Transhumanism: Why are we so afraid?

By Bella Nazarova, Chloé Demange, Henri Pagniez and Gaëtan Bizard

Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future and conceiving the role of the human being in it. The whole theory of this movement develops around one fundamental assumption (and even persuasion, among the advocates of this movement): humankind in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather an early stage.

It appears that the word “transhumanism” has been used for the first time by Julian Huxley (1887-1975), a well-known biologist and founder of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1957: 

“ The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself […]; Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature. ” 

Julian Huxley
British biologist and founder of the WWF

Gradually, transhumanism started to gain more and more popularity due to an active presence of its spokespeople in the media. But, even before that, people have always been intrigued by the image of a “superhuman”, widely spread by sci-fi and/or dystopian literature and films (Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clarke and others). The idea of granting a human being with phenomenal physical or intellectual performances has always been appealing to some; making a human limitless, the strongest and the smartest being, above all the living species. 

And there is no such a philosophical maxim stating that it would be outlawed or immoral to aspire to immortality or better intellectual and physical performances. In a today’s fast-changing technological world, one could argue that if we [humankind] currently have enough scientific and technological knowledge (or have enough potential to develop it in the future decades), why shouldn’t we improve our capacities? Considering that, it seems illogical to trust only nature in this matter and deprive people of new possibilities, of new ways of exploring their potential. It would give a new sense and a purpose to a human’s life. 


A brief history of transhumanist thought

However, this desire to acquire new capacities is not new. As early as 18th and 19th centuries, we begin to trace the idea that human organism can be improved using technology. Philosophers, politicians, scientists of the Enlightenment already show an ardent desire to expand mankind’s capacities (cultural, intellectual, physical or life span). Charles Darwin with its “Origin of Species” (1859), Friedrich Nietzsche with the concept of “the overman” (Übermensch, 1908) and even Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”(1818) – all suggest the possibility of technological transformation of humankind and explore how these changes could alter the human condition. Later on, amidst the ravages of WWI, WWII and the postwar era, transhumanist ideas in writings still provoked fascination. In fact, many people found a new hope of a societal change and genuinely considered that progress in space travel, computers and medicine offered a prospect of a better world. 

At the end of the 20th century, the transhumanist movement started to emerge as an organisation. In 1988, Nick Bostrom, a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University, and David Pearce, a British utilitarian philosopher, co-founded the World Transhumanist Association (which later changed its name to Humanity+). At the beginning of the 21st century, transhumanist movement progressively gained a political base, notably thanks to the emergence of “biopolitics” and “democratic transhumanism” (James Hughes, “Citizen Cyborg”, 2004). Hughes explains that “democratic transhumanism” is a mix between transhumanist thought, social democratic economic policies and liberal cultural state of mind. He argues that the best future can be achieved if the government ensures that technologies are safe and available to everyone and that every human has a right to control its own body. 

Even though the political dimension in transhumanism has always been present at some point, it has significantly developed in 2017 when Zoltan Istvan, an American transhumanist and journalist, represented the Libertarian party while running for governor of California in the US.


Public awareness in France

In France, the transhumanist movement was officialised with the creation of Association Française Transhumaniste – Technoprog (trans.: French Transhumanist Association) in 2007. The organisation strives to popularize transhumanism by putting forward its undeniable advantages such as the extension of people’s lifespan in good health. 

“ Transhumanism is a philosophy considering that is could be desirable – under certain conditions – to modify and to improve the human body using technology. ”

Alexandre Maurer
Speaker & Vice-President of the French Transhumanist Association

Nevertheless, public awareness about transhumanist ideas in France is lower (compared to Switzerland or the US) and, in some cases, this philosophy is not considered seriously enough. In addition, there is a gap between the notoriety of the movement, its media coverage and its real composition with only less than a hundred contributors and a few active members. Overall, the French remain conservative; and the government laws on scientific research are also restrictive. 


Is transhumanism all about technology?

“ The definition of technology generates significant misunderstandings because we never know very well what we want to talk about when we refer to it. ”

Gabriel Dorthe
Ph.D. in Philosophy & Environmental Humanities at University of Lausanne and at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

It is difficult to define technology when one talks about the transhumanism movement. Do we consider that all the technologies related to the human body are transhumanist? Do we consider that only innovative technologies can be referred to as transhumanist? Or, do installed technologies such as pacemakers or glasses which aim to improve the human capacities can be considered as transhumanist technologies? 

