In a compelling webseries from 2012 entitled H+, we were introduced to a future world where much of the population has a hi-tech implant, allowing individuals a direct neural interface with the internet. As often is the case in science fiction, things don't turn out well for those technological pioneers. A virus infects the implant and chaos quickly descends on a human race that has become biologically fused with technology.
The series was an overt examination of a transhumanist future, with the title H+ being an appropriation of the common transhuman abbreviation. Five years after the series' birth, we live in a present even more entrenched on a path towards the realization of transhumanist ideals.
Early in February 2017, innovative billionaire Elon Musk reiterated an idea he had floated several times over the past year: Humans need to merge with machines. Musk sees a direct brain/computer interface as an absolute necessity, not only in order for us to evolve as a species, but as a way of keeping up with the machines we are creating. According to Musk, if we don't merge with the machines, we will become useless and irrelevant.
While Elon Musk does not self-identify as a "transhumanist," the idea of fusing man with machine is fundamental to this movement that arose over the course of the 20th century. And as we move into a tumultuous 21st century, transhumanism is quickly shifting from its sci-fi influenced philosophical and cultural niche into a more mainstream, and increasingly popular, movement.
Zoltan Istvan, a prominent futurist and transhumanist, is currently making a bold political run for the position of Governor of California. "We need leadership that is willing to use radical science, technology, and innovation – what California is famous for –to benefit us all," Istvan declared in a recent editorial published by Newsweek. "We need someone with the nerve to risk the tremendous possibilities to save the environment through bioengineering, to end cancer by seeking a vaccine or a gene-editing solution for it."
What is transhumanism?
Simply put, transhumanism is a broad intellectual movement that advocates for the transformation of humanity through embracing technology. Thinkers in the field opine that our intellectual, physical and psychological capabilities can, and should, be enhanced by any and all available emerging technologies. From genetic modification to make us smarter and live longer, to enhancing our physical capabilities through bioengineering and mechanical implants, transhumanists see our future as one where we transcend our physical bodies with the aid of technology.
The term "transhuman" can be traced back several hundred years, but in terms of our current use we can look to 20th century biologist and eugenicist, Julian Huxley. Across a series of lectures and articles in the 1950s, Huxley advocated for a type of utopian futurism where humanity would evolve and transcend its present limitations.
"We need a name for this new belief," Huxley wrote in 1957. "Perhaps transhumanism will serve; man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing the new possibilities of and for his human nature."
Huxley's ideas were arguably inspired by influential speculative fiction of the mid-20th century from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, and consequently his more specific transhumanist philosophies went on to influence a generation of cyberpunk authors in the 1980s. It was in this era that the first self-described transhumanists began appearing, having formal meetings around the University of California.
With the pace of technological advancement dramatically accelerating into the 21st century, transhumanist thinking began to manifest in more specific futurist visions. Cryonics and life extension technology was one focus of transhumanists, while others looked to body modification, gender transitioning and general biohacking as a way of transcending the limits of our physical bodies.
What could go wrong?
Plenty of criticisms have been lobbed at transhumanists over the years, with their extreme views of the technological future of humanity causing many to question whether this is a direct pathway to losing touch with what makes us essentially human. The fear that we will merge into some kind of inhuman, god-like, robot civilization quite fairly frightens and disturbs those with more traditional perspectives on humanity.
Science fiction classically reflects many fears of transhumanist futures, from Skynet taking over the world to a Gattaca-like future where genetic modification creates dystopian class separation. But prominent transhumanist critic Francis Fukuyama has soberly outlined the dangers of this modern movement in his book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.
Fukuyama comprehensively argues that the complexity of human beings cannot be so easily reduced into good and bad traits. If we were to try to eliminate traits we considered to be negative, be it through genetic modification or otherwise, we would be dangerously misunderstanding how we fundamentally function. "If we weren't violent and aggressive we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves; if we didn't have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn't be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love," he writes.
Some of the more valid concerns about the dawning transhumanist future are the socioeconomic repercussions of such a speedy technological evolution. As the chasm between rich and poor grows in our current culture, one can't help but be concerned that future advancements could become disproportionately limited to those with the financial resources to afford them. If life extension technologies start to become feasible, and they are only available to the billionaire class, then we enter a scenario where the rich get richer and live longer, while the poor get poorer and die sooner.
Without exceptionally strong political reform maintaining democratic access to human enhancement technologies, it's easy to foresee the rise of a disturbing genetic class divide. As environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben writes: "If we can't afford the fifty cents a person it would take to buy bed nets to protect most of Africa from malaria, it is unlikely we will extend to anyone but the top tax bracket these latest forms of genetic technology."
Remember eugenics ...
The looming specter of eugenics hovers over a great deal of transhumanist thought. In the first half of the 20th century the term became disturbingly, but not unreasonably, associated with Nazi Germany. Sterilizing or euthanizing those who displayed characteristics that were deemed to be imperfect was ultimately outlawed as a form of genocide. But as the genome revolution struck later in the century a resurgence in the philosophical ideals of eugenics began to arise.
