In Search of the Better Angels of Our Future
By Kenneth B. Taylor
The ideologies that once guided us through political and economic conflicts— such as communism versus capitalism—have little relevance to cultures that face new, technologically driven conflicts over the very meaning of humanity. As we relentlessly pursue paradigm-altering technologies, we will need a new set of guidelines for understanding who we are and where we are heading.
We live at a time when striving for higher social ideals no longer guides most individual or social action. The epic battle against communism has essentially been won, and many in the West now assume that all necessary work has been done, our liberties and rights guaranteed through established rule of law.
Unfortunately, this development has stripped the human condition of transcendent sociopolitical objectives, leaving us floundering in a web of short-term economic liberalism or regressing to more primitive religious, nationalistic, or tribal perspectives. Capitalism (and, with it, materialism) reigns supreme, and as a guiding light leads us nowhere: It can tell us how best to organize our economic affairs, but not where humanity is going or what our meaning is.
We are now on the cusp of two major long-term developments transforming our world. First, during this century, human civilization will move into its climactic stage: The assumptions we make about our daily socioeconomic environment, upon which we orient our lives, will become increasingly untenable. Second, science is discovering means to amplify its mastery over the foundations of life in general and Homo sapiens in particular, signifying that we are gaining control over who we become.
What we are about to face is unprecedented, and we are woefully unprepared for the challenge. To navigate this increasingly turbulent world, we need a new ideology to guide our actions, provide meaning, and protect the achievements of modern civilization.
Approaching the Limits of Enlightenment Ideals?
Elements of a new secular ideology are all around us, yet scattered so widely that they fail to register in our collective awareness. Before outlining the features of this new ideology, it will be worthwhile to briefly investigate where we have come from and why limits are approaching.
As the Enlightenment dawned during the seventeenth century, a powerful, transformative ideology emerged that led to the Western world we now live in. It seized the human imagination, harnessed passions, and directed collective effort. It created a social movement that swept away the vestiges of monarchy embedded in the mercantilist order, giving rise to democracy and capitalism. There were numerous contributors to the associated body of thought we call the liberal tradition, cumulatively giving rise to the first secular ideology. Emphasis shifted within society to the rights of individuals, the social contract, and the common good.
Many of the principles of the liberal tradition are embodied in the ethos of progress, a summative perspective now spreading around the world. In brief, this ethos is built upon the following pillars:
- Rationally generated ideas will lead to triumph over the external world as well as inner human nature.
- All people are created equal and should be provided with equivalent opportunities within an egalitarian meritocracy under the rule of law.
- Social, individual, and material improvement is inevitable and upward.
The collective outcome for a people adhering to this ethos was forecast to be provision of lasting freedom, the greatest good for the greatest number, with justice and peace nourished in this world. Given the clear reward in one’s lifetime, as opposed to the hereafter, this social philosophy had wide appeal. It was quickly embraced, becoming the antithesis to the mercantilist thesis of the day.
Despite subsequent wars, depressions, and revolutions, all went exceptionally well on the socioeconomic front until the early twenty-first century. The Western crisis of 2008 will not mark the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning of Western civilization as we know it.
Recent developments have been germinating since the mid-twentieth century, during which time Western nations gradually backed themselves into an existential corner. It is a predicament without easy retreat for many reasons, including fiscal constraints, vested interests, political intransience, unfavorable demography, and diminishing Earth capacity.
Too many policies related to economic growth and welfare were enacted, institutionalized, and progressively expanded, with payment for current expenditures shifted onto the shoulders of future generations. This can go on only if new entrants exceed the number already involved—that is, if the labor force grows and a youthful demographic pyramid structure continues. Once the demographic pyramid inverts, it is only a matter of time before the scheme becomes unsustainable.
And so the trigger event heralding the end of Western civilization as we know it will not be the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 (and subsequent Great Recession), but rather the inversion of the demographic pyramids in the West, with the inexorable effect of pushing population growth below replacement levels. Before the year 2020, fully half of humankind will live in countries where fertility rates are at or below replacement level.
Even if politicians do find a way to engineer a safe way out of the current financial morass, the slowdown and eventual decline of national populations in the context of high public debt will negate the possibility of maintaining many social programs, or even maintaining existing public infrastructure.
Collectively, these are the reasons why surpassing the previous heights of socioeconomic success is untenable: The socioeconomic tide is turning, producing powerful undercurrents that should not be underestimated.
