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The Abolition of Man and the Advent of the Posthuman

James A. Herrick

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.

[Professor Filostrato:] The work is more important than you can yet understand. You will see.

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength1

We are at the start of something quite new in the scheme of things.

Hans Moravec, Mind Children2

Professor Julian Savulescu is the head of the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford University and a leading proponent of human enhancement, the school of thought that promotes the progressive use of biotechnologies to improve human intellect, moral reasoning, and other traits such as physical strength. Savulescu has argued that deep moral flaws and destructive behaviors point indisputably to the need to employ technology and education to change human nature; either we take this path or we face extinction as a species. 

In Savulescu’s view, rapidly advancing brain science will provide some of the data necessary to shaping a better human race: “Once we understand the basis of human brain development, we will be able to augment normal brain development in a way that couldn’t naturally occur.” But smarter people are not necessarily better people, and so another key to better people is found in a deeper understanding of human biology. “[T]here is reason to believe that even aggression is something that can be understood in terms of its biological underpinnings.” A clue to human aggression is discovered in “a mutation in the monoamine oxidase A gene,” which in the presence of “early social deprivation” has been linked to “criminal behavior” in at least one study. Savulescu also notes that “[w]e’ve been able to manipulate human moral behavior and cooperation through the administration of drugs,” Prozac providing one prominent example. Other drugs have been shown “to promote trust and willingness to take risks and recovery of trust after betrayal.”

Our Deep and Complex Predicament

According to Savulescu, genetic treatments, improved pharmaceuticals, and moral education will hasten the emergence of a new and better human race. However, more is needed, including worldwide cooperation “in a way that humans have never so far cooperated.” We live in dangerous times, and greater dangers lie ahead. Weapons technology makes possible the annihilation of the human race. At the same time “liberal democracy” fails to promote “any particular set of values or particular moral education” as it seeks to guarantee “maximum freedom.” Why are personal freedoms a risk factor? The answer is found in a condition theologians might call fallen human nature: “We have a human nature that is severely limited in terms of its origins and in terms of its capacity to respond to these new challenges.” Human nature thus requires restraint, modification, or both. Our predicament is deep and complex: weapons of mass destruction, a fragmented political scene, excessive devotion to individual freedoms, and an unreliable nature. 

Only aggressive research aimed at helping us to “understand our moral limitations and the ways to overcome these” will produce the scientifically grounded ethics needed to “decide how we should reshape our nature.” Employing a vivid analogy, Savulescu affirms that Western culture is entering a dangerous “Bermuda Triangle with liberal democracy in the position of Miami, radical technological advance in the position of Bermuda, and human nature and its limitations in the position of Puerto Rico.” To “avoid entering this triangle” will mean reducing “one of our commitments to these points.” It is neither likely nor desirable that we would restrain technology, so Bermuda remains on the map. Savulescu continues: 

We could reduce our commitment to liberalism. We will, I believe, need to relax our commitment to maximum protection of privacy. We’re already seeing an increase in the surveillance of individuals, and that surveillance will be necessary if we’re to avert the threats that those with anti-social personality disorders, psychopathic personality disorders, fanaticism represent through their access to radically enhanced technology.

So, liberal Miami is threatened and the dubious Puerto Rico of human nature is clearly targeted for radical change. Of the three points of the Savulescu Triangle only technological Bermuda is safe, a contemporary manifestation of Francis Bacon’s island of Bensalem. 

The Savulescu Triangle

Moral education founded on a new ethics is critical to the task of rescuing lost humanity. “I believe that we should be promoting certain sets of values and engaging in moral education,” says Savulescu. Tacking away from Miami will require reducing consumerism and accepting “a lower standard of living.” Political and economic austerity are also necessary. “We’ll need to accept an ethics of restraint, and we’ll need to adopt long-term strategies that go beyond a typical electoral term of three to five years.” What Savulescu terms “the very extreme adherence to liberalism that we’ve so far enjoyed” may also have to go.

