What Is Transhumanism? A Short Guide
Transhumanism is an international movement that promotes the enhancement of human nature by means of technology and scientific progress. The movement is frequently conceptualized as self-directed evolution, in which humans are the engineers.
The father of transhumanism is Julian Huxley, a biologist, eugenicist, and brother of Aldous Huxley.
Eliminating suffering, aging and improving human intellectual, physical and psychological capabilities are among transhumanist pursuits.
Transhumanists seek to extend the boundaries of human biological limitations. The ultimate goal is to create the posthuman – a being who originates in humans but surpasses them in every regard. The posthuman will be superhumanly intelligent, immortal and live in a state of eternal bliss. This utopian imagery prompted some to denounce transhumanism as a thinly-veiled religion.
The transhuman is a transitional being, a necessary step to creating the posthuman.
Some of the technologies that transhumanists promote include transcranial magnetic stimulation, genetic modification, prenatal enhancement, brain-computer interfaces, external hardware and software, neural implants.
The Roots of Transhumanism
In 1957, Julian Huxley published as essay entitled Transhumanism, in which he lay the foundations of the modern version of the movement.
Huxley claims that humans are unique in the universe. Thanks to their self-conscious awareness, sense of purpose, and reason, humans are best equipped to lead the world. More specifically, humankind should take up directing evolution on Earth.
Human nature must be realised to its fullest potential, which for Huxley means eradicating biological limitations.
Huxley paints a sort of communist paradise, in which the fruits of scientific progress are available to all. Technology is the panacea for all human ills – from physical disease to ignorance to inequality.
Transhumanists also claim the cultural heritage of antiquity, the Renaissance, and Enlightenment. According to them, human beings have always pursued the quest for immortality and enhancement. This topos can be traced back to 1700 B.C. in Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
Transhumanists also profess such values as belief in human reason, empiricism, personal autonomy, and a struggle for constant improvement.
Technology and Dystopia
The 20th century brought a dystopian tone to the discussion of the modification of human beings.
In the early 20th century, there was a widespread fear that the quality of the human genes pool was deteriorating, as previously terminal conditions were treatable. This meant that the genes responsible for some undesirable traits and diseases could be passed onto future generations.
Eugenics programs were carried out in, for instance, the United States, Brasil, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Japan, China, Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland. People deemed unworthy to pass on their genes were forcibly sterilized.
The apogee of eugenics frenzy was reached in Nazi Germany, where millions were murdered in the name of “race purity”.
Science-fiction writers in the 20th century also perceived the dangers of genetic modification carried out by totalitarian regimes (Brave New World) or using technology for spying on citizens (Nineteen Eighty-Four).
Transhumanists today distance themselves from centrally-governed modification of human nature, stressing the importance of personal choice.
The Transhumanist Movement Today
Many associations concerned with some aspects of the transhumanist project were created in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Robert Ettinger fathered cryonics, the idea that the human body could be frozen shortly after death and revived by future technologies.
In 1992 Max More and Tom Morrow founded the Extropy Institute, which was the first organization that brought together all sections of the transhumanist movement. However, the Extropy Institute lost momentum pretty quickly and gave way to the World Transhumanist Association that was founded in 1998 by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce. It aimed to develop a mature, academic tone.
David Pearce introduced his hedonistic vision of a posthuman world in which suffering doesn’t exist. All posthumans would be eternally blissful.
Transhumanism today has a strong position in Silicon Valley, where members of various transhumanist institutes meet to discuss such topics as mind uploading, re-engineering the human brain, or the singularity. The World Transhumanist Association moved its headquarters to Palo Alto in 2007.
Transhumanists in Silicon Valley are supported by multimillionaires such as co-founder of Paypal Peter Thiel, who invested more than $4 million in immortality projects.
Silicon Valley is home to such institutions as the Foresight Nanotech Institute, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Methuselah Foundation (focuses on extending human life span), the Immortality Institute and the Lifeboat Foundation (analysing and raising awareness of existential risks).
The Singularity Hypothesis
The singularity hypothesis states that the creation of the first superhuman artificial intelligence will result in an abrupt explosion of intelligence far superior to human.
Let’s suppose that the first machine with superhuman artificial intelligence can construct even more intelligent machines. Then those other machines will create even more superior machines and so on. Artificial intelligence will grow exponentially, leaving humankind far behind.
Not all transhumanists believe in the singularity hypothesis, but its ramifications are so serious that the topic has gained currency in bioethics. Is it ethical to create superhuman intelligence? Would it mean the end of the human race? How can humankind ensure the machines won’t enslave or wipe them out? Will communication between humans and machines be possible?
In 1986, Eric Drexler published a book that lay the foundations of molecular nanotechnology. He argued that it was technically possible to change molecules at an atomic level. According to Dexler, it is only a matter of time before we can implement molecular nanotechnology.
If ever feasible, we would be able to change coal into diamonds, cancer cells into healthy cells and sand into computer chips. The other side of the coin is that molecular nanotechnology could destroy all matter on Earth or be put to military uses.
However, most nanotechnology scientists today don’t want to change the atomic structure of molecules. The mainstream nanotechnology academia is focused on uses such as delivering medications to specific body cells.
Whereas many transhumanists lack enthusiasm for the singularity hypothesis or molecular nanotechnology, uploading receives almost universal acclaim within the community.
Uploading could be the gate to immortality.
The concept relies on seeing the human body as a well-oiled machine with the brain being the control centre. If the body fails, it should be possible to extract information from the brain and put it into a machine or virtual reality.
The hypothetical steps to uploading involve:
- Creating a detailed scan of the brain either by using nanobots or by feeding thin slices of the brain into powerful microscopes.
