Thursday, July 19, 2012

True Humans vs. Transhumans

Noodling out a proper future ideological conflict. I do not like 1:1 allegories like Marvel mutants = gay/civil rights or robot slavery = human slavery. I like the idea that human nature never changes and thus similar conflicts will arise throughout history, all the way up until we have the ability to change human nature.

I am not taking sides for or against, simply pointing out that once we are able to do something, we always end up doing it. Some people will embrace radical new ways of being and living, others will reject. We will have revolutionaries and reactionaries and thus good conflicts for stories.

Human Nature

I believe human nature arises from the biological template evolution has given us (homo sapiens sapiens, the species so nice we named us twice) mediated by the collective baggage of our culture. I believe good and bad boils down to what makes life more or less enjoyable; lacking any external god-thing telling us what to do, good and bad is about what makes our own experience in life better or worse. We are communal animals. We exist within a social environment. Family, friends, colleagues, we are rewarded and punished by how well we negotiate our interactions. All of this is mediated by the demands placed on us by our evolutionary history. We are social creatures. We want good families and good friendships because it helps our genes propagate into the next generation. Why do we want babies? Because we want to propagate our unique genetic identity. If given a choice between raising a natural child and adopting, why does a couple prefer their own children? Because of biological imperative. What we are ignorant of is frightening and the unknown is impossible to humanize. Once the unknown threat has a name, a face, we and they can share a conversation and a beer, we're not so different, we're all human. Maybe we can avoid a pointless conflict.

No matter what we think and believe, from a first world tycoon to a third world serf, we're all human. Our magnificent, throbbing brains are capable of creating elaborate justifications and deceptions to work around animal emotions. Monkeys throw feces, we throw h-bombs. The fundamental motivations are more similar than we care to admit. We're all animals and some of us are human. For now. 

Posthuman Nature

And so we enter the thorny topic of "what constitutes humanity?" When we are modifying the brain, can we even say human nature is retained? The genetic difference between modern humans and the chimpanzee is 2%. Project our ability for self-modification into the science fiction realm and the options are wide-open. Orthohuman and transhuman. Now we're not just talking about a culture gap but a mental gap.

Bog-standard humans have a hard enough time playing the social game. Autistic individuals lack the social skills to interact properly and come across as robotic and creepy. Sociopaths lack any capacity for empathy but can fake interactions to pass for a happy member of the tribe. We have trouble humanizing people who are 100% genetically identical to us, who only differ in superficial ways. What happens when the differences are real, profound, and potentially irreconcilable?

A shark will never be a thing of warmth. It serves a role in the ecosystem, as an apex predator is a model of evolutionary perfection, and while most species are not harmful to us, some are and can gobble us up without remorse. It's a hard fight to convince people that the shark has a place in nature and that attacks are nothing personal, you just happened to look like food. When other humans present an existential threat, we begin the process of dehumanizing them, making them other, making them acceptable to kill. When the threat isn't recognizably human to begin with, it won't take much convincing to go to war.

Where are Lines Drawn?

Good liberals like to flatter themselves as being open-minded, receptive to new ideas. I know for myself, I always want to be on the liberal side of any debate. Even if I may not agree with what you say but will defend your right to say it. But there are always edge cases that try my convictions. This is the the very heart of a good controversy, where you become uncertain of which side you belong on. Things get messy when general principles are translated into policies. I believe parents should have a right to raise their kids according to their beliefs. At what point does parental prerogative become child abuse? An atheist could argue raising a child religious is abusive just a easily as a religious person could argue raising a child atheist is the same. What if parents believe girls should not be taught to read and write and should only be trained up to be mothers and wives? Who gets to determine what abuse is? Who enforces the rules? What recourse is there to appeal decisions?

Black and white issues aren't fun. No thinking is required. It gets interesting when you can see where both sides are coming from and identify with either argument. What would the armed camps look like in this dispute?

Human Identity Philosophy

Only true humans have a valid existence and those who pervert humanity are sinful. Lacking religious texts to define what human is, we are left with cultural biases dressed up in pseudoscientific drag. Ideals are set forth as to the properties of the ideal human mind and body. Modifications to correct for evolutionary defects are permitted but anything that violates the morality of human existence is anathema and forbidden. Straight Human Identity sects refuse all mental and morphological modifications. Reform Human Identity sects allow for morphological modifications but preserve mental patterns.

Human Identity is adamant about individual freedom (except for freedom of self modification) and rejects slavery (mind control, mind clamping, hypnotic conditioning) and thrall creation (creating a being who wants to be enslaved or has a limited intellect and is only good for a task). Even Reform groups that believe human identity is a choice and are not hostile to transhumans as a matter of doctrine will find the imposition of the way of life on individuals who have not reached their age of majority to be anathema.

