Transhumanism is already here
But the promise of utopia has failed to materialise
At an UnHerd event last night, columnist Mary Harrington and Oxford University AI ethicist Elise Bohan, author of Future Superhuman, came together to discuss transhumanism — the idea that human limits such as longevity and cognition can be pushed back using technology. Is this a utopian vision of a better future or a dystopian nightmare? Below, Mary’s opening remarks are republished in full:
I hope Elise would agree, broadly speaking, with my working definition of transhumanism. A worldview in which ‘human nature’ has no special cultural or political status. And in which it’s not just legitimate but morally necessary to use technology — especially biotechnology — to improve on that nature.
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When we talk about transhumanism, the temptation is to depict this as an exciting (or frightening) possible future, but in any case one that hasn’t really happened yet.
Another point on which I hope Elise and I would agree is that this is the wrong way to look at it. Transhumanism is already here. In fact it’s so well-established that there’s arguably no point in debating its pros and cons. So: congratulations, Elise. Your side already won. End of debate, we can all go and have a drink.
I’m joking, of course. There’s lots to talk about! Not least, what we can infer from how the transhumanist era is going so far.
This era began in the mid-twentieth century, with a biomedical innovation that radically changed what it is to be a human, in the human social order: reproductive technology.
The Pill was the first transhumanist technology: it set out not to fix something that was wrong with ‘normal’ human physiology — in the ameliorative sense of medicine up to that point — but instead it introduced a whole new paradigm. It set out to interrupt normal in the interests of individual freedom.
At one point in Future Superhuman Elise notes that avowed transhumanist women are rarer than men. She postulates (I’m paraphrasing) that this is because men are typically more abstract, systemic thinkers.
But I’d say on the contrary, the reason transhumanist women seem so rare is that they’re so common they don’t read as transhumanist.
Nearly every adult woman in the developed world has implicitly accepted the belief that full adult female personhood is structurally reliant on technologies that interrupt normal female fertility. And by the definition I opened with, that makes nearly every adult woman in the developed world a transhumanist.
So, how’s the transhumanist era going? The Pill was legalised in 1960 in America, and 1961 in Britain. So we have more than six decades’ worth of data on how transhumanist practice measures up to transhumanist theory.
What I suggest we can infer from the story so far in that instance is that trying to re-engineer our physiology – our nature, if you will – in the interests of freedom, progress, or whatever other name you give utopia doesn’t deliver that utopia.
Or, rather, it does, kind of. But this utopia arrives asymmetrically, depending on where you sit in the socioeconomic hierarchy. And where technology is used to “liberate” us from the kind of givens — such as normal female fertility — that were previously managed, pragmatically, by social or legal norms, what replaces it isn’t a human ‘person’ free from ‘nature’ but a market in which that ‘nature’ becomes a set of supply and demand problems.
In the case of sex, the transhumanist Pill revolution didn’t deliver (as the feminist Shulamith Firestone imagined) a polymorphous liberation of human sexuality. Or it did, but under the sign of commerce. We got the so-called “sexual marketplace” in which normative asymmetries in male and female mating preferences reappear in cartoon form, as market opportunities or as strategic weaknesses to be weaponised in a contest for personal gain. Or, straightforwardly, as commodities to buy, sell, or exploit.
Meanwhile, if those at the top of the food chain are relatively well-placed to thrive in this “marketplace”, those at the bottom — impoverished, racialised, trafficked or otherwise vulnerable people, particularly women — are far more likely to become commodities themselves.
I would argue further that the same logic will be likely to hold for any other embodied limit you destroy via biotech. I predict that should we find a “cure” for ageing, it won’t be universally available. It will be prohibitively expensive, and serve primarily as a tool for further consolidating wealth and power.
Perhaps it will require harvesting tissue from others. The fertility industry already has a thriving market for gametes or ‘reproductive services’ or renting somebody else’s womb. But so far it’s not rich, well-connected people who sell themselves in this way. Research is already being done into blood transfusions as an anti-ageing treatment, and you can be sure that should it flourish, it won’t be rich people selling their plasma either.
