Printed: 2019-11-15

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Transhumanist politics, 1700 to the near future

J. Hughes


April 10, 2009

The story of transhumanist politics is part of the broader story of the three hundred year-old fight for the Enlightenment. Transhumanism has pre-Enlightenment roots of course, since our earliest ancestors sought to transcend the limitations of the human body, to delay death, and to achieve wisdom. But those aspirations became transhumanism when people began to use science and technology to achieve them instead of magic and spirituality.

Read all the essays in Re-Public’s special issue on Transhumanism here:
Ollivier Dyens - The inhuman condition
Justice De Thézier - MUTE: Why reimaginative democrats should ignore the siren songs of a posthuman future
Ghislain Perreau - Biotechnologies and individual liberties
Michael Hauskeller - Lives wonderful beyond imagination
Benjamin M. Schacht - What can Walter Benjamin teach us about transhumanism?
George Sotiropoulos - Biogenetics and the good society
Andrea Mancuso - The self-surgeons
Stelarc - Bodies without desires
Marc Roux - To eternalize conscience

From the earliest writings of the Enlightenment philosophes, such as Diderot and Condorcet, there were suggestions that eventually we could achieve radical longevity,  machine intelligence, freedom from drudgery, and the radical evolution of the human form. The Enlightenment narrative of progress, the belief that we can continually improve our condition through rational scientific human agency, has also had a political dimension. The Enlightenment argued for democracy and individual rights. The French version of these ideas also pressed for egalitarianism and a strong democratic state, while the Anglo and American versions were less egalitarian and advocated market freedom. The tensions between these two versions of Enlightenment thought are an ongoing dynamic with the contemporary transhumanist movement.

The resistance to Enlightenment ideas that began three hundred years ago still shapes resistance to transhumanist meliorism today. Religious conservatives reject the humanist claim that melioration can be achieved through purely human agency, and predict dire consequences for hubris. On the other hand, political authoritarians, especially those growing out of Enlightenment roots, have embraced and advocated for some transhuman projects.

One example is the embrace of the radical transformation of human nature under socialism. Some of the founders of the twentieth century transhumanism, such as the physicist J.D. Bernal and biologist J.B.S. Haldane, were also Marxists, and believed that a technocratic state would encourage the flowering of human potential through the systematic application of cognitive science, genetic engineering and cyborgization. Another example was the widespread adoption of eugenics by both the Left and the Right, leading to the systematic coercive sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people for alleged genetic faults.

Understandably, after WWII, there was a widespread revulsion on the Left against bio-utopian ideas. The Left was then pushed further towards a Romantic technophobia by environmentalism, the anti-corporate and anti-military New Left, the spiritual and pastoral counterculture, and intellectual attacks on the Enlightenment from postmodernists. There were still strains of transhumanist meliorism, however, in ideas such as psychedelic liberation, alternative technology and post-scarcity anarchism.  The Iranian-American F.M. Esfandiary, “FM2030,” the promoter of the term “transhuman,” synthesized left-libertarian politics with advocacy for life extension, biotechnologies and cognitive enhancement. But overall the Left became far more critical of technology than Marxists, social democrats and Progressives had been.

As a consequence of Left technoskepticism, neoliberals and market anarchists were prominent as advocates for technoutopianism in the 1970s and 1980s, from the corporate futurists to the anarcho-capitalists dreaming of independent states in space and on abandoned oil rigs. As Silicon Valley developed into a hub for entrepreneurial neoliberalism this strain of transhumanism found a natural home. As email and the Web began to connect technophiles worldwide the neoliberal Extropy Institute, founded by philosopher Max More, emerged in the 1990s as the first organized advocates for transhumanism.

Partly in reaction to the free market views of the Extropians, European transhumanists organized the broader World Transhumanist Association (WTA) in the late 1990s. The WTA included both social democrats and neoliberals around a liberal democratic definition of transhumanism, codified in the Transhumanist Declaration.

The years 2002 to 2004 saw the first debates about the transhumanist project in elite policy circles. Francis Fukuyama published the bioconservative best-seller Our Posthuman Future, and was he then appointed to the Bush administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics (PBC) by fellow bioconservative Leon Kass. Under the leadership of Kass and Fukuyama the PBC published Beyond Therapy, which suggested the need for strong regulation of cognitive enhancement, life extension and other biotechnologies. At the same time, the American Christian Right and the Vatican were evolving beyond opposition to abortion to a broader critique of reproductive technologies and human enhancement. Left-wing and environmentalist critics of biotechnology such as Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, the Center for Genetics and Society and radical disability rights groups also began to oppose nanomedicine, genetic engineering and human enhancement in the early 2000s. Gradually, a network of Left and Right-wing bioconservatives has grown linking these groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Bush administration, the religious Right and the emergence of this Left-Right bioconservative axis had a polarizing effect on biopolitical intellectuals, driving many to associate with the growing transhumanist movement and to clearly advocate for the right to human enhancement. Bioethicists John Harris and Julian Savulescu in the UK joined with American bioethicists Arthur Caplan, Henry Greely, and Gregory Pence in defense of reproductive cloning, germinal choice and cognitive enhancement. Although these intellectuals explicitly reject the label of transhumanist, they represent the natural working out of Enlightenment ethics in biopolicy of which transhumanism is a product.

Meanwhile transhumanists gathering under the aegis of the World Transhumanist Association, which now has more than 5000 members in more than 100 countries, were rediscovering the egalitarian strain of Enlightenment thought. Polls of transhumanists find that roughly 40%-50% are on the Left, from Communists and left anarchists to American “liberals,” while only a quarter are on the economic right, from anarcho-capitalists to EuroLiberals. While almost all transhumanists are in agreement on cultural politics, this huge diversity of opinion on economics has led to many skirmishes.

Another dynamic in the 2000s has been a growing focus by transhumanists on the apocalyptic possibilities of emerging technologies. One manifestation of this has been the growth of the millennialist Singularitarian subculture which anticipates the day when machine intelligence surpasses human, and which ranges from naïve technoutopianism to apaocalyptic fatalism about the outcome of the “Singularity” and our ability to effect it. Outside of this subculture however many transhumanists have begun to seriously engage with the regulatory and security policies that would reduce threats from technologies of mass destruction, while promoting the use of emerging technologies to making civilization more resilient to catastrophic risks. Engagement with these questions have contributed to the declining influence of the anti-statist right within transhumanism.

In my 2004 book Citizen Cyborg I argued for a social-democratic version of transhumanism, “democratic transhumanism,” as the natural product of the egalitarian Enlightenment and a uniter of disparate contemporary Enlightenment political projects. This term has now been superceded among left-wing transhumanists by the more mellifluous “technoprogressive,” about which I say more in the interview coming in the second part of this issue, and about which more can be found at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Another argument I made in Citizen Cyborg was that the new biopolitics raised unique political questions, and had generated a new axis in ideaspace along with economic and cultural politics. One prediction of that model was that there would eventually be culturally conservative versions of transhumanism, of both a New Right and populist variety. These have been slow to develop, and less than 5% of transhumanists self-consciously identify as “conservatives.” But religious transhumanists, some of whom have more conservative mores, have emerged. For instance there is now a growing Mormon Transhumanist Association which sees immortalism and the Singularity as fulfillment of Mormon prophecy. In 2009 the group Conservatism Plus has organized as a network for “transhumanists who support Libertarian, Conservative, Minarchist, Republican or otherwise Conservative Viewpoints.”

Transhumanists outside the United States have also begun to develop distinctive political perspectives. The most detailed transhumanist political document so far has been the manifesto of the Italian Transhumanist Association (AIT), which was published in 2008. It analyzes the strategic situation for science and secularism in Italy, and the role the AIT should play in promoting egalitarian access to technologies, reflecting the influence of a prominent group of socialists in that group.

Transhumanism’s appropriation in Latin America, Africa and Asia has been much slower than in the more wired parts of the world, but again its reception is bound up with the spread of the Enlightenment in general. For some in the developing world transhumanism appears as the “Enlightenment on steroids,” an ideology that invests national technological and biomedical progress with revolutionary ambitions. For others, such as many Asians, the Western biopolitical polarization appears to be irrelevant, as there is little resistance to radical applications of technology, and much less enthusiasm for radical Western individualism.

Finally, like all movements, there have emerged internal tensions between those who would like to reframe transhumanism to make it less threatening, and those who defend its more radical and futuristic ambitions. In an exercise in “rebranding” the World Transhumanist Association has renamed itself Humanity+, and is debating demoting “transhumanism” and the idea of the “post-human” in favor of longevity and cognitive enhancement. In reaction more radical transhumanists have gathered in the “Order of Cosmic Engineers” and issued their own “Yes! To Transhumanism” manifesto.

As the world enters this deep economic crisis, and with threats from climate change and weapons of mass destruction looming, the evolving politics of transhumanism may seem frivolous to some. But it is still my belief that in this century transhumanist advocates for Enlightenment values will be as influential in the politics of technology as their forebears have been in economics and culture. Given the enormous diversity of transhumanist politics, however, it is not at all clear which version of the Enlightenment they will be championing.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837