What is transhumanism? Definition of transhumanism. What is its meaning and origin? What does transhumanism have to do with technology, science and singularity?
What is the impact of this on me as a person and humanity? What are the dangers of transhumanism? What is my opinion about this?
What is transhumanism?
What is transhumanism? It is not a thing but a philosophy. Transhumanists (supporters of this movement) take the position that the evolution of man is perfect. It is time for us as humans to take matters into our own hands. We can and must now use technology to steer the future evolution of our species.
This goal is primarily based on technological and scientific progress. Think of nanotechnology, biotechnology and neurotechnology. The mixing of the human body with electronics, with which we become cyborgs. Going one step further is the complete independence of the biological body. According to a well-known transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, it will not be long before we can upload our thoughts to a machine or the internet [I will write more about this later].
I made a video about this topic on my YouTube channel. In the video I explain the definition of transhumanism, it’s origin, examples, arguments, critics and much more.
Watch the video:
Below is a summary with the most important points.
#1 Transhumanism is a philosophical movement with the aim of breaking through man’s biological boundaries through science and technology. Examples of this are the expansion of physical and cognitive abilities, as well as the pursuit of immortality..
#2 Transhumanism is subdivided into diverse substrates, which differ greatly in their political, philosophical and even religious views.
#3 Supporters of transhumanism believe that using technology to improve ourselves is what makes us human. Opponents are especially afraid of abuse of power by companies or governments and the loss of humanity by the surrender to technology.
#4 Some of the forms and methods still seem like science fiction, such as cryogenic suspension, mind uploading and super intelligence. Nevertheless, there are scientists and companies in all these domains doing research and innovations.
#5 In addition to advances in technology, the impact of transhumanism is largely dependent on economic, social, cultural and political factors. Within the current capitalist model we run the risk that we will increasingly see the body as a product and that there will be a biological difference between groups of people.
In the remainder of this article these points will be discussed, with a substantiation and other insights.
When I give presentations about biohacking, transhumanism always plays a prominent role. Not like technological development such as genetic modification, neurotechnology, biomedical innovations or artificial intelligence, but as a transcending philosophy, a meta development on top of all those exponential technologies.
This article is structured as follows.
- Introduction of the article with a video;
- Meaning: the definition of transhumanism and an overview of the different movements;
- Ideas: description of transhumanist technologies;
- Transhumanists: famous people within the movement;
- Arguments: proponents’ arguments;
- Criticism: criticism of transhumanism;
- Consequences and impact of transhumanism;
- Future: 3 radical ideas;
- My conclusion
In this part you can read more about the meaning, background and various forms within transhumanism.
What is the definition of transhumanism? There are several definitions and therefore several interpretations of (the meaning of) the term transhumanism. Below I have included a number of them.
#1 According to Wikipedia, it is about breaking the limits that nature has given humans. “Transhumanism is a recent form of speculative philosophy that seeks to break the limits of human existence set by nature.”
Man can therefore transcend himself. With the help of science and technology.
#2 In the book How to be a machine Mark O’Connel describes it as follows: ‘According to transhumanists, we can and must banish old age as a cause of death, we can and must use technology to expand the possibilities of our bodies and minds, we can and must fuse with machines, and thus ultimately recreate us in the image of our own higher ideals’.
#3 Later in the book How to be a machine, two striking definitions are discussed that show how transhumanism can be interpreted in the opposite way:
- it is a liberation movement that advocates nothing less than total independence from biology;
- that apparent liberation is nothing less than a definitive and complete submission to technology.
In the remainder of this article, these definitions will be substantiated with apparently extreme visions and methods devised and suggested by transhumanists. As will become clear later on, transhumanism exudes a rather instrumentalistic mentality from man. A worldview in which intelligence and practical value are paramount.
Interview with Mark O’Connel
On my English YouTube channel you can watch my interview with Mark O’Connel, author of the book How to be a Machine.
Julian Huxley was the first one to coin the term transhumanism. This was back in 1957. Well-known transhumanists today are the aforementioned Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Gray and Max More. At the end of 2015, I spoke with Max More at a Summit in Helsinki [link below].
In 2016, there was even a presidential candidate in the United States who openly stated that he is a supporter of transhumanism. Indeed, Zoltan Istvan made this an explicit part of his election campaign [link below]. In the next part I write about well-known and less well-known transhumanists.
Letter to mother nature
One of the best known expressions of transhumanists is the so-called “letter to mother nature.” This letter was drawn up in 1999 by the aforementioned Max More [link below]. In the letter, More proposes a number of improvements to the human constitution on behalf of all humanity.
- We no longer have to accept the tyranny of old age and death, but with biotechnology ensure that we remain permanently healthy and delivered from our expiration date;
- We would expand our perception and cognitive functions by improving our senses and neural skills with technological tools;
- We must strive for complete freedom in the choice of our body shape and functions, so that the subtlety and extent of our physical and intellectual abilities far exceed that of all people;
- We would no longer be willing to curtail our physical, intellectual, and emotional skills by remaining trapped in a carbon-based form of life.
