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Transhumanism
by Gregor Wolbring

September 30 , 2006

"'I believe in transhumanism': once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny." -- Julian Huxley First Director-General of UNESCO in New Bottles for New Wine.

Many will not have heard of transhumanism, despite the fact that the Huxley quote shows it’s not new and that transhumanists themselves feel they are now entering the mainstream.

“Transhumanism," transhumanists say, "is entering the mainstream culture today, as increasing numbers of scientists, scientifically literate philosophers, and social thinkers are beginning to take seriously the range of possibilities that transhumanism encompasses. A rapidly expanding family of transhumanist groups, differing somewhat in flavor and focus, and a plethora of discussion groups in many countries around the world, are gathered under the umbrella of the World Transhumanist Association, a non-profit democratic membership organization.“

“The human desire to acquire posthuman attributes,” they say, “is as ancient as the human species itself. Humans have always sought to expand the boundaries of their existence, be it ecologically, geographically, or mentally. There is a tendency in at least some individuals always to try to find a way around every limitation and obstacle.”

Transvision 2006 -- the latest in a series of conferences organized by the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) with local affiliates -- just happened in August 2006 in Helsinki, Finland. This year’s theme was Emerging Technologies of Human Enhancement. Winner of the 2006 J.B.S. Haldane Award (a student competition prize) was Guido Núñez-Mujica for "The Ethics of Enhancing Animals, Specifically Great Apes" which was published in the Journal of Personal Cyber-Consciousness.

Talks at the conference included: Transhumanism and the Freedom of Scientific Research in the EU by Dr. Riccardo Campa; Is Life Extension an Enhancement? by Dr. Aubrey de Grey; Information Technologies, Methods and Practices for Mind Enhancement by Dr. Danila Medvedev; Designing Artificial Minds by Dr. Harri Valpola; Vitrification in Physics and Cryonics by Dr. Anatoli Bogdan; Wisdom through AGI /  Neural Macrosensing by Natasha Vita-More; Virtue Engineering: Applications of Neurotechnology to Improve Moral Behavior by Dr. James Hughes, executive director of the WTA; Cognitive Divide or a Mind-Meld? Scenarios of Cognitive Enhancement by Dr. Anders Sandberg; and Body Enhancement Technologies at 2020, a panel discussion that included Nick Bostrom, Aubrey de Grey, David Wood (Symbian Ltd.), Hannu Kari, and Anders Sandberg.

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, founded in 2004 by the chair of the board of directors and cofounder of the World Transhumanist Association, Nick Bostrom, and the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association,  James J. Hughes, publishes the electronic Journal of Evolution and Technology, which among others had a special issue on Religion and Transhumanism (Volume 14, Issue 2) and many other interesting articles.

From these links and articles it is evident that transhumanists and transhumanism can be seen as one possible 'application philosophy' of emerging sciences and technology (NBICS). I have used the term transhumanism before in my columns. So how do transhumanists describe transhumanism themselves?

The FAQ of the World Transhumanist Association gives the following answers to the question: What is transhumanism?

Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase. We formally define it as follows:

(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

Transhumanism can be viewed as an extension of humanism, from which it is partially derived. Humanists believe that humans matter, that individuals matter. We might not be perfect, but we can make things better by promoting rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy, and concern for our fellow human beings. Transhumanists agree with this but also emphasize what we have the potential to become. Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism. In doing so, we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as human.”

It is not our human shape or the details of our current human biology that define what is valuable about us, but rather our aspirations and ideals, our experiences, and the kinds of lives we lead. To a transhumanist, progress occurs when more people become more able to shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values. Transhumanists place a high value on autonomy: the ability and right of individuals to plan and choose their own lives. Some people may of course, for any number of reasons, choose to forgo the opportunity to use technology to improve themselves. Transhumanists seek to create a world in which autonomous individuals may choose to remain unenhanced or choose to be enhanced and in which these choices will be respected.

Is there an ethical standard by which transhumanists judge "improvement of the human condition"? Section 3.7 of the FAQ includes the following...

Transhumanism is compatible with a variety of ethical systems, and transhumanists themselves hold many different views. Nonetheless, the following seems to constitute a common core of agreement:

According to transhumanists, the human condition has been improved if the conditions of individual humans have been improved. In practice, competent adults are usually the best judges of what is good for themselves. Therefore, transhumanists advocate individual freedom, especially the right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical capacities and to improve their control over their own lives.

