Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

C. S. Lewis and Critical Reactions to Transhumanism

James A. Herrick
Image: Screen shot from That Hideous Strength: C.S. Lewis's Prophetic Warning against the Abuse of Science.

Editor’s note: Published on August 16, 1945, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a dystopian novel that eerily reflects the realities of 2020, putting into a memorable fictional form ideas expressed in Lewis’s non-fiction work, The Abolition of Man. To mark the former book’s three-quarter century anniversary, Evolution News presents a series of essays, reflections, and videos about its themes and legacy.

James A. Herrick is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope College in Holland, MI. His books include The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition.

This post is adapted from Chapter 10 of The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West. See also,

Not surprisingly, contemporary Transhumanism has attracted a number of informed critics. I will briefly review two prominent voices in the opposition camp who reflect concerns at the heart of C. S. Lewis’s own case. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a skeptic as regards the Transhumanist vision, echoes one of the central arguments of The Abolition of Man — biotechnology now threatens to exercise control of nature itself:

Due to genetic engineering, humans are now able not only to redesign themselves… but also to redesign future generations, thereby affecting the evolutionary process itself. As a result, a new posthuman phase in the evolution of the human species will emerge, in which humans will live longer, will possess new physical and cognitive abilities, and will be liberated from suffering and pain due to aging and diseases. In the posthuman age, humans will no longer be controlled by nature; instead, they will be the controllers of nature.1

The question of altering human nature also remains at the center of the developing case against Transhumanism and related proposals. Famed historian Francis Fukuyama, for example, has argued that “contemporary biotechnology” raises “the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history.” This possibility poses a real danger to individual rights and threatens the foundation of democratic institutions: 

This is important… because human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, and has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species. It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values. Human nature shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes, so a technology powerful enough to reshape what we are will have possibly malign consequences for liberal democracy and the nature of politics itself.2

Deeper Dangers of Biotechnology

Though the deeper dangers of biotechnological alterations of humans have not yet manifested themselves, Fukuyama adds, “one of the reasons I am not quite so sanguine is that biotechnology, in contrast to many other scientific advances, mixes obvious benefits with subtle harms in one seamless package.”3 The essential correctness of Lewis’s case is evident in the duration of major components in his rebuttal to Bernal, Stapledon, Haldane, Shaw and other enhancement proponents of his own day. 

C. S. Lewis exhibited remarkable prescience in The Abolition of Man. Was there anything that he failed to see? Writing in the war years of the early 1940s, Lewis’s perspective was understandably shaped by present circumstance and personal experience. As a result, he did not anticipate certain cultural and historical developments that have become critical to the rise of posthumanity thinking. 

As noted, Lewis harbored a deep antipathy for faceless state institutions where atrocities are plotted out according to cost-benefit pragmatism and inhuman schemes are hatched in dingy meeting rooms. In such settings was the banality of evil expressed in war-torn Europe. Lewis does not appear to have anticipated the postwar power of the large corporation, the modern research university, and sophisticated mass media. Such shapers of 21st-century American culture, not the cumbersome state agencies of mid-century Europe, have taken the lead in developing the biotechnologies, educational techniques and persuasive prowess Lewis cautioned against. The user-friendly smile of the high-tech firm, not the icy stare of a government department, is the face of the new humanity. Moreover, justifications for enhancement research are not hammered out in centralized planning meetings, but tested on focus groups and winsomely presented in entertaining public lectures. Financial support for posthumanity comes not come from Big Brother bureaucracies but from Silicon Valley boardrooms.

Vast and Accelerating

The scope of research related to human enhancement is incomprehensibly vast and accelerating at an incalculable rate. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of university and corporate research facilities around the world are involved in developing artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine, life-extension strategies, and pharmaceutical enhancements of cognitive performance. An ever-increasing number of media products including movies, video games and novels promote Transhumanist and evolutionist themes. Each technological breakthrough is promoted as a matter of consumerist necessity despite the fact that personal electronic devices — and the companies marketing them — are increasingly intrusive and corrosive of personal freedoms. Innovative educational organizations such as Singularity University are forming around the Transhumanist ideal. Indeed, so immense, diverse and well-funded is the research network developing enhancement technologies that the collective financial and intellectual clout of all related projects is beyond calculating. Suffice it to say that the enhancement juggernaut is astonishingly large and powerful. 

Tomorrow, “Science and Scientism: The Prophetic Vision of C. S. Lewis.”

Notes

  1. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Engaging Transhumanism,” in Transhumanism and Its Critics, ed. Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie (Philadelphia PA: Metanexus Institute, 2011), 19-52, pp 19-20. Other criticisms of human enhancement include Michael Sandel, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Nicholas Agar, Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2010); Michael Hauskeller, “Reinventing Cockaigne: Utopian Themes in Transhumanist Thought,” The Hastings Center Report 42, no. 2 (April 2012): 39-47.
  2. Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Picador, 2002), 7.
  3. Ibid., 7.