Although this letter is a decisive explanation of the transhumanist ideology, the movement is divided into all kinds of sub-movements and groups.
Forms of transhumanism
Transhumanism, just like the Christian faith, is not clearly defined. Transhumanism falls into different camps. You have different groups that are related to religion, politics or ideology. A few examples are Christian transhumanism, Transhumanistic socialism and the Hedonistic imperative.
It is therefore difficult to speak of “transhumanism”, although all tendencies do have a number of things in common. It involves both the word “humanism” and “trans”. Humanism stands for respect for reason and science. Trans stands for recognizing and anticipating radical technological developments.
Transhumanism overview (10x)
In an article on the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Hank Pellissier wrote an extensive overview of various forms that fall under transhumanism [link below].
In addition to a short description, I have translated the names into Dutch. There are well-known transhumanists in parentheses representing this movement.
- Extropianism. A strong emphasis on rationality and optimism about the future of man (Nathasha Vita-More);
- Singularitarianism. The sudden emergence of super intelligence (Ray Kurzweil);
- Hedonistic imperative. The goal is to eliminate human suffering (David Pearce);
- Democratic transhumanism. Focus on social processes and democratic decision-making (James Hughes);
- Libetarian transhumanism. In contrast to the previous movement, libertarianism is aimed at the individual and as little interference as possible from the government (Peter Thiel);
- Survival transhumanism. Focus is on life extension (Zoltan Istvan)
- Religious transhumanism. The philosophy of transhumanism is in line with religious ideas such as the Mormons (Lincoln Cannon) and Buddhism (Mike LaTorra). Sometimes Terasem (Bina Rothblatt and Bruce Duncan) is also linked to this substrate;
- Cosmopolitan transhumanism. Resembles posthumanism with an emphasis on empathy, compassion and the greater good of humanity (Steve Umbrello);
- Cosmism: Attitude of growth, happiness and a more limited role for science (Giulio Prisco);
- Anarchist transhumanism: By connecting human cognition, companies, countries or other institutions are no longer needed.
As you can probably deduce from this overview, the sub-foundations of transhumanism are mainly fed by political, moral, religious and philosophical views of the world.
If I had to put myself in a box, it would be that of a moderate transhumanist. Within the above overview, that would fit mostly in the democratic and cosmopolitan stream.
I myself am also fond of posthumanism, a movement that is similar to cosmopolitan transhumanism in the Pellissier overview. According to posthumanists, man is not the center of everything. Man is part of a complex and comprehensive system that consists of people, animals and plants, but also of material worlds (fossil fuels, drinking water) and non-human life (bits and bytes).
Posthumanism does not completely reject humanism. Posthumanism tries to guard against the blind spots of humanism. Man is not the absolute center of the world and the cosmos.
Man as god
In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari describes how man will upgrade to the status of god. Imagine if we succeed in overcoming the major problems such as famine, disease and war, then the question remains how to combat boredom. After all, we no longer have any challenges. Which topics can we still tackle?
Man wants to upgrade to the status of God.Yuval Noah Harari (author)
Certainly now that we know and can do more and more in areas such as computer science, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Harari identifies two areas in his book that will form the focal point of new developments:
- the search for happiness;
- achieving immortality.
These goals are in line with the ideas of transhumanists. By releasing biological boundaries and blending technology, we as humanity are able to achieve these goals: happier than ever and immortal. We as humans increasingly have god-like abilities.
That still seems crazy. But Gawie Keyser (rightly) writes in an article: ‘Just as the ancient Egyptians could not imagine time without the pharaohs, or as people in the Middle Ages would have laughed about the idea that God does not exist, so we will know better than: man is divine’.
In short, something that now seems unrealistic can become very normal with the passage of time.
What are the most prominent ideas and technologies?
In another article I wrote extensively about five transhumanist technologies: cryogenic preservation, mind uploading, superintelligence, robots, and the hive mind:
I made a video about this topic on my YouTube-channel:
In this part I describe the best known and most prominent people in transhumanism.
These are currently the most important people within the movement:
- Max More
- Natasha Vita-More
- Ray Kurzweil
- Zoltan Istvan
- Dimitri Itskov
- Ben Goertzel
I have included a short description of each of these prominent figures.
Max More is the director of Alcor (an institution for cryogenic preservation, a method that falls under transhumanism, about which I will write more below). He was born in Ireland, grew up in Bristol (England), studied in Oxford (England) and did his PhD research at the University of South Carolina (United States). In his dissertation he investigated what death is all about and the continuity of the self through time.
During his studies he changed his last name from O’Connor to More. In an interview with magazine Wired, he stated that the new surname ‘really reflects the essence of my goal: always improve yourself, never stand still. I would be better at everything, I would become smarter, fitter and healthier.’ The new last name should remind him to keep moving forward.
Natasha Vita-More is the wife of Max More. She is currently the president of Humanity Plus. Humanity Plus is an umbrella institute that is committed to spreading transhumanism [link below]. She is the initiator of the Primo Posthuman project, about which I will write more later.
