The Transhuman Race

Posted by on July 27th, 2010 in history, posthumanism

“Man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” – Julian Huxley

“Transhumanism is the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, physically, mentally and socially using rational methods.” – Dr. Anders Sandburg

“[Transhumanism is] a strange liberation movement” [that wants] “nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints.” – Francis Fukuyama

“Transhumanism is the idea that new technologies are likely to change the world so much in the next century or two that our descendants will in many ways no longer be ‘human’” – Dr. Robin Hanson

“Transhumanism is the doctrine that we can and should become more than human.” – Mitch Porter

“Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life [..]. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies[…]” – Dr. Max Moore

I want to share something with you – probably the most important thing I’ve told you in these pages.  It’s not quite a secret, though you probably won’t hear it this way from anyone at the Singularity Summit.  Still, it is the single most important thing you will ever learn about the “Transhumanist movement.”

There is no such thing as Transhumanism.

Don’t ignore the bulk of Transhumanist and Extropian research and writing.  Don’t ignore the  vast amount of pontificating on post-singularity existance.  Don’t ignore the ten-thousand dollar a head business day camps and the tech seminars and the religious zealots who desperately need a mind-controlling conspiracy to oppose.  All of that work and thought and effort is very real and, even if you’re just hearing about Transhumanism in the last couple of years you will see these things trickle into your life in the most unexpected places.

That’s because Transhumanism is real.

What do you think of when you think of Transhumans?  Life extension. Cyborgs.  Artificial Intelligence.  Uploading. Skynet. Nanoswarms. Uplifted octopi. Geoengineering. Sex-bots.

What if I asked you to think about examples of Transhumanism in the present?  Life extension. Athletes with prosthetics.  Prosthetic faces. RFID chips. Artificial eyes. Printable organs. Transexuals.  Rudimentary robots.  Industrial exoskeletons.  Military exoskeletons. Genetically Modified Organisms.  Artificial life. Patenting genomes. Augmented Reality. Sex-bots.

What if I asked that question in 1990?  1970? 1960?

It’s pretty easy to answer in these decades.  There’s a wealth of books and articles and essays and failing that, it’s simple to turn to fiction as the decades move backwards.   Implants hook antiheroes to computers beneath skies the colour of dead televisions while FM-2030 tries to open eyes to Transhumanity in the 80′s before his date with an Alcor storage chamber and hopeful cold resurrection.

The term “Transhuman” wasn’t coined until 1957, so before then to ask our hypothetical question, we might have to be a bit more descriptive.  Still, if you conjured an image of human and technological hybridity for the advancement of the human organism in years prior you’d get different but amazingly similar images as you traveled back to the industrial revolution and beyond.

There would be repeating themes as you traveled back – immortality, health, flight, a desire to be smarter/faster/stronger.  After that, though, you’d be left with  - just as our technological obsessions reveal, today – the image of humanity in the interviewee’s eyes.

Transhumanism – the desire to refine the human vessel and spirit into something more via technology is not new.  As Erik Davis points out in his book TechGnosis – this drive has been there as far as we know how to look back to.  The tools are new but the aims are the same.   Yesterday’s mysticism beget yesterday’s alchemy, which brought the enlightenment, which brought industrialization, which brought futurism and today, we call the mass of thoughts surrounding this drive “Transhumanism.” (Or better still: Extropianism, which is a more specific and technically precise term but one that hasn’t permeated the popular consciousness, yet.)

Here’s the trick of it, though.  Many individuals when discussing Transhumanism, get tied up in the technology aspect of it and the miss the forest for the trees because the trees seem to be growing human tissue.  To consider Transhumanism a movement, you have to realize that it is refering to a series of events that began when Grock picked up his first rock.

Transhumanism is a name applied to a kind of thinking concerning technological hybridity.  It is a mathematics that adds human to a variable to get Human Plus, which in turn is added to a variable and a new result is produced.

This isn’t new.  We’ve been a tool-using species for a hell of a long time.  Grok plus a rock for hitting things was Grok Plus.  Grock with a rock and fire was the Grok Kurzweil of his time.   It might have been a low-bandwith exchange, but Grok was changed by his usage of tools as much as he used his tools to change his environment.

We have always been human/technology hybrids.