Riding the Waves of Technological Advancement
As population begins to shrink from this height, so, too, will economic output, with its undesirable negative externalities. The ensuing population decline will have almost as dramatic an effect pushing global GDP down as it had in pushing it up these past 250 years. However, we will never return to the standard of living of 1800 due to the cumulative effects of scientific and technological advancement.
The late business professor Julian Simon once suggested that the Earth‘s carrying capacity is unlimited. While it is mathematically impossible for Earth to accommodate an unlimited number of people, Simon based his statement on faith in human ingenuity, particularly technological progress. He believed in the “technofix” hypothesis: that technology and innovative solutions will be forthcoming, adequate, and timely in addressing major human problems.
I agree with the “forthcoming” part but have reservations about the “adequate and timely” portion of Simon’s presumptions. An important issue is that technology appears to occur in unpredictable waves. In the 1930s, Joseph Schumpeter postulated an economic growth model in which bursts of technological development cyclically set off periods of intense competition between firms for market dominance, leading to a transformation of the economic landscape. Schumpeter saw capitalism moving in long waves occurring approximately every 50 years. When a technological wave commenced, it would cause, as Schumpeter famously put it, “gales of creative destruction,” in which sunset industries would be swept away, to be replaced by sunrise industries.
From Schumpeter’s vantage point in the mid-twentieth century, the waves indeed looked to occur every 50 years or so, but today we understand that technological waves are neither regular nor predictable. We now know that, whenever they occur, each comes with a core of what we may call meta-technologies: general-purpose technologies that affect the economy widely and deeply (e.g., harnessing electricity or the computer chip).
So far, there have been five such meta-technology waves, beginning with the introduction of the steam engine and factory in the late eighteenth century. Since the early 1970s, we have been experiencing the fifth wave, centered on all the technologies and innovations emerging from the computer chip.
Each meta-technology becomes a platform for related developments. Many of these are adjacent possibilities, or innovations emerging logically from the meta-technology (e.g., computer chips make cell phones possible). Others are called “exaptations,” where an invention introduced in one field induces technological change in another field (e.g., Thomas Edison’s phonograph, meant to be an office dictating machine, becomes a medium for recording and listening to music—the record player).
We now live at the tail-end of the fifth wave with diminishing computer-chip based developments. Substantial gains to come will be concentrated in the areas of metadata analysis, material sciences, biocybernetics, and wireless telephony.
A declining pace of invention and innovation—and by association productivity—adds to the headwinds of the Western financial conundrum, making viable solutions elusive and socioeconomic pain protracted. Economist Robert Gordon recently noted that there are clear signs that a productivity slowdown is happening in the United States. Since 2004, productivity has grown at an annual rate of 1.7%, well below the 2.6% rate for the previous decade. During the two years leading into 2012, productivity fell to a 0.9% annual rate.
For the past 250 years, new technological wonders have been the backbone of progress, the cure-all for many problems, and the leavening in a rising standard of living. Might there be a sixth technology wave on the horizon to maintain this pattern? Maybe, but its nature will be uniquely transformative and a major reason a new secular ideology is necessary.
Transformational Technologies Ahead
Whether intentionally or not, humans have irrevocably changed the path of evolution on Earth by altering the planet’s biosphere and habitats by deliberately breeding animals and hybridizing plants to suit our needs and by inadvertently reducing biodiversity. This evolutionary trend will accelerate this century in a new direction through genetic, biocybernetic, neurological, nanotechnological, and pharmacological engineering of the human being.
The panoply of research agendas across these fields is so staggering in scope that their collective implication has not yet risen to social awareness. While science to date has been concerned with transforming things in our external environment, it now is developing potent tools to transform the human being itself.
A cursory introduction to what is happening in a couple of these fields will help set the stage for understanding how their effects will enter into mainstream consciousness and eventually demand a new way of thinking.
Controlling and eliminating genetic diseases by somatic gene therapy, and augmenting physically handicapped humans through biocybernetics, are capabilities that are rapidly coming on the scene, for these are relatively uncontroversial technologies. Cybernetic science has a long history and is essentially an interdisciplinary area of science concerned with the structure and function of regulatory systems.
Biocybernetics is the field where cybernetic theory is applied within biological systems; it has several subfields, including neurocybernetics, molecular cybernetics, cellular cybernetics, and evolutionary cybernetics. Developments in smart-system technology, information technology, neuroscience, and nanotechnology are converging in biocybernetics, causing acceleration in medical advances from drug delivery to sophisticated and more-varied prostheses.
