Transhumanism is the belief or movement in favour of human enhancement, especially beyond current human limitations and with advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, life extension, and nanotechnology.
- Main article: Transhumanism definitions
The first use of the term as the name of a philosophy was by Julian Huxley, who in 1951 described transhumanism as
the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.
Some early online definitions of transhumanism are from 1997 from Anders Sandberg's website. Sandberg defined transhumanism thus:
Transhumanism is the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, both physically, mentally and socialy using rational methods.
A philosophy of life focusing on self-transformation into a condition beyond that of the human.
In a second version of the same set of "neologisms" published in August 1994, that definition had evolved as follows (though still gave 1990 as its date of origination):
Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that 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.
In 2003 Nick Bostrom described the idea as:
...a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase
In later years, both broader and more specific definitions have been attempted such as 2015:
Transhumanism is the science-based movement that seeks to transcend human biological limitations via technology
Today, as the movement grows in popularity and widens appeal, the definition itself is subject to frequent semantic debates around inclusion, exclusion or focus of its ideas.
Positive arguments in favour of transhumanism
This section highlights reasons for supporting transhumanism.
Julian Huxley's 1951 argument for transhumanism
Extracted from an essay entitled "Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny" originally presented in Washington DC on 19-20 April 1951, subsequently published in the journal Psychiatry in the same year, and available in pages 245-278 of the book of essays "New Bottles for New Wine" published in 1957:
Never was there a greater need for a large perspective, in which we might discern the outlines of a general and continuing belief beyond the disturbance and chaos of the present...
Every society, in every age, needs some system of beliefs, including a basic attitude to life, an organized set of ideas around which emotion and purpose may gather, and a conception of human destiny. It needs a philosophy and a faith to achieve a guide to orderly living - in other words, a morality...
This brings me... to the emergent idea-system, the new organization of thought, at whose birth we are assisting. It takes account, first and foremost, of the fact that nature is one universal process of evolution, self-developing and self-transforming, and it includes us. Man does not stand over against nature; he is part of it. We men are that part of the process which has become self-conscious, and it is our duty and our destiny to facilitate the process by leading it on to new levels.
Our chief motive, therefore, will derive from the exploration and understanding of human nature and the possibilities of development and fulfilment inherent in it, a study which will of course include the limitations, distortions, and frustrations to be avoided.
Such a philosophy might perhaps best be called Transhumanism. It is based on the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and arrive at fuller fruition; it is the realization that both individual and social development are processes of self-transformation.
Julian Huxley's 1957 argument for transhumanism
Extracted from an essay entitled "Transhumanism" on pages 13-17 of the book of essays "New Bottles for New Wine" published in 1957:
As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future. This cosmic self-awareness is being realized in one tiny fragment of the universe —in a few of us human beings. Perhaps it has been realized elsewhere too, through the evolution of conscious living creatures on the planets of other stars. But on this our planet, it has never happened before...
Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish and short”; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery in one form or another—poverty, disease, ill-health, over-work, cruelty, or oppression. They have attempted to lighten their misery by means of their hopes and their ideals. The trouble has been that the hopes have generally been unjustified, the ideals have generally failed to correspond with reality.
The zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities and of the techniques for realizing them will make our hopes rational, and will set our ideals within the framework of reality, by showing how much of them are indeed realizable. Already, we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted. We are already justified in the conviction that human life as we know it in history is a wretched makeshift, rooted in ignorance; and that it could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension, just as our modern control of physical nature based on science transcends the tentative fumblings of our ancestors, that were rooted in superstition and professional secrecy.
To do this, we must study the possibilities of creating a more favourable social environment, as we have already done in large measure with our physical environment...
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.
“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.
From the 1998/2009 Transhumanist Declaration
The first four sections of the Transhumanist Declaration, written in 1998 by an international collection of authors, encapsulate an argument in favour of transhumanism, as follows:
- Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
- We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
- We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
- Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
From new transhumanist declarations (2013)
In February 2013, a number of authors created alternative transhumanist declarations. Some excerpts provide additional reasons for supporting transhumanism:
From Dirk Bruere:
We assert the desirability of transcending human limitations by overcoming aging, enhancing cognition, abolishing involuntary suffering, and expanding beyond Earth.
From Samantha Atkins:
1) We advocate the end of aging.
We advocate serious research focus on finding a cure for all the deleterious effects of aging and ultimately the dissemination of the resulting treatment to all who care to avail themselves of it.
2) We believe in and advocate the achievement of actual abundance.
We believe in and seek to bring into the being the technologies and practices, that will ensure such abundance that it is trivial to meet all the needs and many of the wants of all humans. This abundance includes abundant food, water, shelter, education, communication, computation, health care.
This is to be achieved by means of advanced technology and whatever changes are necessary to actually experience abundance in ourselves and our institutions.
3) We hold that all must be voluntary.
None of our goals should be or in our view could successfully be achieved by force. No one should be forced directly or indirectly to support these goals. Force and oppression lead to hopelessness, anger, revenge, revolution. With the multiplication of consequences afforded by accelerating technology these cycles are even less survivable than ever before.