Transhumanity is generally seen by HI as evil and immoral and described with provocative terms. Twisted, perverted, bent, unclean, degenerate, cursed, unforgivable, sinful, evil. Neutral or positive naming conventions are avoided. 

From our 21st century perspective, the negative aspects of HI would be authoritarian, dogmatic, judgmental, inflexible and oppressive. The most positive aspect of HI is that we would find them warm and personable compared to the more outre Transhumans. A seeming contradiction in HI thought is the protection of individual freedom of existence by defining how they are allowed to exist. The debate between what is permissible and what is not leads to the major schisms between HI sects.

Transhuman Identity Philosophy

There is no human ideal, only what satisfies the needs of an individual or a community of the like-minded. HI aesthetics are arbitrary and no more valid than any other competing aesthetics. Everything is open to debate. While TI cultures outnumber HI cultures, they are more fractuous and thus present a weak front in the face of HI unity.

Consensual Transhumanists believe in informed consent. Nothing is done that is not requested and the participant is competent to provide legal consent. Nothing is imposed. 

Non consensual Transhumanists do not believe in the concept of individual rights and only the imposition of will. Is it wrong to breed one dog with another to produce puppies without uplifting their minds to human consciousness? Is it any more sinful to start from human genetic stock and create an intelligent yet limited servitor being? Right and wrong become a matter of ability. Being able to do something means it is right and not being able to do so means it is wrong; the wishes of the subject are irrelevant. 

This is where we come upon concepts of mind-horror and body-horror in a previous post.

So, how would these transhuman horrors be expressed? My starting point is imagining if the monsters of our own history had access to genetic engineering that worked. 

Mind Control

We're used to the idea of Svengali and hypnotism. But consider the hangups of Christian thought, Jesus admonishing: "If your eye offends you, pluck it out." Some Christians have avoided sexual sin by castration. Western doctors promoted circumcision as a way to prevent masturbation. Lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were thought to have curative effects. Orwell's Ingsoc had the idea that changing the language could change thought and make rebellion literally unthinkable. 

If we revisit the world of magic and folklore, could there be anything more insidious than a love potion? It not only obliterates freewill, it makes the victim feel every genuine human emotion towards the attacker. And what would be worse, a love potion that is entirely effective or one that leaves a remnant of the original personality to scream and rebel in horror as the body willingly responds to the rapist-suitor? 

The techniques could be varied from memetic weapons that attack the mind through the senses to a physical alteration of the brain's behavior such as with mind-control parasites we see in the real world. 

Thrall Creation 

This would be the creation of a genetically-engineered human-derived creature. In a sense this could be called mind-binding, robbing a human of fullest potential to be used for some purpose. 

HI is seen by transhumanists as reactionary, backward-looking, and shackled to outmoded ways of thinking. TI's will alternately treat HI's with pity, contempt, or hatred. 

From our 21st century perspective, the negative aspects of TI would be mind-horror, body-horror, and utter shock at completely alien ways of thinking and being. Even as we intellectually believe in self-determination and expressionism, the results strike us like a freak show. We may find ourselves grudgingly on the HI's side when faced with non consensual transhumanists. The positive aspects are whatever ideas of theirs we can see value in. 

Mind Remodeling

Transhumans who have been so heavily remodeled that their thinking process has become completely alien to orthohumans. Some may have cybernetically integrated their brains into the computer systems of starships, becoming starships. Ascetics might do away with their bodies and all outside sensation to become disembodied minds of pure intellect, even though they're essentially brains in vats. Some might long for a closer connection to their fellows and fashion themselves into a eusocial form living in densely packed warrens, constantly buzzing from the intoxicant pheromone glands that are a part of their new bodies. One attempt at a hive mind could be the negation of self, cybernetic implants reshaping thought until it is consistent with the orthodoxy, where I becomes WE and they no more need speak to each other than fingers of a hand do to hold an object. People with body dysmorphic disorder feel that pieces of their body do not belong and will resort to amputation to set things right. With sufficient technology, they can add and subtract. 

Perhaps some transhumanists wish to be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Maybe he wants to be an apex predator hunting in the steaming jungles of a distant world, not doing it in simulation but genuinely experiencing it. Or maybe he echoes Cavil's rant from the new Battlestar Galactica: "I don’t want to be human. I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly, because I have to — I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me." 

Hard and Soft Dystopia

Neil Postman on 1984 vs. Brave New World: 
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

I think that both HI and TI will see elements of Orwell and Huxley in each other. 

Outside of those two armed camps will exist the rest of humanity that borrows what they find useful from each side but refuse to take part in the wars. 

Because there are varying sects, the conflict in any given locale could be amicable or intense. Reform HI and consensual TI could exist peacefully enough. Evangelistic activity by either side could be cause for war. 