When it comes to life-extension and its various enabling technologies, a delay of a single week equals one million avoidable premature deaths –- a weighty fact which those who argue for bans or moratoria would do well to consider carefully. (The further fact that universal access will likely lag initial availability only adds to the reason for trying to hurry things along.)

Transhumanists reject speciesism, the (human racist) view that moral status is strongly tied to membership in a particular biological species, in our case Homo sapiens.

Are there different currents in transhumanism? One reads the following in Section 5.2...

There is a rich variety of opinion within transhumanist thought. Many of the leading transhumanist thinkers hold complex and subtle views that are under constant revision and development and which often defy easy labeling. Some distinctive – although not always sharply defined – currents or flavors of transhumanism can nevertheless be discerned:

Extropianism. The name is derived from the term “extropy”, coined by T. O. Morrow in 1988, referring to “the extent of a system's intelligence, information, order, vitality, and capacity for improvement”. Extropianism is defined by the Extropian Principles, a text authored by Max More (1998), who co-founded the Extropy Institute together with Morrow. Version 3.0 of this document lists seven principles that are important for extropians in the development of their thinking: Perpetual Progress, Self-Transformation, Practical Optimism, Intelligent Technology, Open Society, Self-Direction, and Rational Thinking. These are meant to codify general attitudes rather than specific dogmas.

Democratic transhumanism. This strand of transhumanism advocates both the right to use technology to transcend the limitations of the human body and the extension of democratic concerns beyond formal legal equality and liberty, into economic and cultural liberty and equality, in order to protect values such as equality, solidarity, and democratic participation in a transhuman context.

The Hedonistic Imperative. Another transhumanist current is represented by advocates of “paradise-engineering” as outlined in David Pearce (2003). Pearce argues on ethical grounds for a biological program to eliminate all forms of cruelty, suffering, and malaise. In the short-run, our emotional lives might be enriched by designer mood-drugs (i.e. not street-drugs). In the long-term, however, Pearce suggests that it will be technically feasible to rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem, and use biotechnology to abolish suffering throughout the living world. Pearce believes “post-Darwinian superminds” will enjoy genetically pre-programmed well-being and be animated by “gradients of bliss.”

Singularitarianism. Singularitarian transhumanists focus on transhuman technologies that can potentially lead to the rise of smarter-than-human intelligence, such as brain-computer interfacing and Artificial Intelligence. Since our present-day intelligence is ultimately the source of our technology, singularitarians expect the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence to be a watershed moment in history, with an impact more comparable to the rise of Homo sapiens than to past breakthroughs in technology. Singularitarians stress the importance of ensuring that such intelligence be coupled with ethical sensibility...

Theoretical transhumanism. This is not so much a specific version of a transhumanism as a research direction: the study of the constraints, possibilities, and consequences of potential future trajectories of technological and human development, using theoretical tools from economics, game theory, evolution theory, probability theory, and “theoretical applied science”; i.e. the study of physically possible systems designs that we cannot yet build. For some examples, see Bostrom (2002, 2003a) and Hanson (1994, 1998). Investigations of ethical issues related to the transhumanist project – the project of creating a world where as many people as possible have the option of becoming posthuman – can also be included under this heading...

Salon transhumanism. Transhumanism as a network of people who share certain interests and like to spend long hours conversing about transhumanist matters on email lists or face-to-face.

Transhumanism in arts and culture. Transhumanism as a source of inspiration in artistic creation and cultural activities, including efforts to communicate transhumanist ideas and values to a wider audience...

The Choice is Yours

Transhumanism has already had an impact on the direction of NBICS research and development, and on social structures, social policies and social groups (see my columns Therapy Versus Enhancement and Ableism and NBICS). It will continue to do so in the future. Readers should consider the significant impact it may have on their own life.

Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, science and technology ethicist, disability/vari-ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology studies researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Diasbility, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.

 

Resources
  • "Transhumanism." Julian Huxley. In New Bottles for New Wine, pp 13-17. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.
Please contact the author for information on this reference
or for additional future references at gwolbrin@ucalgary.ca


©Gregor Wolbring, All Rights Reserved, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

 

   
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