This article is a deep dive into the history and background of Transhumanism. It underscores the title of my latest book, The Evil Twins of Technocracy and Transhumanism. Transhumanism is an ideological pseudoscience that cannot possibly succeed, but will leave a wake of human destruction and harm in its path. ⁃ TN Editor
Technocracy News –
Transhumanism is a very strong trend among the Western élites. Its aim is to overcome the natural limitations of human biology using technology.
- that we can improve the human body to create cyborgs, which are fictive organisms in which human organs and technology are seamlessly combined;
- that properties such as human intelligence can be genetically enhanced by germline genome manipulation;
- that mRNA technology will soon allow us to “write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers” (as worded in President Biden’s Executive Order on biotechnology);
- that we will soon cure cancer using genetic or even nano-mechanic (tiny machine) therapies;
- that machines will shortly be able to read thoughts;
- that there is no free will because the mind is a collection of biochemical processes;
- that soon we will obtain digital immortality by “uploading our minds to the cloud”;
- that “artificial intelligence” (AI) will soon lead to machines more intelligent than humans;
- that AI will make most humans useless to society because all their work will be taken over by machines,
- that we will be able to genetically reprogram the sex of adult humans in the near future—
to name just a few of the ideas they espouse.
Why is all of this unscientific balderdash? And why do so many—including clever people like the billionaire Elon Musk—believe in it? What are the roots and goals of this movement? Let’s answer these questions in reverse order.
What are the transhumanists’ goals?
There are two groups of transhumanists.
The first group sees transhumanism as the ultimate method of self-actualisation (alias self-realisation), supposedly allowing those who think they can afford this eye-wateringly expensive alleged self-improvement to escape the biological limits of their bodies. For example, the transhumanist Martine Rothblatt, whose cells have the XY karyotype but who “became” a woman, says that self-defining one’s gender is just the first step on a path that will lead to a cure for cancer and other lethal diseases and ultimately to digital immortality.
Related to this goal, but of lesser importance, is the idea that transhumanism could promote universal equality of outcomes in the tradition of the French Enlightenment ideal of equality by law (as opposed to the Protestant Enlightenment ideal of equality under the law, or isonomy). In this flavour, transhumanism has an emancipatory character akin to abolitionism (the fight against slavery in the nineteenth century) or feminist emancipation, the absurd idea that both sexes should be equal in every respect. Proponents of this variant of the creed believe that all human beings could be altered using transhumanistic technology to achieve equality of outcomes. We will see in the last two sections below that none of these hopes can be fulfilled.
The second group of transhumanists hopes to use transhumanism as a technical means of power in the spirit of Aldous Huxley, who describes the engineering of human classes with planned properties in artificial wombs. Implanted sensors or molecular effectors (for example, delivering pulsated drug dosages into the circulation) are believed by transhumanists, as is genetic engineering, to afford physical control and manipulation of the masses, to direct their will and to leave most human beings superfluous. For example, Harari believes that artificial intelligence will make most humans useless; according to him, only a small élite of superhumans will be needed in the future. He also thinks that technology can be used to direct and manage the will of the masses.
We will see below that, while technology can be used to manipulate the masses culturally, it cannot be used to control them physically (other than in the pushing of chronic mass intoxication and addiction, which is not a new phenomenon), nor to render them obsolete as a workforce. Also related to this intention is the idea of using the transhumanist narrative to exert cultural power via fear of the future, as has been done with the climate change and the Covid fear narratives. This is by far the biggest effect that the transhumanist narrative has had so far, but it will lose its hold once its preposterousness and anti-scientific character become obvious and once its cultural precondition, the current collective Western spasm of fear, has dissipated.
What are the cultural roots of transhumanism?
Transhumanism has several major cultural sources:
- self-actualisation, an idea originally developed in the Italian Renaissance which was further elaborated and popularised by Herder but which has since degenerated into a flat form of hedonistic consumerism;
- emancipation in the sense of the French Enlightenment;
- Cartesianism and neo-positivism;
- postmodern anti-rationalism; and
We will discuss each in turn.
The idea of self-actualisation was originally developed by Pico de la Mirandola and other thinkers of the Italian Renaissance. It was a programme for cultural élites to realise the full potential of their personality and arose with the discovery of the modern individual. The individual was thought to be primarily related to himself and was tasked with maximising his own culture, knowledge and pleasure.
