Transhumanism: The way of the future
- Published: 13 February 2010
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The only way for us to survive is to evolve. Transhumanism - a movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve the mental and physical characteristics and capacities of humans - is the way forward, writes Natasha Vita-More.
Transhuman and transhumanism – What is it?
Transhumanism is a misunderstood philosophical worldview. Nevertheless, global media and televised documentaries have embraced transhumanism for two decades as a pivotal source of knowledge in understanding the effects of accelerating technologies, ethical issues of humanity's future, and the state-of-the-art of human evolution. Transhumanism suggests that biology is not the Homo sapiens' final stage or means of evolution.
As a brief background, Dante Alighieri in Divina Commedia used the term “transumanar” as meaning to “go outside the human condition and perception”. More currently, the playwright T.S. Eliot, in the dark comedy The Cocktail Party, used the term "transhumanised" to refer to as a process beyond an isolated human condition.
Within this same timeframe, and one in which a different but complementary field of second order cybernetics was conceived, Teilhard de Chardin wrote about intellectual and social evolution and ultra-humanity in The Future of Man, and Abraham Maslow referred to transhumans in Toward a Psychology of Being.
Notably, in 1966, the Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedia Dictionary defined “transhuman” as meaning “surpassing; transcending; beyond”. In 1972 author F.M. Esfandiary first wrote about the "transhuman" as an evolutionary transition. Science fiction author Damien Broderick referenced transhumans in The Judas Mandala (1982), and I wrote the Transhuman Statement (1983) as a manifesto to the future human.
It was also 1983 that the Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defined transhuman as meaning “superhuman,” and “transhumanize,” as meaning “to elevate or transform to something beyond what is human”. In 1990, Max More authored the philosophy of transhumanism, which is known as modern transhumanism.
Although ideas forming modern transhumanism came into existence long before the notion of a cyborg or the semi-structured philosophy of posthumanism, it is largely ignored by academic theoreticians within the fields of philosophy, literature, and cultural studies.
This issue of academic exclusion is of less consequence than the full meaning and purpose of transhumanism; in short, we cannot co-exist in a world of emerging and accelerating sciences and technologies without understanding the full implications of transhumanism, what it means, what its benefits are, and what a transhumanist future might look like.
Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition.
A benefit of transhumanism
Considering the historical context within which transhumanism has emerged, it makes sense that transhumanists would rather wrestle with its belief system to develop deeper analysis of human futures than to rest on its laurels. And if I had to select one benefit of all transhumanism's tenets, it would be that of self-criticism, with a caveat that such criticism propels a proactive resolution.
This in a nutshell describes transhumanism—a desire to develop knowledge and to design solutions to humanity's conditions of poverty, suffering, ill-health and the finality of death. This attitude of proactivity is an innate sense of life and an acquired behavior.
It stems from compassion beyond mysticism, beyond religion, and beyond nature as a state of stasis. With this said, it is true that transhumanism has many flaws and there needs to be a stronger set of practices which engage this sense of compassion rather than being misunderstood as an elitist worldview.
This presumption is evidenced in the 2009 Global Spiral academic journal's special feature on transhumanism in which six academic notables analyzed transhumanism, and in which I was an invited Guest Editor to formulate responsive essays to such analyses.
In the responsive essays, the issue of human enhancement received the most attention because the current issues of biotechnology and genetic engineering affect everyone. The relationship of transhumanism to human enhancement is strong—without human enhancement there is no transhumanism.
According to the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment “Human Enhancement Study”, human enhancement means “a modification aimed at improving individual human performance brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions of the human body.”
This is consistent with earlier nomenclature as presented by the philosophy of transhumanism that the etymology of enhancement is to increase, which means human enhancement carries the connotation of going beyond what currently exists, such as physiological limitations built into human nature.
For the transhuman, this increase intimates a stage of enhancement in which personal existence, both physical and mental, will be largely unfixed to our historical biology.
Radically increasing the human maximum life span of 122-3 years is at the threshold of moving biological boundaries. Gilgamesh, in the mythic epic, faced an immovable boundary of human life—that death is an inevitable and inescapable truth.
Today, human enhancement and life extension are two largely apprehensive and controversial issues in the Western world because they actively suggest tampering with human nature. Social criticisms claim that human enhancement implies unrealistic hopes and human-centric tactics in prying into nature’s plan.
Such criticism suggest dangerous repercussions, such as with Icarus whose arrogance over reason caused him to fly higher and higher until the sun’s proximity melted his wings causing his fall to the sea and perishing; or Pandora, whose curiosity resulted in an outpouring of evil.
These and other ancient narratives continue to live on in modern society by consciously or unconsciously influencing social thinking. Nonetheless, for those who are proponents of ethical, socially-conscious use of science and technology for human enhancement, the task is to maintain practical optimism in unlocking aspects of genetic scripting and reaching a broader understanding of the universe.
Human enhancement is not an attempt to dislocate or de-dignify the human, as suggested by Jürgen Habermas in The Future of Human Nature and Francis Fukuyama in The Posthuman Condition. Missing from the discourse among many bioethicists is the voice of the artist/designer.
Yet, for as long as one can remember—from the cuneiform writing of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the electronic media of Nan June Paik, AI-robotics of Harold Cohen, Stelarc’s Ping, my own Primo Posthuman, and the works which extend human senses and mobility in virtuality of the metaverse and the interactivity of gaming.
Notably, synthetic worlds exemplify a psychological archetypical shift—the idea of the user as a multiple persona, which marvel the domain of psychology has yet to fully engage. The interconnection between virtuality, biosynthetics, and the idea of human enhancement brings us to the design of a transhumanist future.