You’d have to be wildly optimistic to think we can blithely marketise ever greater swathes of our embodied selves without opening new vistas for class asymmetry and exploitation. And it makes no sense to argue that we will stay well-protected against such risks by moral safeguards. Because transhumanism itself requires an all-out assault on the humanist anthropology that underpins those moral safeguards.
You can’t have transhumanism without throwing out humanism. And if people are just “ape-brained meatsacks” as Elise describes, urgently in need of upgrading, what possible reason could we have for objecting to a market in human organs? Or infanticide? Or genetically engineering the masses to be more docile? All these are only repellent when held against a humanist anthropology.
So if you’re assaulting that anthropology in the name of humanist values (such as freedom, or kindness, or lives lived in greater dignity) I submit that your project is unlikely to work out the way you expect it to.
In sum, then. We’re already well into the transhumanist era. But the story so far suggests that far from delivering utopia, what it mostly delivers is a commodification of the human body that disproportionately benefits those who already have power and privilege.
I don’t think we can put this back in its box. But to my eye the proper response to this era is not acceleration but a twofold resistance. Firstly, in retaining a humanist anthropology, in defiance of all those currently sawing away at the branch we’re sitting on. And secondly, in mounting a vigorous defence of those without power, now increasingly at the sharp-end of biotech’s unacknowledged class politics. Thank you.
Watch the full debate HERE.
Really enjoyed this event last night. I felt Mary’s presentation was rooted far more in the reality of techno-capitalism and had a more plausible view of the likely futures inherent in the concept of transhumanism. Elise on the other hand was the idealist, and much of her presentation dealt with what amounted to religious faith and science fiction speculations. I also thought equating technological development with biological evolution was a fundamental category error that allowed her to present a transhumanist future as a natural necessity rather than an outgrowth of our present economic/political circumstances. In that sense it was not scientific. The abolition of individual autonomy which would result from such an overcoming of human limits wasn’t considered at all. The hope seemed to be that when AI becomes conscious it will be a better custodian of our world than collective humanity has been up to now. I see no reason why this would be the case. More than ever I am convinced transhumanist speculations are a form of techgnosis; an attempt to overcome death by godless means.
Not caught the debate in full yet, but I suspect your analysis is accurate.
Most futurologists are idealistic and those that earn money in tech will have a love for the science and engineering (and probably pay that comes with it). I have at least a foot in that camp personally and also have a great love for science and technology that could potentially liberate us. I’m also a nihilistic cynic with little trust of government or corporate interest. Rather than liberating us, transhumanism will become a form of passive enslavement.
While I yearn for the former, I suspect we’ll get the latter. At best it will be a little of column A and little of column B.
you are absolutely; I love tech but the rose-colored scenarios these future fan boys spew is a little over the top.
The latest AI product is a platform called Stable Diffusion and the CEO is a young man named Emad Mostaque – seems like a nice guy but, by the end of his interview, he’s throwing around concepts like ‘complex systems’ and a ‘Nash Equilibrium’ with the confidence of certainty.
“I can predict anything except the future”
“There were other thinkers…who held even more exotic views. They did not believe that really advanced beings would possess organic bodies at all. Sooner or later, as their scientific knowledge progressed, they would get rid of the fragile, disease-and-accident-prone homes that Nature had given them, and which doomed them to inevitable death. They would replace their natural bodies as they wore out – or perhaps even before that – by constructions of metal and plastic, and would thus achieve immortality. The brain might linger for a little while as the last remnant of the organic body, directing its mechanical limbs and observing the universe through its electronic senses – senses far finer and subtler than those that blind evolution could ever develop. Even on Earth, the first steps in this direction had been taken. There were millions of men, doomed in earlier ages, who now lived active and happy lives thanks to artificial limbs, kidneys, lungs, and hearts. To this process there could be only one conclusion – however far off it might be. And eventually even the brain might go. As the seat of consciousness, It was not essential; the development of electronic intelligence had proved that. The conflict between mind and machine might be resolved at last in the eternal truce of complete symbiosis. But was even this the end? A few mystically inclined biologists went still further. They speculated, taking their cues from the beliefs of many religions, that mind would eventually free itself from matter. The robot body, like the flesh-and-blood one, would be no more than a steppingstone to something which, long ago, men bad called “spirit.” And if there was anything beyond that, its name could only be God.”
