Monday, January 18, 2021

Susan B. Levin's "Posthuman Bliss?"

Susan B. Levin is Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith College. In addition to numerous articles in both bioethics and ancient Greek philosophy, she previously published two books in the latter area.

Levin applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Posthuman Bliss? The Failed Promise of Transhumanism, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls within my scientific challenge to Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu’s claim that the exogenous addition of serotonin could be a pillar of a universal program of bioenhancement intended to augment two moral attitudes: altruism and our “sense of justice.”

In Unfit for the Future, they worry that if there exists “too much pessimism about the possibility of moral bioenhancement,” it may be “prematurely dropped” from consideration as a promising research project. Therefore, Persson and Savulescu promise to show “how moral behaviour can be influenced by biomedical means in order to demonstrate that moral bioenhancement is not just a theoretical possibility, but has been practised.” They fail to distinguish between the uncontroversial claim that biotechnological measures may affect behavior, in some fashion or other, and the far stronger assertion that such measures could improve character itself in precisely the ways that the success of their program required.

On thin, evolutionary-psychological grounds, Persson and Savulescu maintain that altruism and “a sense of justice” belong already to our biological constitution. As a result, these moral attitudes could, purportedly, be strengthened through neurobiological and genetic manipulation. Page 99 occurs in the section of Chapter 3 where I argue that they fail to provide practical proof of concept for moral bioenhancement. The case studies that anchor my refutation of Persson and Savulescu’s claim to have offered precisely this involve two neurotransmitters, oxytocin and serotonin, and genetic considerations centered on genes’ nuanced and indirect relationship to complex phenotypic traits, such as kindness, trust, and aggressiveness.

In the ensuing section of Chapter 3, I show that their attempt to provide theoretical proof of concept for moral bioenhancement also fails. It becomes crystal clear that their failure on the practical side is no accident: whether the focus is moral or cognitive bioenhancement—the top priority of transhumanists overall—humans are simply not neurobiologically or genetically constituted such that they could be manipulated in the ways that transhumanists insist will eventuate if we but commit adequate resources to the endeavor.

Page 99, on serotonin, illustrates a misconstruction of human biology that plagues transhumanist argumentation for bioenhancement across the board. Although the immediate focus of page 99 is quite specific, it instantiates one of the book’s prominent themes: that transhumanists’ aggressive biotechnological agenda ignores humans’ neurobiological and genetic complexity. Embracing that agenda would produce, not the lofty elevation they tout, but human ruination.
Learn more about Posthuman Bliss? at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue