Engineering humans : cultural history of the science and technology of human enhancement

Haug, Knut Hallvard Sverre (2016) Engineering humans : cultural history of the science and technology of human enhancement. Doctoral thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

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Abstract

This thesis investigates the technological imaginary of human enhancement: how it has been conceived historically and the scientific understanding that has shaped it. Human enhancement technologies have been prominent in popular culture narratives for a long time, but in the past twenty years they have moved out of science fiction to being an issue for serious discussion, in academic disciplines, political debate and the mass media.. Even so, the bioethical debate on enhancement, whether it is pharmacological means of improving cognition and morality or genetic engineering to create smarter people or other possibilities, is consistently centred on technologies that do not yet exist. The investigation is divided into three main areas: a chapter on eugenics, two chapters on cybernetics and the cyborg, and two chapters on transhumanism. All three areas of enhancement thinking have a corresponding understanding of and reference to evolutionary theory and the human as a category. Insofar as ‘enhancement’ is a vague and relative turn, the chapters show how each approach wrestles with how to formulate what is good and desirable. When this has inevitably proven difficult, the technologies themselves dictate what and how ‘enhancement’ comes about. Eugenics treats the human in terms of populations – as a species, but also in abstract categories such as nation and race. I follow the establishment of eugenics from the development of a statistical understanding of measuring human aptitude, with emphasis on the work of Francis Galton and the formulation of the regression to the mean. The following two chapters on cybernetics and the cyborg analyses how the metaphor of the body as machine has changed relative to what is meant by ‘machine’: associated with Cartesian dualism, cybernetics marked a shift in how we understand the term. Through a reading of the original formulation of the cyborg, I connect it to evolutionary adaptationism and a cybernetic ‘black box’ approach. The last two chapters look at a more recent approach to enhancement as a moral imperative, transhumanism. Since some transhumanists seek to ground themselves philosophically as the inheritors to Enlightenment humanism, the concept of ‘morphological freedom’ is central, representing an extension of humanistic principles of liberty brought into an age which privileges information over matter. The final chapter looks at how the privileging of information leads to a universal computational ontology, and I specifically look at the work of Ray Kurzweil, a prominent transhumanist, and how the computationalist narrative creates a teleological understanding of both human worth and evolution.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Copyright Holders: The copyright of this thesis rests with the author, who asserts his/her right to be known as such according to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. No dealing with the thesis contrary to the copyright or moral rights of the author is permitted.
School/Department: School of Arts > English & Humanities
Depositing User: ORBIT Editor
Date Deposited: 17 May 2017 15:38
Last Modified: 17 May 2017 15:38
URI: http://bbktheses.da.ulcc.ac.uk/id/eprint/210

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