By Dr Alan Tuffrey
Alan is a member of the Humanist Association of Ireland and the Dublin Humanist Community. Before retirement, he lectured in physiology at Trinity College Dublin. In this article, he examines 'Transhumanism' – its meanings, morals, hazards, and alternatives.
Tom White, a member of the Humanist Network Ireland Steering Group and Secretary of the Westport Humanists in County Mayo, started a discussion about Transhumanism in the Sep-Oct 2022 issue of Irish Free Thinker and Humanist. Tom and I also led a discussion for Humanist Network Ireland on this topic last August. Together, these discussions have generated the following reflections about the origin of the term ‘Transhumanism’ and its much later development to refer to a very different form of human ‘enhancement’ by, a frankly sinister, use of technology.
Tom White started by citing Julian Huxley, who coined the word in his essay ‘Transhumanism’, which appeared in his 1957 collection of essays, New Bottles for New Wine. In that very short essay, Huxley outlines the ideas that he set out at much greater length in his 1962 essay The Humanist Frame, from the book of the same name (also in Essays of a Humanist). However, in that elaboration, Huxley no longer used the term ‘Transhumanism’, but instead used ‘psychosocial evolution’, which is what we would call ‘evolutionary humanism’ or just ‘humanism’.
Huxley’s ‘Transhumanism’ (1957)
Essentially, Huxley recognised three phases of evolution. The first was the inorganic phase, when different types of atom were formed in stars. The second was biological evolution – the development of life. Finally, he recognised ‘psychosocial evolution’ when humans had evolved the capacity for abstract thought, language and reasoning enabling the rapid transmission of ideas and technology. Crucially, each phase is much faster than the one before and leads to much greater complexity. For Huxley, humans uniquely have the capacity to choose their ‘destiny’ and to act deliberately to move towards it.
On this humanist view, humans are the ‘sole agents of evolution’ – we have the responsibility to the whole planet to manage our development and our effects benignly. I think most humanists would broadly agree with this view about our position in the world as part of nature, but with our extraordinary power and our responsibility to use it for the benefit of all living things.
Tom White did refer to the aberration that was ‘coerced eugenics’, which has sometimes been associated with ‘evolutionary humanism’, but in fact greatly predates Huxley’s essay. Coerced eugenics is the forcible prevention of breeding of the ‘unfit’ (see Noël Byrne’s Liberal Eugenics in Irish Freethinker and Humanist, May-June 2021). That form of eugenics as a method of trying to improve the species is based on at least two major misunderstandings – but that’s a discussion for another day.
Silicon Valley Transhumanism
If the term ‘Transhumanism’ only had an ephemeral existence in 1957, it has acquired a new meaning and a new life in recent years. Transhumanism has now come to mean the improvement of the humankind by the enhancement of individuals by technological means, whether genetic or by some kind of fusion with artificial intelligence (AI). This looks like a kind of science fiction exploration, and it may be no surprise that these ideas flourish in Silicon Valley. This ‘Transhumanism’ has been described by Irish writer Mark O’Connell in his 2017 book To Be a Machine. One form of this idea is that of escaping death, usually by freezing a body until there is a way of ‘curing death’. An extreme form is to upload an individual’s brain (that is, their essential being) into some type of AI device. This is called ‘the Singularity’ or ‘The Rapture of the nerds’. On this view, the body is seen as obsolete, merely ‘the fleshy container in which the software of our mind is contained’. The body is very fragile and has ‘expensive maintenance routines'. This form of ‘Transhumanism’ is seen by its proponents as just another stage in evolution like the ones that went before.
'Is the obsession with evading death part of a vain, materialist culture?'
Can we dismiss Transhumanism by deploying the ad hominem argument?
At this point deploying the ad hominem argument is irresistible, but this is not a respectable logical tool. Essentially, it says that we can discount an argument because of who is making it. Employing it would suggest that Silicon Valley techies and Elon Musk can perhaps be discounted as a bit weird. But this strategy does not deal with the substantive issues. We can more plausibly argue that the values behind this ‘Transhumanism’ are wrong and the ‘obsession’ with evading death is part of a vain, materialist culture. Further, the means to use ‘Transhumanism’ will always be restricted to a wealthy elite, and that may have extremely undesirable implications for the politics of the future.
However, the futuristic, speculative element of this ‘Transhumanism’ is all very well, but we have plenty of experience to show that if something can be done, some of those who have the power to do it will do it. There are places with cryogenically frozen bodies awaiting the day when they can be resurrected: there is one such ‘patient care bay’ in a business park on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. We already know that some parents are selecting the sex of embryos to be implanted. Who knows what other traits are being selected – or will be in the near future? We do know of one shocking and deeply unethical attempt to genetically modify embryos in a way that would be heritable. Those embryos have since developed into children.
What is to be done?
Trying to improve our species and the state of the planet is no doubt a worthy aim. But the choice of methods is critical. I argue that there are several other things we can do which will have important and useful effects, before we start using ‘transhumanist’ methods, the results of which are difficult to predict and may be profound and irreversible, and which offend the principle of ‘first do no harm’.
For example, we can enhance our species by enabling greater numbers of individuals to fulfil their potential. This can be done by improving living conditions, leading to better health, education and contribution to society. It was the realisation of the importance of this environmental mechanism that led to the rejection of eugenics by some of its more liberal adherents.
We could improve the use of our brains by education, enhancing critical thinking, and abstract reasoning – without losing empathy and awe. The methods used are benign and capable of being modified in the light of experience, unlike those proposed by Silicon Valley transhumanists.
Various thinkers, from the early 19th century French positivist Auguste Comte to the mid 20th century Julian Huxley and early 21st century Steven Pinker, have argued that once such enhanced modes of thinking have been widely adopted, humankind will make rapid progress because there will be more agreement and we will be on Pinker’s ‘Escalator of Reason’. This idea was presented in Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, published in 2011, to describe the gradual improvement of human reasoning and rationality over time.
Thanks to Tom White for initiating an interesting discussion and for the participants at the Humanist Network Ireland meeting for valuable insights.
Further reading and viewing
Tom White has contributed an article about transhumanism to this edition of Humanistically Speaking (see The next 500 years).
The Humanist Frame (1961) was 'an attempt to present humanism as a comprehensive system of ideas'. It included contributions from notable humanists such as Julian Huxley, Jacob Bronowski, Harold J Blackham, Michael Tippett, Stephen Spender and Aldous Huxley.
'What it means to be human in the 21st Century' – a panel discussion in the Trinity Long Room Hub, http://bitly.ws/vce3 – see in particular Mark O’Connell from 15.30.