Kevin Wise - Transhumans

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Kevin Wise

Mrs. Crawford

AP Lang, E Block

28 February 2011

                         Embracing the Ones Who Embrace the Future

       The alchemists’ dreams: flight, the ability to manipulate the elements, and immortality.

The goal of any alchemist was to reach their full potential, mentally and physically. Not unlike

the transhumanists. “We have transmuted the elements and learned to fly,” says Max More.

“Immortality is next” (More). More is a prominent figure in the subculture of transhumanists. In

fact, he was the one who coined the term “transhumanism” in 1994 with his essay On Becoming

Posthuman.

       However, being a transhumanist and being an alchemist are two totally different things,

as can be seen in the definition of transhumanism. Transhumanism can be separated into two

categories: transhumanism and transhumanism. The former is the belief that humans are able to

move beyond their biological constraints through improvements in technology. The latter is

simply an implication that transhumanism has the markings of its ancestor, humanism. Both

belief systems promote the positivity of humanity and have an overall optimistic outlook on

mankind’s progress (More). There are no rites or rituals. To be transhuman is to believe in those

two notions.

       And, although the transhumanists are not alchemists, their roots are very similar. The idea

to transcend humanity was the catalyst for both groups back in the Middle Ages, but the idea of

being transhuman had not yet been incorporated at that time (humanism was the big ideology

that was forming). However, as technology began growing rapidly in the Industrial Age, ideas of
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how important technology was for the progress of mankind began to spread and traces of

transhumanist ideas could be seen. But it was not until the late 20th century that transhumanism

came to the forefront. The idea that humans could be enhanced technologically existed earlier,

but with the explosion of the Internet came the proof of concept (Garreau 27-28). Transhumanist

theories were created in lieu of this massive social change. One such theory was pioneered by

Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of the text to speech machine and a prominent futurist. “Kurzweil

believes computer intelligence is advancing so rapidly that in a couple of decades, machines will

be as intelligent as humans. Soon after that they will surpass humans and start creating even

smarter technology” (Lyons). Kurzweil, a highly influential transhumanist, predicted the

popularity of the Internet and has written a few books containing even more predictions of the

future. And he was already a big name with his invention of the text to speech and speech

recognition programs. So, with those achievements under his belt, many take his word for it.

However, while his previous theory seems feasible, it is the next one that proves divisive for

most, and ultimately separates the transhumanists from non-transhumanists. “[Kurzweil] also

thinks we’ll be able to embed our consciousness into silicon, which means we can live on, inside

machines, forever and ever […] Kurzweil calls this moment The Singularity,’ and says it

represents the next great leap in human evolution, when humans will transcend biology by

merging with technology” (Lyons). The Singularity is a popular idea amongst transhumanists

and is the culmination of that goal mentioned earlier: immortality. That is what transhumanists

fight for in the modern era.

        However, it is this fight that makes transhumanists a controversial subculture. They do

not receive criticism for acts of violence or irrationality. They do not do that. It is their beliefs

that receive criticism and create the air of controversy surrounding the subculture. The quest for
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immortality is the big one. According to prominent transhumanist figures like Garreau and More,

the idea of elongating their lives or becoming immortal is what humans fear the most. “[…]

there’s the problem you encounter when asking people what they would do if offered the chance

to live for a very long time-150 years or more. Nine out of 10 boggle at this thought. Many

actually recoil” (Garreau 21). More agrees with Garreau on this point, but also feels that the

increase in life expectancy is gradually accepted into society. People do not like thinking they

will outlive the modern norm, even though they most likely will (More). But it is not just the

transhumanist belief that life expectancy will increase all the way to immortality that scares

people. There is also the process by which transhumanists want to get there. Kurzweil’s theory

on the Singularity was already mentioned and that idea already scares a few people away from

transhumanism. But there are more ideas. Biological implants, nanotechnology, performance

enhancing drugs; these are widely accepted methods of enhancing the human life by

transhumanists. That is scary to people, not just because of the daunting idea of immortality, but

because of another big question.

