Human Beings Are More than Just Antique Vibrators
The case for bioconservatism
The technological crisis we are facing today is not about digital technology itself—we do not yet have the Frankenstein problem of our creations turning against us. The danger comes from our misguided faith that technology will save us. Our fallacious belief turns tools into sacred objects worthy of reverence and obedience and finds us kneeling before the idols of our own invention.
In Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford wrote that modern technological advancements required a “cultural preparation” involving the evaporation of religious beliefs and the emergence of a mechanical universe where man triumphs over nature. Yet Mumford’s image of the future—a place where humans covered great distances in cars and airplanes, and factories belched smoke—now strikes us as a vision of the past. The technologies of the mechanical universe still required the interference of the human body to function, but we have now escaped into the digital ether. A century ago, people fled the countryside to find their futures in industrial cities. Today we flee our own bodies looking for a “better life” in post-human technologies while entertaining the illusion that human perfectibility is possible through technological enhancement.
Ancient Romans saw bodies as the best representation of the human mind and soul, worthy of preservation and cultivation. Twenty-first-century Americans see their bodies as mere devices. Millennials have been conditioned to see their bodies as machines that need to be fed and taken care of but are no longer intimately connected to their identity. It is not a coincidence that movements such as “body acceptance” and “body positivity” have emerged at a moment when the body has come to be viewed as an antiquated piece of equipment.
The evidence for this changing attitude toward the body is everywhere, but one example is the marked decline in rates of sexual activity among young people, coupled with the dramatic rise in the normalized consumption of virtual sex and sexual devices. Indeed, there is now an emerging SexTech market worth more than $30 billion, according to multiple estimates.
“There are prosthetic arms and legs, why not genitals?” one SexTech industry leader told Forbes last year, as if sexuality can be optimized like an engine and humans can be replaced with customized vibrators. Out with the physical experience of human intimacy and in with the Matrix-like simulation. The idea that every aspect of our lives requires a sophisticated automaton to be perfected is not just unnatural, it is dangerous. Virtual platforms such as the Metaverse will only exacerbate this pull away from living as humans have always understood it, as the physical experience of a material world, and toward digital prosthetic replacements for real life.
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These changes are not merely psychological and cultural—they are being pushed by cutting-edge, new technologies around artificial wombs, brain microchips, and genetic enhancement. Many of these biotechnologies represent notable advancements in medical treatment that could save lives. Brain microchips, for example, can restore lost critical motor and cognitive functions. Artificial wombs that allow a fetus to live in an artificial placenta can save premature babies and be a life-changing technology for women who cannot carry a normal pregnancy. In a more self-confident and spiritually grounded culture, these remarkable inventions could be made to serve humanity. But unleashed in our current demoralized and nihilistic society, they threaten to reinforce the idea that the human body is weak, worthless, and unlovable and can be replaced or changed depending on our desires. That is ultimately the belief of the transhumanists, an influential but still small—for now—vanguard predominant among the technologists in Silicon Valley who believe that the next inevitable phase of human evolution entails the merger of humans and machines.
In response to these challenges, the physician and public intellectual Leon Kass and political philosopher Michael J. Sandel have argued for the necessity of a framework they call bioconservatism. This belief is not an ideology or dogma, but a balanced and humane position to adopt when facing technological advancements with irreversible consequences on human nature, on our physical and social environments, and on our intimate natural state. It calls for an objective assessment of who we, as particular members of a human society, are; what we want from our lives; and where we would like our technologies to take us and our children. As Kass notes, “The benefits of biomedical progress are obvious, clear, and powerful. The hazards are much less well appreciated.”
Unlike transhumanism, bioconservatism treats human physicality as necessary for the experience of a balanced and rewarding life. Eliminating natural pregnancy by relying solely on artificial wombs because being pregnant is hard means also eliminating one of the most intimate and precious experiences a woman can have. Eliminating aging would also mean distorting the human life cycle and, in the process, threatening youth as well.
There isn’t so far a comprehensive counter-movement to challenge the transhumanist capture of political institutions, scholarship, or even our basic understanding of technology. Indeed, Humanity+, previously known as the World Transhumanist Association, is heavily lobbying and hosting conferences and has as a clear mission to promote an intellectual and cultural discourse in favor of technologies that can “eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” In the face of this lobbying effort, bioconservatism can offer realistic perspectives on the costs of our technological frenzy while upholding the preservation of the human species and human experience as the supreme noble goal.
Bioconservatism dismantles the deterministic and materialistic trap. It hammers apart the myth that our technologies are superior to us living creatures of flesh. Its fundamental premise is to consider the human body and human experiences worthy of conserving, without necessarily opposing progress in bettering the lives of real people.
Today, the need for the bioconservative approach is urgent. Far-reaching technological and social policies are being set by a growing and powerful transhumanist movement, which will soon make its own rules and norms about the ability to even have a rational apolitical conversation on the use of biotechnology. It is time to defy the nonchalant discarding of our humanity.