Printed: 2014-10-22

Instititute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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Life Extension – a conservative enterprise?

Ilia Stambler


Journal of Evolution and Technology


http://jetpress.org/v21/stambler.htm

March 28, 2010

The beginning of the modern period in the pursuit of radical human enhancement and longevity can be traced to fin-de-siècle/early twentieth-century scientific and technological optimism and therapeutic activism.

The works of several authors of the period – Fedorov, Stephens, Bogdanov, Nietzsche and Finot – reveal conflicting ideological and social pathways toward the goals of human enhancement and life extension. Each author represents a particular existing social order, and his vision of human advancement may be seen as a continuation and extension of that order. Therefore, the pursuit of life extension may be considered a fundamentally conservative (or conservationist) enterprise.


Introduction: fin-de-siècle origins of transhumanism

Transhumanism is presently forming into a sizable intellectual and social movement, advocating the ethical use of technology to extend human capabilities. Like any intellectual movement, it seeks to establish its historical tradition (Bostrom 2005). Within what might be termed the transhumanist “tradition of overcoming tradition,” the pursuit of radical life extension plays a central part. Longevity is a primary goal of human enhancement, and its pursuit has been the longest and best sanctified by authorities of old (Gruman 1966).

However, the beginning of the modern period in the pursuit of radical human enhancement and longevity can be traced to the scientific and technological optimism and therapeutic activism, rising at the end of the nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth century, and it is in that fin-de-siècle period that the roots of transhumanism might be sought.

The fin de siècle was a time of peace, yet with widely felt apprehensions of stagnation, of a crisis, even of an imminent extinction of humanity (Jay and Neve, 1999). At the same time, contemporary scholars delighted in the period’s astonishing scientific, technological and industrial achievements: the advances in transportation, energy supply, manufacturing, agriculture and general medical care (Porter 1997, Albury 2001). It appeared to them evident that science, perhaps for the first time in history, had the genuine ability to ameliorate social plights, to cure diseases and extend human life. Contemporary advocates of life extension extrapolated on the technological advances and were motivated by them. 

Several fin-de-siècle authors were convinced of the perfectibility of the human species and might be considered as possible forerunners of modern transhumanism: the Russian religious philosopher Nikolay Fedorov (1829-1903); the American physician and writer Charles Asbury Stephens (1844-1931); the Russian Marxist politician Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928); the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900); and the French social scientist Jean Finot (1856-1922). Yet the ideological underpinnings of their teachings diverged dramatically. The social conditions they saw as necessary for the pursuit of longevity were often radically opposed, each vision stemming from its author’s particular social milieu. The following historical-ideological exposition of their works will reveal often diametrically opposed ideological and social pathways to the destination of human enhancement and longevity.

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Ilia Stambler is an IEET Affiliate Scholar. He completed his PhD degree at the Department of Science, Technology and Society, Bar-Ilan University. His thesis subject, and his main interest, is the History of Life-extensionism in the 20th Century.”

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