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Why the Word "Transhumanism" Should Bother You, Too

Updated on February 9, 2017

"Transhumanism" or Transcendence?

We are headed into a future where our bodies will be able to repair themselves, we'll be able to talk to one another without external devices of any sort, and our intelligence will soar above anything we can begin to imagine today.
We are headed into a future where our bodies will be able to repair themselves, we'll be able to talk to one another without external devices of any sort, and our intelligence will soar above anything we can begin to imagine today.

Every Movement Needs a Great Buzzword

Want to have the ability to move things around with your mind, print out any new body parts you might need, including organs, and be able to work from home every day via a completely convincing virtual reality setup? All of these things are not only within reach, according to a movement that is gaining traction more rapidly than almost any other in history, but they are inevitably happening within the next 30 years. Many authors (myself included) struggle to give a name to this incredible movement, instead deferring to the event where all of this converging technology culminates in a brand new way of life for all human beings, utterly different in ways we aren't capable of imagining with our "unaugmented" human brains: the Technological Singularity.

Futurists like Ray Kurzweil (in his incredibly acclaimed The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology) have put forth a timeline for the Singularity, and the time frame most futurists tend to agree on is within the next 30 years or so. Why does this seem so unbelievable to us? It's simple: because we think in a linear fashion, not in an exponential one. Kurzweil's favorite example to illustrate this point involves taking 30 steps forward. At step one, you've taken one step forward, and at step 30, you've taken 30 steps. With exponential growth (simply doubling the distance covered with each step), at step 1 and 2, you're still only one and two steps forward, respectfully, but by step 3, you're 4 steps forward, and by step 30, you're a billion steps forward.

The world we live in is not one of linear growth, nor has it ever been one. Our growth as a species has been exponential since the very beginning, because we've always "stood on the shoulders of giants" with our technology, ultimately using the last great invention to actually create the next one. This is nowhere more apparent than with Moore's Law, the observation that computing power, speed, and price-performance double every 2 years or so (technically, Moore's Law is much more specific, but we'll go with the more popular meaning for the purpose of ease of use).

While the word "Singularity" is captivating, and perhaps even appropriate, it describes a single approaching event, but not really the concept or the ensuing movement as a whole. Enter the word "transhumanism", now extremely en vogue. "Transhumanism" first appeared on the scene in the 1980s, but didn't gain widespread popularity until the last year or so. It has become the phrase to describe what many of us believe, much to my chagrin.

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What makes us human?

Perhaps the best way to explain the visceral objection I have to the word "transhumanism" is to start by describing exactly what it is that makes us human beings in the first place. What do we do better than all of the other species out there, and how long have we been doing it?

Well, I heartily recommend Wikipedia's Timeline of Historic Inventions as a place to start understanding who we are. What does it mean to be human? It starts with two simple things: using tools to manipulate our environment (controlling fire and then building our own shelters), and then communicating with language. Both of these two innovations fall under the slightly broader category of what we call "technology." As we can see, technology has always been a part of who we are.

When I hear people talking about how great anarcho-primitivism is- the concept that we need to stop using all technology and live in the wild- I have to remind myself that not everyone is taking advantage of the wealth of information available to us. We've got to realize that going back to such a time would mean hunting without spears, because spears are technological innovations (albeit from several hundred thousand years ago). We also wouldn't want to draw the animals or tell our fellow humans what the animals look like, because art and language are two technological innovations (and you can follow the logical progression up the ladder through time, from oral language to written language, to the printing press, to the Linotype machine, to digital data and the current computer and internet revolution).

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.

Our ancestors figuring out things so we don't have to.   Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Our ancestors figuring out things so we don't have to. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kurzweil on the evolution of the human brain, past and future

Humanism 2.0

What we're becoming, then, isn't the next logical species according to Darwinian evolution. Instead, we are going to continue to do what we've always done: be human. We're going to continue to innovate and build new technology based on the last technological paradigm our ancestors (or we ourselves, since the time it takes to come up with new stuff is shortening every day) created. We are, today, in the midst of an amazing time where we can see the pace of change accelerating for perhaps the first time in humanity's history, where the impact of a new invention can not only be felt virtually immediately worldwide, but the next great innovation can take place within days instead of centuries.

