-A discussion on Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wager
Transhumanism is a rising international intellectual movement that seeks to greatly enhance human capacities through emerging science and technologies, with life extension as one of its main goals. However, for many decades, the movement has remained outside of the political mainstream and a large part of it has only been active on the internet.
The year 2014 appeared to be a major turning point: American futurist and thinker, Zoltan Istvan founded the first US transhumanist political party and began running for 2016 president as its candidate, promising that biological death would be overcome through modern science and technology in the next few decades. A former reporter for National Geographic and correspondent for many major news media, Istvan has been successful in drawing public attention and aspires to bring transhumanism to the political mainstream. His radical visions and political fanfare remind us of a science fiction novel he authored years ago, The Transhumanist Wager. The book depicts the epic story of philosopher Jethro Knights, who sails around the world to promote indefinite life extension and eventually starts a global revolution to overcome biological death and transform mankind into omnipotent cyborgs.
With many parallels between the fictional character and Istvan himself, one can say that The Transhumanist Wager is more than a fiction - it is Istvan’s grand blueprint of the transhumanist future, an international political movement that involves everyone on the Earth. However, if you ask a thousand transhumanists how the future will unfold, they would tell you a thousand different stories. CEO of California Life Company, Arthur Levinson predicts that the key to overcoming biological aging will be found through pharmaceutical research. Director of Engineering at Google and an outspoken transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil will prophesy man merging with the computer. Militant and libertarian, Jethro Knights’ vision is more radical than the former two: a political movement that spreads transhuman mindset around the globe, trumping its enemies through military might. This is not to say Jethro’s approach is incompatible with the former two; under the driving forces of his movement, all kinds of technological and scientific approaches to physical immortality blossom.
However, Jethro’s movement is of a much larger scope than the former two. Jethro not only wages a bloody battle against religion, but he also founds the nation of “Transhumania”, an independent sea-standing research institute that gathers the best of human scientists to realize Jethro’s ultimate visions. When the outside world tries to interfere with his effort, he employs his military might to force the Earth’s citizens to adopt the transhumanist agenda. A new social order is established upon the value set he names “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism” - a philosophy where every “transhuman citizen” pursues her own immortality and omnipotence through merging with advanced technology and is judged by the value she adds to the society. Needless to say, Jethro’s vision has been widely criticized as “socially dangerous” and “inhumane” by readers on Goodreads and Amazon.
Despite society’s instinctive judgment of Jethro’s methods, one must ask, is Jethro’s transhumanist way of living desirable? Does the transhumanist movement in our real world have to be militant and political to be successful? After taking a closer look at how the depicted movement started, progressed, culminated, and contrasting it with the movement in reality, one will discover that transhuman visions can be, and are most efficiently realized in the private sector via economic means but not in the public sector via mass democracy, and that transhumanism will, and should remain an intellectual subculture within tech elites in the next one hundred years.
Jethro’s movement would not have gained public attention if it were not for the terrorist acts committed by anti-transhumanist religious leaders. In other words, Jethro’s enemies turned his endeavor from a private venture to a political movement. In Zoltan Istvan’s “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”: An approach to viable politics?, author Roland Benedikter asks: how much influence can one person have on a political movement? Indeed, effort by one man is not enough to start a global revolution with a vision as radical as Jethro’s, but he successfully does so in the book by relentlessly clashing with his biggest enemy, religion. Jethro’s nemesis, Reverend Belinas, is an anti-transhumanist preacher who rose to be an influential minister personally trusted by the US president. Siding with Belinas and his church, the government passes anti-tech policies and imposes restrictions and surveillance on transhuman scientists’ research, cutting their funding and legality.