In the eighteenth century, the German Protestant theologian Johann Gottfried Herder reformulated the concept as a philosophy for the masses, but in accordance with Christianity. Self-actualisation was meant to happen in the context of the “liberty of a Christian” (a doctrine as old as the New Testament) who is simultaneously “a freeman unto himself, but a bondsman unto all” (Luther). In the nineteenth century, when the followers of Hegel separated the modern individual from God, one of them, Max Stirner, enunciated a radical agenda of self-actualisation by declaring that each man is his own god, possessing his own uniqueness.
The Western bourgeoisie developed a romantic manifesto of self-actualisation during the nineteenth century, which became a broad social movement of the upper classes. However, its subjectivist tendency quickly became apparent. Heidegger, one of the fathers of contemporary anti-rationalism, saw this movement as a form of “subjectivism, including the most dangerous kind, which is hidden in the cult of the personality”. He also saw a link to globalism (which he called “planetarism”) and said that “planetarian imperialism” (by which he meant US-led globalisation commencing in the 1930s) would culminate in a “forgetfulness of being (Seinsvergessenheit) embedded in subjectivism”.
In like vein, Heidegger calls this Western subjectivism the “rule of Man”, an elegant pun in the original German (where man is routinely used as a pronoun indicating anonymity, collectivity or unspoken agency, like one in English and on in French, but which Heidegger repurposes as a noun). Hard to translate, this coining of his means the rule of a standardised, soulless type of posthuman. After all, a trans-anything is on the way to leaving it behind altogether (post-). Foucault—who, like his main sources, Bataille, Marx and Heidegger, is rarely a source of valid insight—adequately characterised this cultural megatrend as the “Californian self-cult”, and later Charles Taylor called it “pseudo-authenticity” in his Ethics of Authenticity, a redoubtable book on this very topic.
All of these thinkers realised that this pseudo-self-actualisation is a form of consumerism in which the realisation of the potential of the person is trivialised to a certain selection of goods and services churned out by the megamachine (Lewis Mumford). In transhumanism, the idea of self-actualisation attains a peak. Transhumanists affirm that we can completely reshape our entire bodily and mental existence to maximise the potential of our personality. The would-be woman Rothblatt, who not coincidentally resides in California, is the consummate embodiment of this ideology.
Emancipation is an idea originating in the French Enlightenment and contains a factor that the Protestant Enlightenment (Britain, the Netherlands, the German-speaking countries and Scandinavia) does not recognise. The main ideas of the Protestant Enlightenment are the dignity of the individual, the individual’s freedom and rights, and the sanctity of design of the bourgeois society built on these ideas, namely a state respecting and protecting the rule of law and enabling democratic participation.
In the French tradition, however, there is a notion to create a secular paradise on earth, which was described explicitly by Abbé Étienne-Gabriel Morelly in his Code de la nature (1755), the first communist manifesto ever written. Morelly proposed the creation of the state that owns everything and distributes goods and services to achieve perfect equality and social justice. His ideas influenced Rousseau, who distinguished the vulgar volonté de tous (the will of everyman, a bottom-up democratic participation in Scottish Enlightenment terms) from the ostensibly noble volonté générale (the universal will), to be discerned and implemented by an élitist oligarch group supervising and directing society to achieve a higher optimum.
The idea of emancipation, according to which humans need to be liberated from oppressive power structures of society by breaking with traditional rules, was very potent in the French Revolution, and later on in feminism, as well as in anti-racist movements. It has, of course, a fully justified core that is clearly visible in abolitionism (the campaign to end slavery), but tends to become dangerous if the liberation it seeks is combined with the intention to plan a new and better society with new social norms from scratch, as the French revolutionary Babeuf described it. It did not take long for Burke and Hegel to realise this and point out that societies can only be stable if social norms evolve spontaneously.
In transhumanism, there is the idea that technical manipulation of human nature can free us from the burden of our physical existence and make us immortal. It is a secularised eschatology aiming at the total absence of constraints imposed on us by nature or society (which is the natural system resulting from human nature by the interaction of individuals in large groups). The slipping of the bonds of nature is part of the self-actualisation aspect of transhumanism, but the creed also contains an aspect of social emancipation based on technology. This view is thoroughly detached from any realistic perspective on anthropology.
The last emancipatory promise based on technology was propagated in the 1990s: it was the idea of the free internet, which was supposed to be shared by mankind and to enable new models of participation. Today, the internet has instead become a tool of commercial data collection and exploitation, mass surveillance, propaganda and political exclusion, trammelled knowledge and censorship.
