Re: Genetic transition to posthumanism

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Fri Apr 27 2001 - 03:51:34 MDT

fredagen den 27 april 2001 01:02 Francois-Rene Rideau wrote:
> How do extropians envision transition from mankind
> to whatever posthuman future awaits us?
> What are the documented scenarios that have been considered?

I think the "generic" scenario would be something along the lines of: first
various cognitive enhancements through external technology (wearable
computers, smart agents, Internet) and better and better tuning of our bodies
(nootropics, control of hormones etc). Gradually implants (wholly artificial
or biotechnological) become available and used, producing significant bodily
improvements and breaking down the barriers separating human from something
artificial. Later on nanotechnology becomes available, and people shift to it
rather than clunky bionics. This is in turn followed by integrating nanotech
more and more into the body, until the natural biological part eventually
ceases to be relevant: all its functions have been subsumed by the nanotech.

Note that this is a gradual scenario of people improving themselves and
possibly their children, not a "new species" suddenly appearing.

Another scenario involves the rather discrete shift to a digital existence
through uploading: at some point it becomes possible to scan the brain into a
computer and continue existence as software (possibly downloaded into
suitable bodies). This is however for technical reasons unlikely before
fairly strong nanotechnology.

> I mean, afaik, historically, genetic replacement happens by massive
> extinction of species in very short times (geologicallywise, anyway),
> with the surviving ones filling the void (that they might or not have
> caused, to begin with). Do you expect some posthuman species to just sit
> around (maybe in secret) and takeover the planet after some inevitable
> catastrophe wipes mankind?

No. That is a Hollywood meme - dramatic, makes a good drama, but in the end
misleading. Of course, some here argues that AI might do something like that
(which I also disagree with, but for other reasons).

Besides, the emergence of new species is quite often cause by genetic drift
in entire populations: when it got colder during the ice age many mammal
species developed thicker furs as those genes promoted the fitness of their
offspring and hence spread widely through the population. The idea that the
new species out-competes the old doesn't seem to be very popular among
biologists these days (it is far too based on the idea of evolution as having
discrete steps and a "plan").

> If not, this might mean a completely different way for species to emerge
> than have been seen in the past. Do you expect genetic enhancement to
> become so cheap that just about every human will eventually have been
> modified?

It doesn't seem entirely unlikely. There is a vast market for it, and once
the initial expensive attempts have become routine the price will likely go
down. Add to this that the standards of living are increasing in most places
worldwide, especially the fairly pro-genetic South-east Asia, and I think it
will eventually end up on most health plans (or whatever replaces them in the

> Would that result into a sustainable species? How long do you
> expect it for the transition to take?

A few generations, so I guess 50-75 years. As Eliezer pointed out, this might
be too slow for it to matter when more radical technologies appear, but it
might be an important mental threshold to pass in order to make other
enhancing technologies acceptable.

I don't see why genetic modifications would not make the species

> Won't the biggest brake to such transition be public opinion and
traditional religion?


> Also, many (most?) genetic enhancements are only useful if done at
> conception time, so that the embryo may develop new or substantially
> different organs (Dawkins argues that the phenomenon of growing individuals
> at every generation from a monocellular embryo is one of the biggest
> breakthrough in the last 3 billion years of genetic evolution).
> If so, the biggest potential for genetic progress in posthumans
> is in making new individuals. However, such method, by definition,
> cannot ever make any previously existing individual immortal, or
> otherwise satisfy anyone's direct selfish interest (or can it?),
> so that only a tiny fraction of genetic engineering is actually open
> for much transhuman progress. Yet, only selfish interest, coupled
> with the responsibility associated to liberty, ensures that things
> go into a consistent direction of progress. How do you envision the
> future with respect to this kind of problems?

Gene therapy might become good enough one day (especially with nanotech) to
make pre-existing individuals immortal. Although it could be that the first
immortals would be rather cyborged while their children are more organic (and
their childrens children wholly nanotech?) At family reunions
great-granddaddy tells incredoulous digital child entities about the days of
Sinclair ZX-81 and Windows, while the nanotech parents gossip in the kitchen.

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