Who will recognise Humanity 2.0 – And will it recognise us?

Steve Fuller[1. Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Originally trained in history and philosophy of science, he is best known for his work in the field of ‘social epistemology’, which is concerned with the normative foundations of organized inquiry. It is also the name of a quarterly journal he founded in 1987 and the first of his eighteen books. His most recent books are The Sociology of Intellectual Life: The Career of the Mind in and around the Academy (Sage, 2009), Science: The Art of Living (Acumen and McGill-Queens University Press, 2010) and the forthcoming Humanity 2.0: The Past, Present and Future of What It Means to Be Human (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2011). Fuller’s original interest in transhumanism stems from his having been the UK partner in the European Union Framework VI project, ‘The Knowledge Politics of the Converging Technologies Agenda’ (2006-2009). In 2009 Fuller gave one of the first TEDx Warwick lectures on the problem of defining humanity in the 21st century.], Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick recently spoke at Virtual Futures 2.0’11. Within his talk he discussed the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism. He reflects on the past and explains the potential directions in which humanity may move. How will we move forward in our evolution at a time of ever improving technology?

In his paper, Who will recognize Humanity 2.0 – and it will it recognize us?, Professor Fuller takes an overview of the topics discussed at Virtual Futures 2.0’11, and begins by asking: is there a common project here? If we – humanity 1.0 – are talking about projecting into a new future, will those beings, who we’re projecting towards, have any kinship with us?

The question, he explains, is important because the notion that figures such as Newton, Archimedes and Darwin have been part of a continuum, and that – despite the fact that we have overtaken them in terms of knowledge – the idea that they would recognise, and in some sense, validate, what we are doing now has been key to the legitimacy of science as a subject of study.

Professor Fuller asks: What is the story that leads up to humanity 2.0 and is it co-extensive with the history of science? ‘I am someone who believes that, to a large extent, all of the commitment to the history of science – both spiritual and material – has largely been about stepping-up humanity,’ he says. ‘This has justified a lot of the risks that have been taken, often in the name of things that didn’t actually benefit people in their immediate lifetimes.’

The name that’s appropriate for this kind of project, he adds, is transhumanism: a term that he’s careful to distinguish from posthumanism. Posthumanism, he explains, takes a Darwinian standpoint on life; it’s a ‘species egalitarian view’ in which there is a definite respect for life, but no respect for the qualities of human beings that distinguish us from other life-forms. ‘There is no humanity 2.0 in this picture, there’s just post-humanity,’ he adds.

...this has justified a lot of the risks that have been taken.

For example, Darwin was very reluctant to support movements in the late 19th-century that we would now associate with transhumanist thinking, such as eugenics and vivisection. His strength was as a natural historian – i.e., a sensitive observer – he was not one to go inside organisms and discover what they’re made of. The idea that there was a process in human evolution, and that we could potentially take control of it, emerged in the 1930s with figures like Sir Julian Huxley. According to Professor Fuller, Huxley felt that ‘a reflexive moment takes place in the evolution process whereby it’s no longer just organisms adapting to the environment, but you actually have one organism that can understand the whole thing – and then take control of it. That was the promise of transhumanism, and it was already being articulated in the middle third of the 20th century with [the emergence of] molecular biology’.

So the project of Humanity 2.0, explains Professor Fuller, becomes one in which we have developed the sorts of bodies we have now, and technology has become sophisticated enough to make choices about how we want to take them forward. The next phase of transhumanism is the converging technologies agenda: ‘The particular technologies we’re talking about are based on nanotechnology, biotechnology, information science and the cognitive sciences… so the idea would be to find research funding to enable these disciplines to work more closely with each other for the purpose of enhancing human beings,’ he says.

There’s always been a push-back in the idea that humans can raise themselves to this higher level and governments have always been worried about these advance forms of technology and knowledge actually getting into the hands of people who can use them for their own purposes. However, we are now living in what the Professor terms a ‘bio-liberal’ world where everybody makes their own choices, and there’s no overarching, normative sense of humanity that we should be working towards. ‘I think that’s going to be a real challenge’, he concludes.


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

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Photography by Andy Miah