A History of Transhumanist
Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University
of Evolution and Technology -
Vol. 14 Issue 1 - April 2005
This paper traces the cultural and philosophical roots of
transhumanist thought and describes some of the influences and contributions
that led to the development of contemporary transhumanism.
1. Cultural and philosophical
The human desire to acquire new
capacities is as ancient as our species itself. We have always sought to expand
the boundaries of our existence, be it socially, geographically, or mentally.
There is a tendency in at least some individuals always to search for a way
around every obstacle and limitation to human life and happiness.
Ceremonial burial and preserved
fragments of religious writings show that prehistoric man and woman were deeply
disturbed by the death of loved ones. Although the belief in an afterlife was
common, this did not preclude efforts to extend the present life. In the
Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (approx. 1700 B.C.), a king sets out on a
quest for immortality. Gilgamesh learns that there exists a natural means – an
herb that grows at the bottom of the sea.
He successfully retrieves the plant, but a snake steals it from him before he
can eat it. In later times, explorers sought the Fountain of Youth, alchemists
labored to concoct the Elixir of Life, and various schools of esoteric Taoism
in China strove for physical immortality by way of control over or harmony with
the forces of nature. The boundary between mythos and science, between magic
and technology, was blurry, and almost all conceivable means to the
preservation of life were attempted by somebody or other. Yet while explorers
made many interesting discoveries and alchemists invented some useful things,
such as new dyes and improvements in metallurgy, the goal of life-extension proved
The quest to transcend our natural
confines, however, has long been viewed with ambivalence. On the one hand there
is fascination. On the other there is the concept of hubris: that some
ambitions are off-limits and will backfire if pursued. The ancient Greeks
exhibited this ambivalence in their mythology. Prometheus stole the fire from
Zeus and gave it to the humans, thereby permanently improving the human
condition. Yet for this act he was severely punished by Zeus. In the myth of
Daedalus, the gods are repeatedly challenged, quite successfully, by the clever
engineer and artist who uses non-magical means to extend human capabilities. In
the end, however, disaster ensues when his son Icarus ignores paternal warnings
and flies too close to the sun, causing the wax in his wings to melt.
Medieval Christianity had similarly
conflicted views about the pursuits of the alchemists, who tried to transmute
substances, create homunculi in test tubes, and invent a panacea. Some
scholastics, following the anti-experimentalist teachings of Aquinas, believed
that alchemy was an ungodly activity. There were allegations that it involved
the invocation of daemonic powers. But other theologians, such as Albertus
Magnus, defended the practice.
The otherworldliness and stale
scholastic philosophy that dominated Europe during the Middle Ages gave way to
a renewed intellectual vigor in the Renaissance. The human being and the
natural world again became legitimate objects of study. Renaissance humanism
encouraged people to rely on their own observations and their own judgment
rather than to defer in every matter to religious authorities. Renaissance
humanism also created the ideal of the well-rounded person, one who is highly
developed scientifically, morally, culturally, and spiritually. A landmark of
the period is Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man
(1486), which proclaims that man does not have a readymade form and is
responsible for shaping himself:
We have made you a creature neither of
heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the
free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may
prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of
life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the
superior orders whose life is divine.
The Age of Enlightenment is often said
to have started with the publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum,
“the new tool " (1620), which proposes a scientific methodology based on
empirical investigation rather than a priori reasoning.
Bacon advocated the project of "effecting all things possible, " by which he
meant using science to achieve mastery over nature in order to improve the
living condition of human beings. The heritage from the Renaissance combines
with the influence of Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant,
the Marquis de Condorcet, and others to form the basis for rational humanism,
which emphasizes empirical science and critical reason – rather than revelation
and religious authority – as ways of learning about the natural world and our
place within it, and of providing a grounding for morality. Transhumanism has
roots in rational humanism.
In the 18th and 19th
centuries we begin to see glimpses of the idea that even humans themselves can
be developed through the appliance of science. Condorcet speculated about
extending human life span through medical science:
Would it be absurd now to suppose that
the improvement of the human race should be regarded as capable of unlimited
progress? That a time will come when death would result only from extraordinary
accidents or the more and more gradual wearing out of vitality, and that,
finally, the duration of the average interval between birth and wearing out has
itself no specific limit whatsoever? No doubt man will not become immortal, but
cannot the span constantly increase between the moment he begins to live and
the time when naturally, without illness or accident, he finds life a burden?"
Benjamin Franklin longed wistfully for
suspended animation, foreshadowing the cryonics movement:
I wish it were possible... to invent a
method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be
recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent
desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should
prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of
Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my
dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little
advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in
our time to its perfection.
After the publication of Darwin’s Origin
of Species (1859), it became increasingly plausible to view the current
version of humanity not as the endpoint of evolution but rather as a possibly
quite early phase."
The rise of scientific physicalism might also have contributed to the
foundations of the idea that technology could be used to improve the human
organism. For example, a simple kind of materialist view was boldly proposed in
1750 by the French physician and materialist philosopher, Julien Offray de La
Mettrie in L’Homme Machine, where he argued that "man is but an animal,
or a collection of springs which wind each other up. "
If human beings are constituted by matter that obeys the same laws of physics
that operate outside us, then it should in principle be possible to learn to
manipulate human nature in the same way that we manipulate external objects.
