Human Enhancement and Wide Human Descent

Elsewhere I have summarized the position known as “speculative posthumanism” (SP):

Speculative posthumanists claim that descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration (Roden 2010).

The SP schema defines the posthuman in terms of a process of technical alteration rather than more common terms such as ‘enhancement’ or ‘augmentation’. This is because SP is a metaphysical thesis and not an ethical one; though I argue that it has strong ethical implications for our technical praxis.

It is also peculiar because ‘descent’ is intended in a “wide” sense insofar as qualifying entities might include our biological descendants or beings resulting from purely technical mediators (e.g., artificial intelligences, synthetic life-forms, or uploaded minds). I shall explain the notion of wide descent further below and show how it implies a correlatively extensive notion of the human.

In this post I shall justify the use of a value neutral alteration relation, then my use of ‘wide’ as opposed to ‘narrow’ descent as well as the cognate concepts of wide and narrow humanity.

Value Neutrality

SP holds that a future history of a general type is metaphysically and technically possible. It does not imply that the posthuman would improve on the human state or that there would exist an accessible common perspective from which to evaluate human and posthuman lives.

Now, it could be objected that this ethical neutralization of the historical successor relation in the SP schema is overly cautious and loses traction on what could distinguish humans and hypothetical posthumans: namely, that posthumans would be distinguished by the possession of posthuman capacities, far in excess of the correlative powers exercised by any human without radical technological intervention. One of the most widely used formulations of the idea of the posthuman – that of transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom – is non-neutral. He defines a posthuman as a ‘being that has at least one posthuman capacity’ by which is meant ‘a central capacity greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means’. Candidates for posthuman capacities include augmented ‘healthspan’, ‘cognition’ or emotional dispositions (Bostrom 2009).

While this is not a purely metaphysical conception of the posthuman it is, it might be argued, not so loaded as to beg important ethical questions against the philosophical critics of radical enhancement. As Allen Buchanan points out, ‘enhancement’ is a restrictedly value-laden notion insofar as enhancing a capacity implies making the capacity better or more effective but does not imply improving the welfare of its bearer (Buchanan 2009, 350). On the other hand, ‘alteration’ is so neutral that a technical process could count as posthuman engendering if it resulted in wide descendants of humans with capacities far below that of normal humans.

Surely, it can be objected, SP casts the definition of posthuman so wide that it fails to capture what some ethicists find disturbing about the programs for radical enhancement currently being promulgated by transhumanists such as Bostrom.

It is true that SP might at first seem to apply, by default, to prefrontal lobotomy patients or ‘posthuman’ babies bio-engineered to recreate slower-witted and less capable hominid ancestors of Homo sapiens. However, SP is a schematic formulation that requires a fuller explication of notions like ‘human’ and ‘non-human’. Once this supplemental account is in place the scope for trivial problem cases will be considerably reduced.

The advantage of the neutral historical successor relation in SP is that it doesn’t presuppose any common measure of human and posthuman capacities. Posthumans might conceivably result from a progressive enhancement of human cognitive capacities like working memory, mathematical or analogical reasoning – for example. Alternatively, our posthuman descendants might have capacities we currently have no concepts for while lacking some capacities that we can conceive of.

In a forthcoming article I consider how non-symbolic cognitive ‘workspaces’ that render language vestigial might mediate posthumans thinking and communication. It is not clear that the process leading to this would constitute an augmentation history in the usual sense – since according to my scenario it could involve both the loss of one central capacity (the capacity to have and express structured propositional attitudes) and the acquisition of an entirely new one. Yet it is arguable that it could engender beings so different from us in cognitive structure that they would be nonhuman (Roden Forthcoming; 2010).

The Borg in Star Trek are another imaginary variation of the theme of the ‘equivocal posthuman’ since individual members of the collective have their capacities for autonomy and practical reason drastically reduced compared to unassimilated humanoids. The Borg-collective, it is implied, has enormous cognitive powers, but these are not possessed by its members but emerge from the interactions of highly-networked drones, each of whom has had its humanoid capacities for reflection and agency suppressed. While the Borg seem like a conceivable form of posthuman life, they result from the almost complete inhibition of the kind of high-level cognitive and affective capacities that Bostrom treats as constitutive of the posthuman.

Such possibilities are thrown into greater relief if we count prospective artificial intelligences or synthetic life forms among our possible descendants.  As my schematic formulation of SP implies, this involves a wide notion of descent. I will elaborate the distinction between wide descent and narrow descent below in term of a distinction between a narrow biological conception of the human qua species and a wide conception of the human as a social-technical assemblage that includes narrow humans as functionally obligatory components. Whereas narrow humanity can be thought of as a natural kind, wide humanity is cultural construction with planetary reach.

Wide Descent

There are three justifications for introducing wide descent and the correlative notion of wide humanity:

1)    The appropriate concept of descent for SP is not a natural biological kind. Exclusive consideration natural biological descendants of humanity as candidates for humanity or posthumanity would be excessively restrictive. Prospective NBIC technologies may involve discrete bio-technical modifications of the reproductive process such as human cloning, the introduction of transgenic artificial genetic material (e.g. artificial chromosomes) or very radical variants of the reproductive process such as personality uploading or mind-cloning (Agar 2010). It follows that whatever notion of descent we substitute in SP should be wide enough to apply to discrete or to radical technical models of reproduction. When considering the lives of hypothetical posthuman descendants we must understood descent as relationship technically mediated to an arbitrary degree; not in terms of of the exchange of genetic material between gametes.

