Review: Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make-Or-Break Century, by Elise Bohan
plus musings on melanoma and another trip around the sun
I read Elise Bohan’s Future Superhuman in December 2022 while I was having a mole on my calf biopsied for a suspected melanoma and shortly before my 26th birthday. I discovered transhumanism at a moment when I was lamenting the limitations of my body and the inevitability of aging. Everything I knew about transhumanism up to this point came from listening to an episode of the Panpsycast Philosophy podcast with David Pearce and, while I had forgotten some of the nuances of his discussion, I recalled that the core tenets of transhumanism coalesce around striving for superlongevity, superintelligence, and superempathy. I also remembered that inherent within that first ideal, superlongevity, is the notion of mitigating or even eliminating the effects of aging. This goal was what drew me to Bohan’s book.
Whether it is because I am still embarrassingly attached to my parents and frightened about their mortality or because of something else, I have been horrified by the prospect of human morbidity for as long as I can remember. That my parents are vital but showing signs of wear in what in many ways appear to be their best years feels like a harrowing injustice. Even when younger, I recall that whenever I voiced this complaint, I was met with comments along the lines of “That is just how it goes; aging is an inevitable part of life.” Unplacated, I would respond, “Yes. But wouldn’t it be great if that were not so?”
Like Bohan, I am also witnessing my grandparents fall apart. In the last three years, as a result of dementia, my grandfather has gone from a mild-mannered and contemplative man to a scared and reticent stranger. He fills his days with repetitive tasks that he used to complete with some amount of satisfaction but which are now reflexive and contextless while listening to far-right radio shows that only deepen his sense of paranoia and dissociation. His mind is gone, and not in a way that seems like a reprieve from intrusive and anxious thoughts but the opposite, a barrage of unfamiliarity, panic, and a palpable sense of loss. He wanders around the house carrying misplaced objects or things he finds outside. While these gestures can feel poetic, like when he brings in a lichen-covered branch or a bearded iris to my grandmother, there is nothing more agonizing than when he carries around a broken and rusty metal P-trap or a receipt from years ago with no idea of what he intends to do with them.
I cannot tell if I feel worse for him or for my grandmother, whose dementia is slowly progressing as her body much more rapidly falls apart. While her memory is fading, she remains acutely aware that her health and body are both failing. She used to joke that she was becoming some kind of cyborg woman with metal joints. Now, with her titanium hips, shoulders, feet, and scarcely anything left to replace, she cannot seem to stop the disintegration of the rest of her. Her arthritic fingers are gnarled and her hair, once thick and glossy, looks like the sparse and dry wisps of lichen that my grandfather brings inside. She speaks of future surgeries to alleviate her pain, but at this point, her doctors have told her that nothing is likely to ease her discomfort. Death would almost be a welcome intervention if it weren’t such a tragedy.
So, with parents that are aging and grandparents that are aged, death is constantly on my mind. I see it in everything around me. I also see the fear of death writ large across all of human experience. People chase posterity, manically making things to leave behind as well as children to enjoy them. Of course, it isn’t all bad. The things we make and the people we raise are often quite marvelous, which is precisely why death feels so dire.
My aversion to mortality really hits home when I start thinking about my own death. It is absurd that something that will be so utterly meaningless to me after it happens, is so meaningful beforehand. Ultimately, I hope that I live long enough that my body has had all the opportunity in the world to fall apart while not actually wanting it to fall apart at all. I don’t want to have to weigh whether I prefer my grandmother's or grandfather’s fate. Like Bohan, I am “not pleased with my suite of options.”
While it is perhaps unsurprising that being told I have a melanoma bothers me, it does so to a surprising degree. I feel an outsized indignation and sorrow. Even with the margins clean and the mole excised, I just cannot help but feel that I had my first potentially fatal tussle with evolution’s blind and undiscerning architect. I won, with the help of early detection and modern medicine, but this battle is unlikely to be my last. Of course, I understand that people have far worse brushes with injury and disease. For any medical grievance that befalls me, there is likely someone who has or has had it worse. But while there are certainly people fighting harder fights, it strikes me that every pathology, death, and modicum of involuntary suffering is tragic.
