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What is transhumanism?

A couple of weeks ago, I realized that I spend a fair bit of time both here in my blog and over on my Web site writing about transhumanism, but I've never actually written an article explaining what it is.

Wikipedia defines transhumanism as "an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities." That's true in a sort of reductionist sense, but I'm not sure it's a terribly useful definition.

If I were to define transhumanism, I'd say that it's an idea whose premise is that human nature is not some fixed quantity, forever unalterable; it's something that is a consequence of our biology and our environment, and it can be changed. Furthermore, advances in technology and in our understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics, give us the power to change it as we wish--to take evolution from a blind, undirected process to a process that we can make choices about. It's predicated on the idea that we can, if we so desire, choose what it means to be human.

A great deal of conventional thought has always held on to the idea that "human nature" is something that's a fundamental part of who we are, forever unalterable. Certain aspects of the human condition, from mortality to aggression, from disease to territoriality, have always been thought of as fixtures of the human condition; no matter how our society changes, no matter what we learn, these things have been assumed to be an immutable part of us.

Transhumanist thought holds that this isn't so. We are physical entities, whose nature comes from an extraordinarily complex dance of biochemical processes happening in our bodies. The way we respond to stress, the way we behave, the way our bodies suffer gradually increasing debility, all these things are the consequence of the physical processes happening inside our bodies and brains.

And they can change. Improved diet has made us qualitatively different from our neolithic ancestors--taller, longer-lived. Thousands of generations living in large numbers have made us more able to function in complex social environments; we have, in a sense, domesticated ourselves.

Right now, advances in biotechnology offer to revolutionize our view of who we are. What if aging and death were no longer inevitable? What if we could invent ways to repair genetic disorders? What if the human brain, which is a physical organ, could be modeled inside a computer? What if we could develop techniques to make our brains operate more efficiently? These sound like science fiction to a lot of people, but every single one of them is the subject of active research in labs around the world right now.

Transhumanism is a highly rationalist idea. It rejects the notion that human beings are corrupt, doomed to suffer and die as a result of a fall from grace. Rather, it postulates that the things that make us who we are are knowable and comprehensible; that the state of being human is a fit subject for scientific inquiry; and that as we learn more about ourselves, our ability to shape who we are increases.

The implications of these ideas are deeply profound. Transhumanist philosophy is built from the notion that things like indefinite lifespan, brain modeling, and improvement of human physical and intellectual capacity are both possible and desirable. Transhumanism, therefore, is profoundly optimistic.

It is not, however, Utopian. Like all new technologies, these things all have potential consequences whose outlines we can't see clearly yet. Therefore, transhumanism tends to be concerned not only with the possibility of biomedical technology but also its ethics; the study of transhumanism is, in large part, the study of bioethics. Who controls the direction of new, disruptive biomedical technology? What does it mean to be a "person;" is an artificial intelligence a person? How should new biomedical technology be introduced into society? How can it be made available democratically, to everyone who wishes it? What role is available to people who for whatever reason don't choose to benefit from new advances in medical understanding?

At its core, transhumanism is deeply pragmatic. Since it seems likely that biotechnology is going to improve over time whether we think about the implications of it or not, transhumanists think about things like bioethics, immortality, and the nature of consciousness in concrete, real-world terms, rather than as philosophical exercises. One of the things I most like about transhumanism is its drive to ask questions like "How can we maximize the benefit of what we are learning while maintaining human agency, dignity, and the right to choose?" Transhumanists are invited to be skeptical about everything, including the premises of transhumanism. It is quite likely that whatever views of the future we dream up will be flawed, as most prognostication tends to be. But by getting into the habit of examining these ideas now, and of considering the moral and ethical dimensions of our accelerating understanding of biology, we can at least train ourselves to get into the habit of asking the right questions as new breakthroughs come.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 2nd, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
I genuinely don't understand your comment. Do you think there is a reasonable limit on human lifespan? If so, what is the reason? Would you be willing to walk off a cliff tomorrow to support your principles? If not, when would you?

We've already significantly expanded on human lifespans over the last few hundred years, and the general consensus is that this is a good thing, allowing people to live happy and healthy lives for longer, and contribute more to society if they wish.

