Changing Human Nature, the Journey from Human to Posthuman: Utopia or Dystopia?

  1. Introduction.

A well worn popular saying goes, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.” In our eternal quest for longer, healthier, more active lives and our pursuit of ever more capable brains, we have been trying to transcend the limitations of our bodies and our mortality for as long as we have been able to use tools. Never before the past fifty years or so, however, has the possibility of actually transcending our bodies been even a remote possibility. I would like to explore the ramifications of our attempts at or imaginings of a posthuman future by means of a comparative analysis of three works: the film Sleep Dealer, by Alex Rivera, the novel Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler, and the film Avatar, by James Cameron. These three works, in this particular order, might stand for the stops on a journey that would bring humanity from its current state (some might call it dystopian) to a utopian future state in which beings made of the genetic material of both humans and aliens might enjoy a blissful harmony with nature, a life in which they take care of their environment and the environment in its turn takes care of them.

What does it mean to be human? If we enhance our bodies with technology, at what point, if ever, do we stop being human? If we self-destruct, as we seem determined to do, and an alien race rescues the last survivors of the human race but imposes on us a genetic “trade,” have they rescued humanity or have they created a new species entirely? Is it just our intellect that defines our humanity, or is it the fact that we have a moral code that struggles against our “animal” instincts to make us kinder, more compassionate, more altruistic, less selfish, more… human? Does our physical body play an important role in our “humanness,” or is it expendable? Though there may be no definite or definitive answers to these questions, it is important to explore the questions themselves. We can already fabricate human organs from a few stem cells. The day is approaching when it will be feasible and affordable to create a human clone, and then we will be forced to make very real decisions about the moral, legal and political implications of these new realities.

  1. Sleep Dealer.

In this film, imperialist Americans have built dams in the main rivers that supply water to the area of Mexico immediately below the border, thus depriving the Mexicans of water as a resource and of hydroelectric power. At the same time the wall along the border is heavily guarded and impassable. The Mexicans, reduced to starvation by the lack of water, see no other option but to become remote immigrant laborers for the very same people who have destroyed their livelihoods in their own country.  This is the fate of Memo, our protagonist, who on his way to Tijuana meets Luz, a writer. The Americans use the same remote-controlled technology to man pilotless drones that police the border territories in order to prevent any attacks on the dams. Rudy is one of the drone pilots.

In the past couple of decades we have seen wonderful, nearly miraculous ways of integrating our bodies with technology. There are prostheses that allow people to walk and even run in competitive sporting events. There are also devices that allow us to perform actions that used to require our physical presence, from a remote location. The one that seems most wonderful to me is remote microsurgery. I have seen surgeons performing operations on patients that were several states away from them. However, being able to do things remotely is not always a good thing. The main problem in the film Sleep Dealeris precisely this, the distance created between the people performing certain actions and the place in which the actions themselves unfold. In the film, people’s bodies are integrated with technology on a neurological level. People can choose to have what for lack of a better term I will call neurological shunts or ports (in the film they call them nodes) inserted in various key points of their bodies: mainly near the brain stem and along the arms. These ports are used mainly for two purposes. People can access a worldwide interactive network that can apparently capture images directly from people’s memories, thereby creating online stories enriched with sounds and images, an idea I find both very appealing and very frightening, as it approaches mind-reading technology with all the terrifying implications that accompany that idea.

Luz "writing"

Secondly, people can perform any number of practical activities remotely. The two activities featured in the film are manual labor — performed in this case by Mexican people who remain in Mexico but have robotic counterparts in the United States who enact their movements like puppets — and war, where American soldiers maneuver deadly drone airplanes pretty much anywhere in the world and with deadly accuracy, all from the comfort of an American tactical room, without ever being in any danger themselves. Both of these activities have lethal dehumanizing results.

