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The Transhumanist Movement

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Abstract

This chapter lays out a “roadmap” of the transhumanist movement. It identifies the people who conceived and founded it as well as the organisations that have gradually been set up to promote the aims of transhumanism and transhumanist declarations. These elements will make it possible to piece together the various concepts in order to define the aims of transhumanism as accurately as possible.

Keywords

  • Transhumanists (definition of)
  • Transhumanist organisations
  • Bioliberals
  • Bioluddites

Transhumanism is not a homogeneous movement, but a multitude of people, organisations, theories and groups that share a relatively small number of theories, views and concepts. Each of these theoretical centres elaborates unanimously shared propositions and tendencies in such an independent and sometimes contradictory way that it becomes virtually impossible to talk about a transhumanist movement: beneath any superficial convergences there is a magmatic activity continually opening up new and different perspectives. This chapter aims to offer a “roadmap” of the movement, the people and the documents underpinning the origins of transhumanism and its continuously developed and re-elaborated theoretical basis.

2.1 The Word

The transhumanist movement, project or whatever else it may be immediately raises a major problem: its very name. What does “transhumanism” mean? In what sense should these two parts, “trans” and “humanism”, be understood? What content of “humanism” is somehow in transition? In what way is humanity or humanism transitioning? What is the destination, if any, of this as yet not fully identified humanity? What does their union indicate?

Unravelling these problems must inevitably entail a lexical reconstruction of the recurrences of the very term “transhumanism” which, far from being a neologism, originates in a very distant past and has a much more tortuous and complex history than we might imagine.

Numerous sources have been cited regarding the origin of the term “transhumanism”, although they are not always in agreement. It is generally accepted that the term was coined by Julian Huxley (grandson of Thomas Huxley, the enthusiastic champion of Darwinian theories, and brother of Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World) in a 1957 text entitled “Transhumanism”, in which he states that the human species could, if it wished, transcend itself in its entirety to realise new possibilities of and for its nature (Huxley, 1957).Footnote 1 The word signifies “evolutionary humanism”, which more accurately defines Huxley’s thoughts on the relationship between evolution and humanity. However, despite this useful clarification, Huxley was not the first to use the term. In Canto I of Dante’s Paradiso the verb transumanar is used to translate Paul’s description of the ascent to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12 (cf. Vita-More, 2019a), later widely present in Teilhard de Chardin. Harrison and Wolyniak hypothesise that Julian Huxley must have been aware of these older recurrences (from Paul of Tarsus to Dante) through the work of Canadian philosopher, jurist and historian W. D. Lighthall who spoke of “Paul’s transhumanism” in one of his lectures in 1940.

Olivier Dard and Alexandre Moatti beg to differ, claiming that the term originated in Jean Coutrot’s work from 1939 onwards and that Huxley borrowed it (Dard & Moatti, 2016). The hypothesis is plausible as Coutrot and Julian Huxley’s brother Aldous were friends, although there remains a doubt: did Coutrot use the term in talking to Aldous who then passed it on to his brother, or did Julian influence Coutrot via his brother?

At approximately the same time, Teilhard de Chardin coins and uses terms that belong to the same semantic field as transhumanism, but with a completely different meaning and different intentions. Certainly, it is still about imagining a “new” humanity, but his novelty lies in the radicalisation of a traditional vision of humanity produced by progress and evolution. The evolutionary process does not lead to a continuous investigation or an indefinite knowledge and manipulation of the biological characteristics of the human being, but to a transcendence of this dimension that results in the spiritualisation of the person in an unquestionably Christian perspective (Hottois, 2018, 45–48).

2.2 The People

Analysis of the recurrences of the word “transhumanism” provides a mere summary meaning assigned to the movement: history is essentially the story of the improvement of humanity, however this is understood and whatever its procedures and aims may be. Analysing the reflections of philosophers, scientists and theorists who have set out explicitly or implicitly transhumanist theories or have even used the term transhumanism itself facilitates a more accurate indication of the procedures and aims of these improvements. For clarity’s sake, we can first divide the latter into three groups and then review the “real” transhumanists who have been joined by figures supporting their views without being explicitly transhumanistic and other researchers from a variety of disciplines who are harshly critical of them.

The first group (the precursors) dates back roughly to the late nineteenth century and is made up of philosophers and thinkers inspired by an idea of progress that was substantively shared, both in its theoretical characteristics and in its somewhat limited—given the level of knowledge at that time—but no less envisioned and desired, practical effects.

The second group (the forerunners) includes technologists, engineers and scientists from the early twentieth century, who were converging around the desire to create a “new man”. This “new man” ideology, mainly presented through scientific discourses of the time and partially deprived of its most evident political connotations, was also disseminated by all early twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. Emblematically, it was then that the possibility of some form of transhumanism was increasingly being taken into consideration, that is the possibility that humanity had the ability and the knowledge to transcend itself and to guide and modify the evolution of the species, which was notably lacking a positive thrust in the desired direction.

The third group (the proto-transhumanists) comprises scientists and philosophers from the late twentieth century who, now in possession of the knowledge and technology to modify the species, have been weighing up the moral legitimacy of their use and the limitations that may have to be placed on the genetic manipulation of individuals on the one hand, and the possibilities opening up for further technologies to manipulate the biological substratum of individuals on the other hand.

All these scientists, researchers, philosophers and technologists (whether precursors or forerunners of transhumanism or proto-transhumanists) share a number of views: they propose an evolutionary conception of human nature; they regard freedom of research and the critical use of reason as values to be promoted; they consider technology and science as tools at the service of the material enhancement of the human being essentially through biological modification; and they embrace a biologically connoted philosophy of history that is more or less consciously based on the history of evolution.