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors 

Cheap access to space is necessary in this setting. With hypersail technology, the early ships might have required decades to travel between stars in the lowest clines and made for an effective means of isolation. Only centuries later did slowly advancing technology begin to make the known universe a smaller place. Now cultures that saw themselves on the furthest edges of space have become neighbors with the cultures they fled. And this is the fuel of good drama and conflict. 


  1. You might like "Eon", by Greg Bear. The far future society is divided between the humanist "Naderites and transhumanist "Geshels".

    In any moderately hard or realistic setting, the transhumanists will have many advantages over the humans (mostly by design), and humans will either have to rely on overwhelming numbers to swamp the transhumanist influence (a strategy which will have diminishing returns over time as the transhumans become more numerous and more accomplished), or hope the transhumans, being narrowly engineered, will have fatal weaknesses built in either by accident or design.

    I would tend to reject the either/or trope and see the transhumanist/hard AI future as being more of an ecosystem, where transhuman or AIs (or both) exist within a much larger cultural, economic, political and social environment that includes humans. Humans may no longer be the top level of the food chain, but are still needed (even if the reasons are not clear to humans) to ensure the health and functioning of the ecosystem.

    This might not mean close social contact or transhumans meeting humans for romantic trysts, but there would be some sort of integration to allow a healthy, functioning society.

  2. The way I'm seeing it, you will have hard-line factions on either side, moderates, and people who don't have a dog in the fight either way. There's room for many competing, seemingly self-consistent but not entirely correct world views.

    From a storytelling perspective, the reason for the HI cultures is to give us 21st century readers a baseline culture to identify with even as we ease out into the wider universe.

  3. Perhaps luckily, the extreme factions will be a small minority of the population.

    Sadly, in any setting where transhumanism is possible, then we would also have access to superscience and the ability of even small sects/groups/organizations to create WMD or disruptive technologies. Everyone will get polarized over that.

    Still, in the larger "ecosystem" context, what is the real relationship between transhumans and humans? It would be pretty frightening if it turns out to be predator and prey. Vampires could be considered a form of transhuman creature, being preternaturally faster, stronger, smarter (at least in modeling emotional responses in humans) and more dangerous; the top predator in this world. Since transhumans will probably have different emotional cues and responses to humans, they would appear to be sociopaths by our standards, so the Vampire analogy might not be so far off.

  4. An interesting digression.

    The University of Guelph is embarking on a project to identify the various species of bacteria living in the human gut and what effects they have on the rest of the human organism. There is some tenuous linkage between the flora in your gut and incidence of obesity, diabetes and autism, although I will caution that this linkage has not been proven, nor have any particular species of bacteria been identified as being the "lead" in this.

    One can speculate (hence this blog!), and if some effect like this can be proven, then it would be possible to treat or at least remediate some of these problems using probiotic solutions. One could imagine benevolent governments providing servings of probiotic yoghurt to citizens in order to cut down on these diseases. A less benevolent government might seed the food supply with various gut bacteria that provide opposite effects in order to control the population.

    Going a bit further, I would be very interested to see comparisons between the flora of "ordinary" humans and genius level humans or Olympic level athletes. If there is a real and verifiable difference between average and above average human gut bacteria, then a sort of low cost "uplift" of the target nation population might become possible. (This isn't to say everyone will become a Stephen Hawking or Ursain Bolt, but rather the average potential will be raised in the target population). Once again, the opposite might become the goal of a dystopian government bent on imposing its will on the population.

  5. Competition between orthohumans and transhumans: I'm not wanting to make either side stronger or weaker, they've got trade-offs. Therefore there's not going to be any established hunter/prey relations.

    For superminds, I'm handwaving a limitation in place that higher levels of thought are coincident with insanity. No matter of the substrate is silicon or meat, there's an upper limit to useful, stable intelligence. This avoids supermind-wank.

    Different emotional cueing, we'll have this in spades. The radically altered transhumans will certainly be alien to us by our own way of thinking.

    As for mind control yogurt, that's certainly under the realm of "What's good, what's bad?" Raises unsettling questions.

    The gut flora and fauna question has been raised as another impediment in Jurassic Parking extinct species. Even if we get the perfect genome for the velociraptor, we're likely to be missing all those other useful bugs that help keep its metabolism functional.

  6. Depending on your view of transhumanism, the transhumans are almost by definition the "stronger" species (since we are already at the apex of every food chain on the planet as ordinary orthohumans). Now if transhumanism turns out to be more like "Brave New World" with various subhuman species being developed as workers and thralls then the relationship is more like humans and highly bred working dogs (and if trahshumans are developed in the other direction and are much smarter/stronger/faster then they most likely will treat us as useful pets and companions).

    The Vampire analogy was to see just where the limits were, and there is nothing in particular to prevent such a scenario from occuring, particularly if the transhumans were sociopaths by our social and mental conventions.