It has been said that the Enlightenment
expired as the victim of its own excesses. It gave way to Romanticism, and to
latter day reactions against the rule of instrumental reason and the attempt to
rationally control nature, such as can be found in some postmodernist writings,
the New Age movement, deep environmentalism, and in some parts of the
anti-globalization movement. However, the Enlightenment’s legacy, including a
belief in the power of human rationality and science, is still an important
shaper of modern culture. In his famous 1784 essay "What Is Enlightenment? ",
Kant summed it up as follows:
Enlightenment is man’s leaving his
self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own
understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused
if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and
courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of
enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own
It might be thought that the German
philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would have been a major inspiration
for transhumanism. Nietzsche is famous for his doctrine of der Übermensch
(“the overman "):
I teach you the overman. Man is something
that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far
have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this
great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?"
What Nietzsche had in mind, however, was
not technological transformation but rather a kind of soaring personal growth
and cultural refinement in exceptional individuals (who he thought would have
to overcome the life-sapping "slave-morality " of Christianity). Despite some
surface-level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism – with
its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its
humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings) –
probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche’s contemporary J.S. Mill,
the English liberal thinker and utilitarian.
2. Speculation, science fiction, and
twentieth century totalitarianism
In 1923, the noted British biochemist J.
B. S. Haldane published the essay Daedalus: Science and the Future, in
which he argued that great benefits would come from controlling our own
genetics and from science in general. He projected a future society that would
be richer, have abundant clean energy, where genetics would be employed to make
people taller, healthier, and smarter, and where the use of ectogenesis
(gestating fetuses in artificial wombs) would be commonplace. He also commented
on what has in more recent years become known as the "yuck factor ":
The chemical or physical inventor is
always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which
has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and
chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.
There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer
from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not
appear to him as indecent and unnatural.
Haldane’s essay became a bestseller and
set off a chain reaction of future-oriented discussions, including The
World, the Flesh and the Devil, by J. D. Bernal (1929),
which speculated about space colonization and bionic implants as well as mental
improvements through advanced social science and psychology; the works of Olaf
Stapledon, a philosopher and science fiction author; and the essay "Icarus: the
Future of Science " (1924) by Bertrand Russell.
Russell took a more pessimistic view, arguing that without more kindliness in
the world, technological power would mainly serve to increase men’s ability to
inflict harm on one another. Science fiction authors such as H. G. Wells and
Stapledon got many people thinking about the future evolution of the human
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,
published in 1932, has had an enduring impact on debates about human
matched by few other works of fiction (a possible exception would be Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1818).
Huxley describes a dystopia where psychological conditioning, promiscuous
sexuality, biotechnology, and the opiate drug "soma " are used to keep the
population placid and contented in a static, totally conformist caste society
that is governed by ten world controllers. Children are manufactured in
fertility clinics and artificially gestated. The lower castes are chemically
stunted or deprived of oxygen during their maturation process to limit their
physical and intellectual development. From birth, members of every caste are
indoctrinated during their sleep, by recorded voices repeating the slogans of
the official "Fordist " religion, and are conditioned to believe that their own
caste is the best one to belong to. The society depicted in Brave New World
is often compared and contrasted with that of another influential 20th
century dystopia, George Orwell’s 1984.
1984 features a more overt form of oppression, including ubiquitous
surveillance by "Big Brother " and brutal police coercion. Huxley’s world
controllers, by contrast, rely on more "humane means ", including bio-engineered
predestination, soma, and psychological conditioning to prevent people from wanting
to think for themselves. Herd-mentality and promiscuity are promoted, while
high art, individuality, knowledge of history, and romantic love are
discouraged. It should be noted that in neither 1984 nor Brave New World has
technology been used to increase human capacities. Rather, society is set up to
repress the full development of humanity. Both dystopias curtail scientific and
technological exploration for fear of upsetting the social equilibrium.
Nevertheless, Brave New World in particular has become an emblem of the
dehumanizing potential of the use of technology to promote social conformism
and shallow contentment.
In the postwar era, many optimistic
futurists who had become suspicious of collectively orchestrated social change
found a new home for their hopes in scientific and technological progress. Space
travel, medicine, and computers seemed to offer a path to a better world. The
shift of attention also reflected the breathtaking pace of development taking
place in these fields. Science had begun to catch up with speculation.
Yesterday’s science fiction was turning into today’s science fact – or at least
into a somewhat realistic mid-term prospect.
Transhumanist themes during this period
were discussed and analyzed chiefly in the science fiction literature. Authors
such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Stanislaw Lem
explored how technological development could come to profoundly alter the human
The word "transhumanism " appears to have
been first used by Aldous Huxley’s brother, Julian Huxley, a distinguished
biologist (who was also the first director-general of UNESCO and founder of the
World Wildlife Fund). In Religion Without Revelation (1927), he wrote:
species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an
individual here in one way, an individual there in another way – but in its
entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism
will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities
of and for his human nature.
