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So What The Hell Is This Transhumanism?


by Ben Higginbottom (10/01/02)

editors note: This essay was originally submitted on the external link Orion's Arm worldbuilding forum (of which I am a founding member), but I believe these issues are importatnt enough to justify wider circulation. MAK


A few months back, this group was infected with what could be described as a number of parasites. These attackers linked to our site in order to use its popularity as a method of propigating there memes.

Now this happens all the time, for the most part it is entirely harmless and indeed can be benificial, as can be seen in the cases of John Dollan and Andrew Percival, both have their own worldbuilding projects and have used Orions Arm to advertise them. However both make tremendousley valuble contributions. The attackers had no such intentions, the attackers were of course Xenith and the Promethians [1].

Xenith and Promethianism both advertise themselves as transhumanists, they are however white supremicists, interested in starting a negative eugenics program and setting up a totalitarian, static state. The purpose of this essay is to show that Transhumanism is fundamentally incompatable with these, and indeed any other totalitarian goals.

Although it can be claimed that Transhumanism has its roots in the work of socialists such as author H.G Wells [2] and scientist/politician J.D Bernal as well as the Futurism of Filippo Marinetti, beloved by the Itallian fascists of the 1920's - 1930's. Modern Transhumanism infact began with Iranian/Belgian sociologist F.M Esfandiary (later F.M 2030) in 1966 [3,4], the term later appearing in cryonicist Dr Robet Ettinger's book Man Into Superman[5].

F.M during the 1970's set up the first Transhumanist political movement, The Upwingers. Advocating a world government, directly controlled by its citizens by what would be called today the Internet. In effect a return to athenian democracy via computers.

Transhumanism continued to expand slowly throughout the next fifteen years, untill philosophy student Max More and Tom Morrow began first the journal Extropy, followed by the Extropy Institute in 1992. More issued a number of principles (currently v3), that attempt to encapsulate the Transhumanist Extropian philosophy[6] into the following points:

1. Perpetual Progress - Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an indefinite lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities. Expanding into the universe and advancing without end.

2. Self-Transformation - Affirming continual moral, intellectual, and physical self- improvement, through critical and creative thinking, personal responsibility, and experimentation. Seeking biological and neurological augmentation along with emotional and psychological refinement.

3. Practical Optimism - Fueling action with positive expectations. Adopting a rational, action- based optimism, in place of both blind faith and stagnant pessimism.

4. Intelligent Technology - Applying science and technology creatively to transcend "natural" limits imposed by our biological heritage, culture, and environment. Seeing technology not as an end in itself but as an effective means towards the improvement of life.

5. Open Society - Supporting social orders that foster freedom of speech, freedom of action, and experimentation. Opposing authoritarian social control and favoring the rule of law and decentralization of power. Preferring bargaining over battling, and exchange over compulsion. Openness to improvement rather than a static utopia.

6. Self-Direction - Seeking independent thinking, individual freedom, personal responsibility, self-direction, self-esteem, and respect for others.

7. Rational Thinking - Favoring reason over blind faith and questioning over dogma. Remaining open to challenges to our beliefs and practices in pursuit of perpetual improvement. Welcoming criticism of our existing beliefs while being open to new ideas.

For five years the Extropian Institute remained (and is still today) the preeminent body representing Transhumanism. More recently (1997) the World Transhumanist Association was founded by the polimathic swedish philosopher Dr. Nicholas Bostrum. Far more 'academic' and less ardently pro-capitalistic than the Extropians, the WTA in 1999 issued a Transhumanist FAQ and Declaration[7]:

The Transhumanist Declaration:

(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of ageing, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.

(2) Systematic research should be put into understanding these coming developments and their long-term consequences.

(3) Transhumanists think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it.

(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.

(5) In planning for the future, it is mandatory to take into account the prospect of dramatic technological progress. It would be tragic if the potential benefits failed to materialize because of ill-motivated technophobia and unnecessary prohibitions. On the other hand, it would also be tragic if intelligent life went extinct because of some disaster or war involving advanced technologies.

(6) We need to create forums where people can rationally debate what needs to be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

(7) Transhumanism advocates the well-being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, non-human animals, or possible extraterrestrial species) and encompasses many principles of modern secular humanism. Transhumanism does not support any particular party, politician or political platform.

Its obvious from both these statements (rational thought, intrinsic value of sentience, open societies etc.) the effect of the humanistic worldview and libertarian roots on both Dr. More and the WTA's steering committee. The technology (nanotech, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering) plays very much a secondary role.

However, due to perhaps the very general language and evolutionary nature of these statements, the need to differentiate between mainstream humanism[8], and the lack of a true Transhumanist manifesto, Transhumanism came to mean the enhancement of humans by technological means. Transhumanism in effect became a meta-philosophy, to which any group could attach its own desired political and social views.

As a result there are now groups that declare themselves to be transhuman or indeed posthuman[9], which have remarkably little to do with the goals of Transhumanism, namely a better future for all humanity, liberated from theocratic dogmas and based on rationality and humanism. These groups run the gamut from harmless kooks such as the Omegists that belive that the omega point is an certainty with or without action on their part, to the disturbing whte supremacism of the Promethians.

