Transhumanism has changed considerably since the word was first coined by British scientist Julian Huxley in 1957. Huxley, an ardent humanitarian, described the concept as a methodology by which eugenics and social conditioning could improve the human race. His heirs today are considerably more ambitious.
In broad terms, transhumanism advocates replacing the human race with an artificial life form using artificial intelligence (AI), cybernetics, genetic engineering, advanced pharmaceuticals, and nanotechnology. It contends that man is destined for metamorphosis into a superior life form with an unlimited lifespan, better memory, faster computing power, and freedom from the bounds of traditional thought.
For over a decade the Extropy Institute has been one of the foundation stones of the transhumanism. (“Extropy” is the opposite of entropy, the thermodynamic principle of decay.) In keeping with transhumanism’s commitment to endless flux, the Extropy Institute has now metamorphosed, and its members have signed on to a manifesto which they describe as the “proactionary principle”.
The proactionary principle is intended as a replacement for the precautionary principle of bioethics. The precautionary principle advises restraint; the proactionary principle encourages the aggressive pursuit of technological change. The spiritual, psychological, and environmental dangers of ramping up the pace of change, according to transhumanists, are best met by moving faster.
The Extropy Institute supports its views with a potted history of human progress:
“Throughout history, the advancement of science has always been met with superstition and fear. For every improvement to the human condition, there have always been those who thought it would be better for things to remain in their former condition. This led to the long Dark Ages, where no progress occurred at all. The Renaissance and Enlightenment finally broke us free from that grim era.”
But clouds, principally from the Christian right and other “conservative” interests around the world, threaten to block the sunshine shed by the Enlightenment:
“Transhumanists were born into an enlightened world where perpetual progress based on science and creativity seemed inevitable. However, recent years have seen a backlash against advancement toward extending health, enhancing intelligence, understanding emotions, and the ever-increasing control we now can take over our own destinies. We face now an unprecedented battle for the future of humanity.”
In its discussion of human sexuality, the proactionary principle takes mainstream attitudes on the topic toward their logical conclusion:
“The new sexual landscapes will bring about different types of sexuality, different types of genders. In the future, we may still want to perform the traditional types of sex, or we may want to participate in the reconstituted and reconfigured gender roles and sexuality that will radically change us. We may do away with our bodily nerves, but keep some sensations, the ones for pleasure or perhaps some for pain to remind us not to do something. Yet, eventually we will begin to shuttle more and more parts of ourselves as we become post-biological.
Before one dismisses the proactionary principle as the invention of kooks who have seen too much Star Trek, it should be considered that many transhumanists are very prominent indeed. MIT artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky is a leader of the movement, as is former USC philosophy professor Max More. Minsky has written many works of fiction and nonfiction which depict the supplanting of human beings by robots as both inevitable and desireable. More has spread the message via high-profile interviews and appearances on cable networks such as The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, and CNN’s Futurewatch.
Other are Bart Kosko, of the University of Southern California, Gregory Stock, of UCLA; Jose Cordeiro, a Venezuelan academic and columnist for the newspaper El Universal). Peter Thiel, former CEO of Paypal, offers business advice. Affiliates include groups such as the Friends of the United Nations, and UNICEF-Africa.
Another group, the World Transhumanist Association, is a close ally. Its executive director, James Hughes, is professor of Health Policy at Trinity College. Hughes is attracted to the political ramifications of changing human nature, as evinced by his recent book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. In one unintentionally ironic essay, Hughes promises a fix for the political disasters that ensue from demagogues’ exploitation of human hopes and fears: “The cure for demagoguery will be a spam filter on our cerebellum.”
The proactionary principle is largely a response to heightened public awareness about the moral and spiritual dangers of technology; the transhumanists understand that their goals require a public relations campaign to counter the forces of darkness, whom they describe as the “neo-luddites”. A new magazine, The New Atlantis, a journal of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, is one of the leading organs for neo-luddite thinking and contains refreshing analyses of the origins of transhumanism. In a recent issue Dusquene University political science professor Charles Rubin cogently argues that transhumanism is basically a fantasy of egocentric libertarians:
It starts with something that sounds so sensible: who would not want a longer, healthier, happier life? The modern world has long been committed to this goal. But then we’re off to the enhancement races. If you don’t want an implant that allows you to feel the feelings of your sexual partner, or that gives you a direct feed to your brain of whatever the Internet will become, or if you don’t want to design children with a genetic leg up in the world, fine—nobody is going to make you. But don’t try to tell me that if I do want it, I can’t have it… And…if you choose to remain a “Natural,” don’t expect much consideration from the ranks of the “Enhanced.”
The transhumanists’ quest to make a better man for a better tomorrow” may sound loopy. But it is a potent and exhilarating drug of the spirit for many intelligent but technology-infatuated people. You can expect to hear more from them in the future.
Jerry Salyer writes from Annapolis, Maryland.