Flow of Ideas

On Transhumanism and Education

Glenn Rikowski, London, 1st February 2006


In The Guardian on Monday, Madeleine Bunting (2006) alerted readers to the prospect of transhumanism: the modification of the human body through neoroscience, biotechnolocy (e.g. genetics), computing and nanoscience - to the extent that we can become something other than 'human'. Proponents of transhumanism argue that it promises a longer, richer life as the human body evolves artificially (as opposed to 'naturally') through these sciences.

I have written on these issues at length elsewhere (see Rikowski, 2003), but what I want to examine here is some possible consequences of transhumanism for education. Bunting is very perceptive on this, so let us explore some of her points regarding the ways in which transhumanism and education might relate.

Intelligent Babies for Educational Glory

Bunting outlines a scenario where her daughter (now aged 10) and her future partner, 25 years from now, are faced with the prospect of deciding whether they want a 'natural' baby or to go for a range of genetic enhancements. In particular, they agonise over whether to 'splice in a gene for enhanced intelligence' (Bunting).

But is there a real choice? If many others are doing it, why let principle stand in the way of our offspring getting the best possible start in life, deliberately putting them at a disadvantage in the great educational competitions and struggles ahead? This scenario appears to take Blair's obsession with 'parental choice' in relation to education to an intensity and level that we can barely imagine. But, then perhaps not. If such choices become commonplace, and those who can do, and as time goes by the cost comes down as the medical profession routinises such procedures, and its safety increases and risks decline, then the moral dilemmas start to dissolve - apart from fundamentalists that want to remain 'natural'.

Of course, what this prospect raises is another layer of class inequality in education. As Professors Dave Hill and Mike Cole (2001) have shown, social class differences in educational attainment are already many times greater than differences in educational attainment by 'race' or gender. What about those who cannot afford the new procedures - which will probably not be available on the National Health Service, that is if the NHS exists in 25 years time - when the costs are high, as they are being developed? It seems that the children unable to take advantage of these new techniques are doomed to relative educational failure. The notion of 'compensatory education' takes on a chilling new meaning: providing the poor with the opportunity to avail themselves of such technologies.

Drugs for Education: Just Say 'Yes'!

In another twist of technological logic, Bunting continues to develop her scenario and raises the possibility of parents opting for 'cognitive enhancement drugs'. Given that so many kids are on Ritalin for behaviour modification purposes today in Britain this is not that far-fetched an option.

Again, Bunting poses the question of whether we shall have the will and strength of principle to resist administering these drugs to our children, if we have the choice. In the scenario, Bunting's daughter and her partner refuse to give their daughter 'Provgil', the wonder drug for boosting kids' brain power. In the story, the results are concerning:

"I can see that my grandchild is never going to keep up. At the moment, she doesn't mind that she's bottom of her class, but she'll be lucky to get to a good university. The one hope I've got is that they might introduce quotas for "naturals" or "near naturals" like her" (Bunting).

No doubt even those taking the drugs will have a range of options, with the more expensive and effective ones beyond the reach of most people. Money, markets and 'choice' will reign, generating colossal educational inequalities in their wake. Bunting assumes capitalism still exists when this technology becomes of practical value. If this is so, we are in for a terrible time.

Already Becoming Transhuman

As I have shown previously (Rikowski, 2002), we are becoming 'transhuman' not primarily because of the technologies that Bunting pinpoints, but because we are becoming 'capital': the 'human' as a form of capital; or human capital, humanity capitalised. The technologies - nanotechnology and the rest - are commodities that exist within a particular form of life: the social universe of capital. What Bunting does is to give us some kind of technological determinism. For her, there is 'no stop button' on these technologies. They have a 'life of their own' it seems, as they offer us and our children options that we would be foolish to refuse.

If capitalism is presupposed when these technologies come on tap, then yes: we do appear to be at the mercy of their power to transform the ‘human’. But the real terror, for me, derives not from these fancy technologies to transform the ‘human’ but the power of capital to do so. These technologies are symptoms not the causes or origins of the future that Bunting projects.

So there is a button: the destruction of capitalist social relations and capital as a social force in our lives. Then an 'open future' is possible; a future unconstrained by capitalist development and our souls becoming capital.

As I explain in my article, Education, Capital and the Transhuman (Rikowski, 2002), education and training in contemporary capitalist society have a significant role to play in the capitalisation of the 'human'; transforming us into human capital, though there is also resistance to this process that takes many forms. As long as we have capitalist society this will continue, whether the drugs of the future work or not in the struggle for competitive advantage in education.

Bunting has opened the debate on transhumanism in the press. Her article examines many other issues not pursued here, where the focus has been on education. I urge you to read it, but not to be afraid, not to be very afraid. Because there is hope: the dissolution of capital.


Bunting, M. (2006) There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering, The Guardian, 30th January. Online at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,,1698065,00.html

Hill, D. & Cole, M. (2001) Social Class, in: Schooling and Equality: Fact, Concept and Policy, London: Kogan Page.

Rikowski, G (2002) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (Eds.) Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

Rikowski, G. (2003) Alien Life: Marx and the Future of the Human, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, Vol.11 No.2, pp.121-164.

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