Arthur C. Clarke
“More than ever I am convinced transhumanist speculations are a form of techgnosis; an attempt to overcome death by godless means.”
Or as the Welsh poet put it. “Rage against the dying of the light”
“The hope seemed to be that when AI becomes conscious”
It won’t: Consciousness is a quality that has only been found as a product of biological evolution. When some techie wizzkid reinvents life let me know. In the meantime my cursory familiarity with biological science teaches me that life, and hence conscious thought, is mindblowingly complex. Artificial Intelligence is simply the unanticipated consequence of human programming: Just because your machine does things that you hadn’t anticipated doesn’t make it “knowing”. (I have a car like that, and yes, I talk to it.)
Thanks UnHerd for an excellent debate by two thoughtful speakers. Mary shined, but either due to time constraints or a strategic priorities, I think she missed a key element of her position. Mary should have noted that Elise’s condemnation of present human inability to address serious problems (due to incapacity, malfeasance, or negligence) should be equally applied to the needed human involvement in transhumanistic advances. Elise spoke glowingly of AI etc., but who actually creates, supports and manages that? what are their motivations? what are their competencies? Mary rightly pointed out the law of unintended consequences of the sexual revolution, but she did so assuming the good faith and best intentions of all involved. Can we really assume that in the context of transhumanism?
This was a fascinating debate and I managed to catch it online. Anything with Mary in it usually tends to be brilliant and thoughtful. Thanks Unherd!
I hope that Ms. Bohan’s opening remarks will get equal space. I watched the debate; her remarks were quite interesting. While I didn’t agree with her I felt that her presentation was very informative in regards to what goes on in the mind of a thoughtful transhumanist, as opposed to a tech-boy type who just wants to “break things”.
And I would rather have the words in front of me, so I can go back and forth at my leisure, without the distractions of voice and the speaker’s emphasis.
The key point here (for me) is that the transhumanists are, as Mary says, sawing off the branch they are sitting on. All their goals (e.g. extreme longevity) are grounded in what Mary calls ‘humanist anthropology’, or current human reality. Our current limitations are the context in which it makes sense to wish for a longer life or whatever. But there is no reason to think that if the context changes radically our wishes will remain the same. On the contrary, in fact. Which renders the transhumanist project not just silly, but pointless. Which won’t, of course, stop it being successful.
Missed it to my regret. I will hunt down as much of it as I can. Simply put, “transhumanism” is just the period of transitioning to “post humanism”. Think about that. Who out here or there want to “live”? in a post human state or world? Or do we merely want to play at it and consign others to that fate after we are gone? Is so-called possible immortality worth no longer being human? Why bother?
Watched this on YouTube, very interesting, but more debate time needed, perhaps via a series of debates, so topics can be explored in more depth. On the back of something MH said about possible futures, high-tech or completely the reverse, for a lightweight but hallucinogenic exploration of the anti-tech view, I recommend an entertaining SF short by Brian Aldiss, called ‘One Blink of the Moon’.
I watched the video of the discussion and found it wonderfully engaging.
Mary Harrington said, “You can’t have transhumanism without throwing out humanism.” On the youtube page someone posted a comment to the effect that the first person to discuss all this was Teilhard. That sent me off to the online page of the Center for Christogenesis, where there are lots of articles about Teilhard, especially by Ilia Delio, who interprets him for the modern times. One article I read yesterday was by Sister Carla Mae Streeter: “Transhumanism: Transformation or Transfiguration? The Perspective of Ilia Delio”.
Ilia Delio puts love at the centre of it all. She says without it you disconnect matter from spirit (instead of seeing spirit as the heart of matter). I wonder if Mary Harrington has encountered the work of Ilia Delio, and, if so, what she makes of it.
