Science & Technology

What Transhumanism Misunderstands About Being Human

Branson Parler

Talk of cyborgs isn’t only for fans of science fiction anymore. A recent National Geographicarticle by D. T. Max highlights the ways in which advocates and practitioners of transhumanism are merging our bodies with technology. Perhaps we are well on our way to what the magazine’s cover describes as “the next human.”

How should Christians think about the technological optimism of transhumanism? I would suggest that we should be wary, for transhumanism is simply the latest example of our sinful impulse to reach beyond our proper human limits, whereas Jesus shows us that being truly human means accepting our limits.

The piece by Max is especially helpful in uncovering the tensions and problems in transhumanist thought. Transhumanism interprets being human as merely one cluster of characteristics on an evolutionary scale. To be clear, it’s not simply an embrace of evolution that’s a problem, but the philosophical assumption that being “human” is the result of a completely natural, dysteleological process. In other words, there is no reason (theologically or philosophically) why we are the way we are and there is no reason to stay the way we are.

But if being human is merely a cluster of characteristics on the evolutionary scale, there’s no reason to value human life generally or any individual life specifically. Instead, that life can be manipulated, used, or destroyed for the sake of advancing the cause of transcending our limits, our “humanity.” Though Max’s article is largely optimistic about our use of power, he alludes to our experiments on and destruction of embryos, our ability to use CRISPR technology to produce babies with our preferred characteristics, and the role of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Products Agency), noting that their role is not to enhance life but to create “vast weapons systems of the future.” There’s a nod to the fact that we often use technology in very destructive ways, but technology is, for many, the ultimate savior from what ails us.

We can read the Incarnation as a fascinating inversion of the transhumanist impulse.

One might ask: don’t we use technology to enhance and improve life all the time, from pacemakers to hearing aids to new prescription medication? How is transhumanism any different? One key difference is that by defining “human” as merely a cluster of biological characteristics, it cannot properly distinguish between remedial medicines and technologies, and those that attempt to transcend natural human limitations. In other words, a hearing aid attempts to restore a malfunctioning ear to its proper function, whereas an implant that would allow someone to transcend normal human capabilities of hearing would be more problematic. From a transhumanist perspective, it is not merely that humans have certain malfunctions that need to be fixed, but that the human condition itself, with its finitude and limits, including death, is something to be overcome. That is, the problem to be fixed is not something that’s gone wrong with humans; the problem is being human.  

Of course, for Christians, this impulse toward transcending our humanity isn’t surprising. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we see God creating humans with power, but also with clear limits. Those boundaries were soon crossed. Though already like God as image-bearers, we are not content; we want to be God. We are often dissatisfied with the fact that we cannot see everything, know everything, or do everything. When we attempt to transcend our human limits by our own plans and means, Genesis 3-11 shows us that murder, violence, and prideful culture-making is the result.  

In light of Genesis, we can read the Incarnation as a fascinating inversion of the transhumanist impulse. Sinful humanity tries to leave our humanity behind, in contrast to the eternal, infinite God who willingly becomes human. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Son gave up the unlimited glory and benefits of his divinity in order to become a servant who experienced the ultimate limit: death. Paradoxically, then, the way to transcend our limits is to accept them. The way to overcome death is to accept it, committing ourselves into our Father’s care, just as Jesus did. The Savior we are looking for, the “next human,” as National Geographic would have it, is not a cyborg but a servant. May we see that embracing his path of death is also embracing his path of life.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology