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Transhumanism’s Big Political Blind Spot
Steve Fuller   Sep 7, 2015   SociologicalImaginaton  

For those who still don’t know what it is, transhumanism is basically the application of science and technology to amplify the human condition, potentially well beyond our biological default settings. As someone who has increasingly identified with transhumanism since publishing Humanity 2.0in 2011, I welcome the ideology’s move into the mainstream of politics and culture, at least in the English-speaking world. But the form it has taken is rather curious.

Zoltan Istvan, a California-based science fiction writer with columns in The Huffington Post and Vice, is running for the US presidency in 2016 on the Transhumanist Party ticket — so far without a running mate, it seems. He is driving an ‘Immortality Bus’ across America to dramatize his main policy priority: enabling everyone to live forever. A measure of Istvan’s respectability is that he keynoted this year’s Camp Alphaville in London, a meeting point for Silicon Valley and Financial Times readers. Meanwhile, Maria Konovalenko, also California-based, is a Russian-born biophysicist who promotes transhumanist lifestyle issues, from cooking to sex, all aimed at immortality as well. She does a lot of fund-raising activities for transhumanist causes, and like Istvan presents a certain vision of transhumanism – infinite youthful vitality, basically – as an inherently attractive ideal for all of humanity.

But what if you don’t share this ideal? I’ve semi-facetiously speculated that such transhumanists must regard most non-transhumanists as zombies who spend their lives waiting to die.  Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the mainstreaming of transhumanism has occurred this way, as if reflects issues already on people’s minds, such as health and ageing. Indeed, Istvan and Konovalenko periodically suggest that transhumanism is really just an extension of ‘common sense’, one that happens to promise to cure ‘disabilities’, end degenerative diseases and reprogramme potential criminals. All of these goals, while undoubtedly attractive to many individuals, point to enormous social and ethical problems down the road once scaled up into the realm of public policy. My own version of transhumanism has put these problems in the foreground, typically in an optimistic spirit that sees an opportunity for radical social innovation. However, these scale-related issues are conspicuous by their absence from mainstream transhumanism.

This absence points to transhumanism’s political blind spot, which is related to its default libertarian philosophy. Transhumanists (and here I would also include even some of the more sensible Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) generally believe that all of humanity’s differences – be they in terms of wealth or health – are the result of large organizations, perhaps most of all the state, blocking the flow of information which has the potential to provide a cornucopia of benefits, typically through new technologies, once the information is allowed to develop freely. Of course, the resulting innovations may make a few people rich at first but markets will spur competition, drive down prices, distribute the innovations, etc.

What gives this narrative its surface plausibility is that, at bottom, all people are seen as wanting the same things, to be the same way, and so they have a common interest in pushing together towards the envisaged utopia. Whatever value differences seem to exist amongst people can be resolved simply by ‘upgrading’ their existence. Thus, the fact that all societies are anchored in quite specific interpretations of the life cycle is treated as a mere wrinkle that will be ironed out over time as a downstream effect of the cornucopian onslaught.

To be sure, there may well remain irreconcilable value differences. And here the idea of a cornucopian cosmos kicks in. Many transhumanists are open to the idea of humanity’s sub-speciation, a line of thought that implies self-segregating eco-niches, perhaps even corresponding to separate forms of life flourishing on different planets. However, a prospect that one rarely sees transhumanists pursue is that of integrating a much wider range of beings travelling under the banner of ‘humanity’ than ever before under a common system of governance. Yet, people’s intuitions about ‘disability’ are becoming increasingly fluid, connected in part to the popularity of cyborgs, as well as transhumanism’s own idea of ‘morphological freedom’ (i.e. the capacity to move between radically different states of being, especially carbon and silicon).