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Perhaps, they are more tragicomic insofar as bodily inelegance, asymmetry, and gaffes are what often make the human condition so delightful. Bodies have always been funny, just as they have always been tragic.
When reading Future Superhuman, I didn’t care for Bohan’s use of the word “meatsacks” to describe bodies, but it was not for the reason she presumes. I don’t care that ‘meatsack’ is cringey. I care that it connotes something formless, graceless, and vulgar. Bodies are indeed fleshy and vulnerable, as my melanoma excision and missing divot of calf tissue remind me, but they are also wonderful, and at present, they are our best way of interfacing with the world. “Meatsack” captures all of a body’s flaws but none of its remarkable capacity for sensual experience. …I agree with Bohan that human design may be outdated for our 21st-century existence and beyond, but our bodies boast some incredible abilities that disembodied futures will have to compensate for. Perhaps this won’t matter once our kinetic experiences can be emulated in our minds, but for now, our embodiment provides innumerable pleasures. As a transhumanist, my body might be a bit of an encumbrance, but as an athlete, it is an asset and joy. So, while I look forward to a world without melanoma and orifices, I lament one without motility and orgasm.
Meatsacks is not the only place where I felt some lopsidedness in Bohan’s presentation of the human condition (her strictly negative view of pregnancy was another), but it was compelling for conveying the downsides of our physical armatures.
Otherwise, I found Bohan’s assessment of why we need to upgrade our paleolithic brains and fragile bodies to be wonderful. A summary of her main argument would be:
Humanity is living at a time of unprecedented technological growth and peril and our ancient brains are notoriously bad at reasoning through the complex and temporally diffused problems facing our world. In order to survive this era of existential threats and usher in a future that will be more automated and prosperous, we need enhanced cognitive abilities and extended lifespans and healthspans.
I wholeheartedly agree that humanity is facing some gargantuan challenges. Every day, we play with technology that has unimaginable destructive potential. We conduct gain-of-function research on viruses that, if unleashed, could level the global population, oversee some 10,000 nuclear warheads, and rapidly attempt to develop AI that, if unaligned, could tear us apart atom by atom. Yet, technological advancements also afford humanity an unfathomable amount of comfort, wealth, and security. We cannot stop advancing, and yet, with each leap into the unknown, we expose ourselves to greater risks. It is plausible that, if we could improve our decision-making, we could better buttress ourselves against making catastrophic mistakes.
I think most people agree that it would be a good thing if human beings were more intelligent and careful decision-makers. While there are perennial debates about the nature of intelligence, its correlates, and to what extent it is genetically fixed or determined by one’s environment, people seem to agree that more intelligence is good, so long as it is used for the betterment of the human enterprise. But arguments against aging are far less common and intuitive.
When I broach the idea of extending human lifespans with my family and friends, I am often immediately met with some permutation of the naturalistic fallacy. “Oh come on, aging and death is natural. Everything has to die. It makes room for the new.” This is not an inexplicable reaction. After all, for all of human history aging has been inevitable. The belief that we can contravene senescence is far more unusual. It follows that accepting death is a reasonable way to cope with its inevitability. However, philosophical ethics teaches us that just because something is, does not mean that it ought to be. If aging is indeed an “engineering” problem as Bohan describes it, then perhaps the fact of death is not all that immutable. If this is the case, then I share in Bohan’s exasperation that we who are currently amongst the living are on the unfortunate side of this paradigm shift. If humanity does tackle and achieve methods for radical life extension, then my peers and I are likely part of a generation that will not reap the benefits. Even with life expectancies on the rise, Bohan puts her chance of living to the age of 115 years old at one in one hundred million. Three years her junior, I stand against similar odds.
Every day that scientists and researchers neglect the development of longevity medicine, the cycle of birth, decay, and death continues. Perhaps this is not a problem if life extension is indeed impossible, but if it proves possible, then future generations will look back at us as the great collateral damage of delayed discovery. Either way, until people actually start to discuss superlongevity, and weigh its costs and benefits, no progress can be made.