By definition, transhumanist technologies are all the innovations created in order to increase the capacity of the human body. The improvement can result from an internal modification (genetics) or external (something added to the body). When we think about transhumanism technologies, the image of some futuristic technologies (that do not exist yet!) pops into our head. But in reality, transhumanist technologies are part of our lives for more than a decade now. If we stand to that definition of transhumanist technologies, we can think of dozens of technologies such as pacemakers or body prosthesis that are already partly sticking to this definition as they are the extent to the human body that ameliorates life conditions of the people that use them. Yet these technologies are not entirely transhumanist as they do not really improve human’s capabilities, they only allow damaged bodies to keep a previous level of performance. 

While the media and the public can consider under-the-skin microchips and other similar objects as a part of the transhumanist movement, the members of the latter community view it as a gadget. Since 2015, Swedes have the possibility to get an electronic chip under the skin in order to use it to hold train tickets or access limited areas. And despite the risks in terms of data use and the unknown impact on health, more than three thousand Swedes have already got a chip implanted. Therefore, Sweden is not really considered as a country that is opened to transhumanism, because there is no organisational framework similar to France or the UK. Even if such technologies are considered as transhumanist and have the goal to increase our capacity, we can question the real use of it.

“ I don’t think that it [the microchip] is the most representative example of transhumanism. I consider it more like a gadget, […]. ”

Alexandre Maurer
Speaker & Vice-President of the French Transhumanist Association

“ It is not because you get a microchip under the skin that you can consider yourself as a transhumanist. ”

Gabriel Dorthe
Ph.D. in Philosophy & Environmental Humanities at University of Lausanne and at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

These conflicting views within the very transhumanist community are actually quite representative of the fact that there is more than one interpretation of transhumanist ideas and that the definition of transhumanist technologies is way more complex than it appears.

So, as it was mentioned before, certain technologies can be considered as transhumanist today even if they are a source of disagreement within the transhumanist community. But one of the facts that can explain the lack of really advanced technologies is that the transhumanist movement is actually more a philosophical movement than a technological one.

“ Transhumanism is a way of giving meaning to technological developments that are perceived as being in the process of escaping human control. ”

Gabriel Dorthe

Transhumanism is actually about giving sense to philosophical and ethical questions on the future of the Human species and all the technologies related to the Human body, whether it is a genetic modification or longer life expectancy. Most of the transhumanists are not specialists or engineers, but still, they try to take the lead and address the social, political or metaphysical issues that are coming. And for Gabriel Dorthe, this absence of technology in the debate is one of the main issues of the transhumanist movement: 

 “ I have an impression that in spite of their will to debate, the speech remains rather poor and scrawny concerning the transhumanist technologies […]. It goes a little in all directions and in my opinion, the transhumanist vision is a little narrow-minded about it. ”

Gabriel Dorthe

Considering that the transhumanist movement deals more with philosophical and ethical issues than discusses the use of advanced technologies, it is now important to focus on the former subject. This makes us wonder: what are people afraid of when thinking about transhumanism and what are its main issues? 

The question of ethics 

Why are people so reluctant to accept the transhumanist movement? Actually, several reasons can possibly explain that. In order to do so, we have to analyse the limits of transhumanism, while keeping in mind that public awareness about this movement is not the same in the world. Some countries are, of course, more welcoming to the transhumanist ideas than others. Some can be even more progressive: not only does transhumanism flourish in scientific fields of the US, but it also is pushed to the forefront of the political discourse. 

The first reason – one of the most actual and critical – concerns data privacy. Overall, with the development of new technologies – and it is even truer regarding the Internet – it becomes a real challenge to keep personal information private. The transhumanist technologies are, by definition, intrusive in a person’s life at the highest level since they aim to be part of the human body. Consequently, it is relevant to consider the question of data protection when using these technologies. As Gabriel Dorthe underlined during our conversation with him, the most controversial issue about data privacy comes from a person’s health profile. Data about health is quite sensitive and private. To some extension, we can imagine that insurance companies or pharmaceutical groups might be eager to have access to these files, especially the ones regarding genetic predisposition (about illnesses for instance) or DNA sequencing. 