Teilhard? Do you mean Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? The guy who was involved in the Piltdown Man hoax? Who wrote the Phenomenology of Man?
https://theamericanscholar.org/the-end-is-only-the-beginning/ May be of general interest.
Groan. Seems obsessed with class politics this one. I have only read the article but new tech arguably pulls people out of poverty.
As far as I’m concerned, the pill is not transhumanist. I don’t know what she’s basing the part
‘ But the story so far suggests that far from delivering utopia, what it mostly delivers is a commodification of the human body that disproportionately benefits those who already have power and privilege’
Firstly, if its the pill we’re talking about, this is not the case. I don’t see how it can be, women having reliable contraception allows us to plan our lives accordingly, this is only an improvement in my mind. ESPECIALLY for women that aren’t the ‘wealthy and privileged’. Contraception is as old as the hills, the pill is just an improvement. It in no way makes a woman less human, transhuman or anything else.
Next, the fact the evil elite are ‘currently sawing away at the branch we’re sitting on’ to smote the lower classes (who must be defended and potentially might have their tissue harvested) with their transhumanist agenda – Is about as Alex jones as you can get. I’m intrigued as to what evidence there is for that. Tech normally starts out expensive, as it becomes more widely available it becomes cheaper. Standard. She makes it sound like rich people are rounding up the poor to take their blood and tissue. Or that the evil elite will go all Huxley and somehow breed an army of ‘docile’ masses. Hyperbolic. Slightly irrational.
Resisting technological advances will put us behind other countries that are doing the research. At this stage, we don’t want to be falling behind countries like China on tech. Two fold resistance probably isn’t helpful or constructive. It needs regulation, obviously limits will have to be debated. People will have a choice, as they always have had with tech, whether they want to use it or not. I’m unconvinced she’s barking up the right tree. I think the pill was a poor example to use. As a member of the masses, please don’t defend me on those grounds.
I’d tend to agree with your points about “the pill” argument. Mary might wish to find a better tree to bark up before sitting on one of its precarious branches.
Some one down voted you, rude. Thanks, lol indeed, seems a strange thing to hang your argument on, to me anyway.
Not just rude, but thoughtless; maybe assuming i wasn’t otherwise a huge supporter of Mary’s superb analytical skills. They can always “out” themselves to let us know why they think otherwise.
Concur. It’s not as if only the wealthy received the vaccine. And had that been true, anyone without specific conditions under the age of 40-50 would have been better off than the wealthy.
Further, “fresh organs” need not come from infants or “small clumps of tissue”. How about from your own DNA?
A very wise man once said: There are no solutions, only tradeoffs.
There have been clear downsides for society and for women of separating sex from reproduction, and from the corresponding illusion that reproduction can be delayed almost indefinitely without consequences. The pill itself carries significant and poorly understood health issues for those taking it (and possibly for others based on contaminated water supplies – hard to say). Those consequences are downplayed because feminism is paramount. If women were significantly happier, it would be easier to conclude that the downsides are well worth it.
However I can’t help but notice the plethora of miserable young(ish) women in modern society, and the overall breakdown of family and other social structures that have accompanied the sexual revolution spawned by the pill.
Any cultural values that result in below-replacement level reproduction, as ours have, will inevitably destroy that culture — that’s just math. For now we have immigration, but new comers either adopt the same cultural practices and similarly fail to reproduce, or bring different values that replace the existing culture. Also math.
The implicit assumption underlying western civilization seems to be that some further transhumanist medical interventions with save us from an otherwise inevitable disgenic future of dwindling population.
Do we have any evidence women were happier before ‘modern society’? I suggest life was more brutal, short and more often a form of serfdom applied far longer to them than to males.
Now that doesn’t mean the Author’s point about not every consequence of modernity has been as beneficial as hoped, and it’s a useful ‘check’ on unthinking progressive thought about the coming biotech revolution and what it means to be human. As well as a clarion call that abuse of women continues and takes new forms.