What people view as ‘natural’ and thus ‘normal’ has always been thorny. It strikes me that in conversations such as these, people seem to forget that antibiotics, glasses, and birth control, deviate from nature but allow us to have better lives. Few who need them would relinquish these technologies. Whether one views humans as apart from or part of nature, and regardless of what that implies about our right to intervene with its processes, humanity is constantly experimenting with ways to improve and augment the human condition. It feels fitting to think of this in terms of the doctrine of motte-and-bailey, which imagines a multipronged argument as the layout of a medieval castle. In an argument, the bailey is a position that is harder to defend and perhaps more controversial, yet, it bears similarity to the motte which is the more modest proposal behind it. In this analogy, I understand the pursuit of radically longer lifespans and immortality as the ‘bailey’ and improving healthspans as the more defensible and realistic ‘motte’. Hopefully to the extent that people see avoiding chronic pain, multi-system failure, and premature death as possible and desirable, they come to understand that it is the preamble to superlongevity. After all, as Bohan writes, one need not agree with transhumanists on absolutely everything, but one does stand to gain from the “importance of taking the long view, playing the long game, and minimizing existential risks so that humanity and future forms of intelligent life do not have their potential wiped out.” Accepting this component of transhumanist thinking does not require buying into everything within a transhumanist worldview (nor is transhumanism monolithic).
Speaking of a transhumanist worldview, after reading this book, I think that there should be more onus on transhumanists, technologists, and philosophers, to further explore and persuade us as to the pleasures and experiences that await us in an infinitely long life. In Future Superhuman Bohan doesn’t venture too far into describing what humans would do with their additional life years. When discussing the post-work economy, she suggests that we might “reorient our lives around family, nature, learning, community, empathy, and love in the short term and the pursuit of a dynamically sustainable future in the long run,” but she does not elaborate as to what that might look like. Perhaps there are just too many moving parts here, for instance, the question of whether humans will be embodied or integrated with some form of technology makes it challenging to envision how we might think and have experiences in the future. So, while imprecise, the word ‘dynamically’ here strikes me as especially important. Currently, we often complain about how rigid older people are in their beliefs. We groan about gerontocracies and bemoan how detached our current decision-makers and leaders are. A future with intellectual, cultural, and institutional flexibility and dynamism is a welcomed departure from the calcification of conservatism that we presently imagine when we envision a world run by elderly people.
How would we continue to update our beliefs and systems in light of extended lifespans and timelines? And governance aside, how would we combat boredom? After all, immortals in cinema and other media are often depicted as beings who are exasperated with the repetition of their infinitely long lives. While a large part of me has always considered this to be a failure of the imagination, the fact remains that the idea an immortal being would eventually exhaust their desires is a persistent trope. Even if a more thorough exploration of future worlds and modes of being is outside of the scope of Bohan’s book, I hope to see them expanded upon. Increasing the appeal of transhumanism to a broader audience will require painting an enticing and desirable portrait of superlongevity that answers people’s fears about immortality, inflexible governance, and value lock-in.
Ultimately though, Bohan does a remarkable job addressing the future’s abounding uncertainties. Many of the diagnoses that she makes about humanity’s present condition do not yet have obvious prognoses, but Bohan makes tremendous strides by identifying the problems and considering their effects on the future of work, economics, love, and sex. I want to explore some of the challenges she presents and consider what I think are her most fascinating insights.
Jobs are getting automated, higher education is losing its purpose, and life is getting harder for men
It is not as if any of these claims are novel insights, but it is clear that if they had fully sunk in, then life would look different. While I hear some talk of “retraining” in industries that are seeing substantial shifts, such as the energy industry, I don’t see much evidence that people are taking automation to heart where it seems like it would matter most ––academia. Initially, when I thought about this, I wondered if it was just that my university wasn’t the type of institution that interfaces with the future all that well. An affordable state school, my university is pretty middling. It is not oriented around STEM, nor is it especially forward-looking or state-of-the-art. That is when it dawned on me that my school is precisely the place where automation should be considered extensively. Average schools with average students who have average prospects, wealth, and life trajectories should be precisely where the economy of the future is taken most to heart. Where are the majority of us ending up? Are we being trained for industries that will still exist? As someone in the humanities, I can understand how technical discussions about how AI will interface with life in the future may be difficult, but it is not as if the difficulty of these discussions about AI is enough to remove them from our coursework. The very essence of the humanities, the idea that that which makes us human helps to explain history, psychology, sexuality, culture, and anthropology, is being radically turned on its head while somehow going completely unmentioned. Treated as a nuisance at best and a threat at worst, automation, AI, and technological progress were specters haunting my humanistic education.