However are Promethians Transhumanists? They certainly declare themselves to be. Mark Donaldson, the current Promethian discussion group moderator and troll of our discussion group, even goes as far as to declare himself a 'good humanist'[10]. However consider their principles and goals[11]:

Principles and Goals

1. We are both a nation and a religion. Whether we will be a diasporic nation, a nation with boundaries, or both, will depend on circumstances currently beyond our control. But in the future, a homeland must be sought for by any means available.

2. Our aim is to create a genetically enhanced race that will eventually become a new,superior species. In the short-term, this will be achieved via eugenics and geneticengineering.

3. There are many reasons why we want to achieve this:

a.) Technology has outpaced the human brain in modernization -- we must now play catchup using eugenics and do it alone if necessary.

b.) The world is caught in a dysgenic trend from which we want to be freed.

c.) This is a way of maximizing our viability -- the survival and probability of survival of our genes. A more intelligent species will be more fit to adapt to new environments and to face new threats and obstacles.

d.) We see this as the noble thing to do, the idealization of humanity and beyond-humanity. We seek to bring ourselves closer to Godhood. Through eugenics and other forms of improvement, we will bring higher civilization, higher creativity, higher consciousness to the Universe. What Nature used to do via natural selection, we will now take into our own hands with directed and deliberate evolution.

4. We must not concern ourselves with others that are caught in the dysgenic cycle. We must only be concerned with the success of other competing eugenics' programs that will pose a threat to our own new species, for speciation will not travel along a single vector when humans compete using the new technologies.

5. Any eugenics' program has equal validity to use the state's coercive power to improve human genetic capital. Genetic capital is now more valuable than land and/or territory aside from some scarce resources. DNA or genetic capital is the most valuable commodity in the universe.

6. Behavioral tolerance should flow naturally out of a highly intelligent, eugenic society that is ethically cohesive. It must be accepting of many different preferences or freedoms of personal conduct that might offend, but does no harm to the group. That is, elimination of consensual crimes is a given in a society that through intelligence and understanding of human behavior in others can tolerate deviants who do no harm.

7. We are not a cult or sect. Our principles are firmly grounded in empiricism and neo- Darwinism. Our purpose is merely to do what we believe is noble, using science to create a new human species because that is what we want to do. No irrational dogma is required or desired. The eugenic state is a sovereign state, with or without borders.

8. As creators we do not submit to dogma or blind faith, but only to empirical knowledge. Likewise, we have no need of holy men, only wise men. As individuals, we only submit to the goals of the project, and to nothing else. And in allowing us to be part of the creation, the group gives back to the individual a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Eugenic is that which makes us come closer to our image of god in a technological and ever expanding universe. No limits, and no regrets.

Not exactly easy reading, however its differences to the far clearer Extropian and Transhumanist principles are evident from point one. This group wishes to set up its own state and a coercive eugenics program. Now a new state is hardly a new idea, libertarians have dreamed of setting up a space colony of their own since before most of us were born. Yet Promethians demand loyalty and patriotism to even the idea of this state, from their rules and strategies:

VI. Allegiance and patriotism to the group takes precedence before attachment to one's religion or patriotism to the country where one just happens to reside. Going to war for the state because of shared loyalties is dysgenic. Only patriotism to the eugenic state requires your sacrifice and allegiance.

This states quite clearly that the abstract idea of a Promethian nation is of far greater importance than any other consideration for its followers, including their lives. The classic colectivist, totalitarian meme. The Promethe-man, selected from the 'purest' DNA is all that matters, not individual happiness, dignity and certanly not choice.

The coercive nature of their desired eugenics program continues this theme, the individual is irrelevant, only the DNA that that person might posses, to which they have no rights to should it be required for the program. What truly great humanists the Promethians are, creating a superman through the process of rape. After all the heads of the Church surely know what they are doing, and who are we to question what is good for all.

This spits in the face of all humanistic philosophy, that the individual is whats important, that it is that man, woman or child which is the most important component of whatever temporary group that has formed, be it a club formed in the last hour or a nation that has lasted for centuries. Therefore if Transhumanism has any humanistic basis then Promethians are not Transhumanists on these two points alone.

Yet they continue, hyperlinked to their principles are courses of actions which include the call for anyone who is judged to be dysgenic to be permanently sterilized at the age of 22, and for all people to be reversibly sterilized from the age of 10 to halt any dysgenic births. There is also the call to their footsoldiers to stop all other projects that are a threat to the church by whatever means necessary. Can anyone guess who they are refering too?

Sterilizing chlidren and stifling diversity. My what a paragon of Transhumanist values they are.

Now I do think that the likelihood of these neonazi's actually succeeding in any of their plans has as much of a chance as I do in getting a date with Cat Deeley. However I do belive that should the Promethians continue to be identified with Transhumanism, they could succeed in muddying the waters of a journalists perception and as a result have the entire Transhumanist movement, be it Extropian, WTA or Singularity Institute, branded as yet another mob of neonazi's.

