Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement

Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement

By Matt James

It was with some intrigue and interest that I picked up this latest book by Nicholas Agar. Here was a book which clearly stated in its title the fact that it was going to argue against radical enhancement and yet it was written by the same author of the book Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement published in 2004! Here Agar had argued that parents should be allowed to use reproductive technologies in order to enhance their future children, so long as those enhancements enriched rather than constrained the direction of the lives of the children. Admittedly, during the course of the book he did emphasize the need for precaution to be demonstrated in introducing the use and application of such technologies. However, in his new book, Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement, it would appear that Agar has taken some space to step back and re-appraise the emerging landscape of enhancement technologies and focus in on what he now terms “radical enhancement” technologies.

I do not think that I have ever come across such an interesting and well articulated book concerning human enhancement as Humanity’s End. The main premise of the book is that proposals that would supposedly promise to make us smarter like never before or add thousands of years to our live seem rather far fetched and the domain of mere fantasy. However, it is these very proposals which form the basis of many of the ideas and thoughts presented by advocates of radical enhancement and which are beginning to move from the sidelines to the centre of main stream discussion. A variety of technologies and therapies are being presented to us as options to expand our capabilities and capacities in order for us to become something other than human.

Agar takes issue with this and argues against radical human enhancement. He structures his analysis and discussion by focusing on four key figures and their proposals which help to form the core of the case for radical enhancement debate.  First to be examined by Agar is Ray Kurzweil who argues that Man and Machine will become one as technology allows us to transcend our biology. Second, is Aubrey de Grey who is a passionate advocate and pioneer of anti-ageing therapies which allow us to achieve “longevity escape velocity”. Next is Nick Bostrom, a leading transhumanist who defends the morality and rationality of enhancement and finally James Hughes who is a keen advocate of a harmonious democracy of the enhanced and un-enhanced.

It would be wrong to assume that as an author writing from the perspective of arguing against radical enhancement, Agar will be anti technology and offering a ‘one punch’ rebuttal.  Instead, Agar writes a well argued and robust response to each of these four areas of radical enhancement which is skilfully crafted and lucid. He avoids falling into any of the pitfalls of basing his argument solely upon the “playing God” question but instead seeks to posit a well founded argument in favour of the precautionary principle. Thus, for someone coming to the topic of human enhancement for the first time, the book is an excellent single volume introduction and discussion of the main arguments against radical human enhancement.


The book consists of nine chapters which start with two chapters which seek to give context, meaning and explanation as to what radical enhancement and post humanity is. The author then proceeds to address the four key figures of Kurzweil, de Grey, Bostrom and Hughes in turn. First he takes a chapter on each outlining and discussing their main arguments before following this up with a separate chapter in which he provides a more detailed set of reflections and rebuttal to their claims.  Whilst clearly writing from a philosophical background the book should not be viewed as exclusively for students of philosophy.  Rather the book will be an excellent resource for all those from across the disciplines wishing to engage with this pertinent issue largely due to the careful thought which was been given to the book’s structure and focus.  Whilst it cannot be disputed that Kurzweil, de Grey,  Bostrom and Hughes are key figures in the radical enhancement debate they nevertheless represent different aspects of the conversation. In Kurzweil we have the technologist; de Grey the therapist;  Bostrom the philosopher and Hughes the sociologist. Consequently by taking these different perspectives in turn it not only provides the basis for an informative analysis but also gives the book its distinct value in so far as presenting the case against radical enhancement.  Clearly with any ‘movement’ there are probably those protagonists of a transhumanist/posthuman future who would take issue with some of the detail and nuances of the arguments of the four figures in question. However to take these prominent figures and their respective viewpoints helps to identify and profile the interconnectedness of their endeavours (be it from different disciplinary viewpoints) which results in the combined creative power of these ideas in pursuing a post human future.

Coming under the microscope

With his law of accelerating returns and talk of the Singularity Ray Kurzweil proposes that we are speeding towards a time when our outdated systems of neurons and synapses will be traded for far more efficient electronic circuits, allowing us to become artificially super-intelligent and transferring our minds from brains into machines.  Having laid out the main ideas and thinking behind Kurzweil’s proposals, Agar makes the perceptive comment that despite the apparent appeal of greater processing power it would nevertheless be no longer human. Introducing chips to the human body and linking into the human nervous system to computers as per Ray Kurzweil’s proposals will prove interesting but it goes beyond merely creating a copy of us in order to that future replication and uploading can take place. Rather it will constitute something more akin to an upgrade. Electrochemical signals that the brain use to achieve thought travel at 100 metres per second. This is impressive but contrast this with the electrical signals in a computer which travel at 300 million metres per second then the distinction is clear. If the predictions are true how will such radically enhanced and empowered beings live not only the unenhanced but also what will there quality of life really be? In response, Agar favours something what he calls “rational biological conservatism” (pg. 57) where we set limits on how intelligent we can become in light of the fact that it will never be rational to us for human beings to completely upload their minds onto computers.

Agar then proceeds to argue that in the pursuit of Kurzweil enhanced capacities and capabilities we might accidentally undermine capacities of equal value. This line of argument would find much sympathy from those who consider human organisms in “ecological” terms, representing a profound interconnectedness which when interfered with presents a series of unknown and unexpected consequences. In other words, our specifies-specific form of intelligence may well be linked to species-specific form of desire. Thus, if we start building upon and enhancing our capacity to protect and promote deeply held convictions and beliefs then due to the interconnectedness, it may well affect and remove our desire to perform such activities (page 70). Agar’s subsequent discussion and reference to the work of Jerry Foder, philosopher and cognitive scientist is particularly helpful in terms of the functioning of the mind by modules and the implications of human-friendly AI verses human-unfriendly AI.

