13 January 2010

Top of the list: the biggest impact

Filed under: books, democracy, Humanity Plus, UKTA — David Wood @ 12:46 am

I recently published a list of the books that had made the biggest impact on me, personally, over the last ten years.  I left one book out of that list – the book that impacted me even more than any of the others.

The book in question was authored by Dr James J. Hughes, a sociologist and bioethicist who teaches Health Policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.  In his spare time, James is the Executive Director of the IEET – the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

The title of the book is a bit of a mouthful:


I came across this book in October 2005.  The ideas in the book started me down a long path of further exploration:

I count this book as deeply impactful for me because:

  1. It was the book that led to so many other things (as just listed);
  2. When I look back at the book in 2010, I find several key ideas in it which I now take for granted (but I had forgotten where I learned them).

An indication of the ideas contained may be found from an online copy of the Introduction to the book, and from a related essay “Democratic Transhumanism 2.0“.

The book goes far beyond just highlighting the potential of new technologies – including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence – to significantly enhance human experience.  The book also contains a savvy account of the role of politics in supporting and enabling human change.

To quote from the Introduction:

This book argues that transhuman technologies – technologies that push the boundaries of humanness – can radically improve our quality of life, and that we have a fundamental right to use them to control our bodies and minds.  But to ensure these benefits we need to democratically regulate these technologies and make them equally available in free societies.  Becoming more than human can improve all our lives, but only new forms of transhuman citizenship and democracy will make us free, more equal, and more united.

A lot of people are understandably frightened by the idea of a society in which unenhanced humans will need to coexist with humans who are smarter, faster, and more able, not to mention robots and enhanced animals…

The “bioLuddite” opposition to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, slowly building and networking since the 1960s, picked up where the anti-industrialisation Luddites left off in the nineteenth century.  While Luddites believed that defending workers’ rights required a ban on the automation of work, the bioLuddites believe genetic engineering and human enhancement technologies cannot be used safely, and must be banned…

The emerging “biopolitical” polarisation between bioLuddites and transhumanists will define twenty-first century politics…

People will be happiest when they individually and collectively exercise rational control of the social and natural forces that affect their lives.  The promise of technological liberation, however, is best achieved in the context of a social democratic society committed to liberty, equality, and solidarity…

Boing Boing author Cory Doctorow makes some good points in his review of “Citizen Cyborg”:

I’ve just finished a review copy of James Hughes’s “Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.” I was skeptical when this one arrived, since I’ve read any number of utopian wanks on the future of humanity and the inevitable withering away of the state into utopian anarchism fueled by the triumph of superior technology over inferior laws.

But Hughes’s work is much subtler and more nuanced than that, and was genuinely surprising, engaging and engrossing…

Hughes’s remarkable achievement in “Citizen Cyborg” is the fusion of social democratic ideals of tempered, reasoned state intervention to promote equality of opportunity with the ideal of self-determination inherent in transhumanism. Transhumanism, Hughes convincingly argues, is the sequel to humanism, and to feminism, to the movements for racial and gender equality, for the fight for queer and transgender rights — if you support the right to determine what consenting adults can do with their bodies in the bedroom, why not in the operating theatre?

Much of this book is taken up with scathing rebuttal to the enemies of transhumanism — Christian lifestyle conservatives who’ve fought against abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage; as well as deep ecologist/secular lefty intelligentsia who fear the commodification of human life. He dismisses the former as superstitious religious thugs who, a few generations back, would happily decry the “unnatural” sin of miscegenation; to the latter, he says, “You are willing to solve the problems of labor-automation with laws that ensure a fair shake for working people — why not afford the same chance to life-improving techno-medicine?”

The humanist transhuman is a political stance I’d never imagined, but having read “Citizen Cyborg,” it seems obvious and natural. Like a lot of basically lefty geeks, I’ve often felt like many of my ideals were at odds with both the traditional left and the largely right-wing libertarians. “Citizen Cyborg” squares the circle, suggest a middle-path between them that stands foursquare for the improvement of the human condition through technology but is likewise not squeamish about advocating for rules, laws and systems that extend a fair opportunity to those less fortunate…

The transformation of politics Hughes envisions is from a two-dimensional classification to a three-dimensional classification.

The first two dimensions are “Economic politics” and “Cultural politics”, with a spectrum (in each case) from conservative to progressive.

The new dimension, which will become increasingly significant, is “Biopolitics”.  Hughes uses the label “bioLuddism” for the conservative end of this spectrum, and “Transhumanism” for the progressive end.

The resulting cube has eight vertices, which include both “Left bioLuddism” and “Right bioLuddism”, as well as both “Libertarian transhumanism” and “Democratic transhumanism”.

Interestingly, the ramp-up of political debate in the United Kingdom, ahead of the parliamentary election that will take place some time before summer, has served as a reminder that the “old” political divisions seem inadequate to deal with the challenges of the current day.  It’s harder to discern significant real differences between the major parties.  I still don’t have any strong views as to which party I should vote for.  My guess is that each of the major parties will contain a split of views regarding the importance of enhancement technologies.

I’ll give the final words to James Hughes – from the start of Chapter 7 in his book:

The most important disagreement between bioLuddites and transhumanists is over who we should grant citizenship, with all its rights and protections.  BioLuddites advocate “human-racism”, that citizenship and rights have something to do with simply having a human genome.  Transhumanists… believe citizenship should be based on “personhood”, having feelings and consciousness.  The struggle to replace human-racism with personhood can be found at the beginnings and ends of life, and at the imaginary lines between humans and animals, and between humans and posthumans.  Because they have not adopted the personhood view, the human-racists are disturbed by lives that straddle the imaginary human/non-human line.  But technological advances at each of these margins will force our society in the coming decades to complete the trajectory of 400 years of liberal democracy and choose “cyborg citizenship”.


  1. David,

    thanks for putting together this fantastic list of books. I’ve only read three of them, and I’m certainly going to rectify that, starting with “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 18 January 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    • Martin,

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Jon Haidt’s book, once you’ve had a chance to look at it.

      In turn, I’ve still got your recommendation “The public domain” by James Boyle high on my “intend to read” list.

      Comment by David Wood — 19 January 2010 @ 11:27 am

  2. Thanks so much for the fabulous shout-out David. I’m looking forward to following your projects, professional and transhumanist, and delighted to hear that I’ve helped inspire some of your work.

    James Hughes Ph.D.
    Executive Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
    Associate Editor, Journal of Evolution and Technology
    Williams 119, Trinity College
    300 Summit St., Hartford CT 06106
    (office) 860-297-2376

    Comment by J. Hughes — 20 January 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    • James – it’s my pleasure to commend this book, as deeply impactful.

      I look forward to bumping into you again soon, online or in meatspace.

      Your recent essays on IEET.org (eg here) are major thoughtpieces for the new decade! If you are ever coming near London, it would be great to organise a meeting for you to cover at least part of this ground.

      Comment by David Wood — 26 January 2010 @ 7:56 am

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