Transhumanism and democracy – can we have both?

I’m not usually one for New Years resolutions, or indeed just about anything which requires sustained perseverance and personal discipline, but this year I’m going to make an exception. I want to write more. Some, I hope, will be polished articles. The sort I read over several times before slapping the send button. Most however will be blogs. Incoherent, rambling and doubtless riddled with typos. This is most certainly one of the latter category. I can only apologise. If there’s any consolation, and I think there is, it’s that I’ll probably have packed the whole thing in come February.

In 2004 the US magazine Foreign Policy published an article by Francis Fukuyama titled “Transhumanism – the world’s most dangerous idea”. In it Fukuyama argued that transhumanism could be the gravedigger of political liberalism, by ending the notion that all individuals have an intrinsic worth. Specifically he wrote: “Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin colour, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism”.

Broadly then, by my reading, Fukuyama is asserting that transhumanism, with its support for dramatically altered human cognitive ability, will make the concept of ‘human’ too broad for us to feel any meaningful attachment to. That is of course assuming the category of ‘human’ survives in any meaningful sense at all. If we no longer see ourselves as part of one group, he suggests, will we still feel the need to share power?

That same year Nick Bostrom, one of the leading transhumanist philosophers, penned a respond. Critiquing what he termed Fukuyama’s “reactionary bioconservatism” Bostrom argued that liberalism is compatible with much greater divergence in ability/character between humans. Indeed he went further, using the example of intelligent aliens arriving to suggest a multi-specie society can be run along liberal lines. The heart of his argument is summed up thus: “There is no reason why humans with altered or augmented capacities should not likewise be equal under the law, nor is there any ground for assuming that the existence of such people must undermine centuries of legal, political, and moral refinement”.

Both arguments I think have some validity, but I want to be more specific. Is transhumanism, the belief that we can and should augment human capabilities, compatible with a one person one vote style democracy? Now this isn’t a question for the near-term. I strongly suspect those transhumanists predicting an imminent revolution, measured in decades, will be disappointed. But at the same time, considering the dramatic and reasonably consistent increases in computing power, I do think the revolution is coming. Only the destruction of either advanced human civilisation (or humanity itself) or alternatively Government ultra-authoritarianism surpassing anything humanity has experienced thus far look like sure bets of stopping it. None of those outcomes sounds particularly attractive.

Obligatory Terminator killer robot image

Assuming the transhumanist revolution does occur we can assume its impact will be felt unevenly. Firstly the technology which augments human capacity, at least initially, is likely to be prohibitable expensive. I strongly suspect, again at least initially, it will primarily benefit those who already have considerable wealth and power within society. And secondly, even if all cognitive enhancements are available to all humans on an equal basis, it seems unlikely all will adopt them to the same extent. Doubtless there will be some, for moral or religious reasons, who oppose augmentation pretty much in its entirety. Amongst those who do accept it there will presumably be differences in how much augmentation they choose to personally adopt. The result, almost inevitably, will be a dramatic increase in the divergence in intellect and ability within humankind in every area. This could potentially reach the point where no single ‘human’ species exists in any meaningful sense.

So the question is will humans still be prepared to share power (in the one person one vote sense) with other humans who have vastly different cognitive abilities to themselves. Of course human cognitive abilities already vary significantly, but this would supercharge them. Very few humans would be comfortable with giving the vote to dolphins or chimpanzees, the most intelligent species on the planet after ourselves. What if the divergence in intellect between humans, brought about by the technologies transhumanist advocate, reaches or even exceed the differences between dolphins and humans? Could our current democratic model survive?

As far as I’m aware there has never been a serious attempt to establish an inter-species democracy. Perhaps, had Neanderthals and other archaic human species survived, there might have been. Though I suppose a pessimist would point to the fate of certain archaic human species as evidence of humanities reluctance to share power (I do appreciate opinion is divided on why the various species when extinct). Certainly we would be entering a new era, which could stretch our current political, economic and social models beyond breaking point.

In many cases this could of course be a good thing. Overcoming the limitations of human biology, conditioned by evolution during a time vastly different to our own, would open up a world of possibilities. To give but one example tuning down humans extraordinary biological capacity for tribalism (surely the root cause of much of the racism and ultra-nationalism in the world) could have major benefits. It was presumably useful in the environmental conditions in which humans evolved, but not necessarily in those we live in today. Indeed you could make a strong case that our technological advancement has outrun our biology. Can a species which combines intense and violent tribalism with nuclear weapons really have a long-term future?

I would argue that one person one vote democracy is the basis of a society based around liberty. It’s imperfect for sure, but does offer a powerful shield against most types of tyranny. In short, for those of us lucky enough to live in such societies, we have a lot to lose. And one of the biggest political questions of the next century or so could well be whether democracy as we understand it will survive the revolution transhumanists advocate, the most dramatic alteration our species has experienced since its inception.

If you’ve made it this far I’m both immeasurably impressed and humbled so as a reward here’s a comedy sketch I stumbled upon yesterday and liked – don’t worry you don’t have to thank me:


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