In 1981, she had had an ectopic pregnancy that led to a miscarriage. It turned out in the hospital that it would only have taken a few minutes for her to have died. This was the trigger for her interest in transhumanism. There is a passage in How to be a machine that she then realized that the human body is a fragile and insidious mechanism that is bleeding and doomed to die.
Ray Kurzweil is chief engineer at Google. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Bill Clinton, the highest award for technology experts in the United States. He is the author of several books on the technological future, including The Singularity is Near, and writes articles on his blog Kurzweil.ai [link below].
He is a much sought after speaker on new technology and transhumanism. He does a lot of research into the emulation of the human brain in a computer, more about that later. The documentary Transcedent Man is about his life and the ideas he pursues [link below]. He expects that as human beings in the year 2040 we can stay young forever with genetic modification, nanorobots and other methods [link below].
The American Zoltan Istvan participated in 2016 on behalf of the Transhumanist Party in the presidential elections in the United States [link below]. As a result, he was soon seen by the media as the leader of the transhumanist movement. He believes that in the coming decades the transhumanist ideology will become mainstream.
He previously traveled the world for his work for National Geographic Magazine as a journalist and photographer. He wrote the book The Transhumanist Wager that is loosely based on his own background [link below].
Dimitri Iskov is a Russian technology millionaire and founder of the 2045 initiative, also called project Avartar. The 2045 initiative is an organization that has set itself the goal of ‘creating technology that allows a person’s personality to be transferred to a more sophisticated, non-biological carrier, and to extend life to enable immortality.’
Up until 2045, which is also referred to as phase D, the initiative has set a number of other intermediate goals in its manifesto. By 2020, for example, a human brain must be transplanted into an artificial body for the first time.
An overview of the phases and goals is given in the figure below:
The Brazilian Ben Goertzel is the founder of CEO of Singularity.NET [link below]. The aim of the company is to create a decentralized network of super intelligence with blockchain technology. He completed his PhD research in mathematics at Temple University, United States.
In addition to his role at Singularity.NET, he is also director of science at Hanson Robotics, the robot company that is involved with Bina48 (more about that later) and Sophia (she became the first robot to become a citizen in Saudi Arabia) [link below].
In addition to those mentioned above, there are other leading thinkers, leaders and artists within transhumanism. Some of them I mentioned in the overview of the movements, others you will read later in this article.
- Tim Cannon is the founder of Grindhouse Wetware. He is a forerunner in the Grinder movement, which includes Stelarc and Lepth Anonym, among others. You can read more about this in the cyborgs section.
- Aubrey de Grey is a British gerontologist and director of the non-profit organization Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). He focuses on medical and biological methods for life extension [you can read more about him in my articles about longer life and anti-aging].
- Giulio Prisco is an Italian futurist and author. Supporter of cosmism.
- Steve Umbrello is Operational Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). He emphasizes cosmopolitan transhumanism.
- Lincoln Cannon is a philosopher and a prominent member of a part of the Mormon church who sees the ideas of transhumanism to be in line with the faith.
- Mike LaTorra advocates the integration of Buddhism with transhumanism. He emphatically points to the theravada, an old tradition which shows that the body must be transcended.
- Bina Rothblatt and Bruce Duncan are prominent figures within the Terasem Movement Foundation. This movement investigates the possibilities of mind uploading [more on this later].
- David Pearce is a prominent figure within the entire transhumanist movement, but above all known for its hedonistic perspective.
- James Hughes is director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). He argues for democratic transhumanism. He explained this in his book Citizen Cyborg [link below].
- Peter Thiel is an American venture capitalist and, together with Elon Musk, was one of the founders of the company Paypal . He is the model of libertarian transhumanism.
- The American Gennady Stolyarov II leads two political transhumanist movements in the United States. He is the author of the children’s book Death is wrong [link below].
- The American Newton Lee is a computer scientist and compiler of the Transhumanist Handbook [link below].
- The Spaniard José Cordeiro is one of the few European leaders in the transhumanist movement [link below].
As mentioned, some of these characters are discussed in more detail later in this article.
What kind of people are supporters of this movement? In his book, writer Mark O’Connel examines the transhumanists themselves [link below]. His perspective corresponds to the image I have when attending meetings and congresses on this theme.
Most visitors are male, northern European or American. Another thing that strikes me is the level of thinking of the participants. Most are employed in science, for example in biotechnology, medical biology or economics. You can also deduce it from the list of well-known supporters of transhumanist movements. They are often certainly atheists, this is the absence of faith in one or more gods.
The most important point in the conversations of O’Connel is the image that transhumanists have of the human body: it is human body inefficient, slow and mortal. To illustrate this during lectures, I often call it a ‘lump of meat’ or ‘bag of water.’ Supporters of transhumanism want to apply their (often) scientific rationality and progress to their own bodies.
In this part you read about arguments that argue in favor of this development. Does man become divine?
Supporters and opponents
Before I write about the arguments of supporters and opponents, I want to raise another point. In an article in the Correspondent, Lynn Berger writes that the proponents and opponents of this development are not fundamentally different from any other technology. ‘It is a kind of funhouse mirror that magnifies and distorts our deepest fears and greatest desires, but does not fundamentally change.’
