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Ethicist: Transhumanism ‘inevitable’

  • Pastor-Mark-Douglas

    The Rev. Mark Douglas envisions humans evolving so significantly in genetic and biological ways that they may no longer be considered human eventually.

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  • Assimilation-by-the-Borg-in-Star-Trek

    Assimilation by the Borg in ‘Star Trek’ was termed the least likely way post-humans may emerge.

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Assimilation-by-the-Borg-in-Star-Trek

Assimilation by the Borg in ‘Star Trek’ was termed the least likely way post-humans may emerge.

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Welcome to the posthuman world. Everyone is smart, tall, good looking, free from disease, and, some predict, will live forever.

The Rev. Mark Douglas, a Presbyterian minister, theologian, ethicist, and professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., said in a lecture in Sylvania that transhumanism is "inevitable," as long as humanity continues to exist. In extrapolating natural evolution as described by Darwin, and given enough time, the human race will undergo significant genetic and biological changes, he said.

According to this theory, evolution will lead to a long-term progression from humans to transhumans to posthumans -- "a hypothetical future being whose capabilities and features are so different from ours that the term 'human' would seemingly no longer apply," Mr. Douglas said in a lecture Monday night at Sylvania United Church of Christ, the fourth installment in the church's "Scientists in Congregations" series.

Mr. Douglas, in his talk titled "What does it mean to be a human person? What the Bible says and what modern biology and medicine tell us," crammed a semester's worth of college-level material into an hour lecture, reviewing a number of theories about the future of the human race, from scientific, theological, and ethical perspectives.

Natural evolution is one of four ways that the posthuman might emerge, Mr. Douglas said. The others are biologically through intentional genetic modification, mechanically via nanotechnological integration of robotic and artificial-intelligence systems, and coercively via cooperation by another species.

Pastor-Mark-Douglas

The Rev. Mark Douglas envisions humans evolving so significantly in genetic and biological ways that they may no longer be considered human eventually.

PROVIDED TO THE BLADE
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Of the four possibilities, he said, the least likely is coercive transhumanism, as the "you will be assimilated" threat made by the Borg in Star Trek.

Citing the vast distances between celestial bodies and, as far as is known, the lack of suitable interstellar propulsion, Mr. Douglas assured the audience of about 150, "You can go to bed at night not worrying about the Borg."

The other three possibilities, by contrast, are under way, albeit weakly, Mr. Douglas said.

Natural transhumanism is an extension of Darwinian evolution involving gradual changes over multiple generations resulting in a new species.

Each of the theories has its problems, however, and with natural transhumanism they include that 96 percent of species do not evolve but become extinct.

In addition, Mr. Douglas said, human beings, unlike other species, can avoid the need to adapt to their environment because they alone have the ability to change their surroundings.

Theologically, one can find support in the Bible for transhumanism, he said, citing Scriptures that describe a future change or transformation. For example, I John 3:2 states that we "will be like him, for we will see him as he is."

Process theologians such as Marjorie Suchoki assert that "humanity is always in a process of becoming," Mr. Douglas said, while 20th century French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin espoused a cosmology that integrated Christianity and continual evolution.

But posthumanism in the Christian framework is unique in that it is advental, hinging on divine intervention rather than on a series of progressions.

Biological transhumanism involves the intentional modification of the human genome, not just to cure disease but also to enhance natural, desirable traits such as intelligence, height, and good looks, Mr. Douglas said.

Scientists are already experimenting with gene splicing in mice and other creatures, and rapid advances are under way in mapping the human genome.

But genetic modification raises a wide range of religious, ethical, and practical concerns, he said, from dealing with the complexities of genetics to questions on whether positive changes would be available only to the wealthy and how or where to draw the line when human beings "play God."

Mechanical transhumanism, as espoused by author and scientist Ray Kurzweil, integrates human minds with machines. Mr. Douglas said Mr. Kurzweil believes there are people alive today who will never die because they will be able to "download" their thoughts and memories to a machine.

The philosophical, ethical, and religious problems and questions raised by mechanical transhumanism are virtually endless, he pointed out.

In summarizing the theology of posthumanism, Mr. Douglas said Christianity is shaped by the belief that "God is doing something new to us, and that, therefore, we neither can nor need to transform ourselves."

Rather than naive optimism or nihilistic cynicism, Christians ought to practice "prophetic hope," he said.

"Believe in a better future because God is doing something."

The next Scientist in Congregations lecture is to be given by the Rev. Jim Bacik of Corpus Christi University Parish May 21 at 7 p.m. at Sylvania United Church of Christ, 7240 Erie St., Sylvania.

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