Darwin is not done
The recent development in synthetic life, which promises to spark a technological revolution on a scale perhaps not seen since the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, has prompted this post. I have an abiding interest in the subject of transhumanism. I’m not a strict transhumanist, like those of Humanity+. I instinctively do not believe in the “self-improvement” of humanity, e.g., artificial life extension, if for no other reason than the hubris of such a notion.
Rather, I simply believe that Darwin is not done: we are continuing to evolve — teleologically so, I admit, but that’s a personal article of faith arising from my beliefs as a mystic and Baha’i. I concede that from a materialist perspective, evolution is arguably aimless, and indeed, some of the process is man-made — although one could argue that even here it is actually Nature or even God working through our scientific advancements, as the Baha’i chronicler Nabil seems to have believed.
Yet, whatever the ultimate source or goal of this process, I believe that humanity is gradually deifying. And by the way, I feel that this development shall be both for the better and the worst, and as such it will increasingly pose interesting new ethical, conceptual, and political challenges to society and especially religious believers — indeed, one of my criteria for “religions of the future” are those which have the capacity to deal head-on with these changes. I believe that there may come a time when the perennial questions won’t be perennial anymore precisely because what it means to be human, which is already an elusive concept, will become an intricate mosaic.
Venter’s synthetic life aside, transhumanism is already here. Look no further than transgenders for living examples of people who are walking in the borderlands of what it means to be human. It also isn’t new. I believe it can be found in religious mythology, especially the image of the Resurrected Christ. It also crops up in some surprising places, such as the Middle Ages. Consider Averroes’ teacher, Avempace, who discusses the ultimate fate of the philosopher upon merging with the monopsyche in the following passage from his The Governance of the Solitary, translated by Majid Fakhry and slightly modified by Richard C. Taylor in his translation of Averroes’ great commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima (page xxvi):
The philosopher must perform numerous [particular] spiritual acts — but not for their own sake — and perform all the intellectual acts for their own sake: the corporeal acts enable him to exist as a human, the [particular] spiritual acts render him more noble, and the intellectual acts render him divine and virtuous. The man of wisdom is therefore necessarily a man who is virtuous and divine. Of every kind of activity, he takes up the best only. He shares with every class of men the best states that characterize them. But he stands alone as the one who performs the most excellent and noblest of actions. When he achieves the final end — that is, when he understands simple essential intellects, which are mentioned in [Aristotle's] Metaphysics, On the Soul, and On Sense and the Sensible — he then becomes one of those intellects. It would be right to call him simply divine. He will be free from the moral sensible qualities, as well as from the high [particular] spiritual qualities: it will be fitting to describe him as a pure divinity.
One of course needs to be careful both in quoting and in labeling, especially with as loose a term as “transhumanism”. Nevertheless, many Medieval thinkers, from Europe through to China, evinced similar transfigurative beliefs, particularly in Sufi and Taoist circles. But my ultimate point is this: speaking as an historian, a philosopher, and a religious believer, it will be profoundly interesting to see whether at the end of humanity’s lightning ride toward divinity there is ultimately a shattering or, as Avempace dreamed, an everlasting unity…