Another obstacle to the development of transhumanist technologies is the question of rising inequalities. First of all, transhumanists genuinely believe that social inequalities are formed by mother nature (e.g. not everyone has the same height or is born perfectly healthy), therefore it is simply impossible to abolish social inequalities; even thinking about such a possibility is completely utopic. Second, they argue that transhumanism creates new natural social inequalities, a new aristocracy. On this matter, Gabriel Dorthe reminded us that according to most of the studies, growing inequalities are a usual consequence of technological advances during the last two centuries. 

Nevertheless, it is easy for contradictors to pick an example – such as mobile phones – to oppose those studies. Indeed, twenty years ago we believed that cell phones were going to be used only by politicians or businessmen. Nowadays almost everyone owns one; even in one of the most underdeveloped countries, it is not rare to have two of them. Of course, these phones are a huge step forward for many people, but do they really represent a person’s wealth? Unfortunately, we tend to forget that technology also enables access to drinkable water, gives us the shoes we wear or builds the necessary infrastructure for education. There is still a lot of misunderstandings around what it involves when we talk about technology, but one thing is sure – they have always generated more and more inequalities. 

Now, let us consider the question of affordability and availability of potential transhumanist technologies. Their price can be another issue of discussion, as transhumanist tech might become a type of goods provided by companies to the public. In this situation, a risk – as well as a business opportunity – would be to monetize transhumanist tech and transform it into yet another product of modern capitalist society, making it a profitable business, putting it forward as a “hype” and therefore forgetting the purpose of transhumanism. And then, here we go again… “ It is not because you get a microchip under the skin that you can consider yourself as a transhumanist. ”  What would be the modalities and regulations surrounding the commercialization of such products? This question remains, for the moment, unanswered. 

Points of disagreement within the transhumanist community 

Transhumanist movement is diverse and irregular. Even though a general agreement can be found on topics of common interest, specific, more pointy questions are at the root of many clashes among the different versions of transhumanism. According to Gabriel Dorthe, two interesting subjects provoke disagreement within the transhumanist community.

The first point of disagreement is religion. Some versions of transhumanism can be directly linked to religion, as, for instance, it is the case for the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Other versions, however, believe that the movement should only remain rational and agnostic. For them, religion is neither a hypothesis of work nor of life. 

But, contrary to what it may appear, the link between transhumanism and religion is far more complex. During the late 1990s, the Christian Conservative parties in Italy and France went to find transhumanists in order to debate the topics of cloning or assisted reproductive technology. In fact, it was a great opportunity for both parties: Conservatives picked transhumanists to show the entire world that people actually had those unbelievable and unethical ideas, while transhumanists found a wider audience to express their opinions and to be heard. For that specific occasion, transhumanists and Christian Conservatives have been – if we may call them so – very short-term allies.

Another point of tension within the transhumanist community is the question of political engagement. James J. Hugues, an American sociologist, and bioethicist thematises and sums up the distribution of political thoughts in all variants of transhumanism. In France, the French Association of Transhumanism claims itself to be “techno-progressive” (a concept invented by J. J. Hugues) meaning that it focuses on social aspects, ethics, public achievements and, consequently, has a rather left-wing and socio-democratic stance. However, even among this French version of transhumanism, the question of true political engagement is the cause of a never-ending debate. Their initial goal is to gain visibility and bring their ideas on the forefront of public discussion. However, the debate is always stuck at the same level for one main reason: the lack of a clear shared message within all the members of the community.

So… why are some so afraid of transhumanism? 