       How far until one loses humanity? With all this merging of machinery, reliance on drugs,

and dependence on technology, at what point does one lose what makes us human? Without

faults, what is the point of achieving perfection? And does that not spit in the face of

transhumanism? Dehumanization is a serious criticism against the ideologies of transhumanism

and the merging of human and machine that should emerge. An almost nightmarish scenario

detailed by Garreau in Radical Evolution is almost a point in the favor of the opposing side of

transhumanism. Garreau makes the hypothetical situation of a girl in the future who does not

receive any of the biological enhancements obtained during the era and compares her to the huge

population that does. The girl is forced to compete for grades in a class filled with cyborg-like
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teenagers. She realizes that she may never succeed the same way they will in the future. They are

all beautiful; symmetrical faces, muscular without exercise. They are all linked to a social

network in their own head, constantly communicating. If they ever need an answer to a question,

all they have to do is cock their head to the side and receive an answer, like an advanced search

engine (Garreau 24-26). They are all too perfect, too robotic, to be considered human. The one

human in that class has to be left in the dust of her too perfect classmates, and the barely human

become the prominent force in that world. Of course, this entire situation is made up, but, if

predictions like Kurzweil’s prove to be true, this scenario could be something to fear (or

celebrate, depending on one’s point of view) and provides the fuel for Francis Fukuyama’s fire.

Fukuyama is an example of the opposite end of the transhumanists: a naturalist philosopher. He

claims that tampering with human traits and abilities is “one of ‘the world’s most dangerous

ideas’” (Anderson). He believes doing so would cause us to lose humanity. And he has a point, if

these predictions prove to be true.

       More would be quick to disagree with Fukuyama’s point, however. He states that the

transhumanist ideas of enhancing humans technologically would actually expand their own

humanity. More’s defense: humans are already programmed. It is a common belief amongst

transhumanists. Kurzweil believes that neurons and brain function are controlled by some sort of

code that humans can eventually figure out and manipulate in order to become more human

(Farrar). More states our programming is not so robotic. Our emotions are what dictate our

actions. More wants these enhancements to keep our thoughts and desires and check. He also

wants to control our biological needs through technological improvements. He, and

transhumanists, believes that these enhancements will be accepted through time, like greater life

expectancy, and cites examples of the modern day to prove his point. Artificial joints, contact
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lenses, inhalers; these are all examples of enhancements to a body that is suffering in one area

that are widely accepted. However, the difference between these enhancements and the ones that

transhumanists want to ascend to perfection are that the former are somewhat necessary. More

states that the, through time, the unnecessary ones will become the norm through time (More).

       So More’s counterpoint to Fukuyama really puts the debate into a stalemate. But then, as

the battle seems equal, society’s popular entertainment and media comes to Fukuyama’s aid,

blowing More and his transhumanist friends out of the water. Transhumanist ideas have had a

huge effect on the entertainment industry, whether it be movies, comics, or even videogames.

However, rarely any of these mediums portray transhumanism in a good way. They normally

paint a bleak future filled with conformed and disconnected humans (Garreau 38). For example,

the popular movie and videogame, respectively, Gattaca and Deus Ex. Gattaca was a movie

about a man in a world filled with humans that had their entire lives determined for them at birth

through genetic engineering. This man was the only one who was born naturally and worked his

way higher up the hierarchy by pretending to be a higher genetic ranking. Gattaca takes

transhumanist concepts that are supposed to suggest optimism for the future of humanity

(modifying babies at birth to make them better than they would be otherwise) and modifies it to

tell a naturalist tale about overcoming the overwhelming odds technology presses upon plain

humans. Deus Ex, a videogame, was similar. The player took control of a technologically

enhanced cop, given the choice to act mercilessly towards his foes (kill enemies) or carry out the

missions without casualty (stun enemies). However, by the end of the story, the corporation that

created this enhanced cop is portrayed as a greedy, malevolent force and must be stopped by the

player, no matter what decisions were made earlier. What both these pieces of media manage to

do is take the exact opposite of the transhumanists’ view of the future and release it to the public,
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while placing a negative spin on popular transhumanist ideas.

Even if the average human being does not think about what they

are watching or playing, they may subconsciously gain opinions

on the innovations they are observing or experiencing. This

leaves a bad taste in their mouths when they are introduced to

any transhumanist concept, because they have already been

exposed to media that tells them not to tamper with human

nature (More).                                                             This certainly did not help.