From this point on, however, matters become extremely complicated because the prominence that transhumanist propositions and their prospective implementation assume gives rise to a somewhat heated debate between transhumanists and their dyed-in-the-wool opponents, the so-called bioconservatives or bioluddites The debate also sees the involvement of a group of transhumanist supporters generally referred to as bioliberals—philosophers, bioethicists and scientists sympathetic to transhumanist ideas while not belonging to the movement itself—whereas bioconservatives are fundamentally hostile to the biological interventionism of transhumanists, whose theories they contest.

Apart from questions of historical philology, identifying the precursors of transhumanism encounters two serious difficulties, in addition to the extremely problematic use of this historical category. First, it was the transhumanists who identified their own precursors or regarded themselves as the heirs of several fairly different theoretical traditions, thus establishing a family tree whose members would most likely disagree with such an affiliation. James Hughes, one of the first secretaries of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) and the theorist of a form of transhumanism that is less libertarian and more attentive to the problems of distributive justice, claims that transhumanism is the convergence of two tendencies characterising humanity across the millennia: on the one hand, its desire to transcend its own limits, something that religions have traditionally sought to achieve by spiritual and cultural means; on the other hand, the progress of science and technology which, while rather limited until the late twentieth century, has recently experienced such an increase that humanity has been able to concretely and materially transcend its limits (on Hughes see Agar, 2010, 150–177; Deprez, 2019). The turning point in this history came with the Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment, above all with the renewal of scientific method theorised by Bacon, who became the true “guardian” of transhumanism. New science, liberation from religion and freedom of thought merged into the cultural movement that culminated in the French Revolution and assumed a markedly militant aspect thereafter. Hughes sees transhumanists as the heirs of a series of thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to Condorcet and Godwin, bearers of the values of Western rationalism who also seem to have fully espoused the aims of transhumanism because they assumed and imagined that progress could and should aim at significantly lengthening life (Hughes, 2004, 157), and obviously Darwin as well. The closer we get to the twenty-first century, the greater the capability of scientific discoveries and technological inventions to achieve what until then had been considered the figments of a fervid imagination, and the more numerous the precursors identified by transhumanism. Hughes certainly does not fail to include science-fiction writers, such as Isaac Asimov, Sebastian Lem, Alfred E. Van Vogt or Arthur C. Clarke, all of whom understood that new technologies had finally developed the capability to build robots, cyborgs and other forms of humanity, nor does he forget such eminent scientists as John B. S. Haldane, John D. Bernal, Herman Muller and Julian Huxley, who predicted the advent of a new, self-fashioned species enabled by advances in biomedicine and biology. Finally, from Robert Ettinger to Jonathan Glover, transhumanist ideas enter the scientific and theoretical debate, no longer as speculations on a world to come or as astonishing and still uncertain innovations, but as elements that structure people’s everyday lives.

This view is substantively accepted and taken up by Bostrom who adds some additional and creatively justified references. Among the humanists of the Italian Renaissance of whom Bostrom considers himself the heir, he explicitly mentions Giovanni Pico della Mirandola because he theorised the substantial indeterminacy of the nature of man. Unlike the opponents of transhumanism who justify their position on the grounds that transhumanist paradigms would illegitimately alter the essence of the human being, Pico della Mirandola saw the greatness of man in his not having a nature and in being able to assume any nature from a beast’s to an angel’s. In addition to the eighteenth-century philosophers mentioned by Hughes, Bostrom also includes Newton, Hobbes, Locke and Kant because they underpin humanist rationalism, advocating a critical use of reason and the progress of science, which are simultaneously factors of moral and material improvement (Bostrom, 2005a, 2–3).

Max More cites the same philosophers, scientists and engineers among the precursors and proto-transhumanists, but he more vehemently supports the view that transhumanism is nothing more than the fulfilment of the ideals of humanism and, above all, of the Enlightenment, explicitly counterposing it to the post-structuralist and postmodernist schools of thought that break down into forms of rational and moral relativism (More, 2013a, 10).

Transhumanist texts also reflect the ideas of Descartes and Locke. Descartes appears to have anticipated the possibility of mind uploading and his dualism assures the likelihood of this practice, while Locke underpins mental functionalism, which attributes little importance to the physical means for implementing mental data, the production of which does not require a specific biological medium. Opinions differ somewhat with regard to Nietzsche, who intuitively could or should be a theoretical reference for these philosophers. According to Bostrom, Nietzsche has nothing to do with his posthumanism (Bostrom, 2005a, 4), or in any case less than Mill (he believes that Nietzsche would certainly have been pleased, but he is not sure Mill would have agreed), while for another important figure in this movement, Max More, the German philosopher should certainly be among the inspirers of transhumanism.Footnote 2 The problematic aspect of this family tree produced by the transhumanists themselves is the presence of eminent representatives of humanism and the Enlightenment among the movement’s precursors. It is certainly not surprising that ever since the beginning of the twentieth century there has been, if not the knowledge, at least the justifiable suspicion that humanity has been consciously striving towards the transformation of individuals and the species as a whole. However, that Bacon, Condorcet or eighteenth-century scientists might be named among the precursors of transhumanism is quite a leap and presupposes a reduction of their thought to these elements taken individually and devoid of their context.

