Book Review: The Proactionary Imperative by Steve Fuller and Veronika Lipinska

Review by James MacFarlane
fullerThe Proactionary Imperative aims to provide a comprehensive intellectual basis for the emerging progressive movement of transhumanism. This is approached though four main chapters, then culminating in a manifesto.

The first chapter sets the scene by reflecting upon the disarray of contemporary politics, which seemingly serves only to alienate the younger generation despite the world undergoing momentous socio-economic and technological changes. Such disaffection apparently correlates with ongoing techno-scientific informed transformations in humanity’s self-understanding, which the authors anticipate may lead to a reorientation of the former right-left ideological axis by 90 degrees, according to differing approaches toward risk. 21st century political discourses could well be increasingly marked by a schism between those aspiring toward a ‘sustainable’ a.k.a risk-averse humanity, versus those who would sooner embrace-risk, seeking grand technological fixes to solve the world’s problems. Correspondingly, traditionalists and communitarians would become situated ‘down-wing’ forming precautionary pole of the new ideological spectrum, whilst libertarians and technocrats would shift ‘up-wing’ according to their proactionary disposition.

The second chapter offers a theological framework for understanding transhumanism, emphasising the necessity for a literal belief in our capacity for apotheosis. Accordingly, the authors strongly identify with the conception of nature as the product of an anthropocentric yet transcendent deity as favoured by the Abrahamic religions: reality might then not only appear fundamentally intelligible to us, but can equally be imagined as perfectible under the right (techno-science enabled) conditions. Such then leads them to appropriate the neologism theomemesis (‘God-Playing’ in Greek) for attempts to acquire God’s point-of-view, capturing the apparent maturation of earlier scientific aspirations at ‘Getting into the mind of God’ (exemplified in Physics), now increasingly towards a position of ‘Playing God’ (exemplified in Biology). As Science regularly destabilises our existence, a calculated and decidedly proactionary embrace of risk is suggested to be necessary for the fullest realisation our divine potential.

The third chapter revisits the history of Eugenics, with the book predominantly concerned with human biology as the most immediate material platform for transhumanism. It is suggested to be incumbent that proactionaries re-engage constructively with this history, as transhumanism owes itself (at least in name) to Eugenics, the spirit of which it continues to promote under the more politically correct rubric of ‘human enhancement’. The authors suggest Eugenics was originally conceived as the ‘final frontier’ for nineteenth century political economy, or effectively the conversion of humanity to capital. Aspiring toward a future bio-capital utopia would involve ensuring maximum productivity, or making the most of one’s inheritance. However, ‘irrational’ (aka traditional) socio-economic barriers are likely to prevent some individuals from achieving this ideal. While wealth redistribution and egalitarian legislation might assist in the short term, a more comprehensive long-term solution would involve improving the capital stock of humanity itself: understanding the entire evolutionary process could unlock ‘unrealised potential’ or ‘unexploited capital’. Despite the Nazi use of genetic differences to declare a race war that ultimately turned into genocide, the authors maintain that Julian Huxley (the Evolutionary Biologist who coined ‘transhumanism’) wasn’t deterred from the project altogether. Essentially then, they point out that the recognition of genetic variations does not in itself prescribe a particular societal response: the ‘is’ merely prompts but does not determine the ‘ought’ (92). Equally, prospective future strategies for a ’Eugenics 2.0’ wouldn’t necessarily look as they had in the 20th century. New genomic knowledge acquired in the interim means that future interventions into the gene pool could well move beyond the gross regulation of individuals breeding patterns toward more targeted approaches such as drug-based gene therapies and direct nano-level genetic re-engineering.

The penultimate chapter then provides a legal and political framework for the proactionary principle. Here the authors recognise the most obvious means of advancing a collectivised proactionary policy agenda would be for a state to require that its citizens be duty-bound to participate in scientific research. Equally though, they realise that under the current increasing privatisation of science the most likely beneficiary wouldn’t be the general public, but rather those biotechnology firms poised to exploit the findings for profitable products. In which case a solution may be the right (as opposed to duty) to participate in scientific research, which would translate into science appearing as an opportunity (as opposed to obligation) for the ordinary citizen. The authors then offer the new legal concept of hedgenetics, to capture ‘collective right to gene ownership compatible with the duty of genetic stewardship’ (122). In this sense, through self-organising collectives individuals would be encouraged to seek out others with whomever they might establish a common cause through common bio-capital interests, resulting in multiple ‘hedgenetic funds’ with overlapping membership. While corporate bodies wouldn’t be directly eligible for hedgenetic status (on account of their already existing legal personality and pure commercial interest), they could become involved by way of induction payments for individuals to participate in the company’s own genetic research in exchange for ‘access units’ – a non-exclusive right for individuals to use the results of research in the event that it makes a profit or novel finding. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this review to fully expound, essentially Hedgenetics aspires toward a participatory, democratically accountable and legally binding version of eugenics written into the heart of intellectual property law and the regulation of transactions.

The books foremost strength is its willingness to address the challenging social justice issues which those on the libertarian side of the transhumanist movement might otherwise overlook. Also greatly commendable is the varied array of material the authors summon to make their case. Accordingly, anyone who identifies with the need for future collectivist and democratic (as opposed to the typical market-driven) strategies for human enhancement, will undoubtedly find this text a well-informed 21st century starting point.

James is a postgraduate student currently studying for the MSc in Science, Media and Public Policy within the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick.  His interests centre around self-identification and expression in hyper-technological societies.

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