The movement is hidden from the public eye, much like how the modern transhumanist movement exists among small circles mainly on the internet. By that time, Jethro has already launched his own organization, Transhumanist Citizen, but his success in acquiring funders is very limited because of his radical opinions; “After ten days, however, only two people made donations: one at twenty- five dollars, and another at fifty dollars” (Istvan 92). His movement really kick-starts after one of the leading transhuman scientists, Dr. Nathan Cohen, is killed and mutilated by religious terrorists under Belinas’ instruction. The author observes, “killing one’s friend had that effect. In a matter of ten days, Jethro’s fund grew from a nearly empty account to over one million dollars” (Istvan 103). The movement got worldwide attention when Jethro caught four religious terrorists in the act, whose attempt to bomb a cryonics institute was live aired on national TV: “Soon everyone, from Los Angeles to Denver to Boston, broke from their regular programming to air images of masked terrorists setting timer bombs at a cryonics clinic” (Istvan 117). Clearly, these two religious terror events are two important turning points where Jethro’s transhumanist movement gained momentum and public attention. Without such strong opposition forces from religion, progress of the movement would not be possible.
However, in the real world, would religion and the government really go as far as to murder privately funded scientists working on transhuman experiments? Granted, the tension between religion (mainly Christianity) and Transhumanism does exist. Istvan claims to constantly receive email death threats, a lot of them from religious fanatics. The World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations made a declaration denouncing “global abuse of science and technology in efforts by some to promote transhumanism, post humanism, futurism, etc.” and called for the establishment of an international criminal court for “unethical” human research experiments. However, most of the oppositions are either verbal attacks or legal denunciations made by religious entities. Although there have been instances of religious terrorist attacks targeting scientists or doctors in the past 50 years, they only happened in regard to already established and nationally debated technologies such as abortion. As a non-mainstream political movement with its technologies still in R&D stage, the transhumanist movement is far less likely to induce such attacks. Therefore, a war between transhumanism and religion that jumpstarts the whole movement is not likely to happen in reality. If so, the transhumanist movement will stay outside of the political mainstream, and remain a privately funded venture at its core.
On the other hand, Jethro’s movement’s crucial success is achieved through private funding, not public support. Unable to hold up the long haul with the government and anti-transhumanist religion forces, the transhumanist movement wanes in power and Jethro has no choice but to close off most Transhumanist Citizen offices. At the same time, he suffers the loss of his beloved wife, Zoe Bach, to a religious terrorist attack. At this crucial stage, the movement would have died out if Russian oil magnate Frederick Vilimich did not come to Jethro’s aid in time, when only a gigantic amount of capital donation can turn the table and save the movement. One of the richest men in the world, Vilimich donates half of his fortune to Jethro’s movement, which is a staggering 10 billion dollars. Vilimich shares a personal connection with Jethro, partially because he owes his life to Zoe Bach, who correctly diagnoses his developing colon cancer when he is scouting for oil fields at a war zone. But most importantly, he, too, suffers from loss of dear family members, his wife and son to terrorists, and hopes that the transhumanist movement can open up possibilities to “bring them back”.
This new funding enables Jethro to build a sea-standing research institute and an independent nation on its own, Transhumania, “a floating nation that could support tens of thousands of transhuman scientists” (Istvan 189). The cruciality of Vilimich’s role demonstrates that a single but important person’s support through private wealth is necessary as well as sufficient for the success of the transhumanist movement; Jethro’s crowd only follows him when capital and funding are secure. Indeed, Jethro himself asserts that “the capable will listen, and they’re the only ones who really matter” at the final confrontation with Belinas (Istvan 244). Wealthy tech elites at Silicon Valley like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Peter Thiel are currently the real world’s central force to realize transhuman visions. Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin fund the Breakthrough prize, offering millions of dollars to the development of life extension technologies. Google incorporated Calico Labs in 2013, a research and development company that aims to understand the biology that controls lifespan and enable people to lead longer and healthier lives, operating on a budget of the billions. Most of these people are already accomplished entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors, and they are the ones who are most able to turn the wheel of history.
What about the majority of the general public, who either do not care or strongly oppose transhumanist values? Benedikter points out that Istvan’s motivation behind his political campaign is “first, supporting life extension research with as much resources as possible“ and “secondly, to spread the transhuman mindset”. However, converting the mass crowd is unnecessary and comes at a price that outweighs the benefit, regardless of whether it is achieved through military or civil means. Jethro insists that a war against the outside world is inevitable and necessary, spending half of his budget on weapons and military forces, but sighs with regret when thinking of “the exorbitant dollar amount that could’ve been spent on transhuman research” (Istvan 218). At this point, the movement does not have the need to conquer the world; In merely five years, “there was already enough technological advancement on Transhumania to guarantee every citizen a far greater extended life: 120 years plus, easy” (Istvan 230). Realization of physical immortality for people who want it is already guaranteed on a well-funded research institution like Transhumania.