It is a kind of laughter mirror that magnifies and distorts our deepest fears and greatest desires.Lynn Berger, journalist
In an earlier article about the future of man, I came across the distinction between thinkers from the Enlightenment and the reaction to this from conservative thinkers from the 18th century. This is the difference between progression and preservation, between change and conventionality.
To return to Berger’s statement; the desire of the proponents is eternal life and the enhancement of humanity. The fear of opponents is that we erase human nature and destroy ourselves.
I think it’s good to keep this fundamental difference in politics and philosophy of life in mind.
Arguments for transhumanism
Anders Sandberg says in an interview that it should be a human right to technologically improve the body or brain [link below]. He believes that transhumanism is another logical step in our evolution as human beings.
People have been improving themselves for a long time in all kinds of artificial ways such as by wearing clothes or glasses, by going to school and with vaccinations. Taking an aspirin is already intervening to make your life better and to live a better life.
With the smartphone we already outsource part of our brain to computers.Anders Sandberg, transhumanist
Sandberg adds: ‘Or with a smartphone that we actually already outsource part of our brain to computers.’ Sandberg therefore argues for the “right to morphological freedom”. In the part about mind uploading this comes to light even more strongly, but it is the freedom to determine your appearance as a person.
Improvement as a duty
Natasha Vita-Mora also speaks in the same article as Sandberg. She believes that it is our duty as human beings to transcend ourselves. ‘People have always addressed problems and explored new areas. I do not see how it is not going to happen that people improve themselves: as a species we are too innovative, too competitive, too entrepreneurial to just perish.’
These arguments that improvement is at the heart of human nature and that we have always done so, I come across a lot within transhumanism. Similarly in an interview with Zoltan Istvan [link below]. He believes that almost everyone is in favor of better healthcare, better science and better technology.
It becomes different when it comes to introducing technology into the body. It can’t be crazy enough for Istvan. ‘A third arm through genetic modification, eternal life through all kinds of technologies or leaving the earth, isn’t that fantastic?’
Although transhumanism seems to have a narcissistic trait, Sandberg and Vita-More are convinced that the benefits outweigh those of an individual.
- With more smart and healthy people, society innovates faster;
- As people live longer they are more aware of their impact on the planet;
- If smart people live longer, we can think better about major issues such as climate change.
This is also in line with an argument that I put forward in an interview with professor Maartje Schermer [bottom link]. That argument is along the following lines:
- To resolve the climate crisis, we need an advanced form of artificial intelligence.
- To advance technology such as artificial intelligence, we may need better human intelligence.
- To achieve that, we may have to deliberately apply genetic modification in humans.
By increasing human intelligence and the possibility to think longer about this through an extension of the lifespan, we can probably tackle major global issues.
During keynotes, I therefore sometimes say that it would be nice if Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking were still alive today. This reasoning, of course, also has its downside: what if tyrants and dictators have the same options?
The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote in Aldus Zarahoestra already spoke in 1883 about the so-called “Ubermensch“. It seems as if he is already referring to a (physically) improved person, but that is not true. This is because the German National Socialists linked it to race at the beginning of the twentieth century. They had deliberately claimed the term, distorted the meaning and even introduced a new word: the “Untermensch”.
That was never what Nietzsche had meant by it, let alone its use by the Nazis on the persecution of Jews. Nietzsche referred to the term as a person who detached himself from the system, who thought for himself and distanced himself from herd behavior.
For context: he wrote this precisely in a time after the Enlightenment and (scientific) progress in which the belief in religions was wavering. This is also where his other famous statement “God is dead” comes from.
Nietzsche realized that it is up to the individual to give the purpose and the meaning to his own existence. The ordinary person was not able to do that, the “Ubermensch” was. Although in an essay from 2009, Stefan Lorenz Sorgner signaled a major overlap between Nietzsche’s ideas and transhumanism, I think the philosopher would be skeptical about the ideas.
I suspect that Nietzsche believed that technological and physical improvement would lead to cultural and psychological progress for man.
In this part I write about criticism of transhumanism.
Criticism of transhumanism
I have divided the most common criticism of transhumanism into the following categories:
- Power (and conspiracy thinking)
I have elaborated on the points of criticism below.
The more we as humans depend on technology, the greater the adverse consequences if technology is hacked. That is also one of the most important challenges that author Don Simborg formulates in an interview [link below]. A contemporary example is the former vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney.
He had the Bluetooth connection of his pacemaker turned off because he was afraid that the device could be hacked otherwise. Earlier the famous hacker Barnaby Jack had demonstrated that hacking pacemakers was possible [link below].
The argument that most is cited against transhumanism is the fear of growing inequality. Blay Whitby of the University of Sussex (England) points to the past in an interview with The Guardian. ‘History is filled with nasty consequences in which one group felt superior to another.’
History is filled with nasty consequences in which one group felt superior to another.Blay Whitby, University of Sussex
In the case of the improved people, they are actually biologically superior to natural people, a point that Harari also makes in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century [link below].
Transhumanists often resist this idea by pointing to the availability of other technologies. Cars and smartphones, for example, were very expensive in the beginning, but they became more affordable and more widely available.