The second difficulty arising from this family tree is broader in scope and concerns the legitimacy of transhumanist theory and practice. Claiming to be the heirs of a tradition of thought that coincides with the producers of the very project of modernity has an extremely precise meaning, as it allows any doubts on transhumanism itself to be nipped in the bud. The claim that transhumanism is but the continuation of Renaissance humanism, as its theorists are the heirs of Bacon, Descartes and Condorcet, leaves critics facing two equally problematic alternatives: to refute the transhumanist project by inevitably rejecting the ideas of those who are said to be its inspirers, or to accept that transhumanism must be permissible in that it is the extreme and legitimate consequence of the project of modernity. The rather uncomfortable way out of this predicament lies in demonstrating that transhumanism is a perversion of modern ideals and practices, some features of which have been selected but whose essential parts have been abandoned. The examination and elaboration of this topic will be discussed at length in the next chapter, focusing on the relationship between humanism and transhumanism. For the time being, we will focus on other groups of thinkers, scientists and philosophers who have somehow cultivated the garden of transhumanism: the forerunners and the proto-transhumanists.

There seems to be no doubt that the forerunners of transhumanism in the English- and French-speaking world present theories and ideas that are well rooted in the spirit of the time and viewed favourably beyond a particular koinè (Coenen, 2014). The earliest examples of transhumanism appeared in a context where the totalitarian regimes emerging in the aftermath of the First World War underlined the need to “create” a new man. From Mussolini to Trotsky, the stress fell repeatedly on the need to renew humanity in accordance with their respective ideologies. Fascism’s new man would be fundamentally different from that of Soviet Communism: above all, an anti-bourgeois, nonconformist individual with moral, social, political and economic qualities completely opposed to the now hegemonic bourgeois figure of contemporary European societies, described by Werner Sombart, parodied by Robert Musil and criticised by Thomas Mann. The new man that Fascism intended to create had very different moral and political qualities from those of the European bourgeoisie, acquired not through biological manipulation but through a different “upbringing”.

While it cannot be denied that Fascism’s imperative to build a new man was also shared by Trotsky, considerable differences lie not only in the ends but also in Communism’s essentially biological means to achieve those ends (Hauskeller, 2016, 28). Trotsky’s theories are surprisingly compatible with transhumanism and support the idea that the renewal of man, however this is to be achieved, is a widely felt need that is much older than transhumanist views. Julian Huxley was certainly not indifferent to this general feeling, given his closeness to two other forerunners of transhumanism, Haldane and Bernal, both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) (Tirosh-Samuelson, 2011a, 63). While Huxley was one of the first to use the term transhumanism in a sense very close to that of contemporary transhumanists, it cannot be said that he was waiting for the name in order to grasp the concept. It is true that, as Hughes and Bostrom are at pains to point out, there are numerous myths about human beings eager to transcend the limitations of their immanence, but it is also true that questions on the future of humanity, the formative role of science and technology and the evaluation of the consequences of progress are particularly pressing at this time. Thus, Huxley seems to be not only the spokesman of an era but, in view of the meaning he confers on the term transhumanism, a true forerunner of the theories of contemporary transhumanists. Underpinning Huxley’s theories is a central theme of present-day transhumanism, namely that evolution is now in the hands of human beings, who are no longer mere objects but actors in their own right. Despite this and other very similar views, there are at least two elements that complicate this filiation with transhumanism.

First, Huxley sees it as a question of achieving the human being’s potential and fulfilling its nature, not of going beyond the limits imposed on it by biology, which seems to be the aim of transhumanism (Goffi, 2015). However, there is no unanimous, transhumanist view on the matter and, indeed, it is difficult to quantify the extent to which supporters of transhumanism concur on these theories: for some, it is a question of striving towards an indefinite perfection of human nature while remaining within its limits but, for others, the aim of transhumanism is the creation of a new species.

Second, the enhancements that Huxley sees as absolutely necessary are to be applied to the population as a whole, not on an individual basis, so as not to reinforce inequalities, but rather as an attempt to eliminate them. Underpinning his transhumanism, also known as “evolutionary humanism”, is a social holism, rather than the exasperated individualism that seems to connote transhumanism (Bashford, 2013). In order to emphasise the distance from the themes of contemporary transhumanism, or at least from those espoused by Max More and the Californian group but not from Hughes’s “democratic transhumanism”, we may notice that Huxley puts forward the creation of an appropriate social environment inspired by ideals of beauty, which is an end in itself (Huxley, 1957, 76). This does not detract from the fact that his “evolutionary humanism” envisions an enhancement that will lead to a “new kind of existence”.

In Daedalus or Science and the Future, Haldane presents the foreseeable effects of scientific progress (especially in biology, which he considers the fundamental science of the centuries to come) in a utopia scientifically based on a democratic use of eugenics (Haldane, 1923). According to Haldane, advances in biology will have a positive effect on medicine, which will not only provide the means for an increasingly better life but will also lead to the creation of a race of superhumans through the application of eugenic principles. The envisaged progress is practically identical to that of any other utopia or attempt at historical prediction: the development of human faculties, the abolition of disease and the sweetening of death so that it resembles sleep rather than a traumatic event (Tirosh-Samuelson, 2011a, 69), but also the elimination of world hunger and the development of new forms of artificial procreation.

Bernal’s theories also go in this direction. In The World, The Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, he outlines a scientific utopia based on the latest discoveries and inventions and speculates on the nature of the humanity of the future, accurately anticipating some of transhumanism’s central issues, such as mind uploading (Bernal, 1969 [1929], 41). He claims it will be possible to insert the brain into a cylinder and connect it to a new body with new senses, thus creating a new person. Human beings will acquire new faculties as a result of the new operating procedures of a body equipped with “television apparatus, tele-acoustic and tele-chemical organs and tele-sensory organs of the nature of touch for determining all forms of texture bodies” (ibid.). This new man is merely the foreseeable consequence of evolution (Tirosh-Samuelson, 2011a, 74–75).

