Immortalists Magazine interview
with David Pearce
IM: How does transhumanism address issues of racism and injustice?
DP: The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) affirms our commitment to the well-being of all sentience.
This goal sounds impossibly utopian. Consider just one form of injustice, economic inequality. Traditional routes to a fairer world involve “winners” and “losers”. Zero-sum games are endemic to human society. Worse, the enforcement mechanisms of greater fairness often turn out to be as bad - or worse - than the injustices they attempt to remedy. Consider the fate of socialist experiments of twentieth-century history.
Transhuman society will be different. Information-based technology promises to erase traditional left-right distinctions by creating effectively unlimited abundance of anything that can be digitised – and that embraces almost everything. (Some transhumanists claim that everything can be digitised, but let’s postpone discussion of whether conscious minds are a classical phenomenon.) Digital information is egalitarian. Intellectual-property owners may blanch, but we can now take for granted that everyone can enjoy access to the world’s musical resources, electronic games, movies and computer software. This unfolding revolution will continue into an era of augmented reality and immersive VR. Most importantly, access to genetic information and mastery of our reward circuitry will soon be democratised. Code for the biological substrates of subjective well-being doesn’t need to be rationed any more than the source code of digital music needs to be rationed. We could all become hedonic trillionaires. Many of the world’s worst inequalities aren’t economic or socio-political, but biological-genetic: disparities of mood, motivation and hedonic range. Just consider who is better off: a rich, angst-ridden depressive or a poor, healthy hyperthymic? Transhumanism promises a civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss. Potentially, everyone can be a hedonic “winner”.
Yet what about tackling injustice now?
In my view, universal basic income (UBI), decent housing and free healthcare shouldn’t be a political left-right issue, but a precondition of civilised society. Thus broadly libertarian transhumanists such as Zoltan Istvan support UBI no less than transhumanists in the left-liberal tradition. My own gut instincts have always favoured the underdog. But the neocortex is a more effective tool of cognition than the enteric nervous system. Rich and poor, black and white, human and nonhuman animals – we are all victims of our legacy wetware. Everyone will benefit when our Darwinian source code is fixed. Any prospective parent who believes that creating new life is ethically permissible should consider preimplantation genetic screening, counselling and (soon-to-be) professional gene-editing.
Defeating racism? This really demands a treatise, but here goes.
From antiquity to the present, dominant groups have convinced themselves they are intellectually, morally and spiritually superior to stigmatised outsiders – and touted “objective” measures to prove it. The evolutionary roots of racial discrimination, bigotry and xenophobia run deep. Everything from cultural stereotypes to the institutional racism in our criminal justice systems and even transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (i.e. transmission of epigenetic information through the germline) mean that the effects of systemic racism will take generations to overcome. Our posthuman successors may find the differences between human ethnic groups akin to the differences that humans discern between different dogs or mice or beetles. Yes, there are differences between different breeds of dog and mouse – and beetle! But humans can recognise that these differences are trivial compared to what all dogs, mice and beetles have in common. Likewise posthuman superintelligence vis-à-vis archaic humans.
Education harnessed to intelligence-amplification can help overcome racist prejudice and other cognitive deficits of perspective-taking ability. But creating empathetic superintelligence will be a monumental challenge.
IM: How can transhumanism positively affect policies that affect all sentient life?
DP: A “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness can benefit all sentient beings.
Everyone could benefit from “narrow” superintelligence on a neurochip; Neuralink is just a foretaste of tomorrow’s implantable brain-machine interfaces. Some doomsters fear a zombie coup from runaway software-based AGI; but all the benefits of “narrow” AGI can be incorporated within one’s own CNS. So transhumans will be supersapient and supersentient. Full-spectrum superintelligence will be us, not some fanciful zombie overlord. Transhumanism also offers a richer conception of intelligence than the narrow, “autistic” component of general intelligence measured by simple-minded IQ tests: enhanced social cognition, superior co-operative problem-solving skills, an expanding circle of compassion, and the tools to explore alien state-spaces of consciousness.
Yet who will live long enough to enjoy triple-S civilisation? Unless you’re a hydra, you and your loved ones suffer from the lethal hereditary disease we call “aging”. Rejuvenating interventions such as regular therapeutic blood exchange can potentially turn back the biological clock. “Cyborgisation” and synthetic body parts will increasingly enhance, repair and replace biological organs. But full-blown body-replacement is still decades away. Therefore we need not just medico-genetic advances, but also a medico-legal revolution: opt-out cryonics and opt-in cryothanasia for life-loving oldsters. At its best, transhumanism is all-inclusive.