Remote immigrant laborers

In this film the borderline science-fictional use of technology does not seem to be the real focus of the author. Alex Rivera is making a political statement: the American employers are getting their immigrant labor without the inconvenience of having to take care of the laborers. Unseen, faceless and voiceless individuals are enabling the American robots to perform the work that is needed, around the clock, without having any perceived needs themselves. Where the use of technology becomes interesting to us is in the distance, physical and emotional, between employers and employees. Precisely because the laborers are faceless, the employers have no qualms about inhumanely long shifts, deplorable safety conditions at the “factories,” health issues, the stress of such work on the nervous system, and so on. Everything about the relationship between employers and employees tends to dehumanize both. The employer loses all sense of empathy, sympathy, compassion, caring, even acknowledgment of the employees’ basic humanity. The employees themselves gradually lose their sense of self, are subsumed into their machines, suffering a loss of sense of time, blindness, a need for neural stimulation even after work (as in the scenes in the bar in Tijuana when the workers, after hours, are hooked up to something that is giving them some kind of neural drug), and often death.

If we look at the other use of the technological “enhancement” of the shunts — war — we see that the same dehumanization occurs here as well. The soldier who becomes the second protagonist of the film, Rudy, identifies a radio that has illegally intercepted military transmissions. To Rudy the interceptor is a dot on a map, disconnected from any specific or even generic human being. When he uses his remotely controlled drone to destroy the point of origin of the radio signal, it is no more real to him than a video game. That is, until he sees Memo’s father crawling out of his destroyed house dragging his bloodied leg behind him. He destroys him as well, having identified him as the “enemy.” What no one (not even Rudy) had anticipated was the fact that because Rudy is himself of Mexican heritage, seeing the man on the screen has not left him unmoved. He identifies with this “enemy.” A generation ago this could have been him or his father. Rudy begins to question the moral validity of his actions and sets off to find Memo in Tijuana, using the stories uploaded to the worldwide network by Luz, to make things right.

In our critical readings, transhumanism is defined as “the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by using technology to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities” (Bostrom, 1999 as cited by Hook, 2004). Transhuman is meant to be shorthand for transitional human (Bostrom, 1999), and from what I have read about the transhuman and posthuman philosophy, we are already transhuman, in the sense that we aspire to do all the things listed in the above definition. In this film, however, we can see that none of this philosophy is enacted. Technology is used to reduce the humanity of the people to whom it is applied. The workers become machines, almost literally, and certainly in the eyes of their employers. The technology in no way enhances their minds or improves their quality of life, either physically, intellectually, psychologically or emotionally. Even Luz, who uploads her memories and thoughts into a machine that is capable of interpreting whether she is telling the truth and of capturing images directly from her mind’s eye, as it were, does not have an “enhanced” mind. Her mind is not altered, her intelligence is not heightened. Thanks to the nodes, the machine can tap into her mind, but there is no input of ameliorating technology. The machines of the workers and the soldiers are extensions of their bodies and not their minds, and this is the crucial distinction between what they are doing in the film as opposed to what trans- and posthumanists wish to achieve. Memo and Rudy, and even Luz, control the machines with their minds in a mechanical fashion, similarly to the way in which amputees are starting to use their minds to command their prosthetic limbs to perform movements. So the machines in Memo’s factory and the drones are really nothing more than very sophisticated prostheses, and they do nothing to raise the minds of their users to any new intellectual or cognitive heights. If anything, they are repressive technologies, aimed at reducing free will and even the exercise of common sense.

As a side note, something that is just mentioned in passing in the film, many of the women in Memo’s factory are remote nannies. Who would want their child to be reared by a robot while its human operator is a desperate, poor, overworked, exhausted, faceless person thousands of miles away?

If we expand our definition of posthumanism to embrace also Cary Wolfe’s theory, that posthumanism “comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world … [and] after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrications in technical, medical, informatics, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore” (Wolfe, xv), then we could say that this is a first step. Man and machine are almost melded into one, with dubious results at best, but nonetheless this first step enables us to continue imagining new paths to explore on the journey toward posthumanism.