While Haldane and Bernal lie between the envisioned enhancement of humanity and a techno-scientific utopia, in the mid-twentieth century biological manipulation became a reality, certainly in need of perfection but nevertheless utterly feasible. The transhumanists themselves drew up a list of those that they considered proto-transhumanists: the theorists of artificial intelligence such as John von Neumann, Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec and Vernor Vinge; Eric Drexler, author of the first text on nanotechnologies, anticipating the possibilities of intervening in the molecular substratum of living beings (Drexler, 1986); Robert Ettinger, who published Prospect of Immortality in 1962 which sets out the idea of cryonic suspension; and Jonathan Glover, one of the first to investigate the social, economic and political consequences of the new power enabling the genetic selection of individuals in What Sort of People Should There Be? in 1984. Unlike their predecessors, the latter three authors not only have a solid scientific basis for identifying lines of development in biology that leave little room for flights of fancy, but they also question the moral legitimacy of their use. The utopian element is still present but limited to an investigation of the changes that these new technologies (molecular nanotechnology, cryonics and genetic engineering) will produce, starting from an assessment of their already ascertained potential.

The first transhumanist proper is undeniably Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, better known as “FM-2030”, although it would be more appropriate to consider him a proto-transhumanist. When called upon to define the characteristics of future human existence, Huxley limits himself to saying that it will be “as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man” (Huxley, 1957), whereas Esfandiary proposes a more precise vision of the “transitional man” (Esfandiary, 1989) which includes colourful though actually accomplished features, such as the intensive use of telecommunications, a globetrotting lifestyle, a cosmopolitan outlook and totally liberated sexual behaviour.Footnote 3 More concretely, the transitional man would acquire greater control over himself through emancipation from the body, the source of all human weaknesses. This greater autonomy would serve a predominantly recreational purpose, contrary to what Huxley advocates: it should broaden the horizons of human pleasure and constantly provide new and diverse experiences (Goffi, 2015) and project man into a context where technology rules and can be exploited to the best possible advantage. Esfandiary’s best-known book is Are You a Transhuman? (1989), but his ideas are more fully developed in the trilogy Optimism One, Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto and Telespheres (1977a[1970], 1978[1970], 1977b), in which he sets out a philosophy of optimism based on two evolutionary advances: on the one hand, as we overcome the limitations of our mortal bodies we can extend our life indefinitely, and, on the other hand, we are on the verge of accessing the infinite resources and possibilities hidden in the universe (1977b, 170). The means to bring about this progress is obviously technology, which will ensure freedom from the biological limitations that prevent all human beings from achieving their full potential. Since “the body has been our greatest inhibition, our most serious obstacle to an evolution that must lead us higher” (Esfandiary, 1977a, 166), the task before us is precisely the need to remake the human body and transform it into something beautiful, varied, fluid and durable (ibid., 167–168).

However, as stated above, the transhumanist galaxy is extremely varied, and it would serve no purpose to list the names of all adherents to transhumanist ideals. In addition to the authors already mentioned, the contributors to the three anthologies The Transhumanist Reader (More & Vita-More, 2013), H+: Transhumanism and its Critics (Hansell & Grassie, 2011) and the more recent Transhumanism Handbook (2019a) edited by N. Lee, can also be considered transhumanists in their own right.

At this point we are faced with a fairly serious problem regarding our definition of the transhumanist movement. How can we identify authors who may not accept being regarded as transhumanists but can be said to be supporters in that they embrace views compatible with those of transhumanism (but not necessarily analogous to them), even though they are not affiliated to any transhumanist organisation? Indeed, apart from the figures already mentioned, who have actively participated in the formation and the consolidation of the transhumanist movement, there are other researchers, the bioliberals mentioned above, from a wide range of disciplines, who subscribe to views and theories that are absolutely consistent with those of transhumanism (although not identical to them) but politely reject this label, which they are beginning to find rather awkward, such as Aubrey de Grey, a transhumanist of the first hour. Among the bioliberals, mention should be made of the more famous technophiles Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels, Daniel Wikler, Nicholas Agar, John Harris, Arthur Caplan and Gregory Stock, who enthusiastically supplied moral legitimation to the biotechnologies of enhancement. Even closer to the transhumanist position is Julian Savulescu, director of The Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics and author of numerous articles, some in collaboration with Ingmar Persson and others with Nick Bostrom or Anders Sandberg, in which transhumanist views are defended to the hilt.

However, it is no simple task to explain how Bostrom’s militant technophilia (although he did take a more circumspect position on artificial intelligence, one of transhumanism’s favourite themes) differs from the path followed by a liberal like Nicholas Agar, who set out to defend enhancement and even wrote a lengthy apology of liberal eugenics but now rejects radical enhancement in favour of a truly more moderate one (Agar, 2014). Indeed, the differences between them do not seem as marked as they might first appear. It has been said, for example, that while true transhumanists adopt enthusiastic technophile positions aiming to legitimise the creation of a new species, that is that biotechnologies must literally create new capabilities and thus ultimately a human being 2.0, bioliberals are more cautious and believe that the use of biotechnologies must push human faculties to the limit of their potential but not beyond, because of the currently unforeseeable risks that their indiscriminate use might pose to the continuation of life on Earth. In actual fact, the issues are more nuanced: More has explicitly stated that transhumanists have not set themselves the goal of creating a new species; and Harris, a fervent bioliberal, does not seem to pose the problem of the limits of human enhancement. The extent to which transhumanists’ prudence and bioliberals’ enthusiasm might be a tactical ploy remains to be seen. However, it is worth mentioning Buchanan’s proposal that the so-called bioliberals, while taking care not to claim explicit affiliation to the various transhumanist organisations but nevertheless adopt their views and develop their theories in the same direction as them, should be considered as being “anti-anti-enhancement” and not as active supporters of the benefits of enhancement.