Cartesianism and neo-positivism
Cartesianism—the philosophy of Descartes summed up in the deductivist maxim I think, therefore I am—has many aspects, but the one we are concerned with here is the view that humans can systematically describe, understand and manipulate the world using mathematics and the sciences based on them. For Descartes, the entire world is a mechanism that can be modelled mathematically to enable its mapping and manipulation. Major Cartesians were Lagrange, La Mettrie and Laplace.
Lagrange was a mathematical genius who invented a very elegant mathematical expression of Newton’s laws. Like Boyle and Hooke, both British physicists, he believed that the laws of physics were “written by God into the book of nature” and merely await our discovery, which is the task of science. La Mettrie, a contemporary of Lagrange, was a drastic materialist and saw the human being as a machine. Laplace, who lived a generation later, believed that if we could measure all physical magnitudes of the world, we could write down a gigantic system of differential equations, plug the measurement values into it, and calculate the future: an idea later dubbed the “Laplace demon”.
Scientists with a higher power of judgement than the French scientific utopians, such as Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, saw that this was impossible, and it became apparent in the course of the nineteenth century that classical physics (mechanics plus electromagnetism) was running into problems that could not be resolved in the universal framework originally defined by Newton, Leibniz, and Euler.
Many philosophers apprehended early on that we are unable to model and manipulate nature in the way the Cartesians longed for. Giambatista Vico may well have been the first, but others—from Herder to Max Scheler, who solemnly pronounced Cartesianism dead—followed in his wake.
When, with the development of quantum mechanics, it became evident that the mathematical models of particles making up matter merely lead to stochastic (guesswork) models of reality, many physicists abandoned Cartesianism as well. The theory of complex systems which emerged from thermodynamics and chaos theory made it obvious to every physicist that the models we have are superb for predicting the behaviour of highly restricted systems and for engineering technology based on them, but that we cannot model complex systems using mathematics.
But though Cartesianism is dead from the point of view of philosophy and mathematical physics, it is still a major driving force of our culture, as is evident from the fact that so many engineers, entrepreneurs, biologists, representatives of the humanities and politicians believe in Cartesianism. They are convinced by Cartesianism because they do not understand physics and because they are bedazzled by the great success of physics and its applications over the last two centuries.
Closely related to Cartesianism is neo-positivism. It is the heir to positivism, an ideology which was fully formulated by Auguste Comte, who coined the term. The basic idea of positivism is that all true propositions which constitute scientific knowledge have to be based on empirical data that can be verified using independent observations or experiments. It is based on the English tradition of empiricism going back to Aristotle and Bacon (Novum Organum), Locke, and then the Scottish Enlightenment; above all, David Hume. No sources of science other than experience and its verification are allowed; there is therefore no religious or metaphysical knowledge.
Positivism is strongly linked with the idea of the teleological (end-state), necessary progress of mankind, a secular (post-Christian) eschatology. Comte believed that there was a necessary movement towards a science-based (where have we heard that adjective recently?) global culture that would enable mankind to surpass its current dismal state. He founded the secular-positivist “religion of humanity” (église positiviste) for “positivist societies” to fulfil the cohesive function once held by collective worship.
Though positivism was dismissed as an ideology by Scheler, the Vienna Circle in the 1920s revived its ideas as logical (or neo-)positivism. The movement failed philosophically, but the ideas of positivism are still vivid in transhumanism and its teleological ideas. A core feature of both Cartesianism and positivism notable in transhumanism is the alleged technical feasibility of effecting a change in human nature using mathematical models.
The ideas of eugenics go back to Arthur de Gobineau, the theoretician of the master race, and Herbert Spencer, the coiner of the term survival of the fittest. Eugenics became a political movement in the 1920s in the United States and Britain. Its core idea is that the genomes of the individuals of a population (the totality of their genetic material) should be improved to yield a higher genetic quality of the individuals and a better overall genetic quality of the population. It was inspired by the success of animal and plant breeding in agriculture, which was first genetically explained by Mendel and then systematically used to improve the properties of agricultural life forms.
But because even basic human traits such as body height have an omnigenomic inheritance pattern (the whole genome encodes the trait), and since nothing is known about the genetic causation of higher qualities such as intelligence or emotional stability, eugenic strivings cannot succeed even theoretically. Any attempts to implement eugenic programmes, such as those pursued by the Nazis in the 1940s, are deeply anti-human and evil. Nevertheless, transhumanism is full of dreams of improving mankind using genetic manipulation.
Transhumanism also has a deeply anti-rational aspect. Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler reject the idea …..