Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On Cyborgs, Cures, and Choices

Whilst wandering around the Web a few days ago, I came across an article that contrasts neurodiversity and transhumanism. The author seems to be arguing that neurodiversity is about celebrating one's natural brain configuration and that it is diametrically opposed to transhumanism, which, according to the author, increases disability prejudice by treating species typical cognitive functioning as a disease.

I think he's wrong on both counts. As I see it, both neurodiversity and transhumanism are primarily about self-determination. When I write about neurodiversity, I am asserting that cognitive diversity is beneficial to the human species, just as other forms of diversity are valuable, and that people should never be forced to conform to some arbitrary concept of the ideal brain (whatever that might be) or treated as second-class citizens if they do not.

Whether or not a person's brain configuration is "natural" isn't the issue here. To me, neurodiversity means that every one of us is worthy of respect, acceptance, and equality—regardless of whether we were born with our current set of cognitive traits, or decided to take medication to alter some trait (such as to reduce anxiety), or chose to get some sort of cybernetic enhancement of the brain, or whatever. In a world that truly valued human diversity, a person wouldn't be judged as more or less valuable based on whether his or her brain was in its "natural" state, and there wouldn't be any coercion one way or the other.

As for the complaint that transhumanism views the natural body as diseased (which it does, to some extent, in seeking to cure the aging process), mainstream medicine already treats the degenerative conditions of old age as diseases—just not very successfully! There's a lot of research being done to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, for instance, which is a major killer of the elderly. If we're including Alzheimer's and other age-related dementia in our definition of species typical cognitive functioning (as we should, because it is typical to develop some form of dementia in old age), the disease model is commonly applied. Not all that long ago, however, people took it for granted that "senility" was natural and inevitable. The recent change in society's attitude toward dementia didn't come from widespread acceptance of transhumanist philosophy; rather, it came from discovering the medical facts.

Although our scientific knowledge is still quite primitive in many areas, we already have reached a point where no citizen of a modern industrialized nation goes through life with his or her body in a natural, unaltered state. We have our teeth repaired with various artificial materials when they decay or are damaged, instead of believing it natural (as our ancestors did) to end up toothless in old age. Many of us choose to control our fertility with synthetic hormones. We wear contact lenses or have surgery to correct our nearsightedness, and if we develop cataracts as we age, we are likely to have artificial lenses implanted in our eyes.

I expect the vast majority of us would consider the availability of these modern medical technologies to be a significant advance for humankind, rather than lamenting that we're no longer constrained to live in a state of nature. While we do need to be vigilant to ensure that no medical procedures are performed against a person's will and to prevent discrimination on the basis of a person's mental or physical configuration (and I'm not just referring to disability discrimination here, but to all coercive expectations regarding the human body), there's no inherent contradiction between the values of neurodiversity and transhumanism. Both seek to expand our options in life and the diversity of our species.

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  • This is particularly interesting to me lately.

    It looks like I will be breaking into the assistive technologies business soon. So, I have been mulling over the ethics of that.

    I too think freedom is key word.

    By Blogger bigwhitehat, at 11:00 PM  

  • Good post. I actually see the obsession with "The Natural" as being a stealth form of ableism in many respects -- I've come across plenty of comments by people who blame "technology" for a supposed rise in the number of disabled people (who otherwise would have died before the means existed to save them), and who also believe that it is "unnatural" to keep certain kinds of people alive in the first place.

    People who require ventilators, feeding tubes, power wheelchairs, etc., are still dealing with others saying things to them like, "Well, *I* know I could never live like *that*!" It's like there's this bizarre double standard when it comes to technology -- in some people's minds, it's somehow okay to use a car or a cellular phone without being pitied, but not a communication device or wheelchair.

    And elderly people (especially the disabled elderly) are often in the position of having to fight for even basic lifesaving medical care sometimes, due to a perception that they ought to "stop using up resources". If that isn't morally unacceptable, I don't know what is.

    You are absolutely right that both transhumanism and neurodiversity are about self-determination; I would add that they are also both about a recognition that no one person or group should get to decide what kinds of other people should be permitted to exist.

    Nobody should be discriminated against, regardless of whether their "difference" or "atypicality" was inborn or chosen. There is nothing sacred about "the natural", what *ought* to be considered sacred is a person's right to cognitive and bodily autonomy.

    Nevertheless, what I *think* some of the "natural" folks might be trying to get at, but aren't quite succeeding in expressing, is a kind of existential anxiety regarding how to manage the expansion of choice we are seeing as a result of new technologies. A lot of things that are now subject to choice used to be immutable aspects of a person's being, and these immutable aspects were frequently called upon by individuals in the process of determining a solid basis for their identities. Additionally, in the past, people with minority or nonstandard configurations have been able to take advantage of the fact that there really IS no way to make them more like the majority. If is is physically impossible to change something, then that allows people who exhibit that "something" a certain degree of leverage in arguing for acceptance and/or accomodation.

    Making it physically possible to alter things that make people different from the norm does introduce a complicating factor in arguing for acceptance and promoting diversity as a universal good -- some would say that if a factor makes a person (or society) "suffer", then it would be ridiculous to "force" people to retain that factor for the sake of some lofty philosophical ideal. But the thing about neurodiversity and transhumanism is that neither of these concepts is about forcing anyone to do anything. The real problem lies in the assumption that certain kinds of people are suffering by virtue of being who/what they are in the first place, and in maintaining a society that refuses to become more flexible and accomodating to different kinds of people. But the answer to addressing that problem does not lie in invoking the "natural" -- it lies in pointing out social injustice and rooting out bigotry (especially the pervasive, subconscious bigotry that lies at the heart of things like ableism).

    By Blogger AnneC, at 11:10 PM  

  • Big White Hat: Yes, in the assistive technologies business, it is essential to make sure that you're providing what your clients actually want, rather than what you think they need. Good luck with your efforts!

    Anne: Those who claim that there are more people with disabilities because of technology have it completely backwards. Yes, some people are alive because new technologies saved them from dying, but a far greater number are living without disabilities because of advances in technology (for example, adding iodine to salt to prevent "cretinism," which used to be a common disability).

    I agree that there is a large amount of anxiety in our culture about the increased number of choices we have, the possibility that making the wrong choices will result in disaster, and the perception that others must be suffering if their lives differ too much from society's expectations. Majia Nadesan argues that the social construction of autism as a disorder is largely a result of this anxiety being projected onto today's children.

    By Blogger abfh, at 6:19 PM  

  • If you medicalize it, they will come...(the opportunists!)

    How much does it cost to treat a human as a human? Obviously, the cost is too great for some.

    By Blogger r.b., at 7:01 AM  

  • As an Aspie who is employed.... making a good living, paying taxes ect. I am appalled at what some of those blowhard ableists come up with.

    I don't have any hard stats on me right now so I am working from memory. It is my understanding that there are fewer 'disabled' people in the US now than there were 50 years ago. Scarlet fever and polio are seldom seen these days. Down children are very rare too and we all know why. Epilepsy has a better treatment and outcome, and childhood diabetes used to kill outright. I also seem to have seen some data that suggests that adults who are injured due to war or accident are a large part of the disabled population-people born average and able who went to Iraq for instance.

    Americans are living longer and better lives on the whole compared to a generation ago.

    Still have a long way to go, tho.
    The measure of a great society is how we care for those who have trouble caring for themselves.

    ~Sarah (um, not disabled here. Just differently abled)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:18 PM  

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