‘There have been clear downsides for society and for women of separating sex from reproduction’
This is not a feature of modern society. It is, as old as the hills.
‘The pill itself carries significant and poorly understood health issues for those taking it (and possibly for others based on contaminated water supplies – hard to say’
Where is your evidence. The pill has been used since the 1960s, it is hardly ‘poorly understood’. What are you talking about ‘contaminated water’?
‘However I can’t help but notice the plethora of miserable young(ish) women in modern society, and the overall breakdown of family and other social structures that have accompanied the sexual revolution spawned by the pill’
That is just your opinion. Society has undergone many transformations since the 60s, attributing all the changes you personally don’t like and the ‘misery of young women’ to the pill is irrational.
Just because something has been used for years does not mean it is safe or even well researched. There is evidence that ultrasound scans of foetuses increases lefthandedness. Maybe other things as well, but according to the NHS, at least until recently, ‘it is safe as it has been used for decades’.
As for the Pill polluting water there has been concern for years that it and its effects are contaminating waste water and is not being removed at treatment plants. Consequently we drink more female hormones than we should /used to. Sensible to wonder if this is linked to today’s societal problems.
I am encouraging my daughters to think very carefully about whether to take the Pill and, consequently, their lifestyle rather than just take it as all their peers do/will.
First up. ‘Just because something has been used for years does not mean it is safe or even well researched. There is evidence that ultrasound scans of foetuses increases lefthandedness. Maybe other things as well, but according to the NHS, at least until recently, ‘it is safe as it has been used for decades’
Are you referring to the pill or just things in general? Are you saying after forty years of medical research into contraceptives you still consider the pill poorly researched? What does ultrasound and ‘lefthandedness’ have to do with anything??
‘As for the Pill polluting water there has been concern for years that it and its effects are contaminating waste water and is not being removed at treatment plants. Sensible to wonder if this is linked to today’s societal problems’
OK, once again if this is a problem it’s caused by female hormones in general not just by the pill. It would be more constructive to find ways of cleaning the water better.
‘I am encouraging my daughters to think very carefully about whether to take the Pill and, ‘
I encourage my daughter to make her own choices based on the information available. I have taken the pill myself and now have a happy family. I see you are somehow trying to link the pill to poor lifestyle choices -‘ consequently, their lifestyle’. There are many forms of contraception, which a woman chooses should be her choice and whatever choice she makes in no way means she is making poor lifestyle choices.
I am referring to anything. Loads of things thought to be safe have since been found to be dangerous. Examples abound.
Ultrasound just an example of something ‘known’ to be safe but quite possibly not and now NHS policy is to scan as quickly as possible. Prospective parents should consider whether to bother with it; will knowing what they will know change anything? It might but if not…
The argument re the Pill and waste water is that the Pill causes a much higher concentration of hormones in water. Yes the water should be cleaned of the hormones but we should also carefully consider as a society and individually whether the Pill is worth it.
There are known effects to the Pill, some seemingly good and some not. I am naturally cautious about medical treatments and think most are not properly evaluated (eg the Covid gene therapies and vaccines). I think the Pill is not medically viable because, as Mary Harrington said, it does not deal with a medical problem rather a lifestyle issue.
I am not trying to link the Pill to objectively ‘poor’ lifestyle choices. From the sound of things you think it is a good lifestyle choice. I just want my daughters to make their “own choices based on the information available” rather than just follow the crowd, most of whom don’t really think about the issue at all it seems.
I also like to think I have a happy family, despite me never taking the Pill.
Conflating the pill and the covid vax. Wow. I don’t think you can do that. The pill has a forty year lead time.
‘rather than just follow the crowd, most of whom don’t really think about the issue at all it seems’
‘ I also like to think I have a happy family, despite me never taking the Pill’
As you have never taken it you won’t understand then that a gp/ pharmacist is required to talk you through it. How do you know people don’t think about it? Have you any evidence for that? Also, your user name is Rob. Sounds rather masculine. If you’re a man it’s not likely you’ve had a need to take it.
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