Genetic testing has received more media attention than biocybernetics in recent years. Medical professionals now have more than 1,300 gene tests at their disposal to check for such diseases as cystic fibrosis and hemophilia. Along the way, scientists are discovering and exploring new dimensions of the human genome related to human physical and mental attributes.
As with somatic gene therapies and testing, early applications of biocybernetics have stirred little controversy. For instance, who objects if biocybernetics produces a “smart” prosthesis to permit a disabled veteran to walk with a strong, normal gait or to have a more agile arm with dexterous fingers with which to hold his child? The lack of major controversy with cybernetic enhancements or somatic gene therapies is due to the fact that neither alters the human germline.
Continuing developments in these fields will provide additional opportunities for personal enhancement and, in time, will pass ethical boundaries into stormy controversy. The most provocative scientific trend that is well under way is germline gene therapy. This vein of research seeks to transform the genetic structure of sperm and egg cells toward some goal—such as eliminating genes for disease by inserting new ones for better health or higher intelligence—with the consequence being that the engineered gene sequence will be passed on to future generations.
Germline gene therapies will create new and improved people. Without a doubt, developments in this field will ignite an ethical firestorm that we are unprepared to deal with. (For simplicity, we will refer to all of these scientific fields as bioengineering.)
Science these past three centuries has not only transformed our world, but it has also provided us with the means to improve our individual lives and extend personal power. Whenever you get a flu shot, you become biologically enhanced. Whenever you put on a pair of glasses, you become technologically enhanced.
We enthusiastically embrace enhancements if they protect us from disease or permit us to see so that we can carry on the business of life. We want these treatments or things because they enable us to more freely pursue the range of needs along Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy; they permit us to live more productive, stable, and fulfilled lives. There is little doubt that the majority of people will demand the life-enhancing products and procedures growing out of bioengineering.
Technology, Transformation, Ideals, and Ideology
Democracy is founded upon the inalienable rights of the individual, meaning that people should determine what is best for them, not the state. All who are alive today have grown up with astounding scientific enhancements, are comfortable with new technology, and are legally protected to deploy new treatments and products, within broad limits, that enhance their pursuit of happiness. Liberty—the beating heart of democracy—resonates with human nature and will not be denied.
Since we are about to take dramatic control over our own evolution, it is best to have a relevant, encompassing ideology to guide this emergent transformation. Such an ideology must harmonize with the implications of the demographic and socioeconomic shifts unfolding in the developed world.
Details of this ideology will emerge from a collective learning process; however, I will share some ideas on the structure of this new system of thought.
First, there needs to be a reframing of recent history. Second, from this reframing we need to extract and incorporate successful ideas from our experience. Third, we need to adopt a set of strong ethical principles to guide research, experimentation, and clinical application of biotechnology. Fourth, we need a vision of the new human to be created. And fifth, we need a sustainable community context in which to nurture our becoming while preserving all that humanity cherishes.
Reframing of history is fairly straightforward: The Enlightenment never ended. In fact, we are now moving into the third and final stage, the Era of Transformation. The first era is sometimes called the Age of Reason, for it was a time of social change based on new ideas for organizing social institutions along with economic experimentation through systematic application of the scientific method.
The Era of Experimentation followed and began with the rise of what Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi termed the “Dual Movement” in the mid to late 1800s. This was a period of intense experimentation with alternative social paradigms within democracy and interpretations of the ideal design of civil society (e.g., fascism, communism, democratic socialism).
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “End of History” after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of this second stage. The Era of Transformation began with the complete mapping of the human genome in 2001. The two most distinguishing features of this third stage will be the transition of our species from its colonization stage to a climactic stage of existence on Earth and the creation of a new human being.
Debates over which ideas to incorporate from previous secular ideologies to date will be contentious. The core institutions of democracy based on guaranteed individual freedoms in the context of free-market, meritocratic capitalism will be retained. The principle of the “Common Good” to judge social policy will remain, yet this notion has evolved into a multitude of extended meanings, the significance of which demands intensive analysis and discussion.
Beyond these, the concepts embedded in the ethos of progress—part of the social contract—capture much that resonates with human nature, but requires careful review. Certain elements, such as the sanctity of a rising standard of living, are in need of modification in relation to constraints imposed by physical reality, our numbers, and existing technology.
The scientific community has worked on establishing strong ethical principles to govern biotechnology. In 1979, bioethicists articulated four fundamental bioethical principles:
- The Principle of Autonomy or Informed Consent.
- The Principle of Non-malfeasance, or Due Care.
- The Principle of Beneficence.
- The Principle of Distributive Justice.