In the aforementioned interview with the NRC, Anders Sandberg acknowledges that the inequality of access can differ per technology. A highly advanced brain-computer interface may need to be configured for one individual, making it extremely expensive.
But according to him, that is no reason not to do anything. ‘You also do not stop innovating cars, because not everyone can afford them directly.’
3 Power (and conspiracy thinking)
What role does power play in the development and implementation of transhumanist ideas? In 2016 I attended a lecture by philosopher and anthropologist Marcel Messing at Studium Generale of TU Delft [link below].
Occasionally he said some things that concern me. He argued that large companies and institutions such as the CIA, Monsanto and the Bilderberg conference invest a lot of money in the science, technology and ideas of transhumanism. According to him, their agenda is to increase their power and to suppress humanity.
He went one step further when he explained that Hollywood films on this theme (such as Avartar, I Am Legend or The Matrix) brainwash us and prepare us for this mechanical future. Although I find Messing’s ideas fascinating and entertaining, in my opinion they are too dependent on conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking.
A legitimate point of attention that Messing mentioned is the concept of eugenics at [link below]. This is the destructive application of transhumanist ideas by powerful nation states.
Eugenics is reducing the human factor in humanity. It is a scientific study into improving a race. The concept is based on the idea that there are superior and inferior races in the human population. In Nazi Germany, this idea was implemented with the deportation of Jews, homosexuals and other, in the eyes of the Nazis, deviant people.
The link with transhumanism is that the state determines how people can be improved, so as to impose eugenics from above.
Our current economic system is based on capitalism. In my Bachelors in Business Administration, I had a few courses in Economics, but I am not close to being an economist. For economists, I am probably going too far, but: a characteristic of capitalism is the emphasis on (economic) growth. In recent decades, this growth has been achieved to a large extent through the use of machines, in the form of industrialization or digitization.
Transhumanism sometimes seems to be the last bastion that has not yet been touched (or at least reasonably minimally) by capitalism: the body and life. It is a political, ethical, philosophical and human question to what extent we want to allow this. Now you are born with certain qualities and a body that you own. What if you have to pay to replace parts of your body? Or if your intelligence and consciousness are in a computer, on the internet or in a robot?
The link between capitalism and transhumanism is mainly fed by the following flows of money. Technology companies in Silicon Valley (California, United States) develop technologies to expand human capabilities, invest in them and actively validate the ideas in interviews. For example, Ray Kurzweil is employed by Alphabet (the parent company of Google) and Peter Thiel is a major venture capitalist in technology companies in the region.
Another aspect within capitalism is the power of business. For example, an enormous monopoly has been created around internet technology with companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.
These companies (or their successors) that offer technologies that affect people often have different objectives than human well-being. They are driven by profit maximization and the interests of shareholders. How great is the danger if these companies manage these techniques exclusively? Libby Emmons points out in a column that the apparent liberation from the limitations of human biology can lead to corporate suppression and loss of autonomy [link below].
Case study: brain chip
Anders Sandberg admits that it is an important question that requires much more research. In keynotes I often quote the (still fictional) brain chip that you can use to connect to the internet. Are you willing to put this in your brain, which increases your intelligence hugely but on the other hand the chip is owned by a company.
I had this conversation with Esther Keymolen from Tilburg University (the Netherlands). She conducts research into user confidence in technology companies. Although she finds it a fascinating idea, she would not do it herself based on the current behavior of technology companies.
Perhaps the most important question is what transhumanism means for our humanity. Is the restriction of our possibilities, such as time on earth, precisely what makes us human?
In his book Everything is F*cked, Mark Manson states that scarcity and boundaries determine what has value [link at the bottom]. ‘The limits of our years of life mean that we have ambitions, desires and time frames that set us in motion and let us experience happy moments.’
The limits of our years of life mean that we have ambitions, desires and time frames that set us in motion and let us experience happy moments.Mark Manson, author
What if everything that transhumanists want now actually comes true? Then everything that the future person wants is immediately, unlimited and eternally available. It is very likely that it will lead to an existential void. After all, you no longer have to set priorities. Everything is equally worthless and at the same time valuable. Are we as a person psychologically capable of that?
In Messing’s earlier mentioned reading, I found this to be his strongest argument. He referred to ideas such as the soul, sense of purpose, feeling, free will, compassion, forgiveness and consciousness. Marcel Messing: ‘That makes us human. That distinguishes us from a robot. No matter how smartly we can map our brains, we cannot quantify, capture or label a human being.’
Messing has a point. At present we cannot always properly locate physiological aspects of this kind and measure them in chemical, hormonal and energetic processes.
But I think it’s a shame that Messing is so focused on the limitations of technological progress. I believe that using technology makes us human, just like our curiosity, experimentation and risk-taking.
I think it would be useful to use the human dimension as a starting point for assessing techniques, but I don’t think that is an argument to stop progress. Perhaps improved people can feel more, have a more accurate feeling, have more access to their emotions, have a greater sense of meaning and an interconnected consciousness.