3. Technological genies: AI, the singularity, nanotech, and
Human-like automata have always
fascinated the human imagination. Mechanical engineers since the early Greeks
have constructed clever self-moving devices.
In Judaic mysticism, a "golem " refers to
an animated being crafted from inanimate material. In the early golem stories, a
golem could be created by a holy person who was able to share some of God’s
wisdom and power (although the golem, not being able to speak, was never more
than a shadow of God’s creations). Having a golem servant was the ultimate
symbol of wisdom and holiness. In the later stories, which had been influenced
by the more Islamic concern about humanity getting too close to God, the golem
became a creation of overreaching mystics, who would inevitably be punished for
their blasphemy. The story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a variation of this
theme: the apprentice animates a broomstick to fetch water but is unable to make
the broom stop – like Frankenstein, a story of technology out of control. The
word "robot " was coined by the Czech Karel Čapek’s in his dark play R.U.R.
(1921), in which a robot labor force destroys its human creators.
With the invention of the electronic computer, the idea of human-like automata
graduated from the kindergarten of mythology to the school of science fiction
(e.g. Isaac Asimov, Stanislav Lem, Arthur C. Clark) and eventually to the
college of technological prediction.
Could continued progress in artificial
intelligence lead to the creation of machines that can think in the same
general way as human beings? Alan Turing gave an operational definition to this
question in his classic "Computing Machinery and Intelligence " (1950), and predicted
that computers would eventually pass what came to be known as the Turing Test.
(In the Turing Test, a human experimenter interviews a computer and another
human via a text interface, and the computer succeeds if the interviewer cannot
reliably distinguish the computer from the human.)
Much ink has been spilt in debates on whether this test furnishes a necessary
and sufficient condition for a computer being able to think, but what matters
more from a practical perspective is whether and, and if so when,
computers will be able to match human performance on tasks involving general
reasoning ability. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that many of the
early AI researchers turned out to be overoptimistic about the timescale for
this hypothetical development. Of course, the fact that we have not yet reached
human-level artificial intelligence does not mean that we never will, and a
number of people, e.g. Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, and Nick
Bostrom have put forward reasons for thinking that this could happen within the
first half of this century.
In 1958, Stanislaw Ulam, referring to a
meeting with John von Neumann, wrote:
One conversation centered on the ever
accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life,
which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the
history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not
The rapidity of technological change in
recent times leads naturally to the idea that continued technological
innovation will have a large impact on humanity in the decades ahead. This
prediction is strengthened if one believes that some of those variables that
currently exhibit exponential growth will continue to do so and that they will
be among the main drivers of change. Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel,
noticed in 1965 that the number of transistors on a chip exhibited exponential
growth. This led to the formulation of "Moore’s law ", which states (roughly)
that computing power doubles every 18 months to two years.
More recently, Kurzweil has documented similar exponential growth rates in a
number of other technologies. (The world economy, which is a kind of general
index of humanity’s productive capacity, has doubled about every 15 years in
The singularity hypothesis, which von
Neumann seems to have alluded to in the quoted passage above, is that these
changes will lead to some kind of discontinuity. But nowadays, it often refers
to a more specific prediction, namely that the creation of self-improving
artificial intelligence will at some point result in radical changes within a
very short time span. This hypothesis was first clearly stated in 1965 by the
statistician I. J. Good:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be
defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of
any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these
intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better
machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and
the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first
ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
Vernor Vinge discussed this idea in a
little more detail in his influential 1993-paper "Technological Singularity ",
in which he predicted:
Within thirty years, we will have the
technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human
era will be ended.
Transhumanists today hold diverging
views about the singularity: some see it as a likely scenario, others believe
that it is more probable that there will never be any very sudden and dramatic
changes as the result of progress in artificial intelligence.
The singularity idea also comes in a
somewhat different eschatological version, which traces its lineage to the
writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist and Jesuit theologian
who saw an evolutionary telos in the development of an encompassing noosphere
(a global consciousness) – via physicist Frank Tipler, who argued that advanced
civilizations might come to have a defining influence on the future evolution
of the cosmos, and, in the final moments of the Big Crunch, might manage to
extract an infinite number of computations by harnessing the sheer energy of
the collapsing matter.,
However, while these ideas might appeal to those who fancy a marriage between
mysticism and science, they have not caught on either among transhumanists or
the larger scientific community. Current cosmological theories indicate that
the universe will continue to expand forever (falsifying Tipler’s prediction).
But the more general point that the transhumanist might make in this context is
that we need to learn to think about "big-picture questions " without resorting
to wishful thinking or mysticism. Big-picture questions, including ones about
our place in the world and the long-term fate of intelligent life are
part of transhumanism; however, these questions should be addressed in a sober,
disinterested way, using critical reason and our best available scientific
evidence. One reason why such questions are of transhumanist interest is that
their answers might affect what outcomes we should expect from our own
technological development, and therefore – indirectly – what policies it makes
sense for humanity to pursue.
In 1986, Eric Drexler published Engines
of Creation, the first book-length exposition of molecular manufacturing.