Of course, human nature will not quickly abandon a comfortable life for a new austerity. After all, we possess “a set of dispositions that make us very ill-disposed to give up our standard of living, to collectively cooperate to solve the world’s global problems.” Ultimate answers “may lie not only in terms of our political institutions and the degree to which we curb our commitment to liberalism, but also inside ourselves.” But, help is at hand because Bermuda survives: “The genetic and scientific revolution that we’re a part of today represents a second great human enlightenment.” We now possess the means of understanding “the human condition,” and we are moving toward an “understanding of our nature as animals, of our dispositions to act, why some people will kill, why some people will give.” 

Stopping at nothing, “we should adopt whatever strategies are most effective at protecting our future,” which includes “moral education, the inculcation of various values and ways of living are no doubt an important part of this.” But the greatest obstacle to our survival and advancement is human nature itself; it must be changed. As impossible as such a transformation might seem to a layperson, Savulescu is hopeful. “[I]t may be that as science progresses, we have at our fingertips the ability to change our nature.” The power to transform humanity at the genetic level is in our hands, but “it’s up to us to make a decision whether we’ll use that power.”3

Warnings from C. S. Lewis

This chapter compares certain warnings in C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1944) with recent arguments about our obligation to deploy biotechnologies to alter or “enhance” the human race. I begin with Julian Savulescu because he articulates clearly the values of a growing scientific and cultural phenomenon known as the human enhancement movement or Transhumanism. Not at this point a coordinated effort, human enhancement nonetheless represents the convergence of powerful cultural narratives, mind-boggling technological developments, and a progressive agenda with an improved humanity as its focus. Savulescu’s comments serve as an entry point for familiarizing ourselves with the goals and the reasoning of the human enhancement movement.

In order to understand Lewis’s objectives in The Abolition of Man, particularly the most commented upon third lecture from which the book takes its title, it will be important to set the work in its historical context. To what specific threats was the great Christian apologist responding in the 1940s? Answering this question makes clear that Savulescu and other enhancement proponents did not invent the agenda they advocate. Today’s proponents of biotechnological and ethical improvements to the human race write in a tradition that includes such intellectual luminaries as the eugenics theorist Francis Galton, playwright George Bernard Shaw, scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane and J. D. Bernal, and science fiction writers H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, all figures with whom Lewis was quite familiar. A crucial historical development, however, separates today’s advocates from their intellectual predecessors and from C. S. Lewis. No longer are technological alterations to the human constitution a matter of speculation only; they are now vigorously promoted scientific realities awaiting the political and cultural conditions that will allow their implementation. 

In an almost uncanny fashion Savulescu’s comments reflect key elements of the educational, ethical, and scientific planning that Lewis was concerned to answer in The Abolition of Man as well as in his fictional work, That Hideous Strength (1945). Proposals by Savulescu and others who share his concerns thus provide an ideal opportunity for assessing the prophetic nature of Lewis’s concerns about applied technology in the context of an ascendant Western science operating outside the limits of widespread traditional values Lewis dubbed the Tao

To Control Rather than Investigate Nature

Lewis employed the term scientism when discussing science characterized by principles and practices tending toward controlling rather than investigating nature. Science joined to modern ideologies also encouraged the kind of kind of centralized planning he targets in The Abolition of Man and elsewhere. Finally, this pivotal distinction between science and scientism, his derisive fictional portrayals of some — though not all — scientists, and provocative comments in letters and essays all raise the question of Lewis’s attitude toward science and scientists. Examining The Abolition of Man in its historical context will provide help in answering this persistent question.

Lewis’s arguments regarding technological modifications to human nature merit attention — even urgent attention — in an era in which human genetic structure may soon be shaped according to the moral vision of a relatively small group of decision-makers. Moreover, his suspicion of scientific planning cut free from traditional values needs to be understood in an age in which technology is advancing at an exponential rate while moral knowledge in the West is declining almost as precipitously.

Tomorrow: “Why C. S. Lewis Wrote The Abolition of Man.”

Notes

  1. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 60.
  2. Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). 158.
  3. Julian Savulescu, “Unfit for Life: Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction,” keynote address, Festival of Dangerous Ideas (Sydney, Australia, 2009).