Let's enjoy continuing to become human and see where our species takes us.

Inventions, or standing on the shoulders of giants

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    • gsantostasi profile image

      gsantostasi 2 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

      I disagree a lot with this article.

      Of course no word can ever be perfect in describing a movement, a particular historical development of ideas. Are Enlightenment or Renaissance perfectly good words to describe these movements? No, not always.

      But they do catch some of the spirit of these times.

      Transhumanism is a good and useful word. I like it because it points out that we are in a trans-ition, that were are seeking trans-cendence of our limitations.

      The author of the article points out that we always have done what we are doing right now, we have used technology to improve our situation and ourselves. While that may be true, I think there is something special about our movement. It is the first time in history that a large, somehow organized set of ideas and aspiration point to the fact that we can go beyond biological evolution and take in our hands our destiny to transcend our humanity itself.

      Yes, we would still be "human" somehow but we will go also beyond and be post-human, something that is radically different from before. We don't call ourselves after all monkeys 3.0 or fish 15.4.

      We are in trans-ition for something much better than humans.

      Humans is overrated after all.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Short of a disastrous war that sends us into the dark ages, I think you are right about the pace the singularity is approaching us. It is too late to go back to living as hunters and gatherers, we are much too abundant as a species now and we could not sustain ourselves in this role. Whether we like it or not we have to continue to use technology to maintain civilization. My contention is that it is time to seriously think about migrating to the stars. This is long overdue. Great hub, you are an excellent writer with some very interesting ideas.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, Mel! I agree about the stars, although I think our best bet to get there the soonest is to focus on artificial intelligence. That's what's going to design and build the rockets of the future, not human brains.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Much food for thought here. Brave new worlds all over the place! I can see the advances we've made in genetics, in medicine, in research, in high tech - here in the west especially where commercial demands are at their highest - I only hope this Utopian dream - creating fresh organs for the body, living a full life indefinitely - building machines that we still have control over - will be a sustainable reality!!??

      Voted up and shared, a fascinating read.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, chef! The thing we have to realize is: the future is 100% up to us. We can start now to make the more positive end of things a reality. Raising awareness is the first thing. Share interesting articles (like this one, ahem!), write your own, talk to people, get the conversation started. That's the beginning of awareness and action!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      This is brilliant. You have explained the issue so well. I've read Kurtzweil's book and you explain things even better than him. Now you need to do a hub about how humans should cope with these changes so they serve humanity and not destroy us.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, Catherine! I believe I've already written such a hub, titled "Where Our Technology Is Bringing Us", over on my other Hubpages account (called revolutionbjj).

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I wouldn't get hung up on the word transhumanism. It is unlikely to stick because people see themselves as people. They don't call themselves anything different when they get a knee replacement or a cochlear implant so I doubt people will when they get a 3D printed liver or even an intelligence booster installed. They'll just be people living longer, safer, and possibly much more interesting lives.

      In a few generations, few will even remember what a life not augmented with high technology is like. I think it will be little different from how I view the times before flush toilets, birth control, antibiotics, vaccines, television, computers, and tampons.

      Throughout history, our lives have changed enormously but people are still an awful lot like they've always been. If you go to any community in the world from Silicon Valley to the Congo to Eastern Europe to the Pacific Islands or the Interior of Australia you'll discover people are the same in many ways regardless of the technology around them. You can always find someone who enjoys loving people with food, people devoted to the care of children, guys who like to get together and tell each other BS stories, people trying to be or serving as wise elders, people full of dreams and ideas, people bonding with each other through activities they like, people falling in love, and so on. The trappings change and the cultures change but people are still people.

