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Body Hacking Harkens Back To Our 'Modern' Beginnings

Psychologically modern humans have always used tools, as Mayans did with these artifacts, to enable shifts beyond the confines of biology, says Alva Noë.
Psychologically modern humans have always used tools, as Mayans did with these artifacts, to enable shifts beyond the confines of biology, says Alva Noë.

NPR's Eyder Peralta covered a recent gathering of "transhumanists" and so-called body hackers last week.

He interviewed me for the story and we had a great chat. You can listen to (or read) the piece here. So, I thought I'd use my space this week to follow up with some further thoughts.

First, transhumanism. This is a movement devoted to the idea that technology is enabling humans to move beyond the confines of biology; the idea is that we are gradually evolving beyond the human and are achieving something like the status of cyborgs.

Now, it is widely believed that the advent of psychological modernity — the existence of human beings who think and act like us — was coeval with a technological explosion that occurred some 50,000 to 80,000 years ago. Maybe this change was brought about by a "brainy mutation." Or, maybe, as I suspect is more probable, we had the brains for innovation all along — but missing were the necessary social conditions (e.g. population density, access to other populations and so to new resources, opportunities for specialization).

In either case, the fact remains that we — psychologically modern human beings, people who think and act and feel like us — first show up in our pre-history as innovators who don't just use tools, as our anatomically human ancestors already had for hundreds of thousands of years, but who design them; as far back as we look, where we clearly find ourselves we find makers of clothing, users of language, drafters of pictures. It's crucial to realize that these tools — language, art, culture — are not merely devices for accomplishing old ends, but that they radically transform not only what we can do, but also what we can imagine doing; they alter how we think and transform what it is to be us, that is, what it is to be human.

The point is: we have always been trans-human, if by "human" you mean simply what flows from the genome. We are, and have always been, cultural by nature — and the fabric of culture is the stuff we wear, the tools we use, the words we speak and the marks we make. Culture is a scaffold that makes us what we are.

Fast forward thousands of years to the age of literacy. Think of what we do with literacy, with the ability to read and write. There would be nothing recognizable as modern civilization — science, art, law — in the absence literacy. And we enforce literacy through the most extreme training of our offspring. We drill our children rigorously for years and, in doing so, we sculpt their brains and shape their dispositions so that reading and writing become second nature. In this way, we enhance their minds and rebuild their personalities. Reading and writing, this is old media, maybe, but it is a radical, socially-engineered and utterly transformative techology that has made and remade and continues to remake us over and over again.

Transhuman? Old news. We have aways been transhuman. We have always been cyborgs.

So, let's turn to body-hacking. The history of the evolution of technology is nothing less than the history of modes of human organization. Technologies are not things, they are practices. As with evolution in biology, technological evolution is a history of failures and false starts, as well as one of breakthroughs. (Just think: Google Glass.) Are we at a cutting edge, now? Are digitalization, miniaturization and the new science genomics game changers? Do they signal a qualitative change in the way we are moving forward and evolving?

I see no reason for thinking so.

Peralta's story brings out that the more things change, the more they stay the same — or so it seems to me. The issues raised by (in some case still only imagined) implant technologies are not different from the issues that we've been grappling with for decades in the domain of chemical augmentation and repair.

Does a child whose academic performance is enhanced by medically guided amphetamine use (Aderall, Ritalin, etc.) deserve credit for his or her achievements? Opinions differ. What about sexual performance supported by drugs like Viagra? Is it the real thing?

These issues matter because they direct our attention to the fact that technology does (and always has) shifted what we can do and, so, redraws the lines of human agency and responsibility.

Person, said John Locke, is a forensic concept, one tied to praise and blame, and not a merely physical or biological concept. This, more than anything else, is why performance enhancement continues to be the bane of sports. We test ourselves in sports. We applaud hard work and training — but do we cheat if we change ourselves too much? Where do we draw the line? And who decides? Performance enhancing drugs are a no-no, but surgical reconstruction is OK in today's sporting culture. Why? What's the difference? These are old questions, not new questions.

We need to distinguish the ethics of enhancement, which are not at all new, from the ethics of the sort of unregulated experimentation that seems to be backed by some of the body hackers in Peralta's story. The question of whether it's morally permissible to have an RFID chip in your hand to swipe passwords shouldn't be confused with the question of whether it is safe to do so, or with the further question of whether it is ethical do so without the benefit of expert medical guidance.

A number of philosophers have explored some of these issues. I recommend reading Andy Clark's Natural Born Cyborgs and Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, And Women: The Reinvention of Nature. In my most recent book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, I also argue that we can only understand art against the background of our history as natural tool users.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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