(The possibility of nanotechnology had been anticipated by Nobel laureate
physicist Richard Feynman in his famous after-dinner address in 1959 entitled
“There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom ".)
In this seminal work, Drexler not only argued for the feasibility of
assembler-based nanotechnology but also explored its consequences and began
charting the strategic challenges posed by its development. Drexler’s later
book Nanosystems (1992) supplied a more technical analysis that seemed
to confirm his original conclusions.
To prepare the world for nanotechnology and work towards its safe
implementation, he founded the Foresight Institute together with his then wife,
Christine Peterson, in 1986.
In the last several years,
nanotechnology has become big business, with worldwide research funding
amounting to billions of dollars. Yet little of this work fits Drexler’s
ambitious vision of nanotechnology as an assembler-based, near-universal,
construction technology. The mainstream nanotechnology community has sought to
distance itself from Drexler’s claims. The chemist Richard Smalley (another
Noble laureate) has debated Drexler, asserting that non-biological molecular
assemblers are impossible.
To date, however, no technical critique of Drexler’s work in the published
literature has found any significant flaws in his reasoning. If molecular
nanotechnology is indeed physically possible, as Drexler maintains, the
question becomes just how difficult it will be to develop it, and how long it
will take. These issues are very difficult to settle in advance.
If molecular nanotechnology could be
developed as Drexler envisions it, it would have momentous ramifications:
Coal and diamonds, sand and computer
chips, cancer and healthy tissue: throughout history, variations in the
arrangement of atoms have distinguished the cheap from the cherished, the
diseased from the healthy. Arranged one way, atoms make up soil, air, and water
arranged another, they make up ripe strawberries. Arranged one way, they make
up homes and fresh air; arranged another, they make up ash and smoke.
Molecular nanotechnology would enable us
to transform coal into diamonds, sand into supercomputers, and to remove
pollution from the air and tumors from healthy tissue. In its mature form, it
could help us abolish most disease and aging, make possible the reanimation of
cryonics patients, enable affordable space colonization, and – more ominously –
lead to the rapid creation of vast arsenals of lethal or non-lethal weapons.
Another hypothetical technology that
would have a revolutionary impact is uploading, the transfer of a human mind to
a computer. This would involve the following steps: First, create a
sufficiently detailed scan of a particular human brain, perhaps by
deconstructing it with nanobots or by feeding thin slices of brain tissues into
powerful microscopes for automatic image analysis. Second, from this scan,
reconstruct the neuronal network that the brain implemented, and combine this
with computational models of the different types of neurons. Third, emulate the
whole computational structure on a powerful supercomputer. If successful, the
procedure would result in the original mind, with memory and personality
intact, being transferred to the computer where it would then exist as
software; and it could either inhabit a robot body or live in a virtual
While it is often thought that, under suitable circumstances, the upload would
be conscious and that the original person would have survived the transfer to
the new medium, individual transhumanists take different views on these
If either superintelligence, or
molecular nanotechnology, or uploading, or some other technology of a similarly
revolutionary kind is developed, the human condition could clearly be radically
transformed. Even if one believed that the probability of this happening any
time soon is quite small, these prospects would nevertheless merit serious
attention in view of their extreme impact. However, transhumanism does not
depend on the feasibility of such radical technologies. Virtual reality;
preimplantation genetic diagnosis; genetic engineering; pharmaceuticals that
improve memory, concentration, wakefulness, and mood; performance-enhancing
drugs; cosmetic surgery; sex change operations; prosthetics; anti-aging
medicine; closer human-computer interfaces: these technologies are already here
or can be expected within the next few decades. The combination of these
technological capabilities, as they mature, could profoundly transform the
human condition. The transhumanist agenda, which is to make such enhancement
options safely available to all persons, will become increasingly relevant and
practical in the coming years as these and other anticipated technologies come
4. The growth of grassroots
Benjamin Franklin wished to be preserved
in a cask of Madeira and later recalled to life, and regretted that he was
living too near the infancy of science for this to be possible. Since then,
science has grown up a bit. In 1962, Robert Ettinger published the book, The
Prospect of Immortality, which launched the idea of cryonic suspension.
Ettinger argued that as medical technology seems to be constantly progressing,
and since science has discovered that chemical activity comes to a complete
halt at low-enough temperatures, it should be possible to freeze a person today
(in liquid nitrogen) and preserve the body until a time when technology is advanced
enough to repair the freezing damage and reverse the original cause of
deanimation. Cryonics, Ettinger believed, offered a ticket to the future.
Alas, the masses did not line up for the
ride. Cryonics has remained a fringe alternative to more traditional methods of
treating the terminally diseased, such as cremation and burial. The practice of cryonics
was not integrated into the mainstream clinical setting and was instead
conducted on the cheap by a small number of enthusiasts. Two early cryonics
organizations went bankrupt, allowing their patients to thaw out. At that
point, the problem of massive cellular damage that occurs when ice crystals
form in the body also became more widely known. As a result, cryonics acquired
a reputation as a macabre scam. The media controversy over the suspension of
baseball star Ted Williams in 2002 showed that public perception of cryonics
has not changed much over the past decades.
