but binocular vision? I could do that. We’ve created prosthetic legs. What if someday our technology is so advanced that our prosthetic legs allow us to run faster than any human who’s come before? I’d like to try those if I had the chance. This is roughly the guiding intuition behind transhumanism—humans can improve our form of life through technology, so why don’t we? If I no longer want to be as the human is, why not choose to be something else? Some already do this. Professional sports players take performance enhancing drugs to become stronger than a human would otherwise, university students take adderall to improve their attention beyond what they would otherwise be capable of, etc.
To take it further: is it obvious that a machine is quite different from a human as we say a chimpanzee is to a human? What do we make of the introduction of capitalism, where humans and their labor is a commodity, their work designed to make them as efficient as possible, resembling machines? Perhaps humans living under capitalism are already a different kind of living thing than hunters and gatherers who were not commodified beings. Perhaps for us the shift to capitalism is a shift in material circumstance that might change our form of life just as ecosystems shape the development of the species within them. Are cyborgs a different species? Imagine some future where I had a second machine brain that I plugged my body into that would make me smarter, more aware, and able to speak and interact with others connected to their cyborg brain devices. Would you call me a machine? A human? A human*? This is already our reality. Reach into your pocket and pull out your second brain. You may already be using it to read this very article, which I wrote and published on my second machine brain. Our internet devices have become so integrated into our way of life that we might call it an adaptation, mutation, or evolution in biological terms. Does this go further? What if we are one day able to upload our consciousness to machines? What then do we say of the continuity of the human?
Transhumanism is our skittish response to the reality that there is some way of being human, but that being human has limits. Perhaps these limits scare us and we’d like to escape them. But escaping these limits doesn’t change the fact there is some way of being human. Just as hiding under the covers doesn’t make the monsters under my bed disappear, neither does transhumanism erase the reality there is some way of being human (as evidenced by my corrected 20/20 vision), limits and all. Transhumanism is not mere evolution. It is taking the human species into our own hands. Is it wrong for us to seek escape from our limitations?
Humans, if they are not already human*, cyborg, commodity, or machine, are in a transitory phase somewhere in that “vague” zone of Theseus’ ship halfway along its voyage. Why should it be so difficult to see us as the vessel to some trans-species event just as late Neanderthals were to us? This is our current biological moment. Is there something to be done about it? Shall we chart a course back to pre-capitalist, pre-industrial society? Or do we see where this species takes us? The question is not where, but to what we will escape.