On the other hand, it seems easier to identify the opponents of transhumanism, whether they be bioconservatives or bioluddites. The most frequently recurring names are Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Sandel and Jurgen Habermas. James Hughes divides the bioconservatives into two groups, the right-wing and left-wing bioluddites, which differ essentially in the type of criticism they make of the free, unchecked, indiscriminate and unregulated use of biotechnologies for enhancement. Right-wing bioconservatives such as Kass and Fukuyama adopt arguments based on religious positions, and more generally on a sacralisation of nature, which should be altered as little as possible. Left-wing bioconservatives such as Michael Sandel, Jurgen Habermas or Langdon Winner, on the other hand, are more attentive to the undesirable risks and changes for humanity incurred through an indiscriminate use of biotechnology for the purposes of enhancement. They feel that enhancement practices need to be monitored, not to limit their use but to garner an understanding of their general effects, thereby avoiding the adoption and use of technologies that we do not fully control. In short, right-wing bioluddites are in favour of limiting and banning certain specific practices in principle, while left-wing bioconservatives advocate gaining a better understanding of the effects and consequences of enhancement.

2.3 The Organisations

Transhumanism is not only a set of theories about the nature, characteristics and potential evolution of humanity, it is also a movement made up of a series of organisations that have systemised and propagated these ideas over time (cf. Marzocco, 2019, 36–81).

The transhumanist movement has passed through three phases. The first phase was the creation of the Extropy Institute by a group that included Max More. As early as 1986 Max More had joined Alcor, a cryogenic company of which he is currently CEO and with which he helped establish (along with Michael Price, Garret Smyth and Luigi Warren) the first European cryonics organisation, Mizar Limited (later Alcor UK). In 1988, he moved permanently to California where he changed his name from O’Connor to More and set up Extropy, a journal presenting the key concepts of extropyFootnote 4 and the first draft of transhumanism, with the help of another young researcher, T. O. Morrow (previously called Tom Bell). This was followed in 1992 by the founding of the Extropy Institute, whose activity intensified in 1994 with the organisation of a series of conferences on themes that were to become central to transhumanism (Vita-More, 2019a).

Extropianism’s ideas quickly spread far and wide thanks in part to the important contribution made by Max More’s wife, Natasha Vita-More, to the Extropy Institute’s growth. Previously the companion of Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, she developed transhumanist themes in the field of art and cultural projects. A victim of its own success, the Extropianism movement was dissolved in 2006 but its deep-rootedness in California (one of the fundamental characteristics of transhumanism and its technological developments) continued. Silicon Valley is effectively the cradle in which attempts are carried out to translate transhumanist visions into practical reality. The relationships with successive generations of engineers, scientists and technologists are absolutely organic in both practical and theoretical terms, as can be clearly seen in the extent to which the US high-tech industry and explicitly transhumanist organisations and foundations are entwined. The figure of Ray Kurzweil is emblematic of this union of daring speculation, theoretical predictions on the future of humanity and the promotion of scientific research in well-defined fields like artificial intelligence or biochemistry (Damour & Doat, 2018). Kurzweil too, like all the other transhumanists, recognises that the human body, in particular the brain, suffers from important limitations: it is too slow and with a reduced calculation capacity, even taking into account its parallel functioning; it is too fragile, and in need of too many costly treatments. However limited, the brain has at least been able to initiate an enhancement process that will lead its creations to replace it more or less quickly. Kurzweil’s diagnosis is that “by the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence” (Kurzweil, 2005, 25). In other words, human beings are acting for their disappearance and their replacement with artificial intelligences which should take place by the end of the twenty-first century. From a strictly mathematical perspective, the growth rates will still be finite but so extreme that the changes they bring about will appear to rupture the fabric of human history. That, at least, will be the perspective of unenhanced biological humanity. Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality. However, this will not lead to the disappearance of the human species, but to a profound transformation that will leave only one of its characteristics intact, brought to a level of improvement never reached by the human species: the research “to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations” (Kurzweil, 2005, 25).

In 1998 Nick Bostrom and David Pearce founded the WTA in Europe. The WTA brings together numerous transhumanist associations from all over the world, focusing primarily on the theoretical aspects of the project, as well as researchers such as the sociologist James Hughes, Max More himself, Anders Sandberg and Kathryn Aegis, feminist and activist for the rights of handicapped people. Transhumanism has now spread all over the world but is deeply rooted in Oxford, where Bostrom is a teacher and director of The Future of Humanity Institute, and Julian Savulescu is the director not only of The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics but also of The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, which hosts yearly conferences on the favourite themes of transhumanism.

The third phase of the movement recently saw the WTA change its name to Humanity +, which is still active today and preserves its previous federal structure. Mention should also be made of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) founded by Nick Bostrom, Mark Walker and James Hughes which brought the leading theorists of transhumanism together under the banner of technoprogressivism, an idea defined as an ideological stance with roots in Enlightenment thought which focuses on how human flourishing is advanced by the convergence of technological progress and democratic social change. Technoprogressives argue that technological innovations can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are democratically and transparently regulated for safety and efficacy, and then made universally and equitably available.