Despite its image problem and its early
failures of implementation, the cryonics community continues to be active and
it counts among its members several eminent scientists and intellectuals.
Suspension protocols have been improved, and the infusion of cryoprotectants
prior to freezing to suppress the formation of ice crystals has become standard
practice. The prospect of nanotechnology has given a more concrete shape to the
hypothesized future technology that could enable reanimation. There are
currently two organizations that offer full-service suspension, the Alcor Life
Extension Foundation (founded in 1972) and the Cryonics Institute (founded in
1976). Alcor has recently introduced a new suspension method, which relies on a
process known as "vitrification ", which further reduces micro-structural damage
In a later work, Man into Superman
(1972), Ettinger discussed a number of conceivable technological improvements
of the human organism, continuing the tradition started by Haldane and Bernal.
Another early transhumanist was F. M.
Esfandiary, who later changed his name to FM-2030. One of the first professors
of future studies, FM taught at the New School for Social Research in New York
in the 1960s and formed a group of optimistic futurists known as the UpWingers.
Who are the
new revolutionaries of our time? They are the geneticists, biologists,
physicists, cryonologists, biotechnologists, nuclear scientists, cosmologists,
radio astronomers, cosmonauts, social scientists, youth corps volunteers,
internationalists, humanists, science-fiction writers, normative thinkers,
inventors… They and others are revolutionizing the human condition in a
fundamental way. Their achievements and goals go far beyond the most radical
ideologies of the Old Order.
In his book Are you a transhuman?
(1989), FM described what he regarded as the signs of the emergence of the "transhuman
In FM’s terminology, a transhuman is a "transitional human, " someone who by
virtue of their technology usage, cultural values, and lifestyle constitutes an
evolutionary link to the coming era of posthumanity. The signs that FM saw as
indicative of transhuman status included prostheses, plastic surgery, intensive
use of telecommunications, a cosmopolitan outlook and a globetrotting
lifestyle, androgyny, mediated reproduction (such as in vitro fertilization),
absence of religious belief, and a rejection of traditional family values.
However, it was never satisfactorily explained why somebody who, say, rejects
family values, has a nose job, and spends a lot of time on jet planes is in
closer proximity to posthumanity than the rest of us.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many
organizations sprang up that focused on a particular topic such as life
extension, cryonics, space colonization, science fiction, and futurism. These
groups were often isolated from one another, and whatever shared views and
values they had did not yet amount to any unified worldview. Ed Regis’s Great
Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (1990) took a humorous look at
these proto-transhumanist fringes, which included eccentric and otherwise
intelligent individuals trying to build space rockets in their backyards or
experimenting with biofeedback machines and psychedelic drugs, as well as
scientists pursuing more serious lines of work but who had imbibed too deeply
of the Californian spirit.
In 1988, the first issue of the Extropy
Magazine was published by Max More and Tom Morrow, and in 1992 they founded
the Extropy Institute (the term "extropy " being coined as a metaphorical
opposite of entropy). The Institute served as a catalyst that brought together
disparate groups of people with futuristic ideas and facilitated the formation
of novel memetic compounds. The Institute ran a series of conferences, but
perhaps most important was the extropians mailing list, an online discussion
forum where new ideas were shared and debated. In the mid-nineties, many got
first exposure to transhumanist views from the Extropy Institute’s listserve.
More had immigrated to California from
Britain after changing his name from Max O’Connor. Of his new name, he said:
It seemed to really encapsulate the
essence of what my goal is: always to improve, never to be static. I was going
to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier. It would be
a constant reminder to keep moving forward.
wrote the first definition of transhumanism in its modern sense, and created
his own distinctive brand of transhumanism, "extropianism, " which emphasized
the principles of "boundless expansion, " "self-transformation, " "dynamic
optimism, " "intelligent technology, " and "spontaneous order ". Originally,
extropianism had a clear libertarian flavor, but in later years More has
distanced himself from this ingredient, replacing "spontaneous order " with
“open society, " a principle that opposes authoritarian social control and
promotes decentralization of power and responsibility.
Vita-More (married to Max) is the Extropy Institute’s current president. She is
an artist and designer, and has over the years issued a number of manifestos on
transhumanist and extropic art.
The Extropy Institute’s conferences and
mailing list also served as a hangout place for some people who liked to
discuss futuristic ideas but who were not necessarily joiners. Those who were
around in the mid-nineties will remember individuals such as Anders Sandberg,
Alexander "Sasha " Chislenko, Hal Finney, and Robin Hanson from among the more
thoughtful regulars in the transhumanist milieu at the time. An enormous amount
of discussion about transhumanism has taken place on various email lists in the
past decade. The quality of postings has been varied (putting it mildly). Yet
at their best, these online conversations explored ideas about the implications
of future technologies that were, in some respects, far advanced over what
could be found in printed books or journals. The Internet played an important
role in incubating modern transhumanism by facilitating these meetings of minds
– and perhaps more indirectly, too, via the "irrational exuberance " that
pervaded the dot-com era?
The World Transhumanist Association was
founded in early 1998 by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce, to provide a general
organizational basis for all transhumanist groups and interests, across the
political spectrum. The aim was also to develop a more mature and academically
respectable form of transhumanism, freed from the "cultishness " which, at least
in the eyes of some critics, had afflicted some of its earlier convocations.
The two founding documents of the WTA were the Transhumanist Declaration
(see appendix), and the Transhumanist FAQ (v. 1.0).
The Declaration was intended as a concise consensus statement of the basic
principle of transhumanism. The FAQ was also a consensus or near-consensus
document, but it was more ambitious in its philosophical scope in that it
developed a number of themes that had previously been, at most, implicit in the
movement. More than fifty people contributed comments on drafts of the FAQ. The
document was produced by Bostrom but major parts and ideas were also
contributed by several others, including the British utilitarian thinker David
Pearce, Max More, the American feminist and disability rights activist Kathryn
Aegis, and the walking encyclopedia Anders Sandberg, who was at the time a
neuroscience student in Sweden.
A number of related organizations have
also cropped up in recent years, focusing more narrowly on particular
transhumanist issues, such as life-extension, artificial intelligence, or the
legal implications of "converging technologies " (nano-bio-info-neuro
technologies). The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a non-profit
think tank, was established in 2004, to "promote the ethical use of technology
to expand human capacities ".
5. The academic frontier
Over the past couple of decades,
academia has picked up the ball and started to analyze various "transhumanist
matters, " both normative and positive. The contributions are far too many to
comprehensively describe here, so we will pick out just a few threads, beginning
For most of its history, moral
philosophy did not shy away from addressing practical problems. In the early
and mid-parts of the twentieth century, during heydays of logical positivism,
applied ethics became a backwater as moral philosophers concentrated on
linguistic or meta-ethical problems. Since then, however, practical ethics has
reemerged as a field of academic inquiry. The comeback started in medical
ethics. Revelations of the horrific experiments that the Nazis had conducted on
human subjects in the name of science led to the adoption of the Nuremberg code
(1947) and the Declaration of Helsinki (1964), which laid down strict
safeguards for medical experimentation, emphasizing the need for patient
But the rise of the modern health care system spawned new ethical dilemmas –
turning off life-support, organ donation, resource allocation, abortion,
advance directives, doctor-patient relationships, protocols for obtaining
informed consent and for dealing with incompetent patients. In the 1970s, a
broader kind of enquiry began to emerge, stimulated particularly by
developments in assisted reproduction and genetics. This field became known as
bioethics. Many of the ethical issues most directly linked to transhumanism
would now fall under this rubric, although other normative discourses are also
involved, e.g. population ethics, meta-ethics, political philosophy, and
bioethics’ younger sisters – computer ethics, engineering ethics, environmental
Bioethics was from the beginning an
interdisciplinary endeavor, dominated by theologians, legal scholars,
physicians, and, increasingly, philosophers, with occasional participation by
representatives of patients’ rights groups, disability advocates, and other
Lacking a clear methodology, and operating on a plain often swept by the winds
of political or religious controversy, the standard of scholarship has
frequently been underwhelming. Despite these difficulties, bioethics burgeoned.
A cynic might ascribe this accomplishment to the ample fertilization that the
field received from a number of practical imperatives: absolving doctors of
moral dilemmas, training medical students to behave, enabling hospital boards
to trumpet their commitment to the highest ethical standards of care, providing
sound bites for the mass media, and allowing politicians to cover their behinds
by delegating controversial issues to ethics committees. But a kinder gloss is
possible: decent people recognized that difficult moral problems arose in
modern biomedicine, that these problems needed to be addressed, and that having
some professional scholars trying to clarify these problems in some sort of
systematic way might be helpful. While higher-caliber scholarship and a more
robust methodology would be nice, in the meantime we make the most of what we
Moral philosophers have in the last
couple of decades made many contributions that bear on the ethics of human
transformation, and we must limit ourselves to a few mentions. Derek Parfit’s
classic Reasons and Persons (1984) discussed many relevant normative
In addition to personal identity and foundational ethical theory, this book
treats population ethics, person-affecting moral principles, and duties to
future generations. Although Parfit’s analysis takes place on an idealized
level, his arguments elucidate many moral considerations that emerge within the
Jonathan Glover’s What Sort of People
Should there Be? (1984) addressed technology-enabled human-transformation
at a somewhat more concrete level, focusing especially on genetics and various
technologies that could increase social transparency. Glover gave a clear and
balanced analytic treatment of these issues that was well ahead of its time.
His general conclusion is that
not just any aspect of present human
nature… is worth preserving. Rather it is especially those features which
contribute to self-development and self-expression, to certain kinds of
relationships, and to the development of our consciousness and understanding.
And some of these features may be extended rather than threatened by
6. 21st century biopolitics: the transhumanist-bioconservative
James Hughes has argued that biopolitics
is emerging as a fundamental new dimension of political opinion. In Hughes’
model, biopolitics joins with the more familiar dimensions of cultural and
economic politics, to form a three-dimensional opinion-space. We have already
seen that in the early 90s, the extropians combined liberal cultural politics
and laissez-fair economic politics with transhumanist biopolitics. In Citizen
Cyborg (2004), Hughes sets forward what he terms "democratic
transhumanism, " which mates transhumanist biopolitics with social democratic
economic politics and liberal cultural politics.
