Future Imperfect: Transhumanism, Immortality, and Science's Legacy of Sexism
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In the wake of that Google memo manifesto, the Edinburgh Book festival hosted a two-part discussion on the sexism in scientific research and the future of science and scientific progress. The discussion was led by Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, and Mark O’Connell, author of To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.
One key theme running close to the centre of discussions of both books was the cultural gendering of thought styles and processes, with those of us in the western world often thinking of rationality as somehow fundamentally associated with the masculine (and often conversely associating the emotional and intuitive with the feminine). This sort of easy separation into diametric oppositions is appealing if only because it allows us to categorise things neatly and without much thought, but Saini argues that it is part of a process that has constructed a world in which scientific research itself becomes gendered.
In a scenario in which scientific research and advancement are often pursued by teams composed largely of men, questions begin to arise about the extent to which that research can accurately represent women. Indeed, this question forms the foundation of Saini’s book, which interrogates some of the fundamental assumptions that science and scientists make about women and their role in society and culture. These assumptions are questioned with a healthy dose of competing research and contradictory statistics throughout the book, challenging what Saini refers to as science’s “legacy of exclusion.”
This legacy of exclusion is also born out by O’Connell’s work on the future of science. Looking specifically at those at the forefront of science-fiction-seeming fields like transhumanism, cryogenics, and cybernetics, O’Connell reports that the individuals he spoke to were overwhelmingly male.
Death has, historically, been the one thing that no amount of money, power, or influence could hold sway over. It is, as O'Connell puts it, the great equaliser. Sadly, given that much of his book is dedicated to people whose ultimate goal is to solve "the modest problem of death,” the overall impression is that we are living in a world in which that last bastion of equality might now be under threat as an overwhelmingly male and stupefyingly wealthy group try to untangle the foundations of the human experience.
Worse still, subjects like transhumanism and the quest for scientific immortality seem fraught with their own profound inequalities. Questions quickly arise about the potential issues of practical immortality for the super-rich creating fundamental divisions in society. O'Connell mentions that the broad argument in these instances seems to be one in which such technology would initially be reserved for the phenomenally wealthy, but eventually become available to all, as part of what he refers to as "the trickle-down economics of eternal life."
If you find any of this worrying, then you’re not alone. Having written the book, O’Connell responded to concerns of the existential threat posed by rogue AI by saying,
I don't know if I have an answer to your question, as much as just piling more worries on. Don't come to me for answers, come to me for extra things to worry about.
If you’d like to read more about feminism, science’s legacy of exclusion, and transhumanism, we’ve included a reading list of all of the books mentioned during the talk below.