The transhumanists also became involved in politics: in 1992 Natasha Vita-More was elected as a council member for the 28th Senatorial District of Los Angeles and, after several attempts, they even put up a US presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan Gyurko, explicitly inspired by their programme. These early experiences met with varying degrees of success and culminated in the founding of the first US Transhumanist Party, whose leader since 2016 has been Gennady Stolyarov II (Lee, 2019b, 16).

In addition to the adoption of the same theories, another element of continuity shared by these different organisations is the constant presence among their founders and members of numerous well-known personalities acting as catalysts to attract new researchers and other theorists of transhumanism. These include Natasha Vita-More, president of the Extropy Institute and now director of Humanity+, whose members include Max More who is also CEO of Alcor and among the fellows of the IEET. Anders Sandberg has followed the WTA’s transition into Humanity +, as have Aubrey De Grey (also a fellow of the IEET and co-founder of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS)—Research Foundation), Nick Bostrom and James Hughes.

Other organisations were born out of the desire to put the research that inspired transhumanism into practice, although they were not directly involved in the promotion of the movement or its general project but focused on specific aspects of transhumanism. One particular example is the Foresight Institute, whose website explains that it was founded on a vision set forth by Foresight’s co-founder K. Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation (Engines), published in the spring of 1986. Foresight was founded coincident with the publication of Engines to research and advance the theme of the book—a web of emerging revolutionary technologies that will present opportunities to vastly improve the human condition, and a web of strategies to secure those benefits while avoiding the problems that could come from careless or malicious misuse of those technologies, or from unintended consequences.

Finally, the SENS Research Foundation, founded in 2009 by De Grey and Michael Kope, conducts research seeking to determine the causes of ageing and death. Immortality is the main goal of transhumanism and the real threshold that needs to be crossed in order to create a posthumanity. A network of research institutes with the same aims has been established around SENS, including the Methuselah Foundation.

2.4 Declarations

The principles of transhumanism were first presented in a short article by Max More entitled “Principles of Extropy” and published in 2003, which sets out and organises a series of considerations dating as far back as the early 1990s. More explains that extropianism is centred on the individual, who is free to decide their own life plan and to improve their existence in any way they choose (self-transformation and self-direction). The most appropriate means of achieving this goal are technological innovations applied “creatively and courageously to transcend ‘natural’ but harmful, confining qualities derived from our biological heritage, culture, and environment” (intelligent technology). Also required is a practically boundless belief backed up by practical optimism in the enhancive power of rational thinking, whose constructive but critical work keeps false beliefs in unanalysed dogmas at a distance and eliminates the tendency to fall into paralysing forms of pessimism. This rational optimism translates into the conviction that humanity cannot but progress and improve its life conditions indefinitely (perpetual progress). Accompanying these positive transformations there must be an open society: Extropy means supporting social orders that foster freedom of communication, freedom of action, experimentation, innovation, questioning, and learning. Opposing authoritarian social control and unnecessary hierarchy and favouring the rule of law and decentralisation of power and responsibility. Preferring bargaining over battling, exchange over extortion, and communication over compulsion. Openness to improvement rather than a static utopia.

The first transhumanist declaration proper was issued in 1998 and, in accordance with More’s principles of extropy, its stated intention was to promote research in three specific fields: ageing and immortality, artificial intelligence, and the conquest of space. The last of these would soon be relegated to a secondary position while artificial intelligence became the object of in-depth research stretching far beyond the transhumanist movement which, as Bostrom stated, adopted a more cautious approach to its possible evolution and any potential dangers. This led to a sort of theoretical skimming that effectively focused the efforts of transhumanism on improving the human condition by intervening in its biological heritage, which may now be said to be the core business of transhumanist theories (O’Connell, 2017). Having abandoned speculation on the possibility of transferring the human race to other planets and lowered its expectations of enhancement through the development of artificial intelligence, transhumanism now focuses essentially on the prospects achievable through direct intervention in human biology. The main aim of transhumanism is now the definition and the moral, political and social legitimation of its positive impact on the human condition—the elimination of the frailty of the human body (disease, suffering, disability, limitations and death) by means of genetic modification, biological manipulation and pharmacological and physical prosthetics. The extensive application of technology can only produce positive results as it is a fundamental factor of emancipation from the limitations of the human condition. Furthermore, it is a key tool in the promotion of individual freedom which, despite an evident reluctance to develop its political implications, is regarded as the priority value and is limited only by respect for the freedom of others.

The 2012 version of the Manifesto promotes individualism and technophilia with the same enthusiasm but with a greater awareness. The positive function of technology is somehow counterbalanced by a recognition of its ambivalence. Transhumanism concedes that technology has an undeniable potential to endanger life in general and human beings in particular. What is more, its adherence to the concept of ultraliberalism diminishes between the first and the second declaration, although reference to the importance and priority of individual choices remains strong.

As stated above, transhumanism has split, at least from an institutional point of view, into two entities: Humanity+ and the IEET. While the former has completely embraced the means, theories and aims of WTA transhumanism and is effectively a theoretical continuation of Californian technophile, scientistic and libertarian transhumanism (Vita-More, 2019a), the latter issued a declaration in 2014 stressing a more balanced view of the benefits of technology than early transhumanist declarations. While taking up the central idea of extropianism and transhumanism (namely that the products of reason, technological innovations and scientific discoveries are fundamental to the progress of humanity), technoprogressivism highlights the risks involved in the use of new technologies and instead recommends proceeding with some caution. The clear reference to the ideals of the Enlightenment is not limited to recalling the function that human rationality performs in material progress, but it also points out that such progress was conceived as a factor promoting freedom and social justice (Coeurnelle & Roux, 2016). Unlike early transhumanist declarations, the manifesto of technoprogressivism dwells at length on the need to define and create the political and economic conditions necessary to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of resources and technological innovations with a view to reducing inequalities. It states that not only is it totally unacceptable for technological progress to be discriminatory but also that its aim is to improve conditions for all humanity, which cannot be achieved outside a democratic framework.