Designing the future human for the future
The sciences and technologies for enhancement are referred to as "NBIC"—nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science. The topic of enhancement can be divided into three domains: therapeutic enablement (modification), selective enhancement (transition), and radical enhancement (transformation).
Therapeutic enhancement refers to the use of technologies to restore disease and/or injury to normal biological state of existence. The domain of therapeutic modification includes psychopharmacology, neurochemistry, prosthetics, infertility options, organ transplants and implants, stem cell cloning, and neuropharmacology.
Selective enhancement improves the normal state of good health and increases physiological (somatic and cognitive) performance. The technologies in this domain include all but one of the NBIC suite—that of nanotechnology. Selective enhancement currently characterizes the intervention of NBIC to improve the human condition beyond what is considered natural good health for a person.
This area represents the currents of human enhancement research and development. Genetic engineering forms the core of the selective enhancement domain. While currently we can locate genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis (the CTFR gene), healing the gene is another matter, delivery of healthy DNA into unhealthy cells is the task of future delivery systems of nanorobots and nanocytes, for example.
Even though exobody human-computer interface continues to transition how we communicate, additional endobody nanotechnological and AI (or AGI) advancements would need to be implemented to authenticate the extent that design enhancement suggests.
By interfacing NBIC with the central nervous system, and its peripheral systems, the human body could be redesigned. Human enhancement would modify the baseline human state and selectively transform, and further design, optional features, including the extension of existing lifespan of a maximum of 122–123 years.
The human biological system would be replaced with non-biological systems, such as nanorobots, nanocytes, synthetic blood, synthetic organs, prosthetic extensions, brain-to-computer interfacing, and therefore would become a type of semi-biological body. This semi-biological body would outperform our historical fixed biology and would initially extend the human maximum lifespan.
The future human prototype, Primo Posthuman of human enhancement combines design with the proposed use of NBIC. Rather than an erasure of the human form, the Primo Posthuman prototype suggests radical design enhancement where its organism is an open system in which "matter and energy are continually exchanged with the environment," according to Prigogine and Stengers (1984). The hybridity of the bio-metabolism and the emergent artificial system composed of nanorobots and AGI-driven agents, forming neo-natural aesthetics.
… in order to survive, man
Because the central design issue concerning human enhancement is the continuance of personal existence over time and space; the design task is to overcome physiological death and to facilitate a means for life to continue within biological, semi and non-biological platforms.
This means that the concept of death would need to be redefined. Historically criteria for death revolved around the medical and technological methods for detecting when the heart ceases to beat and the brain's neurons cease to charge. New sciences and technologies offer a wider range of methods for both determining death and prolonging life.
A futuristic scenario could be that a person experience biological death but continue, immediately or sequentially, in another biological or semi-biological form. This might be looked at as a partial or semi-death, but not an irreversible death.
It also relates to an optional and temporary death—one could decide to cease to exist in one platform for a period of time but continue in a different medium, or cease to exist in any platform until a later date. Alternatively, rather than forestalling death, another scenario claims that death need not be compulsory, but becomes an option.
Optional death might be used as a type of retirement from one life mode to another life mode. More specifically, a person existing in a synthetic simulation might decide that this environment no longer is satisfactory and determine to cease to exist in synthetic form and transfer his existence into a semi-biological material body.
A third scenario might be of a person who is hosting multiple identities, each is a self-contained aspect of the person, experiences voluntarily or involuntarily cessation of existence but does not terminate the entirety of the person. Alternative, death might be considered a means to drop out of life for a period of time and cease to exist indefinitely but not in finality or irrevocability.
Persons who exist outside the boundaries of the biological body will most likely desire to be considered living beings with certain rights. Therefore, it is apt to consider post-biological definitions of death concerning personhood.
If medical science and technology develop the means to remediate brain dead patients, including the brain stem and neocortex, and cognitive engineering technologies develop the means to transfer memory and thought to alternative platforms for hosting life; it is reasonable to speculate that the definition of death will require considerable attention in the coming years.
The transhuman is regarded to have transitional stages of development, depending on available sciences and technologies, along with social and political issues which could support or confront its progress.
The transhuman undergoes stages of enhancement and extension of personal existence, which purpose is to lead to a later stage of homo sapiens—such as posthuman.
The posthuman, largely a theoretical concept, is based in science fiction, and transhumanism uses the concept to illustrate a potential human future. Because no one knows the posthuman future, it is open to interpretation, with plenty of opportunity for fiction and myth-making.
The transhuman offers the actual transitioning of human nature while engaging ethics and biopolitics. Where the transhuman and a later suggested posthuman are headed might be irrelevant in that they may be both existent and mythic as humanity diversifies, and could further mean that the notion of posthuman is merely a metaphorical landing pad, no matter what transitional stages lead to transformations of consciousness.
Human enhancement is a complicated affair and involves not just vision and invention; it also requires standards, protocol, and regulation with input from social, ethical and political constituents.
Engaging NBIC media will cause us to face a bevy of distractions and staying focused on acquiring necessary information and knowledge about human ecology, along with computational intelligence and neuroscience.
The entire field of human enhancement will be transdisciplinary, much like second order cybernetics, in combining the fields of the science, technology, arts/design, philosophy and politics—in theory and in practice.
Natasha Vita-More, MSc, MPhil, and PhD, Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, is a University Lecturer; Visiting Scholar, 21st Century Medicine, Fellow, Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies; Board of Directors, Humanity+; a Guest Editor, Global Spiral; Columnist, Nanotechnology Now; and Director of Emergent Design. Natasha produced and hosted for cable TV Transcentury Update,