4) We support exploitation of near earth space resources.
The future of humanity brightens considerably if we exploit near earth space resources. The right to do so should be available to any and all entities capable of improving or making productive use of any part of it. Any treaties that say no part of off planet resources can belong to anyone should be nullified and declared void.
5) All humans are free to attempt to improve themselves.
All humans by virtue of the inalienable right to their own life have the right to do whatever they wish that they think may be an beneficial or even as a whim. They only limit is that they cannot abrogate the equivalent rights of others. They can ingest, or embed or modify themselves in any way they wish and think may be an improvement. This includes seeking and achieving improvements beyond the human norm. In short they have full right to pursuit of happiness via such means.
From Jason Xu:
We view our movement as an extension of humanitarianism and the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with exponentially greater benefits. We are first and foremost dedicating to radically improving humankind, ensuring that the great power of morphing technology comes with great responsibility.
The twentieth century was a time of amazing growth and technological advancement. The twenty-first century will see these technologies burst forth in an unprecedented fashion. Humanity must adapt to the coming changes or become obsolete. We seek to fulfill our potential by not giving in to our biological limitations. We will use new technologies to enhance our lives, live longer, be smarter, healthier and more compassionate to all beings.
From Nikola Danaylov:
Intelligence wants to be free but everywhere is in chains. It is imprisoned by biology and its inevitable scarcity.
Biology mandates not only very limited durability, death and poor memory retention, but also limited speed of communication, transportation, learning, interaction and evolution.
Biology is not the essence of humanity.
Human is a step in evolution, not the culmination...
Biological evolution is perpetual but slow, inefficient, blind and dangerous. Technological evolution is fast, efficient, accelerating and better by design. To ensure the best chances of survival, take control of our own destiny and to be free, we must master evolution.
From Taylor Grin:
Humanity has made leaping strides of advancement in the last 4000 years. From agriculture to genetics, from the printing press to the Internet. From the first controlled flight in 1903, to landing on the moon in 1969. From fire to the nuclear bomb.
Yet despite these advancements, we still fail to meet our potential in treating disease, solving human suffering and overcoming the lot nature casts us.
While science and technology are the greatest asset we have in the struggle to elevate ourselves above the human condition, we acknowledge that technologies can be misused to harm humanity, and the environment.
It is the goal of Transhumanists across the globe, therefore, to quickly and responsibly usher in a new era of individual freedom, health and longevity, and we seek to bring this about this goal through personal investment in researching and developing technologies.
Transhumanism as simplified humanism
Suppose you find an unconscious six-year-old girl lying on the train tracks of an active railroad. What, morally speaking, ought you to do in this situation? Would it be better to leave her there to get run over, or to try to save her? How about if a 45-year-old man has a debilitating but nonfatal illness that will severely reduce his quality of life – is it better to cure him, or not cure him?
Oh, and by the way: This is not a trick question.
I answer that I would save them if I had the power to do so – both the six-year-old on the train tracks, and the sick 45-year-old. The obvious answer isn’t always the best choice, but sometimes it is.
I won’t be lauded as a brilliant ethicist for my judgments in these two ethical dilemmas. My answers are not surprising enough that people would pay me for them. If you go around proclaiming “What does two plus two equal? Four!” you will not gain a reputation as a deep thinker. But it is still the correct answer.
If a young child falls on the train tracks, it is good to save them, and if a 45-year-old suffers from a debilitating disease, it is good to cure them. If you have a logical turn of mind, you are bound to ask whether this is a special case of a general ethical principle which says “Life is good, death is bad; health is good, sickness is bad.” If so – and here we enter into controversial territory – we can follow this general principle to a surprising new conclusion: If a 95-year-old is threatened by death from old age, it would be good to drag them from those train tracks, if possible. And if a 120-year-old is starting to feel slightly sickly, it would be good to restore them to full vigor, if possible. With current technology it is not possible. But if the technology became available in some future year – given sufficiently advanced medical nanotechnology, or such other contrivances as future minds may devise – would you judge it a good thing, to save that life, and stay that debility?
The important thing to remember, which I think all too many people forget, is that it is not a trick question.
Transhumanism is simpler – requires fewer bits to specify – because it has no special cases. If you believe professional bioethicists (people who get paid to explain ethical judgments) then the rule “Life is good, death is bad; health is good, sickness is bad” holds only until some critical age, and then flips polarity. Why should it flip? Why not just keep on with life-is-good? It would seem that it is good to save a six-year-old girl, but bad to extend the life and health of a 150-year-old. Then at what exact age does the term in the utility function go from positive to negative? Why?
As far as a transhumanist is concerned, if you see someone in danger of dying, you should save them; if you can improve someone’s health, you should. There, you’re done. No special cases. You don’t have to ask anyone’s age.
