wowt explains: what is transhumanism?
Nature did some great things for us over the last two million years. We may not be all that fast or strong, but we’re persistent, smart, adaptable survivors who can win wars of attrition against both predators and prey. But as we keep setting our sights higher, we’re bumping into a lot of very annoying limitations imposed on us by evolutionary tradeoffs, which has a group of people asking whether we can use everything from robotic to genetic engineering to rebuild ourselves as superpowered lifeforms, and if so, how we would go about it. This area of thought is known as transhumanism, and it’s a bizarre combination of amazing science fact and cargo cult science fiction. To help you separate the two, here’s a handy explainer.
who coined the term transhumanism?
British biologist and philosopher Julian Huxley is credited with introducing the term in 1957 as a title of his essay on the potential future of humanity, painting us taking charge of our evolution and technological development as a foregone, inescapable conclusion. He appears to have been influenced by ideas similar to those voiced by Russian utopians known as the cosmists, a group certain that a future of luxury, automation, boundless creativity, and immortal cyborg bodies or ageless biological ones awaited us sooner rather than later.
are there any specific tenets of transhumanism?
Transhumanism is not an organized philosophy which has a specific list of beliefs. Rather it’s the idea that we can and should transcend our natural limitational. Exactly how to do it, and what to do with the new abilities we want to create is a subject of debate between transhumanists and depends on their personal priorities. Some believe we should try to leave our bodies and try to upload ourselves to machines — which simply isn’t going to work — while others think we should aim to become cyborgs — which is far more likely — and others still believe there must be a biological way to attain immortality, and once we’re immortal, we can tackle serious, long term problems since they’ll become everyone’s very real concern.
is transhumanism the same thing as the singularity?
No, not really. Singularitarianism is a flavor of transhumanism which focuses on the future of artificial intelligence and our interactions with it, while transhumanism itself is a much broader idea. Transhumanists also don’t ascribe to any specific date for any specific milestones, they see their ideas as transformative, important, but ongoing research and development along a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines and technologies. Singularitarians, on the other hand, believe that when computers are capable of emulating a human brain, which they think will happen in 2045, that’s when our evolution and progress will finally enter a new, post-human phase.
is biohacking part of transhumanism?
Yes, there are transhumanists who believe that using modern medicine and science, they can hack their bodies to radically extend their lifespans and quality of life. However, many of their attempts are just pseudoscience from cherry-picked studies. In reality, there’s only so much that supplements, exercise, and diet can do for you. You should certainly strive to maintain a healthy weight, eat balanced meals, and stay active, but there are fundamental constraints on how long your body can maintain itself, and we’re still trying to figure out how to get around them. Abusing supplements and potential anti-aging treatments actually result in shortening one’s life through kidney and liver failure or by stimulating the development of cancers with stem cell injections or accidentally consuming carcinogens.
is transhumanism ground in real science and technology?
Yes and no. Transhumanists are very interested in real world research into cyborgs, healthcare, and life extension, and tend to extensively quote articles about actual research. However, they are prone to elevating preliminary, statistically insignificant results to the level of settled, tested science the products of which are on their way to a doctor’s office and adopt the most positive interpretation of studies that are further along. Basically, they have a very rose-colored view of where we are when it comes to life expectancy, life extension, genetic engineering, stem cells, and other technology needed to overcome our limitations as humans.
Some even believe that such technology wouldn’t just make us stronger, healthier, and live longer, but make us better and moral beings in general. Even a cursory look at human history would show this stance as being wildly optimistic since morality is a product of upbringing and personal values, so it’s entirely possible that some people enhanced to become extremely strong, fast, and intelligent cyborgs would use their abilities not to rescue people or fight for their nations in conflicts, but to become criminals or warlords in failed states.