Throk has symbols and sounds.  Those symbols become language.  Language both changes how the brain works and jacks Throk and his descendants into the very first augmented reality.  Throck pointing at a symbol on the wall and evoking a wolf shares the same technological space as my pointing at a wolf made of prims in Second Life as a kid pointing at the wolf on an AR display in Tokyo.   Throk has the killer app and from now on everyone will have proto-Augmented Reality and someday it will be so ingrained and natural that we will be unable to uninstall it.

Throk begat a species of Transhumans who will always have self-upgrading versions of Language installed.  Even if for some freak reason the app doesn’t get installed, the wetware will still be optimized to use it.

Language and tools gave us discernible culture – a whole series of interlocking technologies that are designed to propagate and spread and protect the clients who have it installed.  Culture becomes agriculture and suddenly everything changes all over again.  The technologies of agriculture make humans change their lives around them.

Transhumanism is concerned with events that began before the dawn of recorded history.  Transhumanism – as most people will present it to you – does not exist because the core concern of Transhumanity is the Human condition itself.

Human history is Transhuman history.  We have always been a species using technology to transform ourselves, make ourselves better or even just figure out what “better” means.

In fact I’ll go out on a limb here and lay out my most tightly held belief - I’m not a big believer in “human nature” but if there is one facet of human nature that I believe in it’s this:

The nature of mankind is to transcend itself.

The urge for technological transcendence and refinement – and the follow-through upon it is not new.  What changes is the scale and complexity involved.  Things become more complex, which creates change at a faster and faster rate however; while the shells may be moving faster and there may be more of them – the game remains the same.

William Godwin tells his daughter Mary Shelley about the link between liberty and human immortality as elsewhen Thomas Aquinas St. Ambrose performs the nearly miraculous act of reading silently without moving his lips.  Agriculture causes a vast population boom, but also creates the conditions that will one day develop into global war, ecological disaster, patriarchy, and genocide.

Fukuyama who has devoted his life to Capitalism and Democracy proclaims that Transhumanism is a threat even though Capitalism in and of itself is a technology designed to propagate and maneuver goods, services and currency which are all in and of themselves technologies designed to enhance or expand the human condition.  Francis Fukuyama is a Transhumanist, too.

Transhuman technologies heal your diseases, bind your wounds, purify and pollute your air.   Memory palaces made the mind bigger, psychedelics make the ego membrane more permeable.   The internet makes us smarter or maybe it just makes us faster at being shallow.

Transhumanism does not exist – it is an illusion.   It is a construct that allows the examination of Humanity through a lens that makes the implicit hybridization of the human organism and technology explicit.   It is a trick of the eye to try and help us not suffer ontological shock when the future comes and it is both different from the one we expected and filled with changes to ourselves.   Each generation takes technologies and normalizes them – moving them from the realm of the strange and the Other into their accepted schema of how the world works.  Glass eyes move on to artificial hearts, to personal internet  to sex changes to better-than-human prosthetics.

This is how it works, because this is how it has always worked.

There is no such thing as Transhumanism. And that is why it is such an important and vital concept at its core when stripped of the commercial baggage.

Transhumanism is a story we tell ourselves in order to recover from the culturally-stagnating and dangerous idea that we as humans are separate from and somehow not responsible for our technologies.  And in that way, while it is a fiction, it is a useful fiction – a minor trick of mental prestidigitation that people of all types can use to contextualize themselves in the ever more complex and constantly transforming narratives of history.

It’s the eternal romance that even though the dancers may change – somewhere out there, humanity will still be dancing.

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7 Responses to “The Transhuman Race”

  1. to me transhumanism is the desire to improve ourselves, not with just the technology we will create but with all the resources we have including by expanding our minds in ways that work beneficially for the individual. it is the act of personal evolution, as well as adjusting and passing our assumed limits.

  2. Very interesting take on what transhumanism is and is not. One quick note though. I think it was St. Ambrose who famously was able to read silently without moving lips or tongue, not Aquinas. It's possible that I missed your reference though, and you could have been pointing to something else.

  3. @John: Thanks, and you're totally right about Ambrose – I always get that story backwards.

