When God dies, so does his morality, and then man rises to take God’s place. Over the past 140 years, people as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Adolf Hitler, and Ray Kurzweil, have hailed the quest for superhumans. In many ways, the transhumanist movement represents man playing God, where guided evolution becomes the replacement spiritual quest and prime directive. But, as it was in the Genesis story, those who try to upgrade humanity may unleash negative consequences they cannot contain.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was ahead of his time. In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra,1 the main character calls on people to become Übermensch—a sort of “super-human” or “beyond-human” such as they had never been. Because “God is dead,” as a source of value, nihilism was the consequence. Existentially, this meant life lacked intrinsic meaning and value or a traditional moral framework. In its place, meaning, and value would now be based on establishing the Übermensch.2 Counter far-right writer and activist Spencer Sunshine has written:
There were many things that drew anarchists to Nietzsche: . . . his (almost pathological) anti-Christianity; . . . his desire for an “overman” — that is, for a new human . . . who could say, “Yes” to the self-creation of a new world on the basis of nothing; and his forwarding of the “transvaluation of values” as the source of change.3
In the Nazi era of Germany, Adolph Hitler invoked the concept of Übermensch in connection to establishing an Aryan race. The Nazis also emphasized a corresponding concept of Untermenschen, or subhuman and inferior races.
Under the Nazi regime, Dr. Josef Mengele epitomized the pursuit of the Übermensch as the sole moral consideration. Many of his test subjects suffered horribly and even fatally in the name of science. Mengele became known as the “Angel of Death,” having killed people by lethal injection, shootings, beatings, and deadly experiments.4
Julian Huxley took up the baton of the post-God higher man. In his 1927 work, Religion without revelation, he said on the surface religion opposed science. “But the real conflicts are between bad, limited, or distorted religion and pure and high religion; and between limited and grudging science and science full and unafraid.”5
As Mengele showed, a “science full and unafraid” could actually be pretty scary. Not only did Huxley want that, but by 1951, he echoed Nietzsche by calling for the pursuit of an Übermensch to establish the new moral framework.
Every society, in every age, needs some system of beliefs, including a basic attitude to life, an organized set of ideas around which emotion and purpose may gather, and a conception of human destiny. It needs a philosophy and a faith to achieve a guide to orderly living – in other words, a morality…
Our chief motive, therefore, will derive from the exploration and understanding of human nature and the possibilities of development and fulfilment inherent in it, a study which will of course include the limitations, distortions, and frustrations to be avoided.
Such a philosophy might perhaps best be called Transhumanism.6
In the Genesis account, the Creator made the species of plants and animals separate according to their kinds. Then he made humans male and female in his own image with a mandate to reproduce, fill the earth, and subdue it. By implication, the genetic integrity of people is sacred and their procreation is to be by sexual unions. They are to rule the earth (and not be ruled by it).
Given this divine mandate that assigned man to earth, it is interesting to note that the calls to alter and augment humanity often relate to the exploration of space. In 1960, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline explored this concept in “Cyborgs and Space,”7 which they penned for Astronautics magazine. “In the past evolution brought about the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments. Starting as of now, it will be possible to achieve this to some degree without alteration of heredity by suitable biochemical, physiological, and electronic modification of man’s existing modus vivendi.”8
For Clynes and Kline, the goal was to facilitate changes in humans for space exploration. It was seminal in that it called for a directed evolution of humanity through artificial means, even though they insisted on preserving humanity’s genetic integrity. Regardless there is a hint of the Nietzschean spiritual quest when it says that “adapting man . . . will not only mark a significant step forward in man’s scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man’s spirit as well.”9
Biologist Richard Dawkins gave guided evolution another push in his 1976 best-selling book, The Selfish Gene. Here, the avowed atheist wrote, “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Again, the post-Christian moral impetus would be to create a greater man.
Twenty-first-century technological advancement has made the long-theoretical goal of a super-man a practical consideration. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health presented professor Maxwell Mehlman with a $773,000 grant. The press release explained its three purposes.
- Identify the differences between genetic research performed for therapeutic purposes and research performed for enhancement purposes.
- Determine the conditions under which it would be ethical to conduct genetic enhancement research using human subjects.
- Determine whether existing rules meet the ethical conditions for performing genetic enhancement research, and if they don’t, recommend changes to the existing rules.10
Mehlman was director of the Law-Medicine Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland and professor of bioethics in the Case School of Medicine. Law professors, bioethicists, and physicians were all involved in the project.
“Over the past half-century or so we have developed elaborate rules protecting human subjects in medical testing,” Mehlman acknowledged in the press release. The project the grant was given was “to develop guidelines for the use of human subjects in what could be the next frontier in medical technology – genetic enhancement.”
The conclusions of Mehlman’s team were never made public. However, in 2009, Mehlman wrote, Will Directed Evolution Destroy Humanity, and if so, What can we Do About It?