  1. Dawn.

In the novel Dawn, Lilith (the “first woman” of a new hybrid species, symbolically named) awakens to find herself the captive of the Oankali, an alien species who has “rescued” the few remaining humans from a post-apocalyptic earth. The novel unfolds aboard a gigantic organic “ship,” which is more like a small world, and the Oankali gradually reveal to Lilith and a small number of other humans that they are gene “traders” who travel the universe in a constant search for new, intelligent species with whom to trade genes, modifying both themselves and the other species in the process. The humans are not given a choice in this matter, they will be used for the genetic trade whether they agree to it or not, but the Oankali attempt to establish a relationship of trust and even affection with the humans. The children born from human-Oankali unions will be neither human nor Oankali, but a new hybrid species.

The Oankali need to trade genes periodically with other species in order to diversify their gene pool and remain an evolving, vibrant, viable species. If they were to not do this, they would be doomed to become stagnant. Butler has created in the Oankali a sympathetic species of bioengineers who practice a benevolent kind of genetic engineering that seeks to establish a harmonious relationship between both trading partners and the natural world of the host planet. The biggest problem with their method is that it is done using coercion. Jdahya, the first Oankali to show himself to Lilith explains that humans were destined, genetically programmed, to self-destruct. “Your bodies are fatally flawed… You have a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics… the two together are lethal. It was only a matter of time before they destroyed you… You are intelligent…” “What’s the second characteristic?” “You are hierarchical” (36-7).  So the premise is that without the Oankali, humanity was destined to self-destruct, and it may very well be that this is our destiny. But this premise sets up the Oankali as paternalistic despots. We constantly feel that they are saying to the humans, “Now you stay in your room and don’t come out until you’re ready to behave yourself.” They behave like parents who “know best” what’s good for their unruly children. They are affectionate and sincerely attracted to the humans, but they are also the disciplinarians and the ones with ultimate power. This is a very uncomfortable thought for a reader and in fact a human to digest.

Butler posits a reality in which we humans, in our current genetic state, are incapable of achieving a viable, harmonious future. We must change our very genetic makeup, we must change our (human) nature in order to achieve a sustainable (human-Oankali hybrid) nature. The Oankali have been restoring the natural resources and habitats of the planet, and their plan is to repopulate earth with this new species which will have been purged (in an act of benevolent eugenics) of its self-destructive tendencies, and will be a good steward to the planet.

At one point, Nikanj, the genderless ooloi who becomes Lilith’s mate, offers to enhance her mind so that she can remember things better, possibly everything. Lilith responds, “I don’t have a disease! Forgetting things is normal for most humans! I don’t need anything done to my brain!” “Would it be so bad to remember better?” “What’s frightening is the idea of being tampered with… no part of me is more definitive of who I am than my brain” (74). Nikanj insists that it will not change who she is, that she will still be herself, just with a better memory. The idea that a human with perfect recall would be unchanged, however, is a fallacy. It is normal for humans to forget things, and abnormal for them to remember everything. In fact, forgetting is often a means of self-preservation. Nothing that the Oankali do to the humans leaves them unchanged, in any way. And ultimately I cannot get past the fact of the coercion.

If the Oankali had cleaned up the earth and established a small community there, alongside the humans, I believe that eventually some humans would want to take advantage of what the Oankali had to offer. After all, we all want to live longer, healthier lives, with stronger minds. People who live alongside each other eventually begin to interbreed, if it is genetically possible; it is in the nature of… nature. Be that as it may, coercion or no, if the events portrayed in this novel were to materialize, we would have taken one further step in the direction of posthumanism. Rather than uploading or downloading our minds into a machine, we could transcend our bodies by improving them. We could be strong, disease free, live hundreds of years in harmony with nature, remember everything and be socially wise and non-hierarchical. Not to mention the amazing sex that the Oankali, in particular the ooloi, could offer the humans; an important part of being human to say the least. Since machines can’t have sex at all, this kind of posthumanism might be more palatable to people than the kind in which a human becomes all intellect and no body.

As it is, Lilith feels that all she can say to the humans she is entrusted with and whom she is supposed to instruct is, “Learn and run!”