However, it is Jethro’s aggressive military approach that eventually catalyzes a war. Belinas is unable to persuade the president to sanction Transhumania at first, until a war aircraft armed with large missiles is spotted near the seasteading nation. If Jethro has not been intentionally showing the world the powerful and super-advanced weapons he is developing, the United Nations, with their staggering economy, would not consider Transhumania as an imperative threat that needs to be sanctioned at any cost. For the purpose of developing transhuman technologies to help a small group of citizens realize physical immortality, Jethro’s military effort is hardly worth it.
However, Jethro’s real ambition is far beyond immortality for himself and the Transhumania citizens. He wants to transform the whole human race “into stronger, more durable, more ideal beings” (Istvan 284), and firmly believes that people “could be turned and recast: formed and guided away from being sheepish, religious, fad-chasing consumers into being independent thinkers and creators” (Istvan 230). When the transhumanist militia triumphs against the United Nations, Jethro goes on destroying the governments and cultural monuments of every country, an act that shocked most readers of the book. Every man or woman on Earth is then given a choice: The Transhumanist Wager. They either accept the wager and live a life based on transhumanist values—that is “to pursue the most expedient course an individual can take to reach one’s most powerful and advanced self” (Istvan 284)— or leave the civilized world. As a result, Transhumanism is truly turned into the mainstream of thought.
From the analysis above, we can already see that converting the general public is neither sufficient nor necessary for the realization of transhuman visions such as physical immortality. In fact, a homogenous world full of transhumanists is neither viable nor desirable, and transhumanists would be better off in a world where the center of the movement is held inside a small but well-organized research institute like Transhumania. Jethro himself admits running an entire posthuman world is “going to be a lot more complicated than running a city full of well-mannered, over-educated scientists, all striving for the same goals.” (Istvan, 233). Stepping out of the small circle of transhuman elites to convert the general public not only costs an enormous amount of time and resources, but it also makes maintaining social order more complicated than it already is on Transhumania. In his book, Istvan does not address the details of how to establish a stable social order and economy in a democratic, posthuman world guided by “personal autonomy” based on TEF values; the world economy just magically recovers after transhuman scientists take over. Therefore, the author does not give a viable solution for maintaining a functional society in a homogenous world full of transhumanists.
Instead of squeezing everyone into a discordant posthuman society all at once, an intermediate, pluralistic society where transhuman values coexist with other values such as religion and tolerate one another is much more desirable, both for transhumanists and people with other beliefs. Based on our current level of technology, the available resources to mankind are still limited. If the majority of the population do not hope to achieve immortality and enhance themselves in the best ways possible but have differentiated goals in life, transhumanists would have more resources available to achieve their own goals. For a nation with proven success at maintaining a diverse, pluralistic society like America, this is certainly possible. Moreover, not every transhumanist thinks like Jethro. A lot of transhumanists’ primary will is to transform themselves, not others. Comparing the present world to a posthuman world full of ruthless competition and where everyone acts on cold, machine-like reasoning as described in the book, they would prefer the world as it is.
Transhumanists have the power to realize their visions in the next few decades without converting everyone on the Earth to think like themselves. Instead of fighting a war with non-believers, or trying to convert them, transhumanists should appreciate and preserve this diversity of thought. Although transhumanists are almost always outnumbered by people who don’t agree with their values, they should not feel pressured to convince them. They should feel glad.
Istvan, Zoltan. The Transhumanist Wager. Futurity Imagine Media LLC, 2013. Print.
Benedikter, Roland. “Zoltan Istvan’s “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”: An Approach to Viable Politics?” 24 July 2015. Web. 7 Jan. 2016.
Brett Gao is an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studies biochemistry and economics. He works at a lab that leads cutting-edge biomedical research on cancer and telomeres at Washington University School of Medicine.
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