A Brief History of Transhumanist Thought

Today, transhumanism is considered a cultural extension of humanism, a philosophical movement that promotes a manifesto of benevolence and compassion for all of humanity (Bostrom, 2003). Born out of the Enlightenment (Bostrom, 2005), transhumanism upholds at its core the rationalist ideologies of technological and social progress through critical reasoning, and faith in the ability of science to control all matter (Hughes, 2010). During the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a strong proponent this faith in progress, positing that progress and reasoning could overcome oppression, ignorance, needless toiling, and even death (Hughes, 2010). Darwin’s theory of evolution ushered in a new paradigm of scientific physicalism, which promulgated the notion that technology could be used to improve the human organism (Bostrom, 2005). Early 20th century society was soon dominated by concerns over the potentially questionable status of the human gene pool, prompting industrial nations like the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland to implement state sponsored eugenics programs (Bostrom, 2005). The Post War period was marked by a societal revulsion anything remotely resembling a Nazi ideology, and thus, utopianism fell out of favour, to be replaced by a general suspicion of collective social change (Bostrom, 2005). Technology was held aloft as the new solution of societal problems, with focus being redirected towards space travel, medical and computer technology in response to rapid advances in these areas (Bostrom, 2005).

The word transhumanism was used for the first time by the biologist Julian Huxley, brother of the literary figure Aldous Huxley, who wrote in his 1927 publication Religion Without Revelation that “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there is another way – but in its entirety as humanity” (Bostrom, 2005, p. 7). The movement gained little traction, inculcated mainly via intellectual discourse generated through a series of notable publications, until the 1970s with the appearance of “proto-transhumanist fringe groups” (Bostrom, 2005, p. 14) that operated independently, geographically isolated from one another, and mostly consisted of so-called eccentrics (Bostrom, 2005). In 1998, Nick Bostrom and David Pearce founded the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) in order to provide an organizational basis for all transhumanist groups, with the aim of earning recognition as an academically reputable discipline (Bostrom, 2005). Although transhumanism has only become a subject of discourse in an academic context for little over a decade, today, the WTA has over 3,000 members from more than 100 countries (Bostrom, 2005).

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Artificial Intelligence and Human Enhancement

 Ancient Judaic scripts made repeated reference to a creature known as a golem, an animated being created from inanimate material (Bostrom, 2005). In later texts, the golem became a symbol of humanity’s tendency to overreach its grasp (Bostrom, 2005). In Greek mythology, Daedalus assembled an apparatus to enable his son Icarus to extend human capabilities into the realm of flight, and was punished for his folly (Bostrom, 2005). Medieval alchemists sought to create homunculi in small vials centuries before the world’s first test tube baby was born (Bostrom, 2005). During the Renaissance, humanist thinker Giovanni Pico della Mirandola decried that humankind did not not have a prefabricated form, and thus was free to shape itself however it saw fit (Bostrom, 2005).

Following in the footsteps of these established cultural precepts, these myths were reinvented in the wake of scientific development. In 1923, British biochemist J.B.S. Haldene published Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, extolling the benefits of controlling human genetics, and promoting the use of ectogenesis, the process of gestation by use of artificial wombs (Bostrom, 2005). His work inspired an empassioned philosophical debate through publication, to be eternally immortalized in a work of fiction (Bostrom, 2005). In 1932, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, which would have a profound affect on ensuing debates on the technological transformation of the human condition (Bostrom, 2005). Huxley portrayed a dystopia of psychological conditioning and biotechnology, serving as “an emblem of the dehumanizing potential of the use of technology to promote social conformism” (Bostrom, 2005). Other aspects of the coming technological revolution originated from works of popular culture, as well; the word robot was coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek in his 1921 play R.U.R., in which a robot labour force staged an uprising and destroyed its human creators (Bostrom, 2005), reflecting an existing cultural fear of “the machine that passes from stubbornness to rebellion” (Tenner, 1996, p. 3).

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Eternal Life

 The desire to seek ways to circumvent human limitations is an enduring legacy from ancient times (Bostrom, 2005). Some of the earliest attempts to extend life beyond death date back to the dawn of civilization, represented in legends like the Epic of Gilgamesh (Bostrom, 2005). Often, these myths contained parables of wisdom, employing the notion of hubris to convey the notion that some ambitions should not be pursued (Bostrom, 2005). In his account of transhumanist history, Nick Bostrom purports that “There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god” (Bostrom, 2005, p. 5). In many traditional narratives, nature sought revenge to punish the sins of pride, arrogance, exploitation, and avarice, in concordance with “the idea that nature itself would expose and defeat evil conduct” (Tenner, 1996, p. 13).

With developments in scientific thought, the enduring dream of eternal life seemed to move closer to that pinnacle of actualization. The Enlightenment ideals of achieving a “society of freely-associating rational citizens” (Hughes, 2010) led to the gradual replacement of the soul as the locus for moral reasoning, with cognitive capacity as being the main determinant of moral conduct (Hughes, 2010). In 1689, The English philosopher John Locke proposed that memory, rather than soul, provided the basis for personal identity, which gave birth to the notion that continuity of memory and consciousness would allow for eternal life (Hughes, 2010). During the 18th century, French philosopher and mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet made the ambitious prediction that advances in medical technology could be used to extend human life (Bostrom, 2005). Lamenting delays in the advancement of this burgeoning field of study, Benjamin Franklin envisioned a world of “suspended animation,” a precursor to the cryonics movement, whereby death could be postponed by “embalming drowned persons in such a manner that they shall be recalled to life at any period” (Bostrom, 2005, p. 3)

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