Dark Ecology as the Higher Misanthropy

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It is a signal pleasure to announce that this week slowlorisblog is hosting an essay by Dr. Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. Dr. Fuller joins us today to discuss a fascinating intellectual movement–Dark Ecology–in terms both of its historical development and the future it promises for humanity:

One of the advantages of being a certain age – and remaining alert – is that you observe intellectual history as it unfolds in public. The relevant trace here is what ‘anti-humanism’ has come to mean. Nowadays it means misanthropy, especially if you don’t call it that. However, the revolt against humanism began as a revolt against the hypocrisy of humanists, especially their pretensions to have liberated us from God yet at the same time enslave us to science. This development began in 1960s France, where it was prosecuted as a dual attack on Existentialism and Structuralism. Thus, both Sartre and Levi-Strauss — who famously confronted each other in the pages of The Savage Mind — were the enemy. After all, the reality that made life so urgent yet absurd for existentialists was one which science had discovered to operate by principles indifferent to the human condition. The anti-humanists aimed for no less than a subversion of both sides of this modernist dialectic. (Thomas Nagel’s uncompromising dualism is perhaps the last prominent philosophical project that takes the Sartre-Levi-Strauss dialectic seriously.)

At first, anti-humanism attacked the primacy of authorial intent in cultural production, understood as the last bastion of theism in the secular world (aka creation by the Word); hence, Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ thesis. But Barthes didn’t go far enough because his ‘semiology’ had scientific pretensions, not so different from Levi-Strauss’. This is the context for understanding what made Foucault and Derrida fellow travellers, despite their substantive differences. Both took their cue from a Nietzsche-fortified version of Heidegger, albeit to different effect. Foucault showed that ‘the human’ didn’t become a stable object of inquiry or concern until the late 18th century, and its prosecution over the next two centuries proved an uphill struggle, generating much risk, uncertainty, repression and violence. However, Foucault’s early adopters in the anti-psychiatry movement drew a more upbeat, libertarian conclusion from this prima facie gloomy narrative.  Simply put, we need to ‘let a thousand “humans” bloom’. In a similar vein, Derrida looked on the bright side of Heidegger’s nihilism to argue that once freed from the myth of legitimising origins, we can employ deconstruction to release us from the binaries that regularly prevent our thought from fully exploring what lies ‘interstitially’ and ‘intertextually’ between the putative opposites.

All of this could have unleashed a new super-humanism (i.e. a Nietzschean humanism) that might overcome past hypocrisies in the name of humanity’s creative inexhaustibility.  But it did not come to pass. At least in the English-speaking world, the sort of Zombie Marxism that passes for ‘critical theory’ colonised the original anti-humanist impulse.  I say ‘zombie’ because this brand of Marxism, which marked the shift in attention to the Frankfurt School from Marcuse to Adorno, implicitly acknowledged the failure of Marxism as a positive political project (i.e. the proletariat failed to deliver the goods) yet clung to the negative side of the project (i.e. the demystification of all forms of power), even though one might have thought that both were part of the same package and should be judged together. But no, instead the negative side of the project acquired a life of its own – an endless quest to demystify, deconstruct and otherwise falsify anything positive put forward by those in power, regardless of their ostensible ends.  Thus began the current fashion of identifying humanism simpliciter with a hegemonic ‘dead white male’ view of the world.  Whatever else one might wish to say about Zombie Marxism, it is not a good look for a movement that still fancies itself as ‘progressive’.

One way to understand the rise of dark ecology – and the various intellectual streams that feed into it – is as a rather perverse attempt to salvage something positive from Zombie Marxism’s exceptionally negative verdict on humanism. The silver dagger that dark ecologists drive through the zombie heart is to abandon our need to identify with the human altogether, thereby absolving ourselves of any sense of guilt or responsibility for what so-called humans have done in the past or might do in the future. Gone in one fell swoop are all the endless complaining and resentment of Zombie Marxists that are often derided as ‘political correctness’. In its place, that cluster of philosophical tics that travels under the banner of ‘object oriented ontology’ (or ‘OOO’, basically the metaphysical wing of actor-network theory) provides all the key distancing moves from the human. The modern marks of the human — subjectivity and autonomy – Sartre and Levi-Strauss – are erased in OOO-speak. Instead all objects are created equal in their inherent relationality. To be human is no more than to ‘do’ (i.e. at once to perform and to represent) networks in ways that privilege Homo sapiens as nodes. Although OOO-ists appear rather indifferent to the politics of the ecology movement, they share with Green metaphysics a rather ‘open-minded’ (i.e. not necessarily positive) attitude towards humanity’s contribution to a sustainable world (read: durable network), as determined by, say, our ‘carbon footprint’. The Anglo-American Romanticist Timothy Morton may be the most ‘out there’ of this bunch.

