Source: Jan Cosier / Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
Western civilization has gone astray. Together we have never been richer and we have never learned more about how the world works. Science and technology continue to advance , but our societies are riddled with maladies that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including a massive increase in the use of antidepressants1, a decline in religious belief, and a sense of loss of meaning in life.
One of the consequences of this is the promiscuity of marriage and the decline in fertility.
People want to know what went wrong and what we should do. One of the most original views on these issues comes from Mary Harrington, who coined the term "reactionary feminism." 3:
Harrington's friend Louise Perry has just published her fourth book, a fascinating account of her journey from progressive feminist to matriarch with more traditional views on sex and marriage. Like Harrington, Berry doesn't think the pill and the sexual revolution they sparked were as good for women as we're told. At the very least, they say, we need to rethink the forces unleashed by technologies that separate sex from reproduction.
It is therefore not surprising that Berry and Harrington were skeptical of radical innovations in reproductive technology. But Harrington goes further than Perry and blames an ideology called "transhumanism" for much of our modern ills.
Is "transhumanism" a problem?
What is posthumanism? And what example of technology do transhumanists like?
According to Herrington, “The pill was the first transhumanist technology. He didn’t want to deal with the physiology of a ‘normal’ human…but instead provided a whole new paradigm.”
I agree with Harrington that the pill has been prohibitively expensive and often unknown, including the psychological impact it had on women and how it changed norms around dating and sex. 7 But transhumanism, as he describes it, has little to do with it.
Transhumanism is a new term that most people have not heard of, so don't blame it for our current social problems. More importantly, if we believe that transhumanism is the view that we must use science and technology to try to rise above what is normal for our species, then transhumanism is as old as civilization itself.
Technology is a tool with costs and benefits. It can be used to improve or worsen a person's condition. This can have an unexpected effect. But technologies designed to enhance our capabilities need not be part of a malignant transhumanist agenda.
For example, the invention of agriculture stabilized the food supply and enabled the establishment of cities. But it also led to monocultures that were more likely to hunt down and transmit zoonotic diseases like influenza from new animal homes. Despite the early problems, farming is now the main reason for a longer, healthier life.
Without innovation in agriculture, including chemical fertilizers, selective breeding, and crop and livestock engineering, the world would not be able to feed billions of people. Without antibiotics and vaccines, we would not be able to live in cities without constant bouts of epidemics.
Harrington might object that inventions such as modern agriculture and drugs such as antibiotics and vaccines differ from reproductive technology.
I think it's wrong.
Vaccines create abilities not found in nature, and antibiotics, most of which are synthetic, facilitate surgeries that allow us to improve and extend life beyond what is "natural" for our species.
The desire to expand our capabilities beyond the ordinary did not start with contraceptives or an abstract ideology called "transhumanism". It is so ancient that it is embedded in one of the basic myths of our civilization, in the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods in order to improve man's condition from the cruelty of nature.
Technology and tradition
The desire to improve one's abilities is understandable, especially when we realize that evolution does not always choose health, happiness, or longevity. In fact, it rewards unfortunate behaviors such as rape of inbreeding and infanticide, so much so that these behaviors make it more likely that our genes will enter our bodies in the future. Of course, we should be free to try to improve what nature has given us. This is even more true when one considers the increasing mutational burden of the modern population, supported by the Medicare and welfare programs to which civilization has contributed. at 8:00
However, Harrington is right that freedom is not more important than all other values when it comes to children, and Berry is right that sex and marriage are about more than consent and autonomy. We have reason to fear the broader social implications of reproductive technology.
But Harrington has another technology problem that we must ignore. The concern is the same. “If we find a ‘cure’ for aging, I predict it will not be available to the public. It will be very expensive and will be used primarily as a means of consolidating wealth and power.”
This objection is wrong for two reasons. But when the wealthy spend money, there are economies of scale. Whether we're talking about bifocals or textbooks, markets make innovation cheaper, better, and ultimately more accessible. Of course, governments can support this process. The second and more important problem with Harrington's argument is that it is motivated by the egalitarian ideals that gave rise to our current political system.
Traditional techno, having coined a term in the spirit of Harrington, is fading into the past, in other values.
Technology marketers uphold the Platonic ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. They accept the Aristotelian idea that happiness comes from a beautiful life, not from hedonism. They understand, according to Darwin and Nietzsche, that the natural abilities needed for a good life are distributed differently within and between populations. Therefore, they are ready for differences to serve other surplus values.
Technology marketers want to use scientific innovation to improve and extend their lives and the lives of their children. They also want to make it available to the entire community. They embrace these techniques even if their use would violate intuition, which is certainly useful evidence genetically, that the natural is great and the unnatural questionable.
Like retro-feminism, "technotraditionalism" is a game term in the age of memes. But the idea behind it is serious. A reproductive revolution is coming. Embryos are selected for mental and physical traits immediately, and the technology to ensure this (in vitro gamete formation) will not appear until in a few years.
Harrington and Perry are valuable voices in the age of intellectual consensus. They are right to doubt whether the "progress" supported by the so-called progressives is real. But I think they are wrong about some aspects of reproductive technology.
I write this in the spirit of friendly dissent, recognizing that it is better to have an open debate about the values we want our civilization to stand for than to wake up in a tavern hungry, cloudy-eyed, stumbling, and wondering how we got there. .