In How to be a Machine Max More is confronted with a number of criticisms. I’d like to include his response on this. ‘People show all kinds of instinctive responses, based on all those myths that scare us about crossing our borders. You know them: the tower of Babel, or Prometheus that steals the fire of the gods. But people will always find things that are not here yet terrifying. Once they have become reality, they accept those things.’
People will always find things that are not hear yet terrifying.Max More, transhumanist
He definitely has a point. In history, the introduction of anesthesia was seen as inhumane (after all, you have to feel that you are being operated on), women were afraid of being on a train (because then their uterus would swing out of their wombs) and some people would not want a phone in their house (because then evil spirits could come in).
Nevertheless, I come back to my last argument in the previous paragraph: I think it makes sense to assess individual technologies and their solutions for humanity. In the case of anesthesia, trains and telephone lines, the yield seems to be positive on balance.
In this part I write about the possible consequences of the introduction of the aforementioned technologies.
In the past, physical abilities determined your success in the world. These days, this applies increasingly to your cognitive abilities. What is the impact if you can download intelligence, as I described in the sections on mind uploading and the hive mind?
Zoltan Istvan is convinced that he and his wife no longer have to save for the higher education of his children. In an opinion article, he states that in 15 years’ time his daughters will be able to immediately download all the knowledge of a University into their brain [link below]. Does it also mean that you no longer have to take piano lessons?
In my experience, practicing and learning a musical instrument, sport, language or something else is just a training in character. It is about perseverance, discipline and interpersonal contact. I think it is skill that must be internalized. Or am I naive and will these qualities soon be as easy to download as an app on your smartphone?
Governments are increasingly confronted with accelerating technologies, not only in public spaces such as the smart city but also the question of how their inhabitants want to use it. Earlier I wrote an article about the influence of technology and the role it plays in government [link below].
One aspect of this is legislation and regulations. In my article about the future of man, I go even deeper into this [link below]. You can think of a right to physical sovereignty, equality and the right not to improve yourself or to link to a machine. In the cyborg community, Richard Mackinnon has made a start with formulating five rights for so-called “mutants” [link below].
The greatest limitations of transhumanism that I experience are the emphasis on people and consumerism. You could say the narcissistic side of human improvement.
- The emphasis on the elevation of man means that we sometimes lose sight of the rest of the world. While a United Nations report on biodiversity from 2019 shows that nature is deteriorating worldwide at an unprecedented rate [link below]. In the past fifty years, almost half of all marine and marine ecosystems have been seriously affected by human activity.
- Our world revolves around capitalism, consumerism and economic growth. Not that I consider myself a Communist and I often go wrong myself, but to regard the human body as a commercial product seems to me to be a step in the wrong direction. Or as my podcast guest Maxim Februari has expressed this in a column [link below]. Is it then also a prey to the tendency of us as consumers to ruin, destroy, burn and demolish everything in the search for even cheaper and more money?
As I wrote before, transhumanism falls apart into various movements, with cosmopolitans, democrats and posthumanists perhaps recognizing and tackling the above challenges.
But it does not alter the fact that transhumanism has the appearance against it. For example, the Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek wonders what the plus in the name Humanity+ stands for [link below]. He philosophises about two options: either represents the rest of humanity or it means that one group of people improves at the expense of others. He hopes, like me, for the first but suspects the second.
I think the solutions are not so much technological, but non-technological. I hereby agree with the ideas of Andrew Keen in his book How to fix the future [link below]. I also interviewed him about this for my YouTube channel.
I must point out that in a broader sense he is talking about the adverse influence of powerful technology companies, but I think his ideas can also be applied to transhumanism.
- Business. Companies make products and services that reflect and respect us as people;
- Users. Consumers make conscious choices in which products and services they use or not;
- Legislation. Governments make and enforce laws to protect its inhabitants;
- Citizenship. Citizens unite in interest groups to exert (political) influence;
- Education. Pupils and students are aware of the impact of technology and choices, with which they can fulfill their role as involved entrepreneurs (point 1), users (point 2) or citizens (point 4).
Apart from these roles, the question remains as to what objectives and values they are used for. In my article about the future of man, I have given a start to this [link below]. In my opinion it would be good to assess technologies individually and per case by comparing them to our values.
Case: cryogenic suspension
As an example of this exercise I take cryogenic suspension. It is a human and social question how values such as safety, autonomy, dignity and fulfillment are challenged by this. The tricky part is that it is not just an individual consideration that can be different for everyone, but that it is also a broader question.
Such as: should this be allowed by law in our country (for example, are there rules regarding safety), is it then available to everyone (equality) and can you make the choice for others such as your child (autonomy).
Interview Andrew Keen
On my English YouTube channel you can watch my interview with Andrew Keen.
What are other visions in transhumanism? In this I describe a number of ideas about the distant future of humans.
What is the future of our species? These are visions that may seem like science fiction, or at least fictional, but that is also the reason that they stayed with me after I came into contact with it.
The visions are:
- super organism
- space travel
I elaborate on the visions below.
