This week’s entry: Transhumanism
What it’s about: This week’s page comes from reader Sheltie, who turned us on to this extensive look at the persistent idea that humanity will one day use technology to enhance our bodies and minds into something more than human. From genetic engineering to cybernetic implants to performance-enhancing drugs, transhumanism is already starting to creep into everyday life. How long will it be before we’re all assimilated? Read on.
Strangest fact: One goal of transhumanism is nothing short of virtual immortality—extending the human lifespan indefinitely with technology, whether stopping the aging process, or using nanotechnology to create a tiny, robotic superpowered immune system. However, one survey had a quarter of transhumanists expressing no interest in living forever. Some feared for the world’s overpopulation; others wanted to experience an afterlife; others simply feared a too-long life would eventually get boring.
Biggest controversy: Transhumanism has been a controversial subject since before it had a name. Fiction has long warned us about tinkering with our humanity, from Frankenstein to Brave New World to Gattaca. Many religions frown upon “playing God,” and many scientists warn that biology is too complex to be tinkered with without unexpected results. Transhumanism is also easily conflated with eugenics, an earlier movement that believed humanity could hasten its own evolution by encouraging the genetically fit to breed more, and the “unfit” to breed less. In the late 1800s it was considered sound science, and even adopted into public policy in some places, but by the following century, it was being used as a justification for racial segregation and Nazi Germany’s genocide against Jews and other ethnic groups. So, yes, a mite controversial.
Thing we were happiest to learn: There’s a wide range of technologies considered transhumanist, and not all of them lead to us being at war with Skynet. At its mildest, transhumanism can simply involve using physical and mental exercises to improve health and cognitive performance. But the philosophy casts a wide net that includes extending the human lifespan, the use of artificial organs, and even conquering our oldest enemy, sleep (the Defense Department has already been extending the length of time our pilots can go without sleep to 40 hours, and they hope to extend that number to 168). Also on the list, mind uploading and artificial intelligence, so at least some technologies do lead to us living in the Matrix.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Some of us may become superhuman, but it’ll be Paris Hilton and Tagg Romney, not your broke ass. As the divide between rich and poor widens at home and abroad, one fear of transhumanists is that body- and mind-enhancing technologies will be the exclusive province of the rich, who will be controlling yachts with their minds and snorting coke off of each other’s robot exoskeletons while our frail, unenhanced mortal bodies aren’t good for much more than a few servings of Soylent Green. One subset of the movement, democratic transhumanists, believe that humans shouldn’t advance until our social and environmental issues are sorted out, so no one gets eyes that shoot lasers until we can stop the HMOs from considering “eyes that don’t shoot lasers” to be a pre-existing condition.
Also noteworthy: There’s been a remarkable amount of fiction dealing with transhumanism, from Frankenstein onwards, and like that book, nearly all of the stories are cautionary. Cyborg villains abound, from Doctor Who’s Cybermen, to Blade Runner’s replicants, to Star Trek’s Borg, with enhanced humans rarely treated as something other than a crime against nature until the arrival of the cyberpunk genre in the 1980s. Before that, one of the only transhumans shown in an unambiguously positive light was Captain America.