Despite a global continuity of ideas, the shift from extropianism to transhumanism and then to technoprogressivism initially reduced the liberal anarchism present in Max More’s theories (Hughes, 2004, 164–169) and then raised awareness of the dangers and the damage that an over-enthusiastic technophilia could cause. Transhumanism progressively adopted more consensual political views resulting in positions differing from those presented, for example, in Max More’s 1991 article “Orders without Orderers” which was based on Ayn Rand’s ultraliberal ethics, Friedrich Hayek’s economic liberalism or David Friedman’s anarcho-capitalism. The technoprogressivism of the IEET is based on the idea that transhumanism is a revival of the ideals of the Enlightenment which saw material progress as the condition and effect of social and moral progress: political conditions aimed at the affirmation of social equity, as well as the consolidation and enlargement of a democratic regime, were necessary conditions for a broader and better individual freedom. In this framework, economics became a sort of useful political tool for increasing global wellbeing in very specific directions: justice takes priority over freedom or at least is an essential condition for it.

2.5 The Definitions of Transhumanism

Apart from the questions regarding its position in the cultural panorama at the beginning of the new millennium and the evolution of its main concepts, transhumanism is by its very nature extremely difficult to define because it is a movement and a theory centred on a transition, a transformation, a dynamic. Transhumanism supports, asserts and strives so that the human being, in the form that we are partially able to know or recognise when we reflect upon ourselves, is radically transformed or perhaps even disappears as a result of technological and scientific development. If the fate of all living species is sooner or later to perish under the pressure of evolutionary processes, then the end of the human race (at least in its present form) is desired and brought closer not only by uncontrollable biological dynamics but by humanity itself or at least by transhumanists. The human race could thus give way to a species whose form we are apparently already beginning to discern and which could be completely, though not necessarily, different from today’s human beings.

Discussing transhumanism is, therefore, extremely problematic if only for this reason alone. The first real difficulty stems from the fact that the form of this new species to come or, more unassumingly, of the changes that might modify some features of the human race, are so indefinite and indefinable that visions of this human future are identified by a panoply of prefixes: transhumanists, hyperhumanists, posthumanists, not to mention the borganists (Sandberg, n.d.) or metahumanists (Stock, 1993). While all these theories offer blurred and very different images of the men and women of the future (although something resembling sexual gender is conceivable), they nevertheless agree that they will still be “better” (whatever that means) than the human beings of today. Starting from the rather trite observation that humanity is undergoing a transformation, transhumanism aims to bestow moral, political and social legitimacy on this change by familiarising us with the idea that future generations will have very different characteristics from those of past generations as a result of the more or less voluntary application of new technologies to the human body. The reference to an as yet inadequately defined posthumanity might generate a certain confusion with the posthuman cultural movement, although this can be easily overcome, at least for the time being, by referring to transhumanist declarations. Although extremely concise, these declarations set out the clear and precise principles that every transhumanist explicitly and convincingly embraces, which are very different from, not to say opposed to, those set out by the extremely heterogeneous posthuman movement.

Apart from the above issues, defining transhumanism presents no further difficulties because its supporters have dealt with it exceedingly well: not only have they set out well-organised, detailed and precise definitions in their writings, but they have also presented them clearly and schematically in their declarations and manifestos. Regardless of the desire to make transhumanism acceptable, which entails toning down statements that are overly apodictic and fairly untenable either because they are too optimistic or because they go against the mainstream, it is nevertheless clear that the aims of transhumanism have remained unchanged and easily identifiable over the years.

Transhumanism is “the belief in overcoming human limitations through reason, science, and technology” (Young, 2006) or, quite simply, “the thesis that we can and ought to use technology to alter and improve human biology” (Walker, 2014). Walker is also very effective in clarifying that transhumanism implicitly assumes that “intelligence, moods, longevity, and virtues each have deep roots in our biology”, and hence “by altering biology, transhumanists propose to improve human nature to the point of creating a new genus: posthumans” (Walker, 2014). These posthuman beings would constitute a new species whose relationship with Homo sapiens sapiens would be extremely difficult or at least as difficult as ours are (or perhaps are not, given their extreme simplicity) with apes (Walker, 2011, 43). For his part, Max More states that transhumanism is both a reason-based philosophy and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology guided by life-promoting principles and values (More, 2011, 2013a).