Personally, I'm in support of personal sovereignty, where it comes to lifespan as well as practically everything else. If some folks want to live to several thousand, and we have the technology to achieve it, and others only want to live to 50 or so, then that's fine. Let them choose to end and the rest of us carry on. What I don't want is one person's choice to be imposed on everyone else, whether they like it or not.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 2nd, 2012 08:13 pm (UTC)
I would counter that increasing lifespan would actually attend to the things you say, in that if you're faced with being here for 1000+ years, you're going to be pretty bloody careful about marshalling the resources you have available vs us 50-70 year mayflies who just use up what we have and don't worry so much as we'll be dead in the blink of an eye on a geological scale.

Call me an optimist, however I have faith that humanity + longevity would have completely different attitudes and outlooks to the current model of humanity.
Jan. 3rd, 2012 12:17 am (UTC)
If you look at societies around the planet, one of the trends you see repeated over and over again, regardless of culture, is that longevity and decrease in mortality (especially infant mortality) is correlated strongly with lower birth rate, smaller family size, and more attention to sustainability.

Third World countries, which have high infant mortality and lower life expectancy, also have much higher birth rates and much poorer ecological track records than First World countries. In fact, most First World countries have negative population growth domestically, with overall population growth coming from immigration.

The record of First World countries on things like environmental destruction is mixed, to be sure; on the one hand, we use more resources and generate far more waste per capita than people in Third World countries, but on the other hand, Third World countries lack legal protection for the environment and tend to engage in environmentally catastrophic behaviors like large-scale deforestation and unmanaged strip mining to a greater extent.

The biggest problem facing First World countries from an environmental perspective is power. A very large part of our messiness comes in the quest for power--particularly in areas that use coal for power. Availability of power is the single greatest limiting factor in the development of higher standards of living in Third World countries and in the pollution generated by First World countries.

This is why it's disappointing to me that there is so little research in fusion power. Cheap, abundant, safe power in the form of fusion would raise the standard of living of more human beings than anything else in history, while also addressing the issue of environmental destruction in First World countries, providing abundant cheap clean water for everyone (desalination is easy with sufficient cheap power)...and we spend less money worldwide on fusion research than London is spending to host the Olympics.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 3rd, 2012 12:55 am (UTC)
There are so many issues with "First World" countries and how they destroy the environment. It's not just about where we get our power. It's how we're farming the land, where we're dumping our waste, how we're pumping out fresh water from starved communities, putting into bottles, and not helping with the oncoming water shortage. I don't think fusion power is necessarily going to be enough to solve a lot of these issues.

Actually, each of those is ultimately a power problem.

Fresh water is a power and transportation problem. As it stands right now, the majority of the world's water is inaccessible to us, simply because desalination (whether it's done by electrolysis or reverse osmosis) is a vastly power-hungry problem. The availability of large quantities of cheap power makes water a non-issue, for both the First World and (more importantly) the Third World. Cheap, abundant power has the prospect of making water shortages as archaic as whale-oil shortages.

The same is true of agriculture. Modern methods of agriculture are power and water limited, and water is itself a power limitation. We use pesticides and fertilizers in part to increase farming efficiency past the point of sustainability, in part because the cost of transportation is the key economic limiting factor in feeding the population; more distributed, less environmentally destructive farming techniques can't compete because the cost of transportation from less centralized farms is higher. Transportation is a power problem.

Global warming is a power problem both directly and indirectly. Directly, the generation of power (coal and fuel oil powerplants, gasoline-burning cars) is the single largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions. Fusion power produces no greenhouse gas. Indirectly, carbon sequestering is doable, but like desalination, is very power-hungry; cheap, abundant power makes carbon sequestering cheap and easy.

The advent of fusion power would arguably change human society more than any other single development since agriculture, and that's no exaggeration.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 3rd, 2012 11:36 am (UTC)
Indeed, the reserves of fresh water ARE running out. And that means the reserves are running out--because right now desalination is unaffordable, and therefore not an option.
Jan. 2nd, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC)
This is awesome, hun. I will be linking people to this if they ask what transhumanism is (or possibly even if they don't but I want to tell them about it anyway!). :)
Jan. 2nd, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
..footnotes and caveats
"At its core, (your version of) transhumanism is deeply pragmatic."

I love you. I love this part of you quite a lot, specifically. Your optimism, pragmatism, genuine curiosity and joy for life. You are setting a bar for what transhumanism means for you and for this small merry band of associates you have found and sync up with - it is not, however, a universal declaration.

I have met as many reactionary transhumanist "new technology and invention will save us all regardless of the current costs or unintended consequences.. if you are considering your path carefully you are not heedlessly enthusiastic enough to be a REAL transhumanst" than the inspiring, thoughtful response I see here and that I choose to ally myself with.

