Sleepless in Science Fiction

There is an interesting collection of articles on transhumanism this month in a publication called The Global Spiral. Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s article Cybernetics is an Anti-Humanism sets the stage for the discussion:

In recent years, the enterprise of “making life from scratch” has been organized as a formal scientific discipline under the seemingly innocuous name of synthetic biology. In June 2007, the occasion of the first Kavli Futures Symposium at the University of Greenland in Ilulissat, leading researchers from around the world gathered to announce the convergence of work in synthetic biology and nanotechnology and to take stock of the most recent advances in the manufacture of artificial cells. Their call for a global effort to promote “the construction or redesign of biological systems components that do not naturally exist” evoked memories of the statement that was issued in Asilomar, California more than thirty years earlier, in 1975, by the pioneers of biotechnology. Like their predecessors, the founders of synthetic biology insisted not only on the splendid things they were poised to achieve, but also on the dangers that might flow from them. Accordingly, they invited society to prepare itself for the consequences, while laying down rules of ethical conduct for themselves. We know what became of the charter drawn up at Asilomar. A few years later, this attempt by scientists to regulate their own research had fallen to pieces. The dynamics of technological advance and the greed of the marketplace refused to suffer any limitation.

Count me as unsurprised–“self-regulation” is all too often a euphemism for no regulation at all. Given Dupuy’s observations of the mutual reinforcement of market and technological forces, I found Katherine Hayles’s treatment of a science fiction novel on genetic enhancement particularly interesting:

Perhaps the most explicit [science fiction] confrontation with transhumanist philosophy occurs in Nancy Kress’s . . . “Beggars in Spain” . . . Kenzo Yagai is the text’s philosopher-economist who serves as the fictional counterpart to Ayn Rand, often cited on transhumanist websites as one of the founding thinkers of the movement. Initially infatuated with Rand’s extreme individualism, its concomitant ideology of free-market capitalism unhampered by regulation, and a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest in which the fit are those who can most effectively exploit the free market, Kress became disenchanted with Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and wrote “Beggars in Spain” in rebuttal.

In Yagaiist philosophy, the contract freely entered into by individuals is seen as the basis for a good society, in part because it is an advance over social systems based on coercion. The premise is tested by embedding it in a reproductive context in which Roger Camden, self-made millionaire and confirmed Yagaiist, arranges for a genetic intervention that will yield a daughter (intelligent, blond, long-legged, attractive) who will not need to sleep. Unexpectedly, however, his wife (a bit player in Camden’s life) conceives twins: Leisha, the engineered baby, is one of the Sleepless, while Alice is a “normal” child who requires sleep.

The match-up allows the effects of this seemingly minor genetic alteration—eliminating the need for sleep—to be explored and dramatized. While Alice progresses at the usual rate, Leisha, apple of her father’s eye, zooms ahead of her twin intellectually. She is Camden’s “special” (i.e. “real”) daughter not only because he paid for her genetic alteration but also because she buys in wholeheartedly to her father’s Yagaiist doctrine of individual achievement, allowing him to reproduce ideologically as well as genetically. As with other SF interventions, Kress does not allow the narrative to remain focused entirely on the individual but rather sketches a broader social context.

The Sleepless form networks among themselves as they encounter increasing resentment and sanctions from the majority Sleepers, who contend that the Sleepless have unfair advantages because they have, in effect, 33% more time at their disposal in which to study, learn, and achieve. The social landscape in which Leisha grows up is rife with conflicts between “normal” humans and the transhuman Sleepless, who as they grow up prove to be not only highly intelligent and high-achieving but also resistant to aging, with life expectancies measured is hundreds rather than decades of years. Already numbering in the hundred thousands, the Sleepless in a dozen generations appear to be on track to become the successor species to Homo sapiens sapiens (perhaps as Homo sapiens sleepless).

Despite the growing tensions, Leisha struggles to retain ties to Sleepers, including her sister Alice. The eponymous “beggars in Spain” represent a strong challenge to that desire. Her Sleepless friend Tony argues that high-achieving Sleepless have more to offer than Sleepers and, in the face of increasing prejudice against them, should withdraw to form their own society. He asks her if she would give money to a beggar in Spain; Leisha says yes. Then what about two beggars, three, a hundred, a thousand? The lesson Tony means to teach is to show that the basis for a shared society—that is, the contract that reciprocally benefits both participants—breaks down when those who have nothing to give outnumber those who have much to give, for any contract must then be unequal and hence unfair to the privileged.

If you want to understand the hidden agenda behind a laissez-faire attitude toward cognition enhancers, Kress’s novel would be a good place to start. Like Bill Kristol’s infamous memo on the Clinton healthcare plan, these documents are about much bigger game than one particular technological intervention. Expect the tension between performance enhancement and social solidarity to heighten over time.

PS: Dupuy suggests that even more fundamental aspects of human nature than equality may be at stake:

When we love somebody, we do not love a list of characteristics, even one that is sufficiently exhaustive to distinguish the person in question from anyone else. The most perfect simulation still fails to capture something, and it is this something that is the essence of love—this poor word that says everything and explains nothing. I very much fear that the spontaneous ontology of those who wish to set themselves up as the makers or re-creators of the world know nothing of the beings who inhabit it, only lists of characteristics. If the nanobiotechnological dream were ever to come true, what still today we call love would become incomprehensible.

Dupuy’s view may seem partial, a reflection of a Maritainian philosophy. Nevertheless, it resonates with efforts of philosophers like Michael Sandel to articulate the problems we will face as we increasingly see ourselves as “made,” and not “given.”

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