Technosapiens

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 4, 2004

Homo sapiens. This is the scientific name for human beings. It means “thinking man,” and thus it bears witness to the image of God in people (Gen. 1:27). We are made in the image of a rational God, and this is what distinguishes us from all the other creatures that God has made. Yet there are scientists who claim that a higher level of existence will soon be within our grasp. They call this coming new humanity technosapiens.

Technosapiens is part man, part machine. In some ways, this is already happening. For example, the Dobelle bionic eye system and the artificial Optobionic silicon retina are helping patients with poor eyesight—including some who are blind—to see. There are also new forms of cyborg technology, in which living nervous tissue is connected (or should I say interfaced) with electronic devices. A common example is the pacemaker, which regulates a person's heartbeat by means of electrical impulse. A more complex example is the implantation of electrodes in the brains of patients suffering from an apparently vegetative state known as “locked-in syndrome.” With the help of these implants, patients are able to control the cursor on a computer screen and express their thoughts.

The machinery isn't always mechanical; sometimes it's biological. An increasingly important field of biology, which operates at the atomic or molecular level, is known as nanotechnology (the term refers to things that function at a certain scale and is not limited to biology). Using nanotechnology, researchers soon hope to be able to bioengineer blood cells, generate new connective tissue to heal torn ligaments, dissolve plaque in heart and brain blood vessels, manufacture and deliver certain drugs inside the body, and replace or repair damaged brain cells. The Federal Government annually funds nearly a billion dollars of this work through the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.

Some of these technologies are reparative and restorative. Their effect is to return a diseased or damaged part of the body to full and effective function, much the way that contact lenses help people with bad eyesight. In developing such technologies, scientists are simply unfolding the potentialities of the created order and using them to show compassion to people in need. This is part of what it means to fulfill our God-given mandate to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing (Gen. 1:28).

However, there are scientists who want to move beyond these medical remedies to produce an altogether new kind of person. Some want to experiment with various forms of genetic enhancement that will ultimately alter the makeup of the human person and be passed down to subsequent generations. Others want to develop direct neural interfacing with computer systems that would expand the capacities of the human brain. These transhumanists, as they call themselves, hope to produce a “posthuman” by freeing human beings from the boundaries of their biology. According to UCLA professor Katherine Hayles, “in the posthuman, there are no essential differences, or absolute demarcations, between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals.”

Dr. Hayles goes on to prophesy that “the age of the human is drawing to a close.” But she and her fellow transhumanists would do well to remember that every attempt to engineer a better humanity by any means other than the inner work of the Holy Spirit has ended in dehumanizing disaster. Like other utopian dreams, the quest for technosapiens will undoubtedly turn out to be a nightmare. In all likelihood, the technologies themselves will have unintended harmful consequences, as the toxicity of nanotechnology is starting to show. And as the use of new technologies is corrupted by sin, it will lead to tyranny, exploitation, and injustice.

Of course we are called to use our talents to the best of our ability. As we have seen, when scientific development is used to help restore the human body to its proper function, it glorifies God and fulfills his creation mandate. But there is a world of difference between seeking to reach the full potential of what God has made us to be through a restorative cure, and striving to augment our created humanity by doing something like fusing our brains to a computer database. God has not called us to remake ourselves into something we were never intended to be, but to praise him with everything we are. He has also called us to be content with the limitations of our humanity. Often this includes glorifying him in our frailty, including physical frailty, as his power “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

In the end, the one thing that technology cannot change is human nature. Whether they know their technology or not, the transhumanists certainly don't know their theology. No matter what we do to the human body, it cannot destroy our creativity, our desire for relationships, our need for God, or any other aspect of our humanity that expresses our likeness to God. Nor can it correct our fundamental depravity. This has been our constant condition since our fall into sin. Whether or not it is enhanced by nanotechnology or connected to some computer, the heart is still “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). In this respect, there never will be any posthuman beings—only ordinary human beings in desperate need of God's saving grace.

God calls us to resist the technological temptation to create technosapiens. But he has promised that one day there will be a new humanity. It will not be technosapiens, but what might be called homo sapiens renatus—a renewed humanity that is recreated by the Holy Spirit in the image of God. This new humanity will not be connected to a computer, but to Christ, and by his power it will be transformed into something so glorious that it is beyond our comprehension. God's plan for our enhancement is not technological but Christological. Through faith in Christ, our bodies will be raised to everlasting glory.

[The information for this Window on the World came from C. Christopher Hook, “The Techno Sapiens Are Coming,” Christianity Today (January, 2004), 36-40; Gary Morris and Stephen Master provided helpful corrections and improvements]

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