How far can we go? Or rather: how far do we let it get? In his book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari outlines two scenarios: techno-humanism and dataism
The purpose of techno-humanism is to expand the capabilities of humans with technology. We become cyborgs and connect ourselves to computers, where human interests and desires are still the most important. This is somewhat similar to the idea of transhumanism [link at the bottom].
The second scenario is dataism. This is still based on the idea that we are special and important as humans. Only until recently we were the best system for processing data, but that is no longer the case.
Algorithms understand our feelings, emotions, choices and desires better than you do it yourself. The consequence of this is that we become irrelevant as human beings. Our only goal is to serve artificial intelligence [link at the bottom about scenarios around this so-called super intelligence].
No more people
The first scenario of techno-humanism is in line with what you have been able to read about the possibilities within human enhancement. The second scenario is the most dramatic for us humans. In a certain sense you can no longer speak of human enhancement here, since the human factor has disappeared or is nil.
In my articles about transhumanism and artificial intelligence you can read more about the formation of super intelligence and the possible superfluity of the human race [link at the bottom].
2. Super organism
In the book Next Nature, philosopher Koert van Mensvoort introduced me to the concept of super organism [link at the bottom]. In my blog article about transhumanism I also wrote about this before [link at the bottom].
Part of his idea is in keeping with Yuval Noah Harari’s dataism. We as homo sapiens are not the end of evolution. To put this in perspective, I start with the big bang. About 13.5 billion years ago, elementary particles first appeared after the big bang. With increasing complexity, they first formed in hadrons, then atoms, molecules, cells, complex cells and finally in multicellular organisms.
Evolution does not stop
Multicellular organisms originated around 2.5 billion years ago. About 300,000 years ago we, the homo sapiens, were born. But that did not stop evolution. From the historical evolutionary steps it is to be expected that the next life form will develop again to the next level of complexity.
Researchers Smith and Szathmáry, for example, concluded that really big evolutionary transitions take place as soon as existing organisms start to work together or encapsulate each other within a larger whole.
Memes as the next step
The question then is: what does this next level look like? The level after us, as a multicellular organism? In his book, Koert van Mensvoort does a shot for the book. He writes: ‘Probably the next step of the evolutionary ladder is memetic.’
A meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins in the book The Selfish Gene [link at the bottom]. Memes are not just images on the internet that are widely shared and quickly spread. Memetics, according to Dawkins, are cultural phenomena that, like genes, spread through variation, mutation, competition and inheritance through the behavior they cause in their host.
Countries and companies
What are current examples of memetic organisms? Koert van Mensvoort makes a number of suggestions, such as countries or companies. You can regard these entities as organisms with their own metabolism and strategy for survival, of which we as human beings are part.
Another suggestion is technology. Certainly if we consider Smith and Szathmáry’s remark. Thanks to technology such as the internet, we work together more easily as people. In fact, we can’t live without it, at least if I speak for myself.
Are we, as humanity, gradually encapsulated by technology such as the internet and the smartphone? Is that computer and information technology the next step in evolution? Or is that super intelligence, in line with Harari’s dataism?
Human enhancement role
Perhaps this goes together with human enhancement. Because to operate as people within the super-organism of technology, we must have improved ourselves. To continue this speculative line: what if we can telepathically communicate with each other via brain chips? Then we are literally encapsulated by technology. Or perhaps crux: dependent, dominated and subject to technology.
3. Space travel
I think the most likely direction of transhumanism is in space. The human body as we know it has evolved over millions of years on Earth, with oxygen, natural resources and gravity. But that body is not at all useful in space, in colonies on the Moon or Mars.
Very briefly: do we want to adjust the human body so that it can cope better with cosmic rays, the lack of gravity or other cosmic inconveniences?
This may still sound like science fiction. Jamie Metzl emphasizes in his book Hacking Darwin that it points to scientific progress in computer technology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetics somewhere else. The combination and mutual reinforcement of these technologies ‘converge into a mega-trend, a big wave that engulfs our understanding of people and completely overthrows them’.
To come back to our life in space. Metzl cites in his book Christopher Mason from the Weill Cornell Medical College (New York, United States). Mason is already working on a project with NASA. The goal is the survival of humanity both on Earth, in space and on other planets.
To this end, scientists are currently working on the molecular analysis of the genome, epigenome, transcriptome and metagenome of astronauts to protect them against the effects of long space flights. For example, astronauts at the ISS space station did an experiment in 2019 with genetic modification with CRISPR/cas9 to investigate the effects of damage to DNA by space radiation [link below].
Splitting of homo sapiens
According to the English astronomer Lord Martin Rees, it is unlikely that the laws and regulations on earth will become so open that we allow advanced methods of human improvement. He foresees a scenario where a group of people leave the earth forever to settle on Mars. There legislation is much less stringent or even absent.
The future of transhumanism lies in the universe.
On the contrary, it is probably a good idea to allow transhumanistic concepts. Think of genetic modification against radiation, bionic eyes or cryogenic suspension to travel through the universe for thousands of years. In this way, a branch of the human species arises, and possibly the Homo Sapiens next to the Homo Universum (in Latin, space is the Universe, which is why I came up with this name).
