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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 46, New Delhi, October 30, 2021

Footsteps of post-humanism | Pramod Ranjan

Friday 29 October 2021

by Pramod Ranjan *

The Covid Pandemic has fundamentally transformed the way our world functions. And this transformation is not limited to just some things going online. It will bring about root-and-branch changes in every realm of human life.

In our times, not only are inter-human relations changing but the relations between man and nature, man and other living tenants of this earth and between man and machine are also being reinterpreted.

It is not that these changes have begun during the Covid pandemic. Their foundation was laid by the Industrial Revolution (1760-1850). Eighteenth century onwards, the human race accelerated its efforts towards conquering nature and by the end of the 20th century it almost turned the world into a global village.

On what foundation and at what price did man build this ’global village’?

Machines and information technology were the foundations on which the global village was built and software that could replicate human mind played a key role in it. The ecosystem of the earth and even more so, the non-human denizens of the world, paid a very price for it. The fallout of this can be gauged from the fact that according to the report of a UN Convention on biodiversity, published a couple of years back, 150 species of organisms are becoming extinct every day. [1]

These organisms are paying the price for fulfilling the dream of global village. Today, most parts of the world are connected and are impacting each other. The fact that the Covid pandemic could easily spread to every corner of the world; that almost similar administrative measures, techniques and treatment protocols [2] (whether they were effective or not) were used to combat it is proof enough that the globe has really become a village.

Now that the global village is a reality, what should be next target of the human race? Having conquered nature, what should we do next? Human race has refined and developed technology to such an extent that today machines no longer ’mechanically’ ape human mind. They can learn from how human mind works and in some cases, they can do a better job than humans. In our times, machines can actually ’learn’ and sharpen their intelligence.

This has made the world of technology so fast-paced that before humans can devise the name for the next tech, it changes beyond recognition and in some cases, becomes obsolete. To quote an instance, the word ’artificial intelligence’ came to be used to describe the capacity of the machines to learn. This new coinage betrayed the fact that humans considered ’natural’ intelligence to be their monopoly. And so, the intelligence of machines had to be ’artificial’. But the speed at which machines are learning and the way they are building on what they have learned has left humans dumbfounded. The machines have proved that it would be fallacious to term their intelligence as ’artificial’ and thus of a lower order. The intelligence which the machines are developing is ’non-human intelligence’. Human and non-human intelligence may be different but the claim that human intelligence is ’natural’ and that of machines is ’artificial’ (and subject to human control) seems to be flawed. Thus, the word ’artificial intelligence’ has become obsolete even before it could come into wide currency though, egoist, as it is, the human race may continue to use it for some more time.

Similarly, man always believed that all the other living beings are inferior to it. It claims that it is biologically superior to all the livings beings and so has the natural right to rule over them. This notion gave birth to humanism and then humanitarianism, which became the fulcrum of all our social, cultural and political activities. We believe that whatever is good for humans is good for everyone. Whatever benefits human race benefits the entire universe. And what man does not like is ’inhuman’ and hateful and should be shunned.

But the human race’s claim to a special status lies in tatters. New researches have proved that there is not much biological difference between man and other living beings, including mushroom and fungus. [3] New researches also show that if man, driven by an arrogant belief in his special status, continues to march on the path on which it has been marching for the past couple of centuries, it may harm nature and this earth to some extent but its own extinction from this planet is certain. Nature will make good its losses once the organism called man disappears from the earth.

Similarly machines and non-human living beings have silently laid their claims to many things which, humans thought were solely their preserve. Man now has two options: Give up all claims to the achievements thus far and make an unsuccessful attempt to turn back. Or, accept these claims and find a way out amid them. Clearly, man would like to accept the first option.

What is post-humanism?

How to tread on the second path? What should be its methodology? These questions became a matter of debate and discussions in European nations about two decades back [4], which were called Trans-humanism or post-humanism. Before Covid pandemic, these terms were confined to the realms of thought and philosophy. But now they are becoming a part of the political discourse in these nations and in many parts of the world, they have assumed the form a movement. These discourses believe that humanism is a phony notion and an excuse for ruling over the other animals — and that it would eventually invite destruction of the human race. They draw attention to the scientific fact that man is also an ordinary animal and just like other animals and birds is a small part of the huge ecosystem. All living beings have an equal right over this earth and the universe.

As part of these discourses, the possible positive impact of the efforts to make machines more intelligent and produce better humans through genetic engineering on the ecosystem are also being discussed. For instance, humans have always had a lurking fear that someday machines will become so intelligent that they would enslave humans. Similarly, humanitarians are not sure whether genetically-engineered man would continue to be human. Trans-humanists and post-humanists postulate that these concerns and worries have roots in the delusionary belief that man is the best among the organisms inhabiting this earth. Some of them even argue that scientific researches in the fields of genetic engineering and machine intelligence should be entirely free of all kinds of scientific and humanistic philosophy.

About two decades back, the US House of Representatives had witnessed an emotional debate on criminalization of human cloning. One side argued that the "The best available science should be allowed to decide on it without any political or philosophical interference” [5] The last two decades have seen a proliferation of those who argue on similar lines. Most of them are drawing monetary benefits from businesses associated with bio-technology. [6]

Be that as it may, the intellectuals, policy-makers and political-social activists of the Third World should keep a keen eye on the post-Covid changes in the material and intellectual worlds. These discourses are in their initial stage presently. The direction which they will take will depend on which powers are contributing to the building of these discourses and to what extent. It is essential for us to identify the different aspects of these discourses and keenly observe the attitude of these discourses towards egalitarian struggles, on how they view the communities being exploited by a section of the humans and what do they think about the people being rendered redundant due to technology. We should not only try to understand and analyze these discourses but also try to give them the right direction.

[Pramod Ranjan teaches in Assam University. He is interested in studying the working of media organizations, philosophy of knowledge and analysis of the ignored aspects of literature, culture and society Contact: janvikalp[at]gmail.com]


[1CBD. (2007, May). Secretariat Of The Convention On Biological Diversity Message From Mr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary, On The Occasion Of The International Day For Biological Diversity. https://www.cbd.int/doc/speech/2007/sp-2007-05-22-es-en.pdf, Retrieved 07 October, 2021, (Retrieved 07 October, 2021)

[2Ranjan, Pramod. “Bhay Ki Mahamari (भय की महामारी).” Pratiman 18, no. 15 (June 2020).

[3Stevens, William K. “Rearranging the Branches on a New Tree of Life.” The New York Times, August 31, 1999.

[4Fernández-Götz, M., Gardner, A., Díaz de Liaño, G., & Harris, O. (2021). Posthumanism in Archaeology: An Introduction. Cambridge Archaeological Journal,31(3), 455-459. doi:10.1017/S0959774321000135 (Retrieved 07 October, 2021)

[5“Should We Lock the Door on Cell Science?” The Economist, March 16, 2002.

[6Ibid.

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