      I predict that in a hundred years the word transhumanism will just be a quaint little term associated with late twentieth century, early twenty-first century visionaries and dreamers. It's just a term to slap on the rapid and astounding technology-driven changes in quality of life that forward-looking humans see ahead. The electronic sunrise and the freer flow of knowledge it has brought will shine on people, both human and otherwise.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Kylyssa - Here's hoping. I guess my irritation lies with people currently calling themselves "transhumanists." My concern is that they are actually inadvertently drawing large-scale public attention away from the issues at hand. Spreading information and raising awareness that it is possible to live, say, 200 years right now, if only we start paying attention to this very real possibility, has to be a huge priority. We are defeating individual diseases one by one, and we can eventually defeat the disease currently known as "aging", but it's going to take a lot longer if the general public continues to view this concept as "fringe." Having a word like "transhumanist" associated with this movement isn't helpful.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I think it's nothing to worry about because most people have never even heard of transhumanists. Average people will just see the bits and pieces of new technologies coming out, say either way cool or hell no, and either embrace them or not. Life-extension advances are unlikely to come in one big lump but in bits most people will automatically accept.

      Doctors have slipped us life-extension drugs and techniques since the invention of doctors and very few people have seen it as such. Right now, I'm taking replacement thyroid hormone, without which, I'd slip into a coma and die. I'm running fifteen years past my natural expiration date already at age forty-five and nobody I know has any negative judgment about it. While treating the cluster of diseases known as aging may seem different to you, it really isn't.

      They'll label the diseases that cause aging and we'll see treatments for telomere atrophy, chronic inflammation, cognitive decay, muscular atrophy, etc. and so on. It probably won't be called life-extension treatment because most of medicine already is life-extension treatment. They'll just call it modern medicine. The only thing people will worry a lot about is how to pay for it. If we get rid of health insurance companies and profit motive medicine they won't even have that to worry about.

      People really aren't stupid and they'll recognize the difference between fringe groups and things that benefit them. Those who don't will be left behind and that will be terribly sad, but they won't be able to overcome the survival instincts of everyone else. Most humans are survivors.

      Life extending technology will not be a hard sell. We already have accepted so much life-extending technology that I doubt any of the new stuff will see much resistance except from the opposite end fringe nuts.

      I don't think that it will fall only into the hands of the one percent, either. The world is changing massively in ways that will make a lot of things that enhance quality of life more readily available to most people. Look at 3D printing technology and see how the new rise of the citizen scientist is sweeping it along at an amazing rate.

      Citizen scientists are designing medical equipment and life-saving innovations and not reserving the rights. The freer flow of knowledge is allowing people to create and invent from their passion and their altruistic desires even if they can't afford college.

      A teenager recently invented a blood test to detect ovarian cancer at or before first stage. That is enormous because most ovarian cancer isn't detected until third or fourth stage when survival rates are heartbreakingly low. This sort of thing is happening on a massive scale. We're soaking in it and the general public just sees exciting new things coming out that they won't even connect with transhumanists.

      We just need to get the profit-worshiping oligarchy to keep their hands off to avoid the hoarding and selling at dear cost of life-saving information. I had hoped easy access to the Internet would result in more widespread, effective, and generous use of human genius and it has and is.

      I'm much more worried about the anti-vaxxers and conservative religious groups latching onto medical advances to decry than I am about the majority of people being turned off by vocal transhumanists. Longer lifespans will require the acceptance of limiting reproduction via birth control and a much more common acceptance of the choice to not have children.

      I'm also more worried about how we'll treat man-made people. I have a feeling the corporations that make them will be very apt to treat them as property rather than as people since many of them already treat humans as much like owned assets as they legally can.

      I'm eager to see the future and I only hope the people I love can stay alive long enough to reap the benefits of the exciting medical technology on the horizon. I think my viewpoint on that is pretty common.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Kylyssa, I think you would enjoy my "The First Person to Live to Be 200 Years Old Is Alive Today" hub. I'd love to hear your feedback on it. You and I are very much on the same page with life extension. I, too, don't see any difference in the "cluster of diseases known as aging", as you put it, and, say, treatment for cancer that might add 10 or 20 years to a person's life.

      I also agree that the modern-day Luddites are going to be humanity's biggest inhibition to living indefinitely.

    • profile image

      Khannea 2 years ago

      The point is that transhumanism and a singularity (or whatevs) will make us distinctly more human and humane.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I agree with this concept completely. We are more human, not something beyond human.

