Andrew Smith posted in February an article about Transhumanism that I just came across. And I think that it basically sums up the issues I have with the idea of transhumanism… right down to the name.
Andrew points out that the basic premise of transhumanism is that humans will eventually create such incredible technology that we will literally merge with it and, as futurist Ray Kurzweil put it, “transcend biology”… thus bringing about the “Singularity,” the instant when we… who knows, become One with the cosmos or something.
There’s a lot of vagueness here, and for good reason: No one knows what would happen if we somehow evolved to another level of existence. But as Andrew points out, much of these speculations are missing one key factor: The essential nature of humans.
Humans are the planet’s premier tool-using species. Most terrestrial species have managed to develop forms of communication, and many of them have gone on to develop more sophisticated languages. Some of them have learned how to pass on their knowledge to their peers and offspring using language. A few of them have figured out how to use rudimentary tools to make their lives easier. But Humanity has developed both tools and language to a high art, by combining the two in order to continue to build on both; he has taken it to a level unmatched by any other living thing on this planet.
The primary definition of transhumanism is the transcendence of biology; but humans have been transcending biology for the last million years, ever since they learned to tame fire and started wrapping skins around their bodies to protect them. Every use we make of technology, to do something that the unaided human body is incapable of, is transcending biology. The glasses on your nose are transcending your biology. You might even make the case that advanced communication, in being able to impart theories and higher concepts impossible to physically touch or see or even prove, is almost a form of telepathy (using complex sounds to pass knowledge from mind to mind), and therefore transcending biology.
Is there a difference, then, in what we are doing now and what we’ve done in the past? As Andrew cites, only that our ability to impact our environment beyond our biological capabilities has increased in pace so significantly that we can see in our lifetimes the changes happening to us and around us. And Andrew claims that that isn’t enough of a reason to claim what we’re doing is anything new or different:
“Our use of technology is exactly what makes us human. We are able to grasp objects because of our opposable thumbs, and a million years ago or so we started tinkering with things, ultimately making improvements to these things- and, more importantly, showing others how to make these improvements so that future generations didn’t have to figure the same thing out. Standing on the shoulders of our ancestors, we no longer have to figure out how to control fire, or how to have running water in our houses, or how to search for things on the internet in a matter of seconds.”
(Personally, I contend that a major reason for that accelerated pace is simply the incredible proliferation of humans on this planet: When you go from a few hundred thousand to seven billion in the space of a few thousand years, there’s a lot more people around to keep developing those tools and ideas, and progress can’t help but be sped up.)
Humans are now what they always have been. Our technology has been part of us, literally draped over our shoulders and painted on our faces, for millennia. And if, in the future, we figure out how to implant electronics into our frontal lobes and process thoughts a million times faster than we can today… we’ll still be human, using our tools to make our lives better. There’s nothing transcendent about that; that’s just us being us. As long as humans are in the equation, they will be doing what humans do.
Which leaves us with one thing to consider: What about the moment when humans, possibly aided by our incredible technology, manage to somehow leave our physical bodies completely behind and become One with the cosmos? Whether you believe that will happen or not… if it does, it so happens that there’s already a name for that: Evolution. True, intentionally developing into a non-corporeal state of being wouldn’t by definition be Darwinian Evolution; so I suppose that might be known as Transcendental Evolution.
But until and unless we reach that moment, my opinion is that transhumanism means, specifically, nothing. We are humans being humans, as we have been doing for a million years, and will probably be doing for a million more… until we evolve into something else. And at that point, we won’t consider it to be transhuman, any more than we consider our present state to be transprimate.