The reality is that automation is already here. Manufacturing and jobs requiring repetition are disappearing. What will remain are industries with tasks that are creative, highly varied, and hinge on emotional intelligence. Universities could be treating this as good news, and reorienting their curriculum to optimize for these talents, but instead, they seem keen on churning out an increasing amount of indebted degree holders to industries in their death rattle.
The obsolescence of men
I was not expecting to read about the crisis facing men in a book about transhumanism, but Bohan correctly identifies it as one of the starkest challenges facing humanity today with respect to how it connects to the future of the economy, marriage, and procreation. Women are more resilient to economic shifts and tend to be more verbally and emotionally skilled, which means that they are better suited to jobs in elder care and child care (jobs that will still be around in the future). This leaves half of the population in jeopardy of obsolescence. While the best and brightest among them vie for some of the most prestigious roles in STEM industries, the vast majority of men are languishing. They are receiving less education than their female counterparts and increasingly find that industries they used to dominate are rapidly disappearing. It might strike one as fairly obvious that this is an economic crisis, but Bohan elucidates how it is also a demographic and social catastrophe.
The first time I heard about this sex imbalance in graduation rates was in my intellectual history class in college. In the slightly forward and unsolicited way that made him my favorite professor, my teacher had just told the women in our class that he feared for our marital success. Stunned, we asked him why. He went to the board in front of the class and wrote up the word PROPINQUITY. While the definition is essentially proximity or kinship, he said that in the social sciences it was a way of thinking about who was in one’s peer group and the notion that when making sexual partnerships, or pair bonds, people are likely to select for someone who is of a similar educational and social ranking. Or as Bohan writes “Women simply don’t want to pair up with unemployed or low-status men.” While this might sound a little harsh, I think it is a great example of Bohan’s preference for saying what is true rather than what makes people comfortable.
As women outperform and out-graduate their male peers, there will be fewer men to select from as viable life and sexual partners. Simply put, propinquity will pose problems. Men will continue to be mired in frustration, which they may increasingly wield in dangerous and destructive ways, and women will continue to succumb to exasperation, which they will increasingly express as misanthropy and female empowerment to male detriment. As Bohan suggests, demographic shifts are inevitable, but sudden skews are destabilizing.
All this goes to say that we need to address that automation is here and disproportionately affecting young men. Universities need to meet the challenge, and women would do well to direct their grievances toward the correct injurious pressures affecting men, not at inherent “male” vice, but at rapidly changing economic prospects, expectations, and outdated life scripts.
Children and sex robots
Bohan spends the last chapters of the book dwelling on how the transhuman transition will run headlong into sexuality and procreation. From Bohan’s assessment of the crisis facing today’s men, it follows that if an increasing number of men find themselves without sexual partners, sexuality will take on new guises. After all, humans are sexual beings. Nothing Bohan says here is too shocking, insofar as men cannot have sex with real women an increasing number of them will delve further into the world of VR pornography and silicon sex dolls, women too, though in smaller numbers as their sexual preferences tend to be more colored by emotional and psychological connectivity. As the veracity of VR and robot sex goes up and the costs go down, it seems plausible that more humans will opt into these technologies.
Again, we might be tempted to shake our heads and pity or judge the men that engage in this artificial lovemaking, but we would be wrong to do so. Humans are deeply social and sexual creatures. While the initial buy-in to this technology will mostly be from men, Bohan argues that as sexbots get more psychologically complex, women may venture into these relationships more readily. There is an adage that sex drives technological advancements. I have little doubt that there are men holed up somewhere thinking about the power of latent language models that could reliably seduce women.