2)    Potential ancestors of posthumans could include, but are not restricted to, members of Homo sapiens (narrow humans). Conceivable posthumans may be related via technically mediated biological descent to narrow humans. However, it is equally conceivable that a singularity inducing a prospective AI could be a human artefact while AI+ or AI++ might be non-human artefacts. Alternatively, posthumans might be hybrids of biological and artificial intelligence or entirely synthetic life forms. Thus entities that might elicit our ethical concern with the posthuman could conceivably emerge via modified biological descent, recursive extension of AI technologies (involving human and/or non-human designers), quasi-biological descent from synthetic organisms, a convergence of the above, or ‘Other’ (some technogenetic process which has not been anticipated).

3)    Humans are the result of a technogenetic process of emergence and not a purely biological one. The most plausible historical analogy for the emergence of posthumans, as Virnor Vinge observes, is the ‘rise of humankind’, which differentiated humans from non-human primates (Vinge 1993). But some well-regarded positions in anthropology, philosophy and cognitive science claim that this involves the co-evolution of biological narrow humans, cultural entities such as languages, as well as techniques (Deacon 1997). This picture can be integrated into philosophical position known as active-externalism for which the distinction between bodily and extra-bodily processes is irrelevant when identifying cognitive processes such as thinking, memory or imagination. Active externalists like Andy Clark and David Chalmers argue from a principle of ‘parity’ between processes that go on in the head and any functionally equivalent process in the world beyond the skin sac. The parity principle implies that mental processes need not occur only in biological nervous systems but in the environments and tools of embodied thinkers. Given parity, spoken language, written documents, culturally embedded crafts, or electronic information systems can all count as vehicles of human mental processes where they make a cognitive contribution to them (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Clark 2003 and 2006). If we adopt active externalism as a philosophical and anthropological thesis we must view existing forms of human mentation such as mathematical thinking or critical theory as utilizing hybrid vehicles such as our biologically evolved (or co-evolved) brains and artefacts such as symbols, diagrams or computers.

Considerations 1-3 support (if non-conclusively) the claim that, were posthuman life to emerge, its emergence would be a discontinuity in the technogenetic process of recognisably human forms of life across this planet. This process has not been an exclusively biological one thus far (3) while considerations (1) and (2) suggest that biological processes could be highly technically mediated or largely transcended in the emergence of the posthuman. Becoming posthuman could involve a range of hybrid processes affecting both biological and extra-biological (technical, cultural) systems. Thus the relevant patient in the process would be a system with both biological (human) and non-biological (technical or cultural) components. I shall refer to this complex entity as the ‘wide human’ (WH). The WH is a complex entity containing many functionally complimentary components: individual narrow humans, languages, technological systems, legal systems, cities, corporations, religions, nations and geographical regions. It is spatially distributed and temporally evolving. Many of these temporal changes have been due to localised changes in its parts that disseminated through its geographical extent, drastically modifying its powers, which always emerge from the ways its parts interact – e.g. in the ways in which a technology like writing impacts on human cognitive and social practices.

We can now define wide human descent recursively:

An entity is a wide human descendant if it is the historical consequence of a replicative or productive process:

A) Occurring to a wide human descendant (recursive part).

B) Occurring to a part of the WH (where the ancestral part may be wholly biological, wholly technological or some combination of the two).


Agar, Nicholas (2010), Humanity’s End (MIT).

Bostrom, Nick (2008), ‘Why I Want to be a Posthuman When I Grow Up’, in Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, eds. Bert Gordijn and Ruth Chadwick, pp. 107-137.

Buchanan, Allen (2009), ‘Moral Status and Human Enhancement’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(4), 346-381.

Chalmers, D. (2009), ‘The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis’,, accessed 4 July, 2010.

Clark, A. (2003), Natural Born Cyborgs’. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2006), ‘Material Symbols’, Philosophical Psychology Vol. 19, No. 3, June 2006, 291–307.

Clark A. and D. Chalmers (1998), ‘The Extended Mind’, Analysis 58(1), 7-19.

Roden, David (2010), Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism. Journal of Evolution and Technology 21(1) (June): 27-36.

Roden, D (forthcoming), ‘Posthumanism and Instrumental Eliminativism’

Vinge, V. (1993), ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’, Accessed 24 April 2008.

3 thoughts on “Human Enhancement and Wide Human Descent

  1. Seems your well on your way to a new theoretical book down the pipe. Nice job! Some of Brassier’s ideas seem pertinent to the Churchland and the Van Gelder ideas your working with as well. Not sure why your kind of thinking isn’t more prevelant across the philosophical realm. Either way I’m glad to see your ideas taking on some meat and emerging with some very well thought out concepts. Bravo!

  2. Many thanks for your response, Steven. The biggest problem for formulating SP thus far has been coming up with a conception of the human that isn’t too narrow for the purposes at hand (e.g. The biological species concept of Homo sapiens as a reproductively isolated population) or implausibly essentialist. Engaging with yourself and others in the SR fraternity has really helped me to hone these ideas.

    This will appear in a book at some point – still looking for a publisher, but I have some ideas there.

    And yes, I feel I must engage more with Ray’s work. I suppose there’s not much that I disagree with him about in term of the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics (still think that’s the Achilles heel of most OOO). As a kind of ‘speculative eliminativist’ I’m less persuaded than him, I think, of the constitutive role of concepts or propositional thinking in demarcating the boundaries of realism and mind. Maybe, I should write up something on his critique of Churchland in Nihil Unbound!

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