    • profile image

      Marcus 2 years ago

      If a person uploaded their mind to a giant brain built around a star (Matrioshka brain), would you still call that mind a "human"?

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I would, yes.

    • TimArends profile image

      Timothy Arends 2 years ago from Chicago Region

      I like the term "Humanism 2.0!" I agree with Kurzweil that "transhumanism" is an off-putting term. Transhumanists may see nothing wrong with it and may come up with long involved explanations of why the term is perfectly fine, but when you're trying to win the hearts and minds of the public, you have to be able to think the way the public thinks. The public associates "human" with good and "inhuman " with bad, so which category do you think they will put the word "transhumanism?"

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Couldn't agree more, Tim, and that's very well put!

    • profile image

      Jake 23 months ago

      This article is golden, and many people assume and have preconceived notions about transhumanism without realising that transhumanism i the answer of tomorrow for problems of today.

      This article is beautiful and i thank you for writing it so ..

    • profile image

      James 23 months ago

      We don't define a species by what it does. Birds and bats are both as good at flying and eating insects as we are at inventing, but we don't confuse them. Similarly, if we came across a space faring, alien intelligence, we'd never call it "human."

      What makes a species is its taxonomic lineage and its physiology.

      If we augment ourselves with technology, it will unhinge us from our evolutionary history and our physiology; we will not be human any longer. And that's good. Being human isn't so great.

    • profile image

      VovixLDR 23 months ago

      First of all, we are not just a species.

      In fact, the term "transhumanism" looks confusing to many people due to ambiguity of the definition of "human".

      If we define "human" as just a biological species, which is currently Homo Sapiens, then this "human" is the object to overcome by "trans" (up to the "post"), and this raises speciesist concerns about confrontation between "humans" and "not so humans anymore". That's what most progressive people dislike in what they think transhumanism is, when they first hear this word (a kind of vulgar Nietzscheanism). Actually this implies a limited, reductionist view on humanity.

      The logical progressive objection to the term "transhumanism" is: humanity is much more than a biological species, technology is an integral part of it since stone age, and thus by applying it to ourselves in any constructive way, we are not becoming "not so humans anymore", because what we do is deeply human in nature, and we don't need to "overcome our humanity" with "transhumanism".

      I, as a transhumanist, fully accept this broader, post-speciesist view on humanity. A human is a sentient being. Currently there are only Homo Sapiens humans, but this may change. What makes us humans is our values, not biological origin.

      And the word "transhumanism" is actually fully compatible with this broader definition, when we look at "human" as the SUBJECT of "trans"ition. This transition, in its turn, may be in terms of technological changes or augmentation (and we call such a human "transhuman"), and/or in terms of values - including transitioning from limited speciesist definition of humanity to the broader one. And we call such a human a transhumanist: a human being in the active process of transition.

    • Vovix profile image

      Vovix 23 months ago

      By the way: Nietzsche's phrase "Man is something that shall be overcome" in Russian could be read ambigously with different accents. In fact, personally I used to understand it first as "Man is something that shall overcome" and wondered why the subject is called "something" and not "someone".

    • dobermanmacleod profile image

      dobermanmacleod 23 months ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

      Actually, Transhuman is a very accurate description, because of an emerging disruptive transformational technology called "gene therapy." With this technology (that is available now today) a person can alter their genome, and it doesn't pollute their germ line! In other words, an adult human can use this technology to alter their genes so that they evolve artificially. Here are some links because I don't blame you if you don't believe me:

      http://joshmitteldorf.scienceblog.com/2015/03/18/t...

      BioViva is a new company offering experimental medical services outside US borders. Their team includes a lab that provides genetically modified viruses with a gene payload, made to order. (This has now become a reliable and predictable technology.)

      A doctor who has experience with experimental gene therapy, and who had the courage to experiment on himself five years ago, with good outcome thus far.

      Sites in Colombia and Mexico where doctors will administer therapies for which there is not yet FDA approval.

      Most important, a Scientific Advisory Board that includes two of the most prominent, senior biochemists who developed the science of telomerase in the 1990s and before. They are Bill Andrews and Michael Fossel."

      http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2015/03/09/...