This is not to say of course that Extropianism and Transhumanism is without its non-luddite critics. The original Wired team said of the Extropians 'Serious (too serious) about the future, and mankinds place in it (probably not)'[[12]. While the newer batch of writers for Wired have ranged their criticism from pointing out the lack of community spirit[13] to an all out attack against 'Extropian Elitism'[14]. The validity of these points can be judged for themselves.

Increasingly their are signs of Transhumanism 'Growing Up' and beginning to change from the current technophile clubs. Ideologies are begining to cement themselves, and none too soon if we are to champion the causes that the exceptionally well networked luddies so despise. Already our own 'Superbright' Anders has begun to lay down an ethical framework[15]. From this paper it is quite possible to derive the meaning of Transhumanism:

In the future, it will be possible to radically alter the human form and people will be able to alter their bodies as they see fit. It should be a right, but not an entitlement, for these people to do so. Without any form of coercion from a government, church, insurance company or other outside agency and no matter what form they so choose, they remain human beings all equally worthy of dignity and respect.

Finally, the most apparent difference between Transhumanism and the prometheists is that Transhumanism is showing signs of becoming a geniune cultural movement, yet another sign of its increasing maturity, this being the advent of transhumanist arts. Transhumanists have people such as Stelerac[16] and Natasha Vita More[17] producing astounding performance and netarts, Anders' (again) wonderful renderings. We have fiction, not only from our own group but from authors such as Damien Broderick[18] and Charles Stross[19] and more recently there is explicitly Transhumanist inspired music from groups such as Vacuum[20], The Land Canaan[21] and as a matter of days ago a group called Serca[22].

Transhumanists are in the end people who wish to use technology to become more than what we are now. We are not monsters who wish to inflict yet more pain and suffering on the world, we wish for a finer world full of the wonders that the future has promised. However the Transhumanist path is and will always be one of informed choice. If you decide that it is your wish to remain on this planet, growing old and dying; then your choice will be honoured. Just please, when the time comes, honour our own informed choices as we become a new kind of human.

Ben Higginbottom
Manchester U.K 07/04/02


References:

[1] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orions_arm/message/2110
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orions_arm/message/3610
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orions_arm/message/3078
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orions_arm/message/3125 and so on.
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[2] A Modern Utopia by H.G Wells, published 1905. Current edition - Everyman ISBN: 0-460-87498
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[3] http://www.fm-2030.com
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[4] The Spike by Damien Broderick, published 2001 by Tor Books. ISBN: 0-312-87781
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[5] Man Into Superman by Robert Ettinger available at http://www.cryonics.org/book2.html
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[6] http://www.extropy.org/principles
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[7] http://www.transhumanism.com/declaration
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[8] http://www.secularhumanism.org
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[9] http://www.stevenichols.com - Self declared posthuman and founder of MVT - Median Vision Theory (3rd eye stuff), sounds very much like a californian guru to the stars. However he has made some interesting points on how the Industrial Revolution could be considered a Singularity, however by the same standard the invention of the personal computer by Steve Wozniak could also be considered a singularity.
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[10] During a revealing flame war on the Promethian list entitled 'Prometheism and Race' during during November of 2001. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/prometheism-pgroup
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[11] http://www.prometheism.net
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[12] The Happy Mutants Handbook by Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair et all. Riverhead Books 1995 ISBN - 1-57322-502-9
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[13] Escape Velocity by Mark Dery, published 1997
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[14] Paulina Borsook Vs Max More Debate http://hotwired.lycos.com/braintennis/96/33/index0a.html
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[15] Morphological Freedom -- Why We not just Want it, but Need it by Anders Sandberg. Published 2001 - http://www.nada.kth.se/~asa/Texts/MorphologicalFreedom
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[16] Australian performance artist Stelerac - http://www.stelarc.va.com.au
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[17] Natasha Vita More, wife of Extropian founder Max More and creator of Primo 3M+, the body design of tomorrow - http://www.natasha.cc and the author of the Transhumanist Arts Statement http://www.extropic-art.com/transart.htm
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[18] Damien Broderick, author of The Spike has recently written an explicitly Singularity aware novel called Transcension, available from Tor Books ISBN: 0-765-30369-8
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[19] Charles Stross, Computer Expert, yet another Scottish Transhumanist aware Author and active member of the Extropians List. His work can be found in Spectrum magazine, the Posthuman anthology and on his website
http://www.antipope.org/charlie/
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[20] Vacuum - Swedish group founded by the aptly named Stockholm Records owner and Philosopher Alexander Bard. Split a few years ago but are likely to reform later on this year under a new name.
http://hemsidor.torget.se/users/d/daha6439/webring.htm
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[21] The Land Canaan - New Zealand based group with Transhumanist influences. Recently renamed themselves 'io'. http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/42/the_land_canaan.html Alive is strongly recommended.
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[22] Serca - British industrial metal group who have recently completed their EP, Singularity part one. Although the music is not to the authors taste, the lyrics certainly are and they are introducing an entirely new segment of society to Transhumanist thought (angry teenagers?:). Their website is http://www.serca.net and their music can be heard at http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/344/serca.html
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essay by Ben Higginbottom 2002