He argues that we will achieve the best posthuman future when we ensure that
technologies are safe, make them available to everyone, and respect the right
of individuals to control their own bodies. The key difference between
extropian transhumanism and democratic transhumanism is that the latter accords
a much bigger role for government in regulating new technologies for safety and
ensuring that the benefits will be available to all, not just a wealthy or
In principle, transhumanism can be
combined with a wide range of political and cultural views, and many such
combinations are indeed represented, e.g. within the membership of the World
Transhumanist Association. One combination that is not often found is the
coupling of transhumanism to a culture-conservative outlook. Whether this is
because of an irresolvable tension between the transformative agenda of
transhumanism and the cultural conservative’s preference for traditional
arrangements is not clear. It could instead be because nobody has yet seriously
attempted to develop such a position. It is possible to imagine how new
technologies could be used to reinforce some culture-conservative values. For
instance, a pharmaceutical that facilitated long-term pair bonding could help
protect the traditional family. Developing ways of using our growing technological
powers to help people realize widely held cultural or spiritual values in their
lives would seem a worthwhile undertaking.
This is not, however, the route for
which cultural conservatives have so far opted. Instead, they have gravitated
towards transhumanism’s opposite, bioconservatism, which opposes the use of
technology to expand human capacities or to modify aspects of our biological
nature. People drawn to bioconservatism come from groups that traditionally
have had little in common. Right-wing religious conservatives and left-wing
environmentalists and anti-globalists have found common causes, for example in
their opposition to the genetic modification of humans.
The different strands of contemporary
bioconservatism can be traced to a multifarious set of origins: ancient notions
of taboo; the Greek concept of hubris; the Romanticist view of nature; certain
religious (anti-humanistic) interpretations of the concept of human dignity and
of a God-given natural order; the Luddite workers’ revolt against
industrialization; Karl Marx’s analysis of technology under capitalism; various
Continental philosopher’s critiques of technology, technocracy, and the
rationalistic mindset that accompanies modern technoscience; foes of the
military-industrial complex and multinational corporations; and objectors to
the consumerist rat-race. The proposed remedies have ranged from machine-smashing
(the original Luddites), to communist revolution (Marx), to buying "organic
to yoga (José Ortega y Gasset), – but nowadays it commonly emanates in calls
for national or international bans on various human enhancement technologies
(Fukuyama, Annas, etc.).
Feminist writers have come down on both
sides of the debate. Ecofeminists have suspected biotechnology, especially its
use to reshape bodies or control reproduction, of being an extension of
traditional patriarchal exploitation of women, or, alternatively, have seen it
as a symptom of a control-obsessed, unemphatic, gadget-fixated, body-loathing
mindset. Some have offered a kind of psychoanalysis of transhumanism,
concluding that it represents an embarrassing rationalization of self-centered
immaturity and social failure. But others have welcomed the libratory potential
of biotechnology. Shulamith Firestone argued in the feminist classic The
Dialectic of Sex (1971) that women will be fully liberated only when
technology has freed them from having to incubate children.
Cyberfeminist Donna Haraway says that she would "rather be a cyborg than a
goddess " and argues against the dualistic view that associates men with culture
and technology and women with nature.
Perhaps the most prominent
bioconservative voice today is that of Leon Kass, chairman of President Bush’s
Council on Bioethics. Kass acknowledges an intellectual debt to three other
distinguished bioconservatives: Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey, Christian
apologist C. S. Lewis, and German-born philosopher-theologian Hans Jonas (who
studied under Martin Heidegger).
Kass’s concerns center on human dignity and the subtle ways in which our
attempts to assert technological mastery over human nature could end up
dehumanizing us by undermining various traditional "meanings " such as the
meaning of the life cycle, the meaning of sex, the meaning of eating, and the
meaning of work. Kass is well-known for his advocacy of "the wisdom of
repugnance " (which echoes Hans Jonas’s "heuristics of fear "). While Kass
stresses that a gut feeling of revulsion is not a moral argument, he
nevertheless insists that the yuck factor merits our respectful attention:
In crucial cases … repugnance is the
emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate
… we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things
we rightfully hold dear … To pollution and perversion, the fitting response can
only be horror and revulsion; and conversely, generalized horror and revulsion
are prima facie evidence of foulness and violation.
Francis Fukuyama, another prominent
bioconservative and member of the President’s Council, has recently identified
transhumanism as "the world’s most dangerous idea ".
For Fukuyama, however, the chief concern is not about the subtle undermining of
“meanings " but the prospect of violence and oppression. He argues that liberal
democracy depends on the fact that all humans share an undefined "Factor X ",
which grounds their equal dignity and rights. The use of enhancing
technologies, he fears, could destroy Factor X.
Bioethicists George Annas, Lori Andrews,
and Rosario Isasi have proposed legislation to make inheritable genetic
modification in humans a "crime against humanity ", like torture and genocide.