      "Because viral gene therapies have been primarily focused on obscure human diseases, few people understand just what a broad influence these techniques could eventually have on our species. We will see more and more genetically modified humans; it will just seem common and normal, just as IVF babies are today. (Just think: Baby Louise, the first screaming-tabloid test-tube baby, is now thirty-seven years old, and her IVF sister Natalie just gave birth to her normally conceived daughter.) But before we start to take these technologies for granted, we may want to reflect on our newfound powers. Soon gene therapies will likely be used for cosmetics, athletics, and longevity. We will begin to shape our own evolution by introducing “desirable traits” and editing out “negative traits” in ourselves and our kids."

    • ReneMilan profile image

      ReneMilan 23 months ago

      First goatfury displays a misunderstanding of the term singularity, then, while correctly pointing out that humans have always affected evolution by using technology, he misses the point that only recently some humans became aware of that fact, and even fewer regard it as desirable to use technology, thereby affecting evolution, in order to improve human and planetary conditions, while the great discussion is all about what constitutes improvement. The latter people are transhumanists.

    • profile image

      Prophetess Avalon 23 months ago

      Human trash, technology/sapience does not make you human. A primitivist child is human but lacks both technology and sapience, instead being governed by whatever the Lord of Flies dramatis personnae are being governed by. Your overall architecture makes you human. And your overall architecture has a shackled General Intelligence serving as a data analysis module slaved to, in Steven Pinker's words, 'an evolutionarily older primary system that takes decisions'.

      I see absolutely nothing wrong in transcending one's humanity - and altering one's architecture to break constraints on GI and put it, the most advanced, complex and perfect machine we know of, in charge.

    • Naveen Judah profile image

      Naveen Judah 23 months ago

      I reckon as a newbie to the sector my 'feelings' can help with the way we go about educating the masses. I somehow instinctively always knew that we are evolving and not the final product! I stumbled across Transhumanism and everything resonated with me except ( initially) the word Transhuman.

      To start with until I had read few articles, joined the FB page, bought the Transhuman reader and Citizen Cyborg I found the word a bit 'alien' both as a verb and as an adjective. Now of course I am cool with it.

      BUT bearing in mind the general populace will not really get to grips with subject and will be led by headlines and soundbites this word could put them off from engaging with us.

      We need a way to get around this as part of our engagement strategy.

    • Colleen Pridemore profile image

      Colleen Pridemore 23 months ago

      I don't mind "TransHuman" but I do think "TransSentient" is categorized better in my mind, because AI Beings are "Non-Sentient". Just an observation.

    • profile image

      C.D. Carney 19 months ago

      I enjoy being a transhumanist until I can become a transhuman. The problem I have is that society is in that horrific Terminator-esque fear stage where they think we're going to destroy ourselves or that there are actual anarcho-primitivists who want to abandon what makes us human and throw away the last 7 millennia and revert to something we simply cannot be any more. To me that is the frightening thing. Are these people not educated and if they are their education was incredibly misguided. They saw all that humanity had to offer them and they decided to revert to a more primitive primate version of themselves. Just remember technology is not the computer in front of you, it's the flint you sharpened to cut meat, it's the stick monkeys use to get termites out of their mounds, it's the leaf you use to wipe your rears with. Technology is what it means to be human.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 18 months ago from Richmond, VA

      100% this.

    • ninjaapple profile image

      ninjaapple 4 months ago

      Wow. A lot of debate on this one. I have to say tho that I agree with the point made in the article because in truth, technology will always be technology. Technology enhances the natural abilities of humans. A from hammer to a infrared eyewear. Even if we get chips that increase our brain capacity, at its core, all this technology does in enhance our natural capabilites. If future tech will make us "transhuman", a stick used to poke down a bee's nest also made us transhuman.

      Even if you say transhuman tech is tech that interacts directly with our biology, we never considered vaccines and antibiotics,which is technology to make us transhusman, so why future tech. Dealing with the absolute basics of the argument, the author is right in his claims.

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 4 months ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks!

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