Permanent Kidulthood but No Kids?
Elise Bohan's "Future Superhuman"
Over on my YouTube channel, I have recently been reviewing books. I’ve set myself the task to read a certain book and then create my video review of it. The titles I’ve covered have been all firmly in the genre of body-based therapy. I have stayed in my own lane!
To be honest, I’ve struggled with reading Wilhelm Reich. Like many psychoanalysts, he had a formidable intellect. He wrote his many books and papers in the style common to mid-twentieth century academia. That’s to say, relatively incomprehensible to the rest of us. He was also writing a long time ago. And whilst he was undoubtedly the father of body-based therapy, stuff has also changed over the years.
This is a roundabout way of me saying that I am here reviewing a book that is a couple of steps out of my lane. But one that I feel is really important, as it very rationally deals with a very emotive topic - where humanity is moving to. The book is by a woman called Elise Bohan and it’s entitled Future Superhuman.
The hook for me was my desire to know the answer to a question… what is going to happen to our bodies in the future?
Because what I’m seeing out in the world, and especially in Western culture, is that the body is becoming less and less important. Huge numbers of people now work almost entirely with their minds, perhaps only requiring a couple of hands to tap a keyboard - perhaps not even that.
Simultaneously, and particularly in the wake of the waves of Covid-19, more and more people seem to me to have become quite dissociated from the body. They appear to increasingly occupy a world filled only with thoughts, where human emotions and the sense of the body are relegated to the very periphery of their awareness. This concerns me and I would love to try and get a handle on whether this trend will likely continue and perhaps increase. Hence Elise’s book.
There has been quite an anti-technology movement developing in certain areas of Western culture over the last years. Writers like Mary Harrington, Paul Kingsnorth, Farasha Euker and more are leading a charge against “The Machine” - the notion that we are in the grip of technological determinism and that our culture thus blindly follows the tech that we have developed.
I find this not at all unreasonable. Indeed it most definitely seems to be happening. But the part I struggle with is the level of sheer animosity that many in the anti-tech movement have towards the futurists. Is there not some middle ground? This is another reason why I wanted to read Elise’s book, which has itself been labelled by Paul Kingsnorth as pretty much the work of the antichrist!
The Future of Humanity Institute
Elise Bohan is a transhumanist who works at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI). To me, this combination makes her eminently qualified to write on the topic of the future. She knows both the transhumanist scene and is familiar with working within the structures of accountability rigorously imposed by academia. And this I find borne out in her book.
She does not just indulge in fantastical and whimsical visions of what the future might look like - flying cars or conscious robots. She sticks only to those aspects where things are becoming clear, where there is already data and a sense of direction.
She is however most definitely a protagonist. She wants us to have a transhuman future. She wants us to embrace technology and make use of it in specific ways. To this end, her book, instead of merely describing what’s going on in futurism, makes an impassioned plea for humans to embrace her vision. For me, she is also utilising a level of subtle manipulation in her writing to this end. We jump very quickly from “the problems” that humanity now faces, to “the solution” - transhumanism. I think we could spend more time hanging out and discussing whilst in between.
Transhumanism is Anyway Proceeding
An excellent, and rather worrying, point that Elise makes early on is that, although we don’t hear this word “transhumanism” around so much these days, that does not mean it has gone away. I recall, some five to ten years ago, seeing the “h+” symbol all over the place, and listening to all sorts of wacky West-coasters speaking about how we would soon be living to two hundred and linking our brains to Google. That’s kinda dropped off now. But, actually, all the big players in Big Tech - whether Google, Meta or entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, are actually openly transhumanist. Musk is developing a brain-AI interface through his company Neuralink. Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg is pumping billions in Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) headsets. Google are developing supposedly superhuman AI. So, the main players have dropped the word “transhumanist” but are continuing with the work nevertheless.
The next area Elise looks at are the vulnerabilities of our human brains, or “ape-brains,” as she calls them. Being the product of natural selection, and having evolved in an environment devoid of modern tech and the kinds of situations we face today, they get a lot of stuff wrong.
A huge area for concern here are existential threats - issues that could completely bring down civilisation or kill all, or nearly all, humans. Things like nuclear wars, climate change, pandemics, bioweapons, AI hostility or similar. We are facing a great deal more of these types of situations these days. And our ancient brain is at best pretty bad at dealing with most, or at worst actively bringing them on!
Most existential threats require a degree of global governmental co-operation that is pretty nigh impossible to achieve. Our brains are calibrated to be good at competing and fighting, but bad at coming together to do what’s best for everyone.
Post 1945, pretty much all the major existential threats that we face are due to human actions. Nuclear war - human. Climate change - human. AI hostility - human. Bioweapons - human. Pandemics - partly human. Sure, we could still get hit by a huge asteroid but that’s a massive outlier. For the rest, it is our own brain and its behaviour that is most threatening our continued existence on this planet. When there’s a choice between getting gratification now or making our planet safer for the future, we all know which way the average human will jump.
Even in accurately assessing risks the human brain struggles. Another FHI expert, Toby Ord, has compiled a list of existential threats that humanity could face this century and placed them in a league table of likely danger. Given its huge exposure in the media, you might expect Climate Change to top the list. Far from it. That threat merely struggles in at 1000:1. Whilst less widely accepted threats, such as homemade bioweapons or AI non-alignment, each score a worrying 10:1. What are we doing about them? Essentially nothing!
In similar manner, nuclear power has been subject to huge controversy and prejudice. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima have understandably caused many of us to follow the words of Greta Thunberg and to say “Nuclear Power - Nein Danke!”
Actually, these days nuclear power stations are by far the most safe, clean and efficient source of power we currently have and numerous scientists have been saying this for years. Has our ancient brain been able to re-appraise the situation? Nope. As I write, Germany prepares to potentially burn firewood to keep warm this winter, whilst it continues to decommission its nuclear power stations!
