Why Morphological Freedom Is a Fantasy: Your Body Isn't Just Your Own

Transhumanists claim complete freedom to modify their bodies, but that absolutist stance could endanger future generations.

Tim Caynes/Flickr

At a 2001 talk in Berlin, transhumanist and Oxford academic Anders Sandberg addressed the crowd. “I am hoping to demonstrate why the freedom to modify one’s body is essential not just to transhumanism,” announced Sandberg, “but also to any future democratic society.”

The exact freedom Sandberg desired was “morphological freedom,” the absolute ownership of one’s body, implying the right to undergo bodily, genetic, or prosthetic modifications. Technology has enabled a new world of sex expression, argued Sandberg, why curb the ability to improve health, life quality, and enhance our currently woefully human skills?

In many ways, the idea of morphological freedom has quietly become a cornerstone of transhumanist beliefs. It is mentioned early on in the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, currently championed by Transhumanist Party Presidential Candidate Zoltan Istvan. Article 3 reads:

“Human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and other advanced sapient life forms agree to uphold morphological freedom — the right to do with one’s physical attributes or intelligence (dead, alive, conscious, or unconscious) whatever one wants so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

It’s fair to say certain implications of morphological freedom are widely accepted. There are the procedures that are decidedly cyborg-like, such as the metal antenna that thirty-something-year-old Neil Harbisson implanted into his skull, which allows him to perceive color through various cerebral sensations. And then there are the increasingly accepted surgical modifications, such as sex change procedures.

Not an option -- yet.

Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr

But part of the beauty — and potential danger — of morphological freedom is that it is so broadly defined. People wary to bodily modification point to last century’s government-sponsored eugenics programs — which transhumanist argue are not a risk if the governmental powers-at-be are properly controlled.

This past November, the Center for Genetics and Society called for a moratorium on the genetic modification of children. Morphological freedom, at its purest, doesn’t only pertain to one’s body — it also allows for individuals to decide what reproductive technologies they want to use when having children. This is where the talk of designer babies comes in.

“Gene editing may hold some promise for somatic gene therapy (aimed at treating impaired tissues in a fully formed person),” reads a letter from the Center for Genetics and Society. “However, there is no medical justification for modifying human embryos or gametes in an effort to alter the genes of a future child. Permitting germ-line intervention for any intended purpose would open the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics in which affluent parents seek to choose socially preferred qualities for their children.”

A bit more bluntly, MIT professor of biology Eric Lander writes in The New England Journal of Medicine that “such efforts would be reckless” and that as of now “we remain terrible at predicting the consequences of even simple genetic modifications in mice.”

When it comes to genome splicing in mice, results tend to be unpredictable. 

Global Panorama/Flickr

This fear that genome editing, which certainly falls under the umbrella of morphological freedom, could have unpredictable effects on future generations is frustrating to transhumanists, who emphasize that conversation about setting up ethical boundaries is more important than issuing moratorium.

“Debates rage about medical privacy, women’s rights to their bodies, doping, reproductive rights, euthanasia, and the appropriateness of various medical procedures, while largely ignoring that they are all based on a common issue: our right to modify (or allow others to modify) our bodies in various ways,” says Sanberg, this time in the Transhumanist Reader.

Transhumanists are likely to continue to publicly call for entire morphological freedom for some time — a growing number of scientists, the necessary component of actually altering genes, are agreeing not to modify the DNA of human reproductive cells until there is more evidence that genome editing can offer a greater therapeutic benefit than current existing methods for treating mutated genes. But it is very much still a debate — while multiple countries have laws against the genetic modifications of humans, the United States does not.

So while the bioethicists cry out that full morphological freedom may eliminate our humanity, the transhumanists say that without it we truly are not free, and the scientists tasked with the ability to alter genes are hesitant about the power inherent in that responsibility. But while you can’t exactly do whatever you want to do with your body as of now, take heart that you can definitely put electronic transponder chips in your skin if you want to. Sometimes that’s what progress looks like.