Despite the great clarity of these statements, More had to provide further elucidation in order to avoid transhumanism being perceived as an unachievable utopia: Transhumanism is about continual improvement, not perfection or paradise. Transhumanism is about improving nature’s mindless “design”, not guaranteeing perfect technological solutions. Transhumanism is about morphological freedom, not mechanising the body. Transhumanism is about trying to shape fundamentally better futures, not predicting specific futures. Transhumanism is about critical rationalism, not omniscient reason. (More, 2011, 62). In these few sentences More firmly underscores his eminently transient vision of transhumanism. His principles focus on the means that enable constant enhancement, not on the state that may ultimately be achieved, and thus transhumanism can be recognised as having the same characteristics as those attributed to progress, which is nothing more than “a process of improvement that presents itself as linear, cumulative, continuous, necessary, irreversible and indefinite” (Taguieff, 2001, 19). James Hughes favours a more conscious and dirigiste interpretation of technological progress but he appears to share this opinion when he claims that “people are generally happier when they have more control over their own lives”, although he identifies technology and democracy as the tools to achieve this greater control (Hughes, 2004, 9). The difference lies in the considerably broader aims that Hughes assigns to transhumanism, based on the ability to historicise the complex movement of Western societies towards greater freedom. Hughes clearly understands that there is no individual freedom abstracted from the historical conditions in which it is exercised and that, therefore, the promotion of political freedom brought about by a fair distribution of wealth and technology represents the underlying condition for mere individual freedom, that is to say of the possibility to achieve one’s own life plan with all the means available and in all possible directions. The result is a shift towards sociological, political and economic themes absent in the first transhumanist declarations as these were entirely focused on the promotion and extension of individual freedom. Although these are significant differences, they do not impact the acceptance of a framework of practices, concepts and trends common to all transhumanism.

Nick Bostrom’s definition of transhumanism is more specific. Although initially content to view the transhuman as a phase in the transition between human and posthuman, he offers an image of the human being of the future whose entirely transitory physical and biological features will be enormously different from those of today. As Bostrom clearly explains, transhumanism promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology. Attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (Bostrom, 2005c). The application of current and prospective technologies will impact on all stages of human existence: a longer and healthier life, improved rational faculties, refined emotions, a generally augmented individual wellbeing and, last but not least, the opportunity “to achieve a greater degree of control over our own lives” (Bostrom, 2005c, 87).

Wisely, Bostrom does not venture a definition of this final stage in which the posthuman will have reached its fulfilment, but he does explain that the transhuman will have at least eliminated old age and disease and improved intellectual, physical and psychological abilities. These new beings will not experience suffering, illness and ageing, they will enjoy a basically infinite life and they will have acquired an additional power that somehow collects and sustains all these changes: the freedom to give themselves any form they choose because they will enjoy what Sandberg defined as “morphological freedom” (Sandberg, 2003) through the use of technology. The problem with this view of transhumanism is the strong indication that the ultimate goal of enhancement is increased control over one’s own life. Apart from the fact that there seems to be no guarantee that transhumanism can actually improve this specific aspect or indeed that this is its main purpose, it is the whole plexus around this notion of control that is questionable. Bostrom states that it is possible to significantly increase control over one’s biology, and that wellbeing is directly proportional to this mastery of oneself. He assumes, however, that control and autonomy coincide completely and that the suffering of the human condition stems from a lack of control over our biology. Secondly, he overlooks the possibility that improved control of internal biological processes could have the unfortunate consequence not of abolishing uncertainty (who would not want the assurance that they would never grow sick or die?), but of introducing the human race into a predetermined future.

Transhumanists are globally and fundamentally technophiles and consider that technology is the main instrument of emancipation and liberation of human beings. Excluding its improper use by immoral or insufficiently skilled individuals, technology is a toolbox which can only produce positive effects, above all increased individual freedom. Technology is not specifically a political tool but is at the service of the advancement of individual freedom. The technologies promoted by transhumanism are generally identified by the acronym NBIC: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (Roco & Bainbridge, 2002). Unlike other technologies humanity has used throughout its history to improve wellbeing and the performance of the different organs of the human body, transhumanists claim that NBIC technologies are more targeted and therefore faster and more effective, but, as we shall see, they also have many disadvantages.

Notes

  1. 1.

    With regard to its recurrence in Huxley’s work, Harrison and Wolyniak have stated that the term first really appears in 1951 in a text entitled “Knowledge, Morality and Destiny”, the result of two conferences held in Washington on 19 and 20 April 1951 and then published with the same title in the magazine Psychiatry (Harrison & Wolyniak, 2015).

  2. 2.

    Against Bostrom’s views, cf. More (2010, 1–4). An issue of the Journal of Evolution and Technology is devoted entirely to the analysis of the relationship between the Nietzschean superman and transhumanism. To reconcile the two opposing positions, it could be said that, without Nietzsche, a philosophy of the Übermensch would probably not have been possible, but at the same time, his idea of the man of the future is quite different and even opposite to that of the posthumanists. However, Nietzsche was the subject of a heated debate on the presence of a view compatible with transhumanism in his work: cf. Sorgner (2009). A long and comprehensive discussion of Nietzsche’s possible enlistment by transhumanists is conducted by Hauskeller, who denies that this is legitimate (Hauskeller, 2016, 75–84).

  3. 3.

    As also pointed out by Sorgner (2009). Bostrom correctly observes that it may well be true that “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 fertilisation), absence of religious belief, and a rejection of traditional family values”, but it is quite a stretch to then define a “posthuman” because “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” (Bostrom, 2005a, 13–14).

  4. 4.

    Extropy is “the extent of a living or organisational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, energy, life, experience, and capacity and drive for improvement and growth. Extropy is not a rigorously defined technical term in philosophy or science; in a metaphorical sense, it simply expresses the opposite of entropy”. These early lines suggest a never denied interest in science fiction as one of the main sources of inspiration for transhumanism: the first usage of the term “extropy” to indicate a potential transhuman destiny for humanity is in fact found in a 1983 novel by Diane Duane, The Wounded Sky, from which the first season of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode “Where No One Has Gone Before”, was adapted.

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Adorno, F.P. (2021). The Transhumanist Movement. In: The Transhumanist Movement. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-82423-5_2

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