       Maybe this would not be such a big problem if society was more well-informed on

transhumanists and their ideas. But the transhumanists are very quiet about any major discoveries

in a field that relates to them. Either that, or people just do not find it interesting enough. Others

have suggested that transhumanists just are not living up to their claims. “[…] the rational

materialist denial of discrete persistent selves calls into question the transhumanist project of

individual longevity and enhancement” (Hughes). Hughes makes a good point; that the

transhumanists really cannot give a through explanation as to how any of these technological

enhancements, like immortality, are truly going to work, which would explain why the

transhumanists have no control over how their ideas are spread. More agrees, to an extent. The

transhumanists do not have control over the negative light placed on their ideas, but that is only

because they do not have the chances to prove it wrong. There is a lack of funding towards

research in the areas life enhancement, something that More and most transhumanists feel is

unjust and, quite frankly, senseless. The only reason they feel they cannot explain their theories

is because there is not enough money going their way to prove them (More).
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       However, even with the lack of resources to do so, transhumanists have made great

strides recently. “Another drug, propranolol, has the quite different aim of weakening troubling

memories. Memories are etched with particular strength in stressful situations, including wars,

car accidents and rapes” (Anderson). The drug has not been mass produced, but has been tested

on rats and has completely erased their memory without hampering their learning. More states

that Dr. Aubrey de Grey from SENS has been very important in the transhumanist movement in

life longevity through the creation of rejuvenation techniques and medicines (More). “One

scientist is developing something called a respirocyte, a robotic red blood cell that, if injected

into the bloodstream, would allow humans to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking

a breath or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for hours at a time. Other researchers are

developing nanoparticles that can locate tumors and one day even eradicate them” (Farrar).

These are innovations that are under the spotlight, ideas immensely inspired by transhumanist

ideas and theories. It is safe to say that the transhumanists have had a profound effect in the area

of science.

       Science is not the only branch of humanity affected though. Looking back at Deus Ex and

Gattaca, those were both successful. In fact, they became classics within the mediums they were

representing. Transhumanism’s ideas of human enhancement and great dependence on

technology have created a darker genre within sci-fi. A genre that portrays the future as a bleak

dystopia where humanity shall be controlled by super computers and A.I. Sure, these themes do

not play in the transhumanists’ favor, but it does prove that transhumanist ideas have had an

effect on popular media and helped create a well-received genre.

       And it is not like the transhumanists are immoral monsters creating Frakensteins left and

right. In fact they gather to discuss the ramifications of their actions and theories at conferences
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and summits. “On the final day of the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference, experts will focus

on what could be the unintended consequences of new technologies, such as superintelligent

machines that, if ill-conceived, might cause the demise of Homo sapiens” (Farrar). They even

discuss situations that are conceived in the media mentioned earlier! “Human enhancement

enthusiasts sing of a future, or a present, in which human beings have escaped all manner of

physical limitation. They engage in deep conversations about the real-world ethics of creating

superbeings, about ending suffering by ‘redesigning the hedonic treadmill’” (Cavanaugh). The

transhumanists are careful with the innovations they both propose and create, and realize that

there can be risks to what they say and do. However, they believe that their goals are noble ones,

producing a greater good than evil. And they do not want to sacrifice ethics to obtain their goals.

Referencing transhumanism’s idea of performance enhancement through technology, Van

Hiilvoorde and Landerweed make this statement: “Technological developments for disabled

athletes may facilitate their competition in standard elite sports. They raise intriguing

philosophical questions that challenge dominant notions of body and normality” (Hiilvoorde and

Landerweed). More was happy to provide an answer to these questions, in transhumanist terms.

If there are rules to the game, he believes, enhancements should not be used if not advocated. If

anything is game, he strongly promotes using technological enhancements to make sure one can

play or just enhance one’s play style. However, he was quick to make the point that the use of

steroids or their ilk is ill-advised as they can cause heart problems and transhumanists do their

best to fight such an adversity (More). And that is the transhumanist belief on how transhumanist

ideologies should relate to sport’s ethics. They take a similar neutral stance on many ethical

decisions.
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       The transhumanists just seem like a group that is misunderstood. They want the best for

humanity and do their best to fight for it, but they are constantly pushed away by the very people

they are trying to help. They cannot be detrimental to this society because it is only the ideas of

transhumanism that scare people away and these ideas cannot even be validated by those who

advocate them. So, unfortunately, people accept these same ideas from media that chooses to

highlight possible negativities of the subculture’s notions. From those who are more aware as to

what the transhumanists are trying to convey, transhumanists receive criticism for their way of

thinking and lack of substantial evidence for their predictions. Even then, transhumanists look

for ways to enhance humanity, both scientifically and philosophically. They take baby steps

towards their goals, looking for support from all sides. Embracing the future, they look for those

that will embrace them.

				
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