  4. Kevin, this may be the best piece I've read of yours here and I feel I need to thank you for it.

  5. I think you may be missing the original necessity for the word 'transhuman': it is a descriptor for a species which may evolve from us and not adhere to the necessary criteria for the definition of 'homo sapiens'. We could use terms like 'homo novus' or other more appropriate terms, but it is poor practise to name a species before it exists. The reason that a 'transhuman' is different to a 'human' rests on the (still debated) criteria we allocate for humanity. For example, if a human gives birth to a three legged, giant headed, green skinned humanoid, who then begets a series of consecutive, similar creatures in a bloodline, you have a 'transhuman' species. The prevailing opinion on what a transhuman would be, however (rightly or wrongly) is that the major inherited changes would be those in adopted technology and sufficiently species-altering traits which we may adopt post-natally by a dictum of culture; the definition of a transhuman would include the presence of any such technology, just as some completely symbiotic species require their partner species by definition and identification. Regardless, I'm not sure I agree that 'transhumanity' refers to 'everything leading to a transhuman' as 'Grock' would stipulate, but rather it refers to the population of eventual transhumans and their characteristics. This is why we have a growing industry of 'transhumanists' studying 'transhumanism' (the facilitation and prediction of transhumanity based on futurist extrapolations), but no legitimate 'transhumans' forming an extant 'transhumanity'. To say that Grock is in any way related to transhumanism, given the lack of language and ability to extrapolate hundreds of thousands of years into the future, nor the criteria for humanity involving a necessary 'rock' to be carried around, let alone a transhumanity, might be a little extreme an interpretation. Does a chimpanzee with a stick make a transchimpanzee? What about a crow with a handily bent piece of wire as a spontaneous solution to a food-retrieval problem: a transcrow? If our evolutionary predecessors used rocks, which given crows and chimpanzees is fairly likely but impossible to prove, and this 'tool use' carried on across the transition into homosapiens, then (by the Grock definition) there was never a non-trans human, leaving the term completely meaningless. If transhumanity means 'humanity with tools' and humans always used basic tools, then there is no difference between the definitions. And where is the cut off then? My understanding of transhumans relies on the same ontology of species which currently differentiates the species of the world. Under the tool use hypothesis, is a tooth a tool? Is 'dropping food from height to break the shell' a tool? If it isn't , how is it really different to dropping a rock onto food from a height? How do we draw the line? Is there a criteria for the criteria?
    Nonetheless – an interesting thought.

  6. Isn't the descriptor for a species which may evolve from us and not adhere to the necessary citeria for the definition of 'homo sapines'… posthuman?

    I always thought transhuman was the state of going from human to something more, hence a tool-using, body-enhancing human is a transhuman.

    From wikipedia's transhuman article: Transhuman is a term that refers to an evolutionary transition from the human to the posthuman.

    From wikipedia's posthuman article: According to transhumanist thinkers, a posthuman is a hypothetical future being "whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.

    So, er, yeah. I think you might be coming from the wrong angle here. You are asking questions that are answered by the fact that YES transhumanism IS that vague and tool-using species does, as its end product, a trans-species make. It's about going beyond what one is naturally capable of, which is a direct consequence of tool use.

  7. So if transhuman is between human and posthuman, where human is defined as one species and posthuman is defined as another, different species, how can you be definitively 'transhuman' or a 'trans-species'? This would imply that you could be definitively in a species beyond human, but not posthuman, which is contrary to the original definition of posthuman. The way I read 'The Transhuman Race', transhumanity is being defined here as the vague time in which humans approach posthumanity – which just makes them members of the human species before the origin of posthumans. This leaves 'transhumanity' without a useful definition. With your wikipedia references, it appears that there are three species, humanity (which all are now), transhumanity (which is sufficiently distinct from humanity to be a different species), and posthumanity (the species after transhumanity which has few or no common traits with humanity – unambiguously inhuman). At present, humanity (as homo sapiens) is defined by a set of physical features, not a culture of tool-use. To become transhuman, a population must either adopt inheritable changes or form a necessity for specific tool use from birth, such that it MUST be in the set of descriptors for that species. Picking up a rock is neither of these, nor is the iphone. A genetic adaptation which allows the species to make better use of a specific tool, but be crippled without it, might suffice for a 'trans-species' definition. The point is that an 'evolutionary transition' is a species in and of itself – and therefore must have specific and species-common differences to the preceding and consequent species in order to be well-defined. Grock and a rock and a chimp with a stick are just clever behaviours of a species – and does not a trans-species make.