science commentary

What is the most dangerous idea of all time?

The most dangerous idea is not transhumanism, but the idea that everything will work out for the best

by T.J. Nelson


W hat is the most dangerous idea of all time? It's a tough question because there's so much competition: communism, egalitarianism, postmodernism, and even G.W. Bush's meme of Islam being a religion of peace are all good candidates.

For Francis Fukuyama it was transhumanism. Transhumanism is not, as you might think, humans dressing up as giant squid and giant squid dressing up as humans and prancing down Main Street with their tentacles hanging out. It's not humans trapped in a squid body and vice-versa, people getting fired for saying ‘calamari’, or ‘loligophobia’ as the world's biggest problem. It is borgification: the idea that we can change what we are through technology.

For some reason, though, people always glom onto the most inconsequential aspect of things to worry about. For Fukuyama it was equality: “If we start transforming ourselves into something superior,” he wrote, “what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” The risk of transhumanism, he thought, is slavery.

That is the least of our worries. Yes, we've all seen those movies about how robots, unfamiliar with concept of ‘machines’, use humans to pick their cotton for them. So, naturally, superintelligent humans will do the same.

Transhumanism may be inevitable: someday we will have computers implanted in our brains, with wireless interfaces that let us look up information in the Hive Mind and pay bills with our thoughts. We will harness viruses to cure diseases and engineer away genetic defects; quite probably in the process, governments will find a way to eliminate what's left of our independent mindedness, love of freedom, and our ability to think critically. So if that's what Fukuyama meant by slavery, then I would agree.

But the real risk of transhumanism is not being turned into sheep. It is that we screw around with our genome so much we find ourselves someday scrounging in graveyards for samples of authentic human DNA, frantically searching for our lost biological soul. Or worse, we find a genome stashed away on some floppy disk in some ransacked lab, its label smudged, and accidentally create a world populated by Craig Venters. Could do worse, I guess.

There are even some would welcome our new squid overlords. One writes: “Isn't human history (and prehistory) all about liberating more and more people from their biological constraints?”

The flaw in logic there is obvious, but at least we can argue about it. More threatening are meta-ideas: the ideas that prevent others from being heard, like the idea that one can psychoanalyze the motives behind the ideas with which one disagrees, as if by proving that the idea comes from a raving lunatic one can thereby eliminate its threatening implications. It's scarcely different from the idea, popular among cultural fascists on our college campuses, that ideas can be judged by the race and sex of those who propose them.

But even this idea is clear in its danger. Even worse are the ideas we believe because we want them to be true. Of these possibly the most dangerous is Fukuyama's own: that democracy is inevitable. It's Fukuyama's inversion of Marx's idea that history has a direction. In his recent book, a two-volume tome dazzling in its erudition, he argued that democracy is inevitably produced by the emergence of a middle class. As a society becomes wealthy, a middle class eventually gains power and clamors for democracy. Next thing you know we have little Thomas Jeffersons coming out of our collective nose. It's the ‘end of history’ in a new package.

To Americans, that sounds wonderful and even plausible. That is why it is dangerous: it provides intellectual justification for believing what we would dearly love to be true.

It is true that industrialization and the science behind it have cured diseases, increased our economic productivity, and made life safer. But the trend today is away from democracy. America's government has a history of taking control of corporations in time of war; now it does so in times of economic crisis, and its economic policies are so self-evidently unsustainable that a cynic would be justified in saying that engineering economic catastrophe to expand its power is now the purpose of government. Our intellectual leaders clamor not for freedom, but for covert totalitarianism. And outside America, despite the economic gains in the Middle East, a caliphate, not democracy, is the idea that inspires people.

Democracy is tied to the nation state, which is everywhere under threat. European democracy is in shambles because of the drive to replace the nation-state. A Rand Corporation study once concluded that radical change and economic decline are always accompanied by demographic depression. The Europeans, with their democratic principles systematically being stripped away by Belgians (who are perhaps destined to go down as the most effective conquerers of Europe ever), are now caught between the pincers of demographic decline and massive immigration. Some must think this too has been engineered to happen. Many must feel as if their civilization is crumbling around them, and so accelerate their demographic depression.

It is no doubt in the interest of establishment commentators to dismiss such ideas as the rantings of foaming lunatics, all the more so when presented by authors whose Caps Lock keys tend to get stuck or who are unable to affect the popular dispassionate tone. How could one be so callous as to argue against Europe taking in a few million refugees, especially when we have taken in ten or twenty percent of the population of Mexico? There's always room for one more—but there's always one more.

But arguing against an idea by challenging its motivation works both ways. The establishment has a vested interest in convincing us that things just keep getting better, just as the anti-establishment must convince us things keep getting worse.

Call me a foaming cynic, but only a tiny minority of people truly care about freedom. Most just want power, and only clamor for freedom if it gives them more power than the alternative. The powers in ascendance today are China and Russia, which has stepped in to try to fight Obama's ISIS. Neither of these powers has a tradition of democracy. Among the Chinese people that I know, even those who are now middle-class American citizens, most think the June 4 movement was a mistake; many believe technological progress and stability depend not on democracy, but on a strong authoritarian government.

History is an abstraction. As a leftist would say, it is a social construct. If Karl Marx was wrong about history, it was not just because his ideas inexorably led to gulags and mass murder. It was also because the idea that society evolves, history has a direction, and the other trends that our pundits so skilfully argue about are not real but products of the mind's tendency to see patterns where none exist.

Like it or not, democracy is associated with America. If America's policies result in disaster, as they will if they continue in their current direction, the idea that democracy always eventually leads to a benign outcome will become not a cliché but a source of ridicule. In the future people could speak of democracy as we speak of Rothbardian libertarianism: it would require an informed, intelligent voting public, and that is something we cannot create.

One could even argue that much of our own democracy is a pretense: our daily lives are not determined by voting, but by the bureaucrat-corporate machine and by the social mobs who think they are free and believe in the wisdom of crowds but cannot think for themselves. I've lived in six states, but not once has my vote in the primaries meant anything. The candidates of both parties are selected for us well in advance. The boundaries of our democracy are strictly demarcated—some would say they are mere decoration. We would be fools to call those people foaming loonies.

Democracy is an idea, and it lives or dies by whatever outcomes that idea produces. Maybe we can predict there will always be Cassandras around. The worst thing we can do is give them the satisfaction of being proved right.

See also:

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