Critically, the biohappiness revolution won’t be race- or species-specific. Transhumanists aspire to transcend ethnocentric and anthropocentric bias. Everyone can potentially benefit from genetically programmed well-being – a civilised signalling system to replace the dismal dial-settings of a Darwinian hedonic treadmill. There is a crying need for the World Health Organization to live up to its obligations as set out in its founding constitution. Good health should be the birthright of all sentient beings – or else they shouldn’t have been conceived in the first place. I’m personally gloomy about timescales for the abolitionist project. Centuries? Millennia? I don’t know. However, a hundred-year blueprint to eradicate suffering is technically feasible. The world’s last experience below hedonic zero will mark a major evolutionary transition in the development of life on Earth.
My own focus is the plight of nonhuman animals – humble minds as sentient and sapient as small children and worthy of equivalent care. Currently, the abuse of nonhumans by humans is systematic. Factory-farming and slaughterhouses are nastier than even the most virulent racism and child abuse. Ideally, moral argument alone would suffice: I’d implore everyone to adopt a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle. But transhumanists are hard-headed. We tend to favour technical solutions to ethical problems. Cultured meat and cultured animal products once belonged to science fiction. Yet over the next few decades, the cultured meat revolution will end the horrors of animal agriculture. The death factories will close. The surviving victims will be rehabilitated. Zoonotic plagues like COVID-19 spawned by animal abuse like will pass into history. And looking further ahead, what Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus called “the great slaughterhouse of Nature” can be civilised too. The biohappiness revolution can be extended to the rest of the living world via genome editing, cross-species fertility-regulation and synthetic gene drives. The entire tree of life is programmable. For sure, pilot studies in self-contained mini-biospheres will be prudent. But post-Darwinian ecosystems won’t resemble today’s snuff movie. Post-Darwinian ecosystems will be engines of bliss.
IM: What approach would you recommend for someone that intends to recalibrate their hedonic set-point and live "better than well" in a sustainable way in the current technological paradigm, before the democratization of gene-editing arrives, assuming that all the typical healthy habits (sleep, nutrition, exercise, meaningful social interactions) have been already maxed out?
DP: Most people today have not “maxed out” their genetic potential. Optimising sleep, nutrition and exercise is more often preached than practised. Yet what about depressive people who done everything right and still aren’t happy? Maybe they have also tried nutritional supplements (omega-3 fatty acids, S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAMe), St John’s wort, etc) and worked their way through the officially sanctioned mood-brighteners – “antidepressants” such as the SRRIs, MAOIs, tricyclics, bupropion and so forth. Meditation, cognitive-behavioural therapy and other non-biological interventions hasn’t produced lasting relief. Nothing works. The set-point of their hedonic treadmill is too simply low.
It’s tragic. I’ve no easy answers to the hardest cases. One of the biggest challenges to pharmacological (as distinct from genetic) remediation and enhancement is that the neurotransmitter system most directly involved in hedonic tone is the opioid system. We are all born dysfunctional opioid addicts with cravings to fix. Alas, exogenous opioids have well-known pitfalls for users, their families and society at large. That said, there is still scope for creative psychopharmacology. For example, the “French” antidepressant tianeptine - a full mu and delta opioid receptor agonist – can be combined with a selective kappa opioid receptor antagonist. (Kappa agonists induce dysphoria.) Also, perhaps add the novel agent LIH383. LIH383 blocks the atypical “scavenger” opioid receptor ACKR3. Blockade of ACKR3 increases the availability of opioid peptides that can bind to classical CNS opioid receptors, thereby increasing their “natural” mood-brightening action. The negative-feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill can be sabotaged. However, this kind of cocktail of creative psychopharmacology is best explored with the aid of a medical specialist. If all else fails, the modern equivalent of “wireheading” would work. Intracranial self-stimulation is not the transhumanist vision of paradise engineering: superintelligent life based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. Wireheading is clearly a last resort. But no one should be forced to suffer: it’s unethical.
Fortunately, future sentience will be blissful.
* * *
Social Media (2020)
The End of Suffering
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers (2015-20)
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
Interview of Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
Interview of DP by Sentience Research (2019)
Interview of DP by Immortalists Magazine (part one)