Their rationale is similar to Fukuyama’s:
The new species, or "posthuman, " will
likely view the old "normal " humans as inferior, even savages, and fit for
slavery or slaughter. The normals, on the other hand, may see the posthumans as
a threat and if they can, may engage in a preemptive strike by killing the
posthumans before they themselves are killed or enslaved by them. It is
ultimately this predictable potential for genocide that makes species-altering
experiments potential weapons of mass destruction, and makes the unaccountable
genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist.
There is some common ground between
Annas et al. and the transhumanists: they agree that murder and enslavement,
whether of humans by posthumans or the other way around, would be a moral
atrocity and a crime. Transhumanists deny, however, that this is a likely
consequence of germ-line therapy to enhance health, memory, longevity, or other
similar traits in humans. If and when we develop the capability to create some
singular entity that could potentially destroy the human race, such as a
superintelligent machine, then we could indeed regard it as a crime against
humanity to proceed without a thorough risk analysis and the installation of
adequate safety features. As we saw in the previous section, the effort to
understand and find ways to reduce existential risks has been a central
preoccupation for some transhumanists, such as Eric Drexler, Nick Bostrom, and
There are other commonalities between
bioconservatives and transhumanists. Both agree that we face a realistic
prospect that technology could be used to substantially transform the human
condition in this century. Both agree that this imposes an obligation on the
current generation to think hard about the practical and ethical implications.
Both are concerned with medical risks of side-effects, of course, although
bioconservatives are more worried that the technology might succeed than that
it might fail. Both camps agree that technology in general and medicine in
particular have a legitimate role to play, although bioconservatives tend to
oppose many uses of medicine that go beyond therapy to enhancement. Both sides
condemn the racist and coercive state-sponsored eugenics programs of the
twentieth century. Bioconservatives draw attention to the possibility that
subtle human values could get eroded by technological advances, and
transhumanists should perhaps learn to be more sensitive to these concerns. On
the other hand, transhumanists emphasize the enormous potential for genuine
improvements in human well-being and human flourishing that are attainable only
via technological transformation, and bioconservatives could try to be more
appreciative of the possibility that we could realize great values by venturing
beyond our current biological limitations.
The Transhumanist Declaration
(1) Humanity will be radically changed by
technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning
the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability
of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen
psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
(2) Systematic research should be put into
understanding these coming developments and their long-term
(3) Transhumanists think that by being generally
open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of
turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it.
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for
those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and
physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their
control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our
current biological limitations.
(5) In planning for the future, it is mandatory to
take into account the prospect of dramatic progress in technological
capabilities. It would be tragic if the potential benefits failed to
materialize because of technophobia and unnecessary prohibitions. On
the other hand, it would also be tragic if intelligent life went
extinct because of some disaster or war involving advanced
(6) We need to create forums where people can
rationally debate what needs to be done, and a social order where
responsible decisions can be implemented.
(7) Transhumanism advocates the well- being of all
sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or
non- human animals) and encompasses many principles of modern
humanism. Transhumanism does not support any particular party,
politician or political platform.
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2 See e.g. (Newman 2004).
3 (Pico della Mirandola 1956).
4 (Bacon 1620).
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6 (Franklin et al. 1956), pp. 27-29.
7 (Darwin 2003).
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13 (Russell 1924)
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15 (Shelley 1818).
17 (Huxley 1927), quoted from (Hughes 2004).
18 (Capek 2004).
19 (Turing 1950).
(Minsky 1994; Moravec 1999; Bostrom 1998, 2002; Kurzweil 1999).
21 (Ulam 1958).
22 (Moore 1965).
24 (Vinge 1993).
25 (Teilhard de Chardin 1964).
26 (Tipler 1994).
28 (Feynman 1960).
29 (Drexler 1992).
30 (Drexler and Smalley 1993).
31 (Drexler 1985), p. 3.
32 (Bostrom 2003).
34 (Ettinger 1972).
35 (Esfandiary 1970).
36 (FM-2030 1989).
38 (Regis 1994).
39 (More 2003).
41 (WTA 2002).
42 (Office 1949).
43 (World_Medical_Organization 1996).
44 See (Jonsen 1998).
45 (Parfit 1984).
46 (Glover 1984).
47 (Singer 2003).
48 (Savulescu 2001).
49 (Buchanan et al. 2002).
50 E.g. (Stock 2002; Harris 1992; Pence 1998; Parens 1998).
51 (Walker 2002).
52 (Bostrom 2003).
54 (Bostrom 2005).
55 (Bostrom 2005).
56 (Bostrom and Ord 2005).
57 (Yudkowsky 2004).
58 (Moravec 1989).
59 (Moravec 1999).
60 (Kurzweil 1999).
61 (Freitas and Merkle 2005).
62 (Bostrom 2002).
64 (Leslie 1996; Rees 2003; Posner 2004).
65 E.g. (Hanson 1994, 1995, 1998).
66 (Bostrom 2005).
67 (Bostrom 2003).
68 (Hughes 2004).
69 (Firestone 1970).
70 (Haraway 1991).
72 (Kass 1997).
73 (Fukuyama 2004). For a response, see (Bostrom 2004).
74 (Fukuyama 2002).
75 (Annas, Andrews, and Isasi 2002).