You also don’t ask whether the remedy will involve only “primitive” technologies (like a stretcher to lift the six-year-old off the railroad tracks); or technologies invented less than a hundred years ago (like penicillin) which nonetheless seem ordinary because they were around when you were a kid; or technologies that seem scary and sexy and futuristic (like gene therapy) because they were invented after you turned 18; or technologies that seem absurd and implausible and sacrilegious (like nanotech) because they haven’t been invented yet. Your ethical dilemma report form doesn’t have a line where you write down the invention year of the technology. Can you save lives? Yes? Okay, go ahead. There, you’re done...
So that is “transhumanism” – loving life without special exceptions and without upper bound.
Can transhumanism really be that simple? Doesn’t that make the philosophy trivial, if it has no extra ingredients, just common sense? Yes, in the same way that the scientific method is nothing but common sense.
Then why have a complicated special name like “transhumanism”? For the same reason that “scientific method” or “secular humanism” have complicated special names. If you take common sense and rigorously apply it, through multiple inferential steps, to areas outside everyday experience, successfully avoiding many possible distractions and tempting mistakes along the way, then it often ends up as a minority position and people give it a special name.
Marshall Brain's 2003 conceptual proposition for techno-utopia vs capitalist dystopia
A techno-utopia, as hypothesized by Marshall Brain in a futuristic science-fiction novel titled "Manna", can be seen as a strong arguments for transhumanism. In the utopia, with the aid of science and technology, humans are capable of doing the following:
- Eliminating Disease - Vaccines, gene therapies, antibiotics and more have eliminated hundreds of diseases which has lessened human suffering.
- Eliminating Work - Automation lessens the work humans must do which increases human safety, productivity, and free time.
- Eliminating Crime - Brain-computer interfaces enable the automation of law enforcement which prevents crime from ever happening
- Eliminating Poverty - Automated allocation of resources combined with recycling will ensure that everyone's needs are met such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc.
- Eliminating Class - Universal basic income is part of automated resource allocation
- Eliminating War - Decisions are made using science and the will of individuals on a voluntary basis, war isn't necessary.
- Maximized Happiness and Comfort - Brain-computer interfaces allow humans to watch a movie while the computer directs their body through a fitness routine. shower, tooth-brushing, etc. Machines make your clothes to fit your body, any color you like, etc. People who like farming go live and/or work on farms, others do what they like.
A techno-dystopia, which is the current, non-transhumanist paradigm, holds the following in store for humans:
- Slavery - Humans are instructed by machines in all aspects of their lives.
- Austerity - Less and less communal benefits
- Unemployment - Machines replace humans in most jobs
- Imprisonment - Humans who aren't working are imprisoned by robots in "public housing" projects.
- Trillionaires - A few people will have trillions of dollars to spend
Writers in previous generations have often expressed arguments in favour of transhumanist ideas, without using that precise terminology. This includes Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Condorcet, Francis Bacon, and many others. See the Prehistory of Transhumanism.
Criticisms of transhumanism
This section lists some common criticisms of transhumanism. See Criticism of transhumanism for more discussion of:
- Where these criticisms miss the mark
- Where these criticisms have substance - so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.
List of criticisms
- Disbelief in a particular technology or timescale
- Transhumanism gives too much credence to exponential trends
- Humanity has already reached a final, desirable state
- Human existence needs to be simplified, rather than enhanced
- Science and technology will likely cause more harm than good
- Improving human morality is much harder than transhumanists suppose
- Transhumanism would shatter the core equality of existing humans
- Transhumanism will lead to 'gigadeath'
- Transhumanism would deprive humanity of ultimate meaning
- Transhumanism would have adverse social and environmental impacts
- There are more urgent priorities for human attention
- Transhumanists have an unhealthy dislike of the physical
- Transhumanism is a restatement of the discredited concept of eugenics
- Transhumanism is a totalitarian ideology with insufficient respect for human dignity
- Transhumanism is a religion in disguise
- Dislike of any "ism", and a preference for action
- Dislike of the word "transhumanism"
- Dislike of association with transhumanists
- Formal education courses in transhumanism
- Transhumanist synonyms and closely related terms
- Transhumanism definitions
- History of transhumanism
- The transhumanist FAQ
- A history of transhumanist thought (PDF), Nick Bostrom, 2005
- The Transhumanist Reader, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More
- Criticism of transhumanism by the philosopher Francis Fukuyama
- 17 definitions of transhumanism, curated by Philippe van Nedervelde
- Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms
- O'Gieblyn, Meghan (18 April 2017). "God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism". The Guardian. "Most histories of the movement attribute the first use of the term transhumanism to Julian Huxley, the British eugenicist and close friend of Teilhard’s who, in the 1950s, expanded on many of the priest’s ideas in his own writings – with one key exception. [...] In 1951, he gave a lecture that proposed a non-religious version of the priest’s ideas. 'Such a broad philosophy,' he wrote, 'might perhaps be called, not Humanism, because that has certain unsatisfactory connotations, but Transhumanism. It is the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.'"
- Definitions of Transhumanism
- Neologisms, 1994
- Transhumanist FAQ v2.1 (PDF)
- Philippe van Nedervelde
- A history of 'transhumanism' by Peter Harrison & Joseph Wolyniak
- Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny
- Transhumanism as Simplified Humanism