Radical life extension

In terms of the author’s discussion of Aubrey de Grey, what is refreshing to read from the outset is the author’s clear grasp of Aubrey’s ideas and motivation. Some make the mistake of thinking he is the man who wants to live forever, when in actual fact this is not the case.  De Grey wants to reverse the ageing process - Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) so that people are living longer and healthier lives. Establishing this clear distinction affords the author the opportunity to offer more grounded critiques of de Grey’s than some of his other critics. The author makes plain that de Grey’s immediate goal is to achieve longevity escape velocity (LEV), where anti-ageing therapies add years to life expectancy faster than age consumes them.

In weighing up the benefits of living significantly longer lives, Agar posits a compelling argument that I had not fully seen before. In terms of risk, those radically enhanced to live longer may actually be the most risk adverse and fearful people to live. Taking the example of driving a car, a forty year-old senescing human being who gets into their car to drive to work and is involved in a fatal accident “stands to lose, at most, a few healthy, youthful years and a slightly larger number of years with reduced quality” (p.116). In stark contrast should a negligibly senescent being who drives a car and is involved in an accident resulting in their death, stands to lose on average one thousand, healthy, youthful years (p.116).  

De Grey’s response to this seems a little flippant; with the end of ageing comes an increased sense of risk-aversion so the desire for risky activity such as driving will no longer be prevalent. Moreover, plus because we are living for longer we will not be in such a hurry to get to places!  Virtual reality comes into its own at this point as a means by which the negligibly senescent being ‘adrenaline junkie’ can be engaged with activities but without the associated risks. But surely the risk is part of the reason why they would want to engage in snow boarding, bungee jumping et al in the first place. De Grey’s strategy seemingly fails to appreciate the extent to which human beings want “direct” contact with the “real” world.

Continuing this idea further though, Agar’s subsequent discussion of the role of fire-fighters is an interesting one.  A negligibly senescent fire fighter may stand to loose more when they are trapped in a burning inferno but being negligibly senescent means that they are better fire-fighters by virtue of increase vitality. Having recently heard de Grey speak and had the privilege of discussing his ideas further with him, Agar’s discussion of De Grey were a particular highlight of the book and made for an engaging discussion. Whilst expressing concern and doubt in relation to De Grey’s ideas, Agar is nevertheless quick and gracious enough to acknowledge that if such therapies could be achieved then De Grey is probably the best person to comment on and achieve such therapies given the depth of knowledge and understanding that he has built up in this area.

Preferring the status quo

Turning to Nick Bostrom and his philosophical responses concerning the morality and rationality of radical human enhancement, Agar takes to task the argument Bostrom made with Toby Ord, concerning claims against enhancement. Bostrom and Ord argue that it boils down to a preference for the status quo; current human intellects and life spans are preferred and deemed best because they are what we have now and what we are familiar with (p. 134).  Agar discusses the fact that in his view, Bostrom falls into a focalism – focusing on and magnifying the positives whilst ignoring the negative implications.  Moreover, Agar goes onto develop and reiterate his earlier point that the sort of radical enhancements Bostrom et al enthusiastically support and promote take us beyond what is human so they are no longer human. It therefore cannot be said to be human enhancement given the fact that the traits or capacities that such enhancement afford us would be in many respects superior to ours, but they would not be ours.

A Transhuman Manifesto

The final focus for Agar is James Hughes, who published his transhumanist manifesto Citizen Cyborg in 2004. Given the direct connection with politics and public policy this for me was a particularly interesting read. The basic premise to Hughes argument is that once humans and post humans recognise each other as citizens then this will mark the point at which they will be able to get along with each other.

Agar directly tackles Hughes’ ideas of a “democratic transhumanism.” Here as post-humans and humans live shoulder to shoulder in wonderful harmony, all persons have access to the technologies they want in order to promote their own flourishing.  Under girding all of this is the belief that no human should feel pressurised to become enhance. Agar finds no comfort with this and instead can foresee a situation where it would be very difficult for humans to ‘choose’ to remain human.  The pressure to radically enhance would be considerable given the fact that the radically enhanced would no doubt be occupying the positions of power in society and would consider the moral obligation to utilise to the full enhancement techniques as being a moral imperative for the good of society.  For those who were able to withstand then a new underclass would no doubt emerge between the enhanced and the un-enhanced. This is precisely the kind of society which Hughes appears to be overly optimistic will not emerge but which is more akin to Lee Silver’s prediction of the future with the distinction made between the "GenRich" and the "naturals”. 

This being the case, the author proposes that we have two options: radical enhancement is either enforced across the board or banned outright. It is the latter option which Agar favours but crucially does not elaborate further on so it is unclear as to how he would attempt such a ban given the complexity of the issue. This is disappointing as any general initial reflections which the author felt able to offer would have added to the discussion and added further strength to his line of argument.



Agar offers what is probably one of the most detailed and rigorous analyses against radical human enhancement that I have come across to date. Whilst much has been written on the case for radical human enhancement, very little has emerged which provides a well structured and considered respond for the case against. Humanity’s End must well just be what has been missing.  Whilst clearly cautious and dubious about radical human enhancement, the author appears to have no particular axe to grind and so offers a strong, lucid and balanced response to the question of whether or not radical enhancement should be something that is embraced or rejected. Those who have doubts over radical enhancement technologies should read it and take note of the arguments which Agar sets out. Equally, for advocates of radical human enhancement the rebuttals the author provides should be considered and reflected upon as work continues in this area. Humanity’s End is a welcomed contribution to the human enhancement debate and will do much to help establish points of consensus between protagonists and antagonists as well as highlight the implications which are still demanding our attention and response.





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