“We need a name for this new belief,” mused Julian Huxley in 1957. “Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”
The twentieth century saw a progression of thinkers begin to grapple with technology’s power to radically transform humanity. Julian and his brother Aldous, author of Brave New World, became two of the most influential thinkers on the subject. On one side, Aldous warned against the dangers of technology by depicting technogenic oppression in his dystopian novel. On the other, Julian preached technological transcendence, coining the term that would come to represent an intellectual movement spanning the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Still in its infancy, transhumanism is not yet entirely coherent as a theory. But there are several distinct beliefs that adherents tend to share. Most transhumanists support the use of technology to radically increase a healthy lifespan and to boost biologically-based capacities such as memory and analytical skills. But they often disagree on how exactly to accomplish these aims.
Some, like Ray Kurzweil, an engineering director at Google and renowned inventor, advocate uploading consciousness or otherwise combining the human brain with computer technology. Others, like authors and entrepreneurs Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, prefer medical and biological research. Faced with the prospect of drastic, permanent change, opponents worry that overcoming the biological limitations of the body would fundamentally alter human experience in such a way as to begin a “post-human” phase in human history. Rather than denying the possibility, transhumanists contend that such an achievement would increase overall well-being for “post-humans.”
Like most large movements, transhumanism is internally diverse, with a few core beliefs held in common by adherents. Its chief claims have high stakes: they predict what humans will become and propose what humans should become. A movement committed to change, transhumanism combines theory and practice, putting forward both descriptive theories and calls to action. The question going forward will be: what are the dangers associated with those calls?
Transhumanism is better described as ideology than philosophy, though it certainly has philosophical elements. Most transhumanist claims are conjectural and often have normative content. Not only do followers claim that the post-human era will happen, but they also assert that the associated advancements will benefit humanity and that post-humans will live better than humans do now.
In The Idea of Critical Theory, Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss describes ideologies as combining discursive elements (propositional truth-claims) and non-discursive elements (non-claim based elements, such as ceremonies, rituals, and gestures). Transhumanism fits that model. Discursively, it is founded on a set of claims about the future of humanity based on rational analysis of our progress thus far. Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that a computer would beat the world’s chess champion by 1998, which one did in 1997. He has since predicted technological milestones spanning the next few decades.
Non-discursively, transhumanism is in some ways a lifestyle. Many transhumanists take specially engineered vitamins and supplements; some go so far as to implant electrodes in their bodies in order to connect with computer technology.
Though transhumanism is more ideological than philosophical, it rests on an assumption about the nature of historical time that has interested philosophers for centuries. Transhumanists, like many influential thinkers before them, conceive of human history teleologically. They look to the post-human era as the “telos”—the end or goal—of technological progress. History, according to transhumanists, progresses linearly (or exponentially, taking into account the ever-increasing rate of technological change), driven by technological advancement.
But would this post-human era really be better for our descendants?
Probably not, though the prospect of near-perfect health and longer lives is alluring.
Transhumanism erodes the concept of universal human rights and could enable inequality even more extreme than today’s. The most obvious way to ground human rights and disallow discrimination is to assume that humans are special and have intrinsic value by virtue of their being human, and that all humans are equal. In a special report for Foreign Policy Magazine, Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama emphasizes the importance of that intrinsic value—or at least our belief in it—for grounding human rights.
“We have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct,” he writes. “Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences.”
Overcoming the constraints of human biology would shake that foundation. Would post-humans still possess the so-called human essence? And without it, would they be more or less socially powerful than they are now?
Intrapersonal physiological changes would have a profound impact on interpersonal power dynamics. Of most concern is the potential of transhumanism to increase oppression on a massive scale. Those who use technology to enhance their physical and mental capabilities would be markedly different from the unenhanced. In a world in which so much inequality already exists, the introduction of enhanced people could render everyone else totally unable to compete.
Technological advancement has always favored those with access to new technologies and a high degree of technical knowledge and skill. Transhumanism could create immense inequality within communities and between communities. On a global scale, greater access to technology would give citizens of the developed world an actual biological advantage. The effect could be that of a giant brain drain, with highly trained and intelligent people concentrated in wealthier countries.
But the reason for the brain drain would not be that the intellectual elite had migrated to wealthier countries for better pay or living conditions. It would be that the intellectual elite were made in those countries.
Transhumanism may be the movement of the future. It is both descriptive and propulsive: transhumanists predict what is to come while driving technology toward the the future they describe. It ushers in new freedoms of form.
But even as technological advancement frees us from limitations, it creates huge potential for oppression. As we move forward and push the bounds of human capacity, we must be cautious. In our effort to shed limitations, we must be careful not to impose more.
Kishore Chundi ’20 is a sophomore in Silliman College.
Illustration by Itai Almor ’20, a sophomore in Saybrook College.