  1. Avatar.

In the film Avatar we have a reversal of roles with respect to Dawn. The humans colonize the planet Pandora, where a peaceful civilization, the Na’vi, lives a life of perfect harmony and indeed symbiosis with nature. In a plot that is almost quaintly traditional, the humans want to mine the planet to within an inch of its life for monetary gain; it’s a futuristic gold rush. The people who represent the corporate, greedy (American) humans consider the indigenous people to be “fly-bitten savages who live in trees.” (We can forgive Giovanni Ribisi’s slip of the tongue there — flea-bitten would have been the correct expression.) There is a small contingent of token scientists who are enthralled with the people and with the wonderful communion that exists between them and the various animal and plant species on Pandora. In their attempt to gain the trust of the Na’vi and learn more about them, they have engineered a few hybrid avatars, using both human and Na’vi genes, resulting in Na’vi-looking humans. These avatars are the vehicles into which the minds of their human counterparts are uploaded. When the human sleeps, the avatar is awake, and vice versa. So rather than imposing on the Na’vi a species-wide genetic integration with the humans, we have a few humans who have inhabited these avatars so as not to appear too alien, to gain the trust of the people, to get to know them. Several times during the film the plug is pulled unexpectedly from the human side of the operation, and the avatars collapse suddenly into unconsciousness in front of their Na’vi friends. At these times the more suspicious among the Na’vi denounce them as false friends, not really “of the people.”

There are many wonderful things about this film, but a couple stand out as particularly unique to this film and relevant to our concerns. First of all, the utopian finale is the loveliest instance of bioengineering I have ever seen or imagined. The planet itself and Eywa, the nature-deity that the Na’vi worship, form an unbroken network that includes the Na’vi themselves, as they chant and undulate in front of the tree of souls. The whole becomes one gigantic, living computer, which acts as a huge version of the cocoon that Jake lies in to link up to the avatar, and “conducts” his mind from his old, now discarded, human body into its new and permanent abode, the avatar. So the “wormhole” effect that we first saw taking place through electrical and electronic circuits is now occurring through living beings, both plant and animal. This is such a beautiful idea. Even more fascinating for our purposes, however, is something I read about the director, James Cameron. In an interview given to Entertainment Weekly, cited in Wikipedia, while discussing how he “translated” the performances of the actors into their computer-generated counterparts, Cameron said, “It evolved from a couple of things… being ultimately dissatisfied with what was possible with makeup and prosthetics… This technology isn’t about replacing or marginalizing actors. It’s about allowing actors to transform and empower them to be as creative as they want to be” (Rottenberg, 48). This statement is extraordinary. Here we have real live humans, in the real world, today, “uploading” their emotions, their facial expressions, their artistic rendition of their characters into an image generated by a machine, into digital counterparts, essentially, of themselves. Cameron created “real” posthumans, of a sort, in the film. The computer-generated characters have been criticized as not having a sufficiently varied and complex array of expressions, of not achieving a convincingly “human” expressiveness, but that does not change the fact that the experiment was attempted with a remarkable degree of success. Subtlety is not Cameron’s forte. His message is loud and clear: beware, humans, you are destroying your planet and the reason is that you have become too detached from nature. Get back to nature, like the Na’vi, and you will have a chance at survival. Continue down this road of technological development at all costs, constant wars, ever growing economic distance between the haves and the have-nots at your peril! It may be that his approach is exactly what we need. Humanity, it turns out, is not too subtle either.

  1. Conclusion.

Hans Moravec said, “Sooner or later our machines will become knowledgeable enough to handle their own maintenance, reproduction, and self-improvement without help. When this happens, the new genetic takeover will be complete” (4). Films that have imagined future realities with sentient machines have almost without exception been dystopian. Either the machines decide that humans are irrelevant and try to eradicate them, as in the case of the Terminator films, or they use humans to produce the energy needed to fuel the machines themselves. In other words, the humans become food for the machines, as in the Matrix series. To put this troubling issue another way, “Transforming ourselves into our tools in the hopes of achieving immortality is an illusion” (Hook, 2520). If we were to find a way of uploading our minds into a machine that could continue to house our intellect as well as the data stored in our brains, would that really be living? In addition to not having sex, machines also lack emotions, feelings, bad tempers, and perhaps most devastating of all, a sense of humor.

