I just realised that transhumanists are actually far more conservative in their outlook than those they derisively call bioconservatives.
According to the myth spun by transhumanists, bioconservatives oppose change, largely for no good reason at all. They just prefer things to stay as they are, no matter how much better they could be. They live in fear of the future, of new technologies that threaten to bring about a new, unfamiliar world. They are bioluddites. Like babies to their mother’s teat, they cling to the status quo. Like hobbits, they prefer to stay in their cosy underground homes rather than go out and discover the world, which is clearly very irrational since the world out there is so much better, as must be obvious to anyone not blinded by prejudice and fear. They like to think they are content with their lives as they are, but in fact they are just cowards, and because of their cowardice they turn a blind eye to all the wonderful opportunities that would arise from technological progress.
Transhumanists on the other hand are determined to boldly go where no man has gone before. They have no fear. They welcome change, and like the challenge of the unknown. They are rational, clear-headed. They do not only know what is good and what is bad, but also what is even better than good. They are adventurers, discoverers. They are the Columbuses of a future land of the blessed.
Yet is this pretty picture really true? I always had my doubts, of course, but it was only last night, when I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Poacher” (first published in 1992), that I realised just how false it was. The story is a variation of the Sleeping Beauty tale. A boy whose poverty forces him to poach in the woods belonging to a greedy baron discovers a gigantic impenetrable hedge. Curious to find out what lies beyond, he sets out to cut a path through the hedge. After two years of hard work he is through. On the other side he finds a King’s palace. In the palace, everyone is asleep. He stays there, eats the food, which is still warm and fresh as if had just come out of the oven, and which always renews itself so that he never has to go hungry again. Occasionally he has sex with one of the sleeping maidens, who is as warm and fresh as the food and always remains as young and red-cheeked and welcoming as she was when he first discovered her. Nothing ever changes, which suits him just fine, and he takes great care to stay clear of the princess, who, he feels, might be awoken very easily. He prefers to fuck the maid rather than kiss the princess and thereby risk having his pleasantly tranquil life overthrown. Sometimes he is lonely, but apparently that is a price worth paying:
“When I slept, there inside the great hedge, I never dreamed. What had I to dream of? Surely I had all I could desire. Still, while the time passed that did not pass, used as I was to solitude, I grew lonely; the company of the sleepers grew wearisome to me. Mild and harmless as they were, and dear as many of them became to me as I lived among them, they were no better companions to me than a child’s wooden toys, to which he must lend his own voice and soul.”
Yet instead of breaking the spell to be, once again, with real people, he starts making things and explores the library. He is happy lending his own voice and soul to the things around him. Being alone is still better than change. He is, after all, used to solitude. So he stays and grows old in an unchanging world.
So what’s all that got to do with transhumanism, and why do I think that transhumanists are actually more bioconservative than their opponents? Because what transhumanists, just like the boy in Le Guin’s story, really want is that the world stays exactly as it is. Yes, they do want to change certain things, but only so that other things can stay the same. The bioconservative accepts that life will one day end and change into something very different, the great unknown that we call death. The transhumanist wants life to go on forever and he fears death as the greatest evil. The bioconservative accepts that one cannot always be young, that the changes that ageing brings are part of a natural life cycle. The transhumanist sees ageing as a curse that damns us to a process of slow decay, which debilitates and humiliates us. Consequently, he wants to hold on to his youth as long as possible. The bioconservative accepts that one cannot always be happy, that there are ups and downs, good times and bad times. The transhumanist regards permanent, uninterrupted happiness as our birthright, and is determined to erase all pain and suffering from our human constitution, so that we will never be anything else but happy. The bioconservative knows and accepts that loving somebody is a risky endeavour, that love must be won and that love can be lost, and that you can never own another’s soul. The transhumanist wants to make sure that we are loved and continue to be loved no matter what, that we always have what we want and never lose what we have. The bioconservative accepts and indeed welcomes the fact that we cannot always control and predict what happens to us, that sometimes things come unbidden. The transhumanist wants to keep things under control. He loathes the unbidden.
Transhumanists live in permanent fear of change: of death and disease, of losing their physical and mental powers, of losing love and affection, of being abandoned. Bioconservatives are open to change. Transhumanists are not. They prefer a world fast asleep to a world that is fully awake.