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C.S. Lewis and the Advent of the Posthuman

Editor's Note: This month we have been marking the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis's death, November 22, 1963, by publishing excerpts from CSC associate director John West's book The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. We conclude with this selection from Chapter 10, "C.S. Lewis and the Advent of the Posthuman." Dr. Herrick is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor Communication at Hope College in Holland, MI. He is the author of The Making the New Spirituality, Scientific Mythologies, and other books.

Lewis-Series-Graphic_2.jpgProfessor 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 "anti-social 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."

According to Savulescu, genetic science, improved pharmaceuticals, and moral education may 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 millions of people. 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.

In an almost uncanny fashion Savulescu's proposals reflect key elements of the educational, ethical, and scientific planning that Lewis was concerned to answer in The Abolition of Man (1944) as well as in his fictional work, That Hideous Strength (1945). Comments 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.

Is there a real threat about which we ought to be concerned in light of The Abolition of Man, a text now seventy years old? C.S. Lewis harbored profound reservations about science operating independently of the Tao and driven by philosophies that claimed scientific support. He believed that human nature itself was at risk, and that the entire subsequent history of the human race could be adversely affected by a small cadre of scientific and bureaucratic planners, his Conditioners.

Lewis was prophetic as regards the advent of techniques powerful enough to bring about the effects he feared. Moreover, the scientistic mythologies propelling contemporary calls for unhindered biotechnological research -- the mythologies against which Lewis cautions readers in The Abolition of Man -- are contributing to conditions that encourage potential misuse of enhancement technologies. A remaining question, then, is whether such technology will be used to bring about the ends Lewis feared.

Toward the end of The Abolition of Man Lewis argues that modern science requires restraint, and that such restraint is unlikely to come from within science. While no one can question Western science's great accomplishments, "its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price." As a result, Lewis contends that science must be recalled to a position of submission to deeper and older human truths. In a rebuke that sounds almost naïve in a twenty-first century context, Lewis suggests that "reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required." Only "a regenerate science" would recognize the wisdom in "buy[ing] knowledge at a lower cost than that of life."1 Lewis considered that the threat of coordinated technology, psychology, and ethics to the future of the human race was real, and "if the scientists themselves cannot arrest the process before it reaches the common reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it."2

Will Lewis's prophecy of biotechnology's misuse come to pass? It is my view that if the enhancement juggernaut continues to gain speed, financial power, and cultural force, as it shows every sign of doing, a clash of two essentially religious worldviews is in the offing: Judeo-Christian theism and Transhumanist techno-futurism. Religious traditionalists will not readily accept a biotechnological project aimed at creating new human beings at the expense of human nature, and human enhancement advocates will not yield their vision of a posthuman future to the obscurantist objections of opponents they dismiss as bio-conservatives. If Lewis is right, this will be a battle for the future of the human race itself. I am convinced he is right. Currently, one side in the contest is preparing itself for a long cultural struggle, developing its resources, crafting its arguments, honing its public case. The other side has yet to realize that a battle is in the offing. For too long people of faith have adored Lewis without hearing him, pursued adulation without reflection, allowed his brilliant imagination to entertain without allowing his piercing intellect to chasten. We read Lewis as a friendly uncle; we need to encounter him as a fiery prophet.

Endnotes:

(1) Lewis, Abolition of Man, 49.
(2) Ibid., 49-50.