I call dark ecology ‘misanthropic’ because it implies that there is something fundamentally unreliable about being ‘human’. However, this judgement is made not out of spite or indignation, but in hope of a new dawn and a new level playing field. In the darkest corners of dark ecology –  Nick Land’s ‘Dark Enlightenment’– it is imagined that natural selection will deliver a sense of cosmic justice, reversing what the ‘racial hygiene’ movement in the early 20th century German medical community dubbed ‘counter-selection’, namely, all the apparently clever innovations – not least mass vaccinations — that have enabled unprecedented numbers of Homo sapiens to survive over the past 250 years, only to suck up more of the planet’s resources, creating new pretexts for political conflicts and international warfare. (The movement’s leader,  Alfred Ploetz, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.) The difference between today’s forces of the Dark Enlightenment and the older racial hygiene movement (which, yes, provided a scientific basis for Nazi ideology) is that the racial hygienists generally believed that counter-selectionist strategies delayed, without overturning, the final judgement that nature delivers on who is fit to live. On the contrary, Nick Land holds that such strategies accelerate the onset of the eco-apocalypse, and for that very reason, should be promoted to hasten that catastrophic moment when the Earth arrives at a genuinely ‘posthuman’ condition.

Lest Land’s prophecy be dismissed as the misbegotten product of a febrile imagination, there is an old-style ‘small is beautiful’ environmentalist version of it, delivered in folksier tones. Thus,  Paul Kingsnorth bemoans the ‘progress trap’ (or ‘technological lock-in’) whereby nature (including humanity itself, understood properly as an animal species) becomes the long term victim of the short term successes generated by each bright new human idea that gets turned into a normal routine for bending nature to its will. Kingsnorth imagines that ‘neo-environmentalist’ technology-friendly movements such as the US-based Breakthrough Institute (whose principles I have endorsed) are among the apocalypse accelerators in our midst. Once again, the plausibility of this pessimistic verdict depends on a prior belief that our tendency to treat necessity as the mother of invention will soon backfire decisively. In both its scary and cuddly forms – Land and Kingsnorth – dark ecology is betting against the post-apocalyptic ‘us’ conferring on the ‘human’ much normative value, even if ‘we’ still look more or less like Homo sapiens.

There is much more to say and think about vis-à-vis dark ecology’s challenge to the very idea of humanity. But let me close by suggesting in historical terms the radical value re-orientation proposed by this movement. In 1962 the RAND Corporation analyst Herman Kahn – often seen as an inspiration for the character of Dr Strangelove – proposed in Thinking about the Unthinkable various scenarios about how humanity might survive the Cold War nightmare of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR. The interesting feature of Kahn’s prognosis is its relatively upbeat character. He very much believed that necessity is the mother of invention, and that whatever didn’t kill us would make us stronger. He appeared confident that, even in radically diminished numbers, humanity could pick up the pieces after a thermonuclear war, though it may be difficult at first and may require several years to return to pre-war conditions. Yet, in today’s world, both the threat of nuclear holocaust and the presumption that we are bound to Earth and the bodies of our birth are up for grabs, as reflected in ‘Black Sky Thinking’. From this perspective, dark ecology’s longing for the apocalypse looks like a hangover from the Cold War – but without the optimistic edge offered by the likes of Kahn.

Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of twenty books, the latest of which (co-authored with Veronika Lipinska) is The Practionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, due out with Palgrave Macmillan in July 2014. His website is here, and his twitter handle is @profstevefuller

Morality and Chimeras in a Posthuman World

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Two scenarios from which to begin this discussion:

1)      Someone straps a computer onto the brainstem of Merriweather the Chimp in an experiment to translate her brainwaves to speech and develops sophisticated software for interpretation. And it turns Merriweather into a chimp-borg, where she develops the ability to enter a discursive space not just with trainers who’ve learned ASL in a way that has been largely ignored by the public as legitimate interaction on equal footing, but with humanity and in her own voice. And she tells humanity of her thoughts, and fears, and dreams. She hopes, she laughs, she wonders, and she cries. She is, by all the measures we administer, a moral person. Right? Or no?