- Reconstructing the neuronal network and converting it into a computational model.
- Emulating the computational model on a powerful supercomputer.
The singularity hypothesis, molecular nanotechnology, and uploading are amongst the most radical transhumanist concepts. However, most transhumanists focus on improving technologies already available or those that can be expected in the near future (genetic engineering, performance-enhancing drugs, prosthetics, human-computer interfaces).
Bioethics: a Case for Transhumanism
Transhumanism prompts many ethical and philosophical issues and many scientists have contributed to the discussion.
Peter Singer has argued that it would be immoral for parents not to prevent certain conditions before birth. He formulated the preventive principle:
For any condition X, if it would be a form of child abuse for parents to inflict X on their child soon after birth, then it must, other things being equal, at least be permissible to take steps to prevent one’s child having that condition.
Julian Savulescu has argued that in an in vitro context it should be possible for parents to choose the embryo that has the highest chances of having a happy life.
For instance, if one embryo has a gene that predisposes to asthma and the other doesn’t (all other genes being identical), the parents should choose the second embryo. Savulescu emphasises that the parents shouldn’t be coerced into making a decision.
Many transhumanists have argued that slowing or reversing the aging process is a moral imperative.
Eliezer Yudkowsky has studied the problem of devising a human-friendly AI, which would produce outcomes that are beneficial for humankind. He proposes to specify the initial conditions of AI such that it will make the same decisions as we would if we were smarter and better equipped to make decisions.
Billy Joy has argued that we should cease developing AI, nanotechnology, and genetics because of the severe existential threats they pose. However, others have argued that banning innovation would only result in studies conducted out of the public eye and that it would be more dangerous.
There is a worry within the scientific community that technological progress (with some of its variables growing exponentially) can easily outstrip developments in ethics and moral philosophy.
As enhancement can be easily put to both good and bad use, some scientists advocate enhancing morality itself to prevent less moral outcomes. The enhancement of morality can be carried out by biotechnological or medical means to match the speed of technological advancement.
The Genetic Virtue Project (GVP) looks into the possibility of enhancing morality by means of genetic modification. In an in vitro context, future parents would have the possibility of choosing embryos with morality-inducing genes. However, a drawback to this approach is the risk of homogenizing the population, which could render humankind less resistant to potential future threats.
Michael Tennison proposes to study enhancing morality by means of drugs rather than genetic modification. One suitable substance is psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in many species of mushrooms.
In one study, subjects who were given psilocybin reported subsequently more altruistic and positive social behaviour in their daily lives. The results were brought about by a drug-induced mystical experience and lasted 14 months after the experiment was done in the majority of cases.
Among the positive results were openness, decreases in judgmental attitudes, better relationships with other and increases in acceptance.
But further research is needed in order to establish whether psilocybin could be used as a morality-enhancing drug. The risk of having a bad trip is a deterrent but it can be minimized by proper drug administration. Tennison suggests that psilocybin should be administered on an outpatient basis rather than being sold in pharmacies.
Some questions still need to be answered. Should psilocybin be administered to anyone who wanted to enhance themselves? Are the effects of psilocybin authentic? Does administering the drug change personality? If so, is it moral? Could the morally enhanced subjects become too empathetic or trusting?
Bioethics: a Case Against Transhumanism
George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario Isasi have argued that attempts to create the posthuman are immoral, as the two species may turn against one another. The posthumans may regard the humans as inferior and enslave them and the humans may want to wipe out the posthumans if seen as an existential threat.
Francis Fukuyama is one of the most prominent critics of transhumanism, pointing out that implementing the transhumanist agenda would create more social inequalities. Transhumanist technology won’t be affordable at the beginning and can widen the gap between rich and poor.
He also draws attention to the fact that eliminating permanently some human traits can have disastrous consequences in a future we can’t predict. For example, if we eliminate violence, we could lose the ability to defend ourselves.
Jana Vizmuller – Zocco points out that cryonics have some consequences for language and communication that the mainstream transhumanist movement has failed to appreciate. A human can be awoken in a thousand years. Language will have surely changed by then – will the human be able to communicate with the posthumans? Will the posthumans deem the human as infinitely inferior and use him or her in organ farms?
Michael Tennison argues that human enhancement could aggravate unfairness, offering the wealthiest advantages that would place them in a better social position. For instance, a job candidate or future students with neural implants would easily defeat the competition.
And although transhumanists champion personal choice over coercion, people who don’t want to enhance themselves could feel coerced into doing so to stay competitive.
Levin is suspicious of a posthuman paradise promised by some authors. She calls into question the feasibility of having a life full of bliss without any suffering. If there wasn’t any suffering how could we appreciate happiness? Don’t the two depend on each other for existence?
Julian Huxley, Transhumanism in “New Bottles for New Wine”, London: Chatto &Windus, pp. 13-17, 1957
Nick Bostron, A History of Transhumanist Thought in Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 14, Issue 1, April 2005
Gelles, David Immortality 2.0: A Silicon Valley Insider Looks at California’s Transhumanist Movement in The Futurist, 2009
Francis Fukuyama, Transhumanism in Foreign Policy, No. 144 (Sep. – Oct., 2004), pp. 42-43, published by Washington Newsweek Interactive, LLC
Jana Vizmuller – Zocco, Language and Literature in Transhumanism in Beyond Postmodernism: Onto the Postcontemporary, ed. By Christopher K. Brooks, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, pp. 46-62
Michael N. Tennison, Moral Transhumanism: The Next Step in Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 37: 405–416, 2012
Allen Porter, Bioethics and Transhumanism in Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 42: 237–260, 2017