In Sleep Dealer we are presented with a dystopian reality in which the union of man and technology not only fails to produce an intellectually enhanced human, but it actually “dumbs men down.” The soldiers perform their military duty as if they were playing video games. They do not question their orders because the killing is barely real to them. The experience of war is that of an enhanced version of the latest Mortal Combat game, so how can they be expected to use their common sense or even their critical minds? The laborers in turn become more and more machines themselves. Even off duty they seek out the neural connection, as if they had a physical need to be “juiced up” at all times. That electrochemical stimulus becomes an addiction, and some of them pay with their lives.

In Dawn the dystopia begins to move in the direction of a possible utopia. The Oankali offer humans a way out of their dysfunctional relationship with each other and their natural surroundings by means of a genetic “trade.” The utopia is not complete because the humans are not given a choice in this matter. But, if accepted freely, what the Oankali have to offer is potentially very appealing. A human-Oankali hybrid would achieve the goal of transcending the limitations of the human body: it would live for centuries, free of disease, with a highly evolved mind, heightened senses and many “superhuman” abilities. While it would no longer be truly human, the quality of its life would undoubtedly be very high. And life as a human-Oankali hybrid would be sustainable, the planet would survive.

Of the three works discussed here, Avataris the only one which depicts an unequivocally utopian reality. There are three distinct examples of successful posthumanism we can discuss. First there is the possibility of transferring the mind of a human — complete with emotions — into a living vessel with heightened powers, the human-Na’vi avatar. This may not grant immortality, but almost. In theory, at the end of the life cycle of one avatar, the mind of its occupant could be transferred to another. But this may not be necessary or desirable, because there is the second instance of posthumanity, and perhaps the one that comes closest to the model described by the “technological” posthumanists: the afterlife of the Na’vi. There is a scene in which Neytiri brings Jake for the first time to see the tree of souls. She encourages him to form a bond with one of the weeping tendrils of the tree. When he allows the tendrils in his braid to wind around the tree tendril, Jake hears the voices of the ancestors. They have become part of Eywa, they have been uploaded to the planetary network, to the living computer, the mother of all internets.

Tree of souls

This, surely, is a type of posthumanism we can all aspire to. If we could evolve to the point of being able to commune with nature like the Na’vi, if our planet were in any way similar to Pandora, with its unobtanium that allows mountains to float in midair and created the powerful magnetic field that fuels the living network, we too could live forever; first in our bodies, and then in our own version of Eywa. Lastly, there is the real-world experiment performed by Cameron, in which he successfully, at least to a degree, uploaded the facial expressions and interpretations of the actors to their digital counterparts, creating visual avatars of human actors. Brilliant!

The two Jakes


What the trans- and posthumanists propose has no appeal for me. Even if I were dying right now and I were offered the option of either dying or uploading my mind to a machine, I would opt for dying. A machine could never retain what I think of as “me.” The data of my memories, perhaps, but the ability to think like me, talk like me, emote like me, and so forth, absolutely not. And even if that were possible, I think it would be extremely traumatic for my loved ones to see me as a box. I have no desire to meld with any kind of machine. But living on a planet I can literally talk to, being able to fly on the back of an ikran, being surrounded by nature so lush and beautiful as to defy description, and then after death to become part of a community of souls? Now that would be living. Or perhaps I should say, postliving.

Works Cited

Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. 20th Century Fox, 2009. Film.

Butler, Octavia E. Dawn. New York: Warner, 1997. Print.

Hook, C. Christopher. “Transhumanism and Posthumanism.” Encyclopedia of Bioethics. 3rd ed. New York [etc.: Thomson Gale, 2004. 2517-520. Print.

Moravec, Hans. Prologue. Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988. 3-5. Print.

Rottenberg, Josh. “James Cameron Talks Avatar: Brave Blue World.” Entertainment Weekly 1081 (2009): 48. Print.

Sleep Dealer. Dir. Alex Rivera. Maya Entertainment, 2008. Film.

“Transhumanist FAQ.” Transhumanism’s Extropy Institute – Transhumanism for a Better Future. Web. 18 Dec. 2011. <>.

Wolfe, Cary. Introduction. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010. Xiv-Xv. Print.

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