2)      Or how about one that, while less immediately clear, will probably happen first: it looks like chimps are going to be, in the next 10 years or so, granted “personhood” status. This will mean that, legally (and ethically, as far as the law goes), they have to be treated as humans (sidebar: this doesn’t mean that they will have to be treated as equal in all capacities as human. Rather, it will be an instantiation of law, informed by science, which “fills” chimps as “legal vessels” with rights). At the same time, this will be the first definitive act by humanity which acknowledges that humanity doesn’t have a monopoly on moral instantiation. So, chimps are granted personhood status, are the moral equals of humans. Then someone takes stem cells from the brain of a chimp and implants them into a dog fetus. The dog doesn’t develop any morally relevant capabilities (cognition, etc.), but the cells came from a moral being. And we’ve said a chimp is a legal, ethical, and moral person, just like a human. And in the past, moral philosophy (which directs juridical philosophy) has said, it comes in part from a moral being, it’s morally equal. So what is this dog, then? A moral being? Or not?

Unless you’re someone uncapable of thinking rationally, soberly, and with self-reflection, it’s clear that morality and moral frameworks are going to be increasingly contested spaces during the twenty first century, especially as genetics continues its foray into splicing and transfection and we enter fully the era of the posthuman. The creation of chimeras is a rich, exciting field of inquiry and therapeutics. It is, without qualification, one of the next frontiers of genetics as well as philosophy of science.

Until now, the standard operating procedure regarding whether an other-than-human animal is morally relevant has relied on anthropocentric cell-origin arguments, i.e. if it came from a human, the chimera attains morally relevant status (morally relevant status just means we have to treat it like it’s human when it comes to questions of morality. So the operative word is “relevant”). So, at this juncture in time, if human cells were used, the new animal is a chimera, and is the moral equivalent of a human being. If no human cells were used, it does not.

But it’s becoming an increasingly nebulous position thanks to advances in genetics and experimental technique, and thus difficult to defend. See the two examples above. And moral philosophers are, because of this, running into an increasingly difficult problem to parse: How do we treat chimeras which have cell origins from one or more types of species?

It has become clear, in other words, that we need a more nuanced framework for defining moral relevancy, or we run the very real risk of not only violating some philosophical boundary, but, as any good lawyer will tell you, legal ones as well. After all, jurisprudence has been in the past, and remains today, informed and even directed by political and moral philosophy. The exciting thing to historians of science is that, in a post-enlightenment world, moral and political philosophy has itself seen the replacement of previous vocabularies and epistemologies of religion with vocabularies and epistemologies of science.

One of the solutions offered gets around the cell origin problem is to consider capacity in a more complex way instead. Monika Piotrowska of Florida International University suggests a two-fold solution. If you take brain stem cells from a human in one case and inject it into a mouse, and in a second case take brain stem cells from a chimp and inject it into a mouse, you’ve (arguably) got chimeras with indistinguishable morally relevant capacities (because they are both capable of, for instance, rationality or sentience, and thus we need to treat them as moral equals).

But what if the cell transfer doesn’t result in the acquisition of distinguishable morally relevant capacity (if you didn’t transfer brain stem cells, or the experiment was not concerned with sentience or rationality), she asks? You still need to consider moral capacity. So how do you do it?

This is where Piotrowska suggests cell origin can still play a role. If the cells came from a phyologenetically morally relevant origin (like humans), then you can still give moral relevance to the chimera.

Some philosophers have a problem with this approach because it retains an anthropocentrism and relies on vague definitions of “easy-to-determine” and “difficult-to-determine.”

I agree with this criticism, not least because it completely falls apart when you consider non-organic intelligences, like AI. The larger reality when it comes to other-than-human animals is that there will be very little reason, outside the subdisciplines that make up moral philosophy, to construct any kind of hierarchy or dichotomy at all when we are no longer measuring other-than-human animals for our dinner plates and work harnesses. In a world of synthetic protein and cheap, universal, open-source robotics, all other-than-human animals will enjoy “protected from” status, and we’ll be looked upon by history—as the general public understands it—in this particular instance as discussing the symptoms rather than the source of a larger problem.

Monika Piotrowska , “Transferring Morality to Human–Nonhuman Chimeras” The American Journal of Bioethics, 14(2): 4–12, 2014.

DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2013.868951

*image credit “Young Family” by Patricia Piccinini