Your statement here is not a definition or a placeholder as much as an intention, an rallying point, and a moving argument in favor. I support the statement of an intention! I think you having a cause, a sense of activism, and sharing the wonder and joy you see in the world around you is marvelous.

I marvel. :)

I think you may want to put the caveat of - in my experience this is the definition of transhumanism I choose and engage in - as this would be useful, not only in a post such as this one.. so when the other point of view is tripped over some of us are not turned away but we may know there is an alternative definition and point of view out there.. but also because I think you need the disclaimer or astrisked footnote in your own head.. so you are not so deeply disappointed when you encounter the "space colonies will save us all!" folks and become disheartened.
Jan. 2nd, 2012 07:13 pm (UTC)
Seriously I'm so tired of the attitude of the first commenter. I am getting so sick of this totally miserable view of humanity, that we are so destructive and we just devour everything we can and we're ruining the planet -- It just completely undermines everything good about humanity, I happen to think we are the most interesting thing to happen to this planet as well, and this is coming from a long-time vegetarian and environmentalist. People hold humanity to this extremely high standard of behavior as though we are not still animals, trying to thrive against everything that conspires against us. We need a little more credit than that. Franklin already wrote an awesome essay about this, on why humanity has value and though we are the only species to "know better," that is what makes us special. We are the only species that seeks to help without any immediate personal gain. Humanity is SO WORTHWHILE UGH I'm not expressing myself well right now but just read Franklin's essay D:
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 4th, 2012 01:17 pm (UTC)
Whether or not Natalie wishes to engage you in further debate, I believe the essay being referred to was this one:

Worth a read, as it does cover a lot of the questions you've raised.
Jan. 3rd, 2012 02:26 am (UTC)
Im obviously thinking that our world is over populated and im curious if this will unintentionally elongate lives of that don't need lengthening... like those who are cancer ridden or struggle with emotional disturbance, let alone Alzheimers...... do you mean lengthen or improve the the quality of? Are they mutually exclusive concepts?
Jan. 3rd, 2012 02:40 am (UTC)
Overpopulation is almost always a result of short life expectancy and high infant mortality. As we see through history, when a society's standard of living and longevity rises, birthrate falls. If the entire world had the standard of living of the United States, we'd have negative population growth.

The idea behind radical longevity is that advances in biotechnology, especially biochemistry and nanotechnology, can be used to halt or reverse aging. We're not talking about extending enfeeblement; we're talking about extending vigorous, healthy life. Things like cancer and Alzheimer's are specific malfunctions of normal cellular function, and we're getting better every year at dealing with both; as our knowledge increases, these things will probably become as treatable as strep throat, rather than life-enders.
Jan. 4th, 2012 08:52 pm (UTC)
hegre here to the resolution of Alzheimers! I've seen what that awful disease can do. I lovethe concept of enhancing then exteding healthy & ultimtely/ well err hopefully! enjoyable lives....
Jan. 4th, 2012 08:56 pm (UTC)
same person, different livejournal account- sorry to be confusing ;)
Jan. 4th, 2012 03:49 pm (UTC)
What if the human brain, which is a physical organ, could be modeled inside a computer?
We may be able to create an artificial brain, but I don't think it's going to be in a conventional computer. You're basically talking about an emulator at that point, and they never perform as well as native hardware. We don't have enough room left in Moore's Law t do it in software.

Maybe it could work with specialty hardware, but I'm not confident that such a thing would have any advantages over the brains in regular people.

Now, I realize that transhumanism and the idea of a singularity are not quite the same thing, but they are certainly related, and it bugs me a bit that singularity proponents always seem to push strong AI (beyond actual people's minds) as a necessary part, when either full-scale nanotech (assemblers, not just materials science) or biochemical advances in gerontology could be big enough advances to qualify as a singularity all on their own.
Jan. 4th, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
It's likely true that a full, dynamic brain model won't be made with computers that work exactly like existing computers do. For one thing, existing computer processors are synchronous, whereas brains are not. So I suspect you're probably right on the money there.

The "singularity = strong AI" notion that I see in some parts of the transhumanist community irks me, too. Singularities happen all the time--the agrarian revolution and the Iron Age were arguably the two biggest ones we've had so far--and the emphasis on strong AI to the exclusion of any other sort of disruptive technology strikes me as myopic.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )