Building better humans? New book explores transhumanist scenarios


October 31, 2012

Imagine a situation in which a parent ignores the yells for help of a drowning child because the parent had been genetically “enhanced” as an embryo to be highly task-focused – a sort of permanent pre-birth “treatment” for attention deficit disorder. Could that parent be held responsible for the child’s death?

That is just one of many interesting and controversial scenarios ASU faculty consider in a new volume of essays, “Building Better Humans? Refocusing the Debate on Transhumanism.” Cover Image for "Building Better Humans?", Peter Lang publishers Download Full Image

Transhumanism is a movement that promotes advanced technology for the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual enhancement of the human species. It is the transition phase toward the posthuman age in which intelligent machines will substitute for and eventually discard biological humans, according to Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a history professor at ASU who co-edited the book with Ken Mossman in the School of Life Sciences.

“Transhumanism is not a silly idea dreamed up by a few naïve techno-optimists,” says Tirosh-Samuelson. “It is a serious engagement of intelligent, innovative, creative scientists, engineers and computer specialists all over the world.”

The essays in this volume, penned by faculty from diverse disciplines including law, physics, life sciences, engineering and religious studies, are largely critical of transhumanism. At the same time, they admit that biotechnology is an important social force that will continue to transform our lives.

“The goal of the book is to inspire conversation and debate about changes envisioned by advocates of transhumanism,” says Tirosh-Samuelson, “so that we will at least be aware of what is at stake in the processes ahead.”

For example, one author discusses the possibility of the emergence of a “superior race” – a society of posthumans who are still considered human but have extraordinary capabilities beyond what normal humans have. Another essay ponders whether transhumanists’ attempts to change human nature violate the right of future generations to have that human nature.

The ideas behind transhumanism come from some familiar sources. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin suggested that rapid scientific advancement could one day cure all diseases, including old age. Celebrated American biologist J.B.S. Haldane, one of the giants of evolutionary biology, predicted in a 1923 book that humanity would eventually be improved by application of the emerging science of genetics.

British biologist-author Julian Huxley coined the word transhumanism in 1957. He defined it as man transcending himself and developing a new human nature. Franklin, Haldane and Huxley are among the “founding fathers” that current transhumanists point to as their inspiration.

Today, the transhumanist organization HumanityPlus has about 6,000 members in more than 100 countries around the world. The movement has gained force and charted new directions in recent years as the pace of technological advances in the human biological sciences has increased. The Human Genome Project, breakthroughs in cloning and robotics, and other technological achievements have made the dreams of change appear very close to reality.

In an introduction to “Building Better Humans?” ASU President Michael M. Crow  contends that we have arrived at a new evolutionary phase – “self-directed evolution” – in which humans have the capacity to shape not only the outcomes in our environment but also to directly shape our organisms through self-enhancement.

“As a consequence,” writes Crow, “we have reached a point where three questions should be asked: what are we doing, why are we doing it, and is this the outcome we want?”

The book’s authors do not attempt to settle the debate but rather to provide new perspectives that can both enlarge the scope of the debate and bring it into sharper focus. The essays are grouped into four sections: transhumanism and world religions, transhumansim and medical enhancement, transhumanism and the human person, and transhumanism as a futuristic vision: the interplay of technology and culture.

“Building Better Humans?” is the culmination of a six-year project at ASU involving faculty from across the university exploring the social, legal, ethical and religious implications of the futuristic scenario that transhumanism promises. The project, which produced four other books in addition to this one, included seminars, visiting scholars and fellows, public lectures, and workshops, all funded by a grant from the Metanexus Institute and the John Templeton Foundation.

The project operated under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU. The center is an interdisciplinary research unit that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs.  

Tirosh-Samuelson is a member of the center’s advisory committee and an affiliated faculty member. The center recently received an additional grant to continue the investigation into transhumanism titled “The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization and Eschatology." Tirosh-Samuelson will serve as a principal investigator on that project as well. (See related story.)

“Building Better Humans?” was published by the international academic publishing company Peter Lang as the third volume in a series titled “Beyond Humanism: Trans- and Posthumanism.”

For more information, visit the website transhumanism.asu.edu.