Without any prior knowledge on the subject, it would be easy to be scared by the transhumanist movement and their vision of the future. One can read here and there theories stating that transhumanists are almighty and powerful and that they have strong connections and relays within the global institutions. Having done this research, we consider this discourse inaccurate and false. Actually, this fantasy comes from all the dystopian content we have heard, saw and read; modern or contemporary. It is perfectly normal to be afraid of what is new, unknown and could possibly get out of our control but still, we should not make the mistake of mixing everything up. Transhumanism – as a political and a philosophical movement – is still very small and isolated, and the development of new scary or dystopian-like technologies (such as the facial recognition in China) should not be linked to the beliefs of this group. The truth is that you have, on one hand, the scientific and engineering part of the subject that develops new technologies in a free and unrestricted way. On the other hand, you find a few groups of thinkers that are eager to reach a point where the humankind will be able to upload someone’s brain on a computer or where we will create the Human 2.0 without really being too worried about what it implies in the short and middle-term. In between those two worlds, lots of questions arise and the best science-fiction authors and film producers (as well as the journalists) have always known how to play with these dystopian fantasies. 


References

[1] Interview with Gabriel Dorthe, Ph.D. in Philosophy & Environmental Humanities at University of Lausanne and at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, April 2019

[2] Interview with Alexandre Maurer, speaker & Vice-President of the French Transhumanist Association, March 2019

[3] Alex Kahn, ORLAN, “Quelle éthique pour l’homme augmenté?” (trans. “What about ethics for an augmented human?”), conference during the Paris Book fair (Salon du Livre de Paris), March 2019

[4] Nick Bostrom, 2005. “A History of Transhumanist Thought”, Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 14. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies https://philpapers.org/rec/BOSAHO-2

[5] Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), University of Oxford https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk

[6] Alexander Thomas, 2017. “Super-intelligence and eternal life: transhumanism’s faithful follow it blindly into a future for the elite”. The Conversation https://theconversation.com/super-intelligence-and-eternal-life-transhumanisms-faithful-follow-it-blindly-into-a-future-for-the-elite-78538

[7] Sarwant Singh, 2017. “Transhumanism and the Future of Humanity: 7 ways the world will change by 2030”. Forbes 
https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarwantsingh/2017/11/20/transhumanism-and-the-future-of-humanity-seven-ways-the-world-will-change-by-2030/#69712f737d79

[8] Rich Haridy, 2017. “Welcome to the era of transhumanism”. New Atlas https://newatlas.com/transhumanism-mainstream-era-popular/47941

[9] Gaia Staff, 2017. “Are microchips a convenience or invasion of privacy?”. Gaia https://www.gaia.com/article/microchips-the-next-step-in-transhumanism-or-a-privacy-issue

[10] Robin McKie, 2018. “No death and an enhanced life: is the future transhuman?”. The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/06/no-death-and-an-enhanced-life-is-the-future-transhuman

[11] William Davis, 2015. “Moving Beyond the Human: Posthumanism, Transhumanism, and Objects.” SERRC Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective https://social-epistemology.com/2015/02/05/moving-beyond-the-human-posthumanism-transhumanism-and-objects-part-iii-william-davis/

[12] Elise Bohan, 2017. “ 10 human body modifications you can expect in the next decade”. Big Think https://bigthink.com/10-human-body-modifications-you-can-expect-in-the-next-decade

[13] Scott Amyx, 2016. “Will the internet of things make us superhuman?”. TechCrunch https://techcrunch.com/2016/08/19/will-the-internet-of-things-make-us-superhuman/

[14] John Loeffler, 2018. “The transhuman revolution: what is it and how we can prepare for its arrival”. Interesting engineering https://interestingengineering.com/the-transhuman-revolution-what-is-it-and-how-we-can-prepare-for-its-arrival

[15] Sally Shin, Josh Lipton, 2018. “Security researchers say they can hack Medtronic pacemakers”. CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/17/security-researchers-say-they-can-hack-medtronic-pacemakers.html

[16] Laurent Alexandre, 2012. “Le recul de la mort – l’immortalité à brève échéance?”. TedX talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGD-7M7iYzs

[17] Julian Vigo, 2018. “The Ethics of Transhumanism And the Cult of Futurist Biotech”, Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/julianvigo/2018/09/24/the-ethics-of-transhumanism-and-the-cult-of-futurist-biotech/#53c36b044ac5

[18] Rich Haridy, 2017. “Zoltan Istvan on transhumanism, politics and why the human body has to go”, New Atlas https://newatlas.com/zoltan-istvan-interview-transhumanism-politics/48041/

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