Transhumanist thought often parallels the ideals of eugenics, although most self-identifying transhumanists separate themselves from that stigmatized field, preferring terms like reprogenetics and germinal choice. The difference between the negative outcomes of eugenics and the more positive, transhumanist notion of reprogenetics seems to be one of consent. In a 21st century world of selective genetic modification, all is good as long as all parents equally have the choice to genetically modify their child, and are not forced by governments who are trying to forcefully manage the genetic pool.
Prominent transhumanist advocate Nick Bostrom, labeled by The New Yorker as the leading transhumanist philosopher of today, argues that critics of the movement always focus on the potential risks or negative outcomes without balancing the possible positive futures. He advocates that the mere potential of a negative future outcome is not enough to stifle technological momentum.
Bostrom lucidly makes his point in an essay examining the transhumanist perspectives on human genetic modifications. "Good consequences no less than bad ones are possible," he writes. "In the absence of sound arguments for the view that the negative consequences would predominate, such speculations provide no reason against moving forward with the technology."
But what about God?
At first glance it would seem like the transhumanism movement would be synonymous with atheism. In 2002 the Vatican released an expansive statement exploring the intersection of technology and religion. The statement warned that changing a human's genetic identity was a "radically immoral" action. The old adage of the scientist playing God certainly raises its head frequently in criticisms of transhumanism. Zoltan Istvan even penned an op-ed entitled "I'm an Atheist, Therefore I'm a Transhumanist" in which he, rather weakly, attempted to blend the two movements.
But there are some compelling intersections between religion and transhumanism that point to the possibility that the two sides are not as mutually exclusive as one would think. A poll by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, founded by Nick Bostrom, discovered that only half of the transhumanists it surveyed identified as either atheist or agnostic.
Lincoln Cannon, founder of both the Mormon Transhumanist Association and the Christian Transhumanist Association (the very existence of these entities says something), has been advocating for a modern form of post secular religion based on both scientific belief and religious faith. Cannon sees transhumanism as a movement that allows for humanity to evolve into what he labels "superhumans."
In his treatise titled, "The New God Argument," Cannon envisions a creator God akin to our superhuman future potential. He posits an evolutionary cycle where we were created by a superhuman God, before then evolving into becoming our own superhuman Gods, from which we will create new life that will worship us as Gods and continue the cycle anew.
The New God Argument presents a fascinating case for an evolution of religious thought, but it also pushes transhumanism into the realms of spirituality in ways that are bound to make many of the movement's advocates uncomfortable. Another more extreme religious offshoot of transhumanism is Terasem, a self-described "transreligion."
Terasem recalls a 1990s-styled new-age sentiment with its four core beliefs: life is purposeful, death is optional, God is technological, and love is essential. Founded by millionaire entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, Terasem functions as both a spiritual transhumanist movement and a charitable organization that invests into technological research. The movement is especially focused on cryonic technology and researching ways to preserve human consciousness through downloading one's thoughts and memories into either a mainframe or an independent social robot.
The rise of the biohackers
At the turn of the century, a transhumanist community began to form that fused the ethos of computer hacking with a body modification movement determined to create do-it-yourself cybernetic devices. These "Grinders" embraced cyborg technologies that could be directly integrated into their organic bodies.
Biohacking can take the form of pharmaceutical enhancements that hack one's body chemistry, to implanting electronics into the body such as magnets or RFID and NFC tags. These transhumanist grinders sit at the furthermost borders of the movement, experimenting on their own bodies with occasionally quite extreme DIY surgical procedures.
Lepht Anonym is a Berlin-based biohacker who advocates cybernetics for the masses. Lepht (who identifies as genderless) has performed numerous body modifications over the past decade, including implanting neodymium metal discs under fingertips to enable the physical sensing of electromagnetic fields, and several internal compass implants designed to give a physical awareness of north and south magnetic poles.
But the biohacking movement is moving in from the fringe, with several tech start-ups arising over the past few years with an interest in developing a commercial body modification economy. Grindhouse Wetware, based on Pittsburgh, has been prominent in creating technology that augments the human body.
The company's most prominent device is called the Northstar, which is an implant that it is hoped will have Bluetooth capabilities allowing the user to control their devices with simple hand movements. The first iteration of the device simply had an aesthetic function with LED lights under the user's skin that mimic a form of bioluminescence. Future uses for the Northstar could see it interfacing with your smartphone, tracking biometric data, such as blood sugar, or acting as a controller for a variety of devices connected to the internet of things.
Hitting the big time
Transhumanism is moving inexorably into the mainstream as technological advances accelerate. Proponents advocate we dive head first into this brave new cybernetic world, while traditionalists grow increasingly nervous.
Regardless of one's personal view there is undoubtedly an enormous number of people lining up to have that first brain/computer interface implanted into their head, or to genetically cue a set of specific characteristics for their baby. We live in exciting times that's for sure ... now excuse me while I re-watch Gattaca and hope it doesn't turn into a documentary-like premonition of our future.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more