Indeed, Veronika Lipinska and I have argued in The Proactionary Imperative that a truly free transhumanist society would stretch society’s powers of accommodation and assimilation to levels that no classical liberal theorist could ever have imagined. John Locke and his liberal descendants presumed a ‘natural’ (i.e. biological) equality amongst all people, which in their own way libertarian transhumanists continue to uphold. However, the deep political challenge facing transhumanism is how to integrate a range of ‘humans’ whose resource requirements may differ substantially because, say, their carbon/silicon ratios vary radically – but equally, and more simply, because people refuse to hop on Istvan’s Immortality Bus. These beings would not be ‘natural equals’ yet they would qualify for some more expansive sense of Equality 2.0.

Thanks to Emilie Whitaker for some well-targeted tweets.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.


For what it’s worth, I consider Transhumanism and most Transhumanist goals, as proper extensions of scientific medical care. I have convinced myself that this must be true, even if the great goal of super-enhanced lifespans are a long ways away. Or, as one wit on the Kurzweil AI forum quipped, “What we today consider resurrection of the dead, miraculous, the citizens of 100 years from now will think of it as advanced medical care. One hundred years may not be enough, but its a worthy goal, at least it seems so to me.

I am fairly big on selling this concept to the major and minor religions, simply because its such an insanely, great, idea. Rather then scrapping against the religious folk (usually Christians because they don’t hit back anymore) it might be a better path for this Transhumanist goal to be adaptable to both those happy atheists out there, as well as the deeply religious. We answer the How questions, the religions can address the Why question.

What this has to do with Politics is that there is opportunity here to spread our ideas via addressing death, less fatalistically, then most people do today. It kind of a Nick Bostrum attitude, so to speak. Conceivably, this idea driving into politics, could end up with Transhumanism being a very big tent indeed!

Agreed, spud100.

Thanks, Lincoln. The rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do with your Mormon Transhumanist group.

To reiterate, your argument is that Transhumanism’s political blind spot is their advocating a wider spectrum of humanity and citizenship, and that this would touch off xenophobic tendencies in society.

In fact, you will see it now, and especially in the future, in a counter-argument against Transhumanism, that it will result in the extinction of mankind.  Maybe people with Down’s Syndrome are human, and maybe Blacks are human, and maybe Irish are human, but are half machine half humans human?  Are genetically modified transgenic individuals human? The list goes on and on.

To me there is no brilliant line between humans, transhumans, and posthumans, but I could easily see where, in opposition to Transhumanism, some demagogue used xenophobia to stoke opposition.  The existential fear of extinction of the species is a powerful political button to push.

To put it succinctly: morphological freedom is evolution, and in evolution there are winners and losers.

Well it comes down to medical then, doesn’t it? If you were someone who lost a limb, would you turn down a robotic one because its not natural? What about robotic eye sight of some sort? What about nanosystems that had to be permanently, injected into one’s bloodstream to manage or ward off diseases?

It seems to that through darwinian process, the people that turn down these gifts limit their quality of life, as we as the quantity, thus, they die out much faster. I don’t even see very many religious fundimentalists turn down true, wonder medical tech, because its too superb to discard, any more than antibiotics were in the 20th century.

I wish it came down to medical.  Does abortion come down to medical, or assisted suicide, or augmentation treatments like steroids or blood doping?  The fundamental difference between human and non-human is genetic, and genetic therapy will enable people to change their genes to become transgenic and quite possible super-human.  This is essentially self-directed evolution, even though the genetic changes do not pollute the germ-line (i.e. your future children do not inherit the same genetic changes).

“The above is still a little too abstract and perhaps even vague and could use an example. Picture the movies Avengers, Fantastic Four, Superman, Wolverine or X-Men. Now suppose that these movie characters did not have random gene modifications but that they were humans with deliberate gene modifications and also technological enhancements, similar to Iron Man.”

Medical right now is generally considered palliative care (treating the symptoms, side effects, and emotional problems experienced by patients), and certainly not genetic augmentation.  Specifically, I wish medicine would consider senescence a disease that ought to be cured, rather than it’s symptoms, side effects, and emotional problems treated.

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