Up until a few years ago I’d never heard of transhumanism, though I’d brushed against the idea repeatedly through speculative fiction. It made its way into my consciousness recently through novels like Nexus and Extinction, and over the last few years I’ve looked it up a few times, and wondered what parts of it I’d like to explore.
I’m primarily an idea guy: I like to gather a few points of view on a topic, riff on them, and come up with my own perspective. My interest in transhumanism is in ferreting out the ideas that most intrigue me. With that in mind, I’ll provide a brief overview of transhumanism as I see it (from the outside), a list of some of the most interesting types (to me), and some general thoughts. I used as my primary sources Humanity+, their magazine, H+, and the Wikipedia entry for transhumanism, to toss in a more neutral perspective. There’s a lot more out there than I can touch on in 1,000 words: in future posts, I’ll branch out.
What is Transhumanism?
You don’t have to probe too deeply to find a lot of statements along the lines of “many transhumanists think” or “some believe,” and the history of transhumanism seems to be one of continuously trying to define itself. Some self-identified transhumanists are concerned with immortality, some art not. Some are worried about a technological singularity, some are not.
A fairly solid definition – still open-ended – can be found at H+ Magazine, complete with caveats that it expresses only the opinion of the author, Peter Rothman:
“Transhumanism is a positive philosophy about the future based in optimism, rational thinking and the application of science and technology to improve the human condition. We seek to live longer, stay healthier, and become smarter and even more physically fit. We want to develop tools and technologies to help ourselves and others do the same.
We want to live longer, be healthier and happier, become smarter, keep learning and have more fun. And we propose using science and technology to do it. Does this sound good? Then you are very possibly a transhumanist.”
The definition goes on to note that transhumanism isn’t a religion, and though it isn’t against religion per se, it is science-based. Transhumanism challenges the definition of “natural,” and though optimistic, it isn’t blind to the risks involved in altering the human condition. Transhumanists support access to science and technology for everyone (i.e. not just for the elite), and reject the idea of an unchanging human nature (!!!). Transhumanists vary in everything from eating habits (vegan? carnivore?) to politics, but there seems to be a general commitment to reason.
Types of Transhumanism (A Few)
I suspect that there are as many types of tranhumanism as there are transhumanists (okay, probably not that many, but you get the idea). There are the garden variety versions, like Democratic or Libertarian transhumanism, Immortalism or Abolitionism. Below are a few that jumped out at me:
Extropianism: When I think transhumanism, it’s often something like Extropianism I imagine: a commitment to constantly growing, getting smarter, living forever, and all that implies. In practice, I have a feeling it gets a little more whacky. I’m intrigued by ideas like living forever and becoming so smart that I no longer fit the current definition of human, but I find the active pursuit of it a bit naive.
Postgenderism: What an interesting idea! I’m pretty happy as a generic, straight male, but that’s just because it’s what I’ve always been. Imagining a post-gender society is fascinating because it would be so different than our own. In my mind, everyone is either wearing gray jumpsuits or looks like Ziggy Stardust.
Singularitarianism: How likely is the emergence of a superintelligence? If you’re a singularitarianist, you think it’s likely, and that we should speed it along. I’m not so sure sure that speeding it along would be prudent, but I see it as inevitable. I’m not sure if we’ll biologically improve our brains before we invent a robot smarter than us – I doubt it, because off-the-cuff it seems more likely that the biological/genetic stuff would have more roadblocks thrown up, as opposed to one day Google introducing a robot and casually letting drop that, well… it’s smarter than us. It’s not so much that I’m not a singularitarian, it’s that I a) can’t pronounce it and b) am cynical enough to have other concerns, like running out of water or killing ourselves with bio-engineered plagues. Superintelligence? We should be so lucky.
Final (Initial) Thoughts
Originally, I wanted to touch on the technologies that interest transhumanists, and the connection between transhumanism and speculative fiction, but there was so much information – and I’ve only scratched the surface, here – that I figured I’d better bring things up short, and break the rest into manageable chunks.
I find myself both interested in, and a little unnerved by transhumanism. The whole endeavor seems a little pie in the sky for my tastes. I believe in dreaming big, but like I said, I’m more concerned with things like accidental armageddon, or whether the odd soreness in my jaw is due to undiagnosed, lethal cancer than I am about the chances of my living forever in a robot body (though, of course, yes, please). Throw on top of that the idea that fiddling with human nature has “unintended consequences” written all over it, and I find myself thinking that sometimes, a little pessimism is a good thing.
The long and the short of it is that I’m not a transhumanist – I’m not that optimistic – but I find a lot of the ideas captivating, in the same way I enjoy reading about them in science fiction, though I’m as likely to imagine a dystopia as I am a feel-good, transhumanist paradise. So what do you make of transhumanism? If you are one and you know about it, what have I gotten wrong, or missed? Would you like to live forever?