These principles have shaped the bioethical debate ever since, forming core standards for guiding research in such fields as gene therapy.
These ethical principles, and others, will be folded into the new ideology. Eugenics was about creating a “better” human based on differences between people. To avoid accusations that this new endeavor is a disguised eugenics movement, bioengineering must be constrained to enhancing attributes that all humans share: health, longevity, intelligence, and attention.
An image of the new human to be created will likely be the most difficult facet of the new ideology to agree upon. What we do not want to create is an inflated version of the Paleolithic human that now populates the world. This would surely lead to extinction. Incorporating some Kantian notion of the perfectibility of humanity is another certain dead end.
I have a strong preference for an open-ended vision and thus will refer to the new human simply as an “angel”—with all the ambiguity this implies. Throughout history, luminaries have referred to “the better angels of our nature,” speaking to the multiple expressions of positive human creativity, behaviors, and endeavors. This is a vision worthy of embracing.
“The Human Foundation” for Building the New Ideology
Our new ideology must have a social locus, including an institution to focus effort, bring minds together to flesh out the ideology, and promote a common agenda. Some will say that today this can be done through a virtual organization, but there is much more to building community than just inspired words on a screen.
I suggest that an organization called The Human Foundation be established with multiple objectives and purposes. For example, this organization will place itself at the vanguard of bioengineering, bringing all the knowledge together in a manner to promote an ethical pathway to the creation of the new human. It will also involve itself in addressing existing world problems—particularly in regard to those associated with demographic, economic, and environmental transition.
One goal will be to spread awareness of the advantages of diminishing population and aggregate GDP, and of embracing a modified ethos of progress. Existing knowledge will be compiled and stored by the Foundation, with strategies instituted for its preservation under extreme circumstances. A “seed bank” would be built within The Human Foundation (as is being done by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault) to preserve all that is known for the benefit of humanity’s future, thus serving as an insurance policy that we hope is never needed.
In the end, The Human Foundation would serve to bring together all that is needed to preserve, protect, and advance knowledge while guiding the process of continuing human evolution. It will have one other critical objective: to create a sense of shared purpose within a nourishing community.
The proposed ideology is evolutionary rather than revolutionary: It is built upon a foundation of peace and continuing revelation. Revolutionary ideologies, on the other hand, spawn passions of “us versus them,” with zealotry, fanaticism, and powerful in-group bonds. Both forms share a vision of a better future and sense of purpose, but the revolutionary approach draws heavily—and dangerously—on human emotions.
An ideology based on an evolutionary approach is predominantly rational and therefore lacking the spark to ignite and fuse community bonds. Consequently, there is a need for a studied effort to build community around the proposed ideology. Swiss philosopher Alain De Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists (Pantheon, 2012), is a good place in which to begin identifying approaches that The Human Foundation could use to address the issue of community building and cohesion.
No new ideology has emerged in the last half century, not because of lack of human imagination, but because we have been living in a period of complacency, relativism, and materialism. Many of the old ideologies have failed—or are failing—due to a misunderstanding of the underlying constraints imposed by physical reality, little-understood processes unfolding in the world, and overconfidence in our ability to construct institutions and technologies to solve problems.
Immanuel Kant thought that progress could not be measured by the amount of wealth or knowledge possessed and that it would not come automatically or be uninterrupted. Progress was, as he would put it, a difficult passage from barbarism toward cultural and human enlightenment. He believed that a world that was culturally enlightened would be dominated by people who were more uniformly and consistently angelic than in our barbarous past.
Progress ultimately springs from the transformation of people, and Kant called for education as the pivotal tool for doing so. This suggests that he believed nurturing intelligence would dispel ignorance, bringing understanding, peace, and prosperity. But Kant put undue faith in Paleolithic humans’ potential; history since his time has proved him wrong. The human we call Homo sapiens is shortsighted, self-centered, and tribal—with these traits thrown into a cauldron of base emotions with mental and biological flaws.
I believe that Kant was fundamentally correct, yet more and better education alone cannot take us where he envisioned us going: We need a better human to complete the passage. If we succeed in navigating the difficult challenges of the twenty-first century, we may begin to write the final chapter of the Enlightenment. If we do not, then the Enlightenment truly did end with the eighteenth century—and all that has transpired since may be no more than footnotes in the closing pages of the human story.
About the Author
Kenneth B. Taylor is a faculty member of the Department of Economics at Villanova University and currently serves as associate director of the Center for Global Leadership. His most recent edited volume is entitled 21st Century Economics: Perspectives of Socioeconomics for a Changing World (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
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