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How Will Transhumans View The Natural World? (Part 1) April 8, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics, Transhumanism.
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(This is a three part series.  Come back for parts 2 and 3.)

Humans have, shall we say, a “complex” relationship with nature.  While we quite clearly depend on the services provided to us by the various biotic and abiotic forces at work in the world we tend to go about our business perfectly oblivious to that fact.  While we may enjoy having vibrant wilderness around us for aesthetic reasons protecting that wilderness usually takes a rather distant second (if that) on our list of priorities.  The past few decades have seen a huge shift in parts of our collective understanding of our relationship with the natural world but on the whole it seems most humans still view nature as a resource; something to be exploited.

How might transhumans and posthumans differ?  For posthumans the answer is we simply don’t know.  That may sound like a copout but the truth is predicting the actions of such beings would be like a bacterium predicting whether or not a human will have pancakes or waffles for breakfast.  The actions of transhumans on the other hand, who are not nearly so far removed from their human forebears, can be predicted or at least guessed at. It seems likely that transhuman opinions to the environment will fall into the same schools of thought that human opinions have.   Said current human views on the subject can be largely broken down into three viewpoints: anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric.

The anthropocentric view is easily the most common one found amongst the general populace.  Simply stated it means that the opinions and needs of humans are either given priority over those of other life or ecosystems or, more commonly, are the only ones considered.  This is also by far the oldest viewpoint.  Looking back through history one is hard pressed to find examples where the anthropocentric view was seriously critiqued, let alone threatened.  The natural world has been seen by governments as a resource with which to strengthen their nation and dominate their rivals, by corporations as a source of profit.

The anthrocentric view is enshrined in one form or another in all the major religions of the world.  The Abrahamic faiths hold the man is God’s highest creation whom the Lord tasked with ” dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth,” a line that can be interpreted as encouraging at best enlightened caretakership and at worst mass exploitation.  The older pagan faiths of Europe, though often holding certain natural features to be sacred, were no where near as nice to the environment as their modern neo-pagan pseudo-successors would have you believe.  Slash and burn agriculture and the kind of environmental degradation that comes with city building were common.  The Dharmic faiths, though often possessing a much kinder view, generally hold humans in a spiritually higher position compared to the rest of the biological world.  Even the Jains, whose practice of ahimsa puts many Western vegetarians to shame, view humans as inherently higher on the ladder of spiritual evolution.

While at first glance adherence to the anthropocentric view seems destined to wreak disaster (and often has) it does not inherently result in destruction and exploitation.  The spreading of environmentalism into the mainstream consciousness, and the inevitable transmutation of it’s fundamental values, have shown that a coherent ethos that values preservation of the natural world can be formed simply within the framework of the human centric view.  Apart from a few fringe leftovers most of the support for movements such as sustainable agriculture and green energy is driven less by a desire to protect endangered species or threatened ecosystems than it are the result of simple economic calculus.  From global warming to the Dust bowl it has become more and more apparent that a society which does not care for the health of it’s natural resources will be unable to care for it’s humans, either due to threats to public health and safety (e.g. increased risks of natural disasters, poisoned water supplies, etc.) or the eroding of sectors (e.g. agriculture) necessary for a strong economic base.  As such it should come as no surprise that this form of “ecosystem management”  (i.e. protect nature to protect people) is the dominant policy of the vast majority of environmentally focused government organizations and private businesses.

Will the anthropocentric school become the transhuman-centric school?  It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  Many of the notable transhuman technologies (intelligence enhancement, anti-aging, etc.) will likely at first be available only to a select, wealthy elite; the kind of people at the height of the power structures whom as already mentioned tend to favor an anthropocentric view.  While it is nice to think that increased intelligence will bring about increased morality there is scarce evidence to support that view.  The first transhumans to rise will (at least to some degree) be a reflection of the beings they evolved from, sharing at least some of the worldview of the originals.

An important question then becomes what place humans have in a transhuman-centric view of nature.  An examination of the outcomes of the anthropocentric view on other species is not encouraging.  In a worldview that considers only how nature benefits a single species all other species are subject to a cost/benefit analysis, an analysis that often has devastating consequences if the species is question is found wanting in benefits and high in cost.  Though other authors have raised the issue of transhumans actively seeking to destroy humanity that need neither be the outcome of a transhuman-centric view nor necessary for the destruction of our species by transhuman hands.  It is very possible that transhumans, without any malice towards us, may wipe us from the face of the earth simply by exploiting resources to a point beyond which humans cannot survive.   This is not out of the realm of possibility since by their very nature transhumans will likely require large amount of resources to sustain their functioning as things like enhanced intelligence, immortality and heightened physical abilities are all expensive traits to keep around.  Just to illustrate this point keep in mind that the human brain takes up a mere 3% or so of body weight but uses roughly 20% of the bodies energy needs.  Now imagine what sort of energy requirements a being with 10, 100, 1000 times the computing power of the human brain will require.  Now consider the costs of  this plus immortality, megascale engineering, ecosystems redesign and the other needs and wants of an entire population of transhumans.   Humans may in the end simply be the victim of transhuman apathy rather than malice.

Of course it is also possible that transhumans will look kindly upon us, perhaps out of fondness for their creators and closest relatives, and seek to keep us around.  The historical precedent for this is, once again, not encouraging.



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