All in all, the human brain clearly needs a ton of help if it is going to be able to keep humanity from extinction for a while. Either we drop the tech that’s causing the issues. Or we enlist its support.
Less Babies and More Oldies
Over the last decades, the business of extending human life has become an increasingly accepted scientific field. Bit by bit, we are getting better at understanding why human aging occurs and researching strategies to slow it down, or even reverse it. This burgeoning industry aside, it is anyway clear that in industrialised countries we are living longer. Improved healthcare and life conditions mean that, year by year, the average age the average human can expect to live slowly ticks upward.
At the same time, birth rates are now going down quite starkly. The predictions of the seventies, that our planet would soon be too full to sustain life, are unlikely to be true. From the 5 children that the average woman would give birth to back in the sixties, we are now at around 2.3 children. That’s over a 50 percent drop and it’s very likely to continue. Once it reaches 2.1, we will be creating as many new people as losing old ones, meaning the population will have plateaued. From then on, the global population will progressively decrease, perhaps dropping off quite sharply.
I find this reassuring in terms of dealing with threats like climate change. However, it does point to a world where there will simply be less babies, less young people and way more elderly. Kids go down but we all live longer. For me, that feels like quite a shift.
This also leads to questions as to what will all these people be doing. With a population of aging life-extenders, will they all be expected to continue working? It seems not. As the potential of AI systems and robotics steadily increases over the course of this century, the need for humans of any age to work will most likely decline with it.
Elise devotes quite some space to investigating how human sex and love relationships might develop in the future. Right now, sex-bots are very much a niche field in our society - silicone models of attractive-looking humans with genitals and some level of AI-powered personality. Elise believes, and I agree, that this field will likely expand hugely throughout this century. The tech behind both the body and the mind of the sex-bot is set to keep getting more realistic and, of course, slowly improve upon that of the average human.
But what is also visible is that today’s younger generation are way more interested in forging love relationships via apps and screens, than by going out on conventional, in-person dates, with all the emotional risks that entails. This will likely soon create a world where the 5-10% most “alpha” men and women pair-bond with each other and create babies. But the remainder will likely find the possibility of creating a relationship with a sex-bot more appealing than risking the emotional highs and lows of seeking a love relationship with another human.
Some reviewers of Future Superhuman have criticised this point but to me it looks like Elise is once again spot on. And this will of course feed into the declining birth rate situation.
I didn’t know this but we have for a while been developing artificial wombs - ex vivo environments where gestation or some of it may take place. As this field progresses, Elise asserts that more and more women, of those few who still wish to have babies, will no longer have to endure the trials and tribulations of pregnancy and childbirth.
Much of the above, whilst I was already to some degree aware of it, hit me quite hard. I felt myself for a couple of days in some kind of “future shock” and filled with a sense that all of this is “just wrong.” However, being a therapist, I’m aware that certain types of scenarios provoke visceral responses from our brain that are more due to our evolutionary history than anything rational. Our reaction to even slightly not fresh food is an example.
So I felt it important to just sit with my immediate responses and see what came in their wake. What I came to was the sense that I could live with this brave new world of oldies and few kids but for one aspect - permanent kidulthood.
As humans, we are born no more psychologically mature than physically mature. Just as our body takes time to grow - and requires certain conditions and nutrients - so our personality does too. We pass through distinct phases -
being a teenager
entering the job and relationship market
buying a house, having kids and bringing them up
The net result is not just that we fulfil our evolutionary programming and create another generation. Along the way we also grow up as human beings. We develop maturity.
We are already seeing a breakdown in this process in today’s young. The market situations are changing, making it harder to get on the property ladder. Relationship dynamics, along with our sensitivity and resilience, are also changing. As patriarchal social structures falter, women are naturally taking the opportunity to empower themselves and challenge men more than previously.
One result of all of this is to make the process of becoming a mature, adult human harder than ever. And, as Elise points out, none of this looks like it’s soon going to improve. In fact, with generations of non-alphas potentially living out their lives on VR headsets and with sex-bots, permanent kidulthood could be well be on the way.
And it is this possibility that I actually find the most triggering in this whole, transhuman scenario, as it currently stands.
That human culture can create a significant number of mature adults means to me that humanity can continue to develop. Without those individuals to keep challenging the status quo, will we struggle to progress.
A related concern is that we become simply a compliant race of kidults, under the thumb of some traditional elitist group, as in certain sci-fi books or conspiracy theories. As long as we’re given meaningless figures to rebel against, we may kid ourselves that we’re creating change, when actually we’ve become totally subservient.
Perhaps this is just my trip. It’s possible. But it is this aspect of our potential future that does most concern me. Having run a lot of workshops for young men in the past, I know how many of them struggle to find the developmental challenges they need to grow, in a world where comfort and feeling safe have become the standard. I think we all actually have a right to be challenged deeply enough to step up. And, for sure, not all will make it but that to me is just life. It should still be possible to take on genuine, deep developmental challenges if you feel up for them.
I don’t believe that we must have human relationships, babies, jobs and work hierarchies in order to mature. Those are just how it happens now, or in the recent past. But if those things disappear, then for me we absolutely will need something to replace them.
A society of kidults can have a certain beautiful openness. We can listen and receive each other. We can feel accepted and heard. But without some deep grounding and maturity, such a society will always be vulnerable to exploitation. And to create that sense of rootedness in our consciousness requires challenge, not comfort or safeness.
I do genuinely feel that Future Superhuman is an incredibly important book. It is one that likely everyone will have a reaction to, positive or otherwise. This, I feel, is vital
. We must dialogue about these issues and develop our own, individual positions.
Thank you for reading.