Mehlman acknowledged the foregoing concerns, “The destruction of humanity as a result of ill-informed, overzealous, genetic manipulation would undeniably be a dreadful calamity. If the threat is serious, it certainly must be averted if possible”.11
The concern of human extinction is real for some important reasons. One is that the genetic manipulation of people might not leave some people fully human and presents other unknown risks. “Inserting new segments of DNA into the germline could have major, unpredictable consequences for both the individual and the future of the species” warns the Council for Responsible Genetics.12 And, as biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin has written, “we risk undermining our own species’ biological integrity in the name of human progress.”13
That is completely certain if the future envisioned by Natasha Vita-More proposes. The author of the Transhuman Manifesto said in 2006, “I don’t think this necessarily concludes that there will be all sorts of species, but perhaps numerable variations on the human or transhuman theme.” She added, “I think that there will be some traceable element” of the original human genetics but “If we are uploads, then we would not be defined by our genome . . .”14
Another threat is that enhanced humans may have advantages over conventional people that put them at a disadvantage. Indeed, the project headed by Mehlman was explicitly stated to “develop standards for tests on human subjects in research that involves the use of genetic technologies to enhance ‘normal’ individuals – to make them smarter, stronger, or better-looking.”
While superiority may be preferable in the personal realm, it is essential to military endeavours. In the 2008 Wired article, Top Pentagon Scientists Fear Brain-Modified Foes,15 the Pentagon’s scientific advisory panel warned16 that the United States defense needed to stay on top of human modification or lose the edge against its enemies. The American military, which once fought the Nazi regime, was advised to implement an Übermensch project of its own. If someone wins a rat race, aren’t they still a rat?
Superior technology in an enemy’s hands may not be the only problem. Technology could also threaten humanity by taking on a life of its own. In the 1950s, Stanislaw Ulam and John von Newmann had a discussion “centered on the accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”17
Current futurists believe this moment is almost upon us. In 2005, Google engineer Ray Kurzweil wrote The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil predicted that by 2029, computers will pass the Turing test,18 meaning they will match human cognition. Then around 2045, “the pace of change will be so astonishingly quick that we won’t be able to keep up, unless we enhance our own intelligence by merging with the intelligent machines we are creating.”19
Kurzweil described the result in the 2009 film, Transcendent Man: “We humans are going to start linking with each other and become a meta connection we will all be connected and all be omnipresent, plugged into this global network that is connected to billions of people, and filled with data.”20 Perhaps, but if we function like the Borg of StarTrek, will we still be human?
Kurzweil has stated publicly that technology is on the threshold of offering humans immortality.21 And, more than that, he told an audience in 2016 that the direction of guided evolution is for man to become like God.
“What happens to entities as they evolve? We became more intelligent. We became more capable of higher level emotions, so we became more loving. We became more creative. We became more beautiful. And so we’re actually moving exponentially to have greater levels of the very properties we ascribe to God without limit.”22
Like Nietzsche, Kurzweil has taken a post-God approach to his pursuit of directed evolution. But forgetting the Biblical God also means forgetting the Biblical story. Kurzweil may or may not realize that the potential he promises through transhumanism echoes the promise of the serpent. In Genesis 3:4-5, it says the forbidden fruit offers immortality, expanded knowledge, and god-like qualities.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.23
The problem with playing God is that it can create problems only a god could solve. The irreversible transformations to the human genome, society, relationships, and rights, could make transhumanism a pandora’s box. Instead of exalting humanity, it could lead to its very end. Dr. Leon Kass is right to warn us.
Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic “enhancement,” for wholesale redesign. In leading laboratories, academic and industrial, new creators are confidently amassing their powers and quietly honing their skills, while on the street their evangelists are zealously prophesying a posthuman future. For anyone who cares about preserving our humanity, the time has come for paying attention.24
Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
- See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1998/1998-h/1998-h.htm
- See https://www.lexico.com/definition/ubermensch
- See https://radicalarchives.org/2010/05/18/nietzsche-and-the-anarchists/
- Lifton, Robert Jay (1986). The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.
- See https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.90330/page/n7/mode/2up
- See https://www.academia.edu/13997038/History_of_transhumanism
- See http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/Documents/Chapter1/cyborgs.pdf
- Ibid., p. 26.
- Ibid., p. 76.
- See https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-04/cwru-cls042606.php
- Council for Responsible Genetics, Human Genetics Committee, Position Paper on Human Germ Line Manipulation, 4 HUM. GENE THERAPY 35, 37 (1993). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8461382
- See https://www.tampabay.com/archive/2005/03/30/human-animal-hybrids-cross-an-ethical-line/
- See http://www.americanantigravity.com/files/articles/Natasha-Vita-More-Interview.pdf
- See https://www.wired.com/2008/06/jason-warns-of/
- See https://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/human.pdf
- See https://www.ams.org/journals/bull/1958-64-03/S0002-9904-1958-10189-5/S0002-9904-1958-10189-5.pdf
- See http://hfg-resources.googlecode.com/files/SingularityIsNear.pdf, p. 200.
- See https://strategyonline.ca/2014/02/26/a-head-of-his-time/
- See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FipNCrsYGDM
- See https://www.kurzweilai.net/pbs-news-hour-inventor-ray-kurzweil-sees-immortality-in-our-future
- See https://singularityhub.com/2016/08/18/why-ray-kurzweil-believes-we-are-becoming-more-god-like-video/
- See https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-Chapter-3/
- Leon R. Kass, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (New York: Encounter, 10/25/02).