What is to be done?

Sat, 22 Mar 1997 09:42:58 -0500 (EST)

The following expresses some uncharacteristically dark thoughts, so I write
here under a pseudonym.

Yesterday afternoon, sitting outside in the brilliant sunshine of the first
full day of Spring, 1997, at lunch with one of my good friends, I was feeling
very positive and optimistic. The conversation turned to the recent cloning
of an adult mammal and other breakthroughs in biotech, such as DNA chips. I
began to speak enthusiastically of transhumanism and the goals held dear by
extropians. Soon, I was dismayed to note that my friend was expressing very
negative attitudes toward my expressions of optimism. He said that I was
crazy to want to do these things, that death was part of the natural order,
that humans couldn't possibly keep from doing terrible evil with the new
powers I looked forward to, that I and my cohorts were hastening a
catastrophe. The list of horrors he said would follow from our program went
on for some time: Overpopulation due to increased longevity; increased
social stratification due to augmentation of the wealthy and powerful;
ecological havoc created by artificial organisms and nanotechnology;
distorted, unhealthy personalities created by experimental alteration of the
human brain . . .

Before long, my friend, who is very well educated, scientifically literate
and not at all religious in any traditional sense of the word, said that my
desires were evil, pure and simple, and made reference to Nazi eugenics. He
said that it was a very good thing that only a tiny minority of people felt
the way I did and that he hoped I and my fellow transhumanists would never
have a chance to do the things we wanted to do. The lunch ended on a very
sour note and I fear my friendship is mortally wounded.

Of course, this isn't the first time that this has happened. In fact, I
write here now because this experience is so very, very common. The
overwhelming majority of intelligent and well-educated people to whom I
attempt to explain transhumanism react negatively. The reactions range from
condescension, through fear and horror to hostile expressions of intention to
actively oppose transhumanism. Here is just a brief list of the common
reactions I receive:

"Extropian libertarianism is naive and simplistic in a juvenile way. Its
association with Ayn Rand and 'objectivism' will consign it permanently to
the fringe. A lot of teen agers go through an ĎAtlas Shrugged phase': How
old did you say most of these people are?"

"Transhumanism is an immature rejection of reality, a selfish and
self-centered desire to escape from the simple and basic facts of life. Quit

"Extropians are a bunch of mad scientists who simply haven't studied history.
Rushing into the things they want to do is likely to cause an economic or
ecological disaster. If there were even the slightest chance any of this
stuff would come into being, I'd be the first to vote to regulate all of it.
Maybe some of this stuff could do some good, but not if you rush into it,
and not if you do it all at once. Just because you can do something doesn't
mean you should."

"Transhumanists want to create a master race, just like the Nazis. And don't
they think Nietzsche is some sort of intellectual godfather? What does that
tell you?"

"Extropians are elitists. What about the billions of people suffering on the
edge of starvation? Sounds like they want a bunch of high-tech toys for a
few rich white male Americans that will just make things worse for everybody

These are just the reactions of the people who can qualify as educated and
relatively sophisticated in their thinking. Religious people and less well
educated people express similar reactions, but in different terms.

The fact is that we are a tiny minority among a tiny minority. Most people
on this planet couldn't even begin to comprehend the things we look forward
to because they don't have the knowledge or the mental energy. Within the
small fragment of humanity that has the education and leisure to understand
the basic concepts of transhumanism and extropiansim, all but a very few
reject our ideas, values and goals on principle.

This realization would be no more than a little emotionally depressing, if it
didn't underlie the very real possibility that the quickening pace of
scientific discovery and technological development will trigger a strong
reaction against progress toward post-humanity. We've all seen the reaction
to "Dolly". Soon, even more radical possibilities will be apparent to even
the least technologically oriented.

Dynamic optimism is a good thing. But all the optimism in the world can't
overcome a massive social, cultural and political reaction against augmenting
and transcending the human condition. Staying encapsulated within our own
little social sphere, talking only to others who share our values and goals,
we may not even see the reaction coming. But (based on my repeated
experience), even a patient explanation of our ideas to "outsiders" seems to
do no more than arm the opposition.

What is to be done?