The future is already here
That is in line with the evolutionary path, as you could read about the super organism in the previous paragraphs. Evolution is all about the best adaptation to the environment. From an evolutionary point of view our current body is not suitable for life in the universe.
Although this seems like a bizarre vista, like I mentioned Christopher Mason and his colleagues are already working on this with NASA. In such cases I often think of a favorite quote from me. The statement is from science fiction author William Gibson: ‘The future is already here, but it is unevenly distributed.’
What is my conclusion?
I start with a personal story about how my keynotes and presentations on this subject are sometimes received.
The discussion leader looked into the room. ‘Are there any questions for the speakers?’ It was the aforementioned evening at De Balie in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) about the role of technology in our lives. The evening was set up around the film The Matrix, which was released twenty years earlier.
A woman in the first row looked at me. ‘Why do you want all this?’ The bewilderment etched in her face. Even for the context: compared to the other two speakers, I was the most progressive about the use of technology in my life. I did not call myself a transhumanist, it made no difference to those present.
At the time, I felt that I was unable to answer her question correctly. On the way home, on the train home, I thought what I would say next time.
I believe that developments in transhumanism are inevitable. You can still speculate about the workability of some of the methods, such as cryogenic suspension or mind uploading. That applies just as well to the timeline of developments. But in a general sense, many forces, interests and money flows are focused on doing more scientific research to increase human well-being.
Where we now look in dismay at some of the ideas described here, it may be normal for future generations. Because they grew up in a completely different social, cultural and economic context. Just as previous generations could not imagine what the internet was or how you could be continuously accessible to the world with a mobile phone.
That is why I am fascinated by transhumanism. Since it is my conviction that it is inescapable, I now want to experience it as much as possible and investigate what it means. I do that by experimenting with new technology, by reading a lot about it and by interviewing other experts.
Not everything is technology
Despite my optimism about progress, we don’t have to do anything now. If we are not careful, we will roll silently in the “automatic society”. That is a term that philosopher Bernard Stiegler uses for a society in which people are subject to digital-economic systems [link below].
If we are not careful then we roll silently into an automatic society.Bernard Stiegler, philosopher
I believe that as humans we do not have to adapt further to digitization, but that we must use new technologies for freedom, autonomy, security, privacy, dignity and other important human values. In the world of the future, as far as I am concerned, well-being is paramount and we take humanitarian and planetary boundaries into account, as Kate Rayworth also writes in her book The Donut Economy [link below].
In short, the (transhumanistic) future is, in my opinion, not as simple and sterile as in most science fiction stories.
My vision is that we use scientific progress and new technology to reduce social inequality, to preserve diversity in nature and people and to make the world a little better and more beautiful. In that regard, I agree with the opinion article by Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab who calls it “the responsibility of immortality” [link below].
Whether we as human beings can handle it responsibly? I think so. It is precisely the use of technology that makes us human, just like our curiosity, our urge to experiment and risk behavior. Just as you learn how to handle responsibilities from child to adolescent to adult, so does humanity.
If we don’t learn to take responsibility, it can become a science fiction film. One where things don’t end well for us as humans.
Do you want to know more about transhumanism?
Please contact me if you have any questions! Like if you want to invite me to give a lecture, presentation or webinar at your company, at your congress, symposium or meeting.
For example, I gave a talk about transhumanism technologies at a webinar by Team Hart:
This section contains additional information: my presentation on the subject, a few videos and the list with all links.
These are other articles about transhumanism:
- What is transhumanism technology?
- What are transhumanism books?
- What are transhumanism movies?
- What is transhumanism art?
I made these videos on this topic.
- Interview with Aubrey de Grey about immortality.
- Interview with Andrew Keen about technology regulation.
I have used these non-fiction books in this article.
By the way, this is an extensive article about transhumanism books.
- Book To be a machine
- Book The Singularity is Near
- Book Homo Deus
- Book 21 lessons for the 21th century
- Book The Transhumanist Wager
- Book Death is wrong
- Book Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- Book Brief Answers to the Big Questions
- Book The Prospect of Immortality
- Book Mind Children
- Book The Age of Em
- Book Life 3.0
- Book Next Nature
These are external links that I have used, arranged per part.
- Article Max More
- Website Natasha Vita-More
- Website Ray Kurzweil
- Predictions Ray Kurzweil
- Website Anders Sandberg
- Website Nick Bostrom
- Website Zoltan Istvan
- Article about Zoltan Istvan
- Website project 2045
- Website Dimitri Itskov
- Website Singularity.NET
- Website Ben Goertzel
- Article about robot Sophia
- Website Giulio Prisco
- Website Steven Umbro
- Website Lincoln Cannon
- Website Mike La Torra
- Website Hedonistic Imperative (David Pearce)
- Website James Hughes
- Website Gennady Stolyarov
- Website José Codeiro
- Website Heales
- Website DCI Nederland
Arguments for proponents:
- Article Barnaby Jack
- Website Marcel Messing
- Video reading Marcel Messing
- Article with a.o. Dom Simborg
- Article Libby Emmons
What is your opinion on transhumanism? Leave a comment!