Of course, if the future of sex goes in the direction of beguiling algorithms and silicon, then people might wonder what will become of baby-making. Bohan doesn’t. She thinks it will go down, claiming that if current depopulation trends continue, we are unlikely to ever see another baby boom. Her interpretation of demographic data does indeed tell a compelling story, showing that fertility rates have been falling precipitously, and are below replacement levels in 88 countries.
Many of the points that Bohan makes in this section are hard to refute. I believe her when she says that automation will replace tomorrow’s labor force and that having children is certainly not the only way to prevent social stagnation. In many respects, I agree with the entirety of her thesis that “The lasting solution to our demographic and social problems is not to have more babies, it’s to extend our lives and healthspan and use technology to generate a world of greater material abundance.” However, I struggle to agree with her framing of pregnancy as the “last Achilles heel of feminism” or her depiction of pregnancy as an exercise in how to ruin your body, confidence, and relationship with the opposite sex.
Don’t get me wrong. I am terrified of pregnancy. And frankly, I am a little mad that my male partner, whose temperament and lifestyle are more conducive for 9 months of carrying a child, is not capable of this feat. But no, it will have to be me, the sportier, more self-conscious, less patient, and less sentimental of the two of us. Indeed, I might rush to line up for assisted reproductive technologies if they became the norm.
Yet even though I recognize the deep injustice of it all, I don’t think that Bohan is generous enough to the women who don’t feel as though they end up completely ‘ruined’ by the experience of giving birth. Bohan claims that she does not mean to deny the joy of motherhood but wants to bring attention to how women tend to “gloss over the huge physical and emotional changes that motherhood frequently involves.” But she is interpreting this ‘glossing over’ as some kind of hormone-induced self-perpetuating lie. What if the women who say that their experience giving birth wasn’t so bad, were telling the truth? What if they weighed up every aspect of their experience honestly and came to see it as positive? Bohan seems to think that this is impossible. It is true women who have children are not necessarily going to feel free to say the experience was horrible and that having a child isn’t worth it as this would be viewed as unfeeling and cruel. Even so, I don’t think that we can wholly discard the reports of women who say childbirth wasn’t all that bad.
I am deeply grateful that my mom is one such woman. My dad frequently talks about her laughing and joking with the nurses while delivering my younger brother. Of course, I can’t be certain as to how much her experience of the whole thing was colored by hormonal and psychological changes, but I don’t think it makes sense to say because we can’t know this for certain we must doubt her reports. In fact, I would argue that perhaps to the extent that hormones make childbirth a bearable experience and can even ‘delude’ women into going through it multiple times, it is a good thing.
At least for now, we need more people researching the technology that can bring about the transhuman transition. We still need to birth and raise legions of thinkers to create the technology that will ultimately replace children and allow for the beings of tomorrow to come from our “minds” and not from our “loins” as Bohan suggests. Ultimately, while acknowledging the shortcomings of passing a bowling ball through narrow hips strikes me as yet another worthy gripe about our physical bodies, Bohan’s macabre characterization of childbirth is gratuitous not only when thinking about where we are in this transition but also for its acerbic antinatalist flavor, which I fear will do more to engender hostility towards transhumanism than ingratiate people to it.
I fear the public may reject transhumanism despite the staggering amount it has to offer. It is a worldview that consistently looks at the best of what humans have to offer and our detriments and asks how we can preserve and enhance the former while casting off the latter. The extent to which people think our flaws inform our flourishing will be an enormous factor in how much they buy into this worldview, but again, it doesn’t take full buy-in to recognize that we are at the hinge of history, handling and developing technology that can wipe out all of the sentient life in the universe, despite being equipped with brains full of ancient bugs. Transhumanism is not a rejection of what it means to be human as people often fear, but an invitation to consider what being human truly entails. Being human has many facets and we shouldn’t pretend we are equally attached to all of them, and while there is wisdom in accepting that which we cannot change, there is a risk that we have been putting things in the “cannot change” bucket that do not belong there. Until we approach these seemingly immutable facts of life in an investigative and scientific mood, we cannot know for certain what features of the human condition are permanent and which are transient, which we would like to bring into the future and which we would like to cast aside.
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