Story by Barby Grant

ASU Libraries acquires rare manuscripts of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío


November 1, 2012

Arizona State University Libraries has acquired a privately held collection of manuscripts created by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.  Darío (1867-1916) is considered one of Latin America’s most famous poets, and is recognized widely as the founder of Spanish American modernism.

This distinctive collection of archival material contains documents pertaining to Darío’s life and work as a poet, journalist and diplomat.  Download Full Image

“The collection is remarkable in its breadth; it encompasses many facets of the professional and personal life of Nicaragua’s most revered cultural figure,” said Melissa Guy, Latin American Studies specialist at ASU Libraries.

The collection consists of approximately 900 handwritten pages of poetry, essays, short stories, diplomatic notes and personal letters spanning more than three decades, from approximately 1882 to 1915. It chronicles Darío’s activities as he travelled the world from Nicaragua to Europe, South America and the United States.

The comprehensive collection contains hundreds of pages of Darío’s poetry and other creative works. Several of the manuscripts are signed transcripts, written in Darío’s hand, of some of his most important works, including “Coloquio de los Centauros,” two versions of “Los motivos del lobo” and “Canto épico a las glorias de Chile,” a manuscript of 76 pages, which was one of Darío’s first long poems. 

According to professor Alberto Acereda, a world-renowned expert on Darío and former faculty head of Spanish and Portuguese at ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and research affiliate of the ASU Hispanic Research Center, it was not uncommon for Darío to create transcripts of his own writings.  

“The discovery of these copies confirms that Darío was very aware of his own literary value and these transcripts are an important contribution to literary scholarship,” Acereda said.

Of particular interest to Darío scholars and enthusiasts, the collection contains a previously unknown version of “Sonatina” written in English, as well as a transcript of “Marcha triunfal” that illuminates for the first time the exact date it was written on May 4, 1895.               

The documents have already begun to alter the scholarship on Darío. The peer-reviewed “Bulletin of Spanish Studies,” a prestigious academic journal from the United Kingdom, has published an article by Acereda in its September 2012 issue based on letters found in ASU’s collection. The article, “‘Nuestro más profundo y sublime secreto’: Los amores transgresores entre Rubén Darío y Amado Nervo,” reveals for the first time a secret romantic relationship between Darío and famed Mexican poet Amado Nervo (1870-1919.)

“The exact nature of this relationship is evidenced in a series of intimate letters exchanged between the two poets and they help us to better understand the respective works of these modernist authors, as well as to establish a rereading of certain texts,” Acereda said.

David W. Foster, Regents' Professor of Spanish and women and gender studies at ASU, notes that the acquisition of such a collection, which has the possibility of suggesting a major revision in our understanding of Rubén Darío’s sexuality, is only possible through the efforts of outstanding senior faculty like Acereda, who have the advanced (and often anonymous) contacts necessary for such material to become part of ASU’s superb research collections.”

The Spanish Program in the School of International Letters and Cultures has several faculty members who specialize in 20th century Latin American literature and culture who will be able to incorporate this important collection into their research and teaching. 

“Great authors survive the test of time because their work continues to engage the passing generations. This extraordinary collection re-energizes scholarship on Darío’s production from a cultural studies perspective,” said Cynthia Tompkins, faculty head of the Spanish and Portuguese language area in the School of International Letters and Cultures.

School of International Letters and Cultures professor Emil Volek is especially enthusiastic about the new addition to ASU Libraries’ collections. “Acquiring this priceless trove highlights the maturing of ASU as an important national cultural institution and will further help advance the already excellent national and international standing of ASU's Spanish program. This is a great resource for a multicultural Arizona,” he said.

As a result of this acquisition, ASU Libraries stands to be recognized as one of the primary centers in the world for the study of Darío. Faculty and students at ASU will have access to an unprecedented wealth of research materials. 

“ASU Libraries is pleased to bring these important manuscripts to a wider audience and to contribute to furthering the understanding of one of Latin America’s most important cultural figures,” said university librarian Sherrie Schmidt. “This acquisition is an example of the positive outcome of collaboration among librarians and faculty that takes place on a regular basis at ASU.”

The Rubén Darío Collection is made accessible by Special Collections at the Hayden Library Luhrs Reading Room. Go to http://www.asu.edu/lib/archives/ for additional information. The finding aid to the collection is available online at: http://www.azarchivesonline.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/asu/dario.xml.