What is transhumanism?

Graphic designer Emma Lawton was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. Obviously, drawing has always played a significant role in her job. But over the past few years, her tremors have become more pronounced; to the point they have stopped her from writing or even drawing straight lines. In 2016, Emma appeared in a TV show called The Big Life Fix, which puts on the spotlight on engineers and designers who come up with life-changing solutions for people with disabilities. This is how Haiyan Zhang, the director of innovation at Microsoft Research, got in touch with Emma and invented a device that would help her have more control over her hand gestures: a bespoke watch-like wristband that produces small vibrations and effectively stabilizes her writing. This is how, even though Parkinson’s disease doesn’t have a medical cure yet, Haiyan Zhang managed to outflank the degenerative neurological condition that had taken over Emma’s body. Until we know how to make the symptoms vanish, we can at least overcome them, by somehow altering physical traits, and therefore altering nature. As it happens, this very concept of transforming the human condition, by developing sophisticated technologies to enhance human either intellectual, physical, or psychological capacities, bears a name: transhumanism. In this article, I will address this issue by first defining transhumanism, then trying to determine what makes us human, and finally trying to situate the boundary between both, if there is one at all.

What is transhumanism?

Transhumanism can be considered a relatively recent intellectual movement, as it has mostly developed over the past two decades. Therefore, there is not only one definition of this ideology. British philosopher and futurist Max More defines it this way:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.

Humanity+, an international organization that focuses on the importance and the legitimacy of this subject on a both scientific and public scale, suggest two definitions similar to More’s view:

1. Transhumanism is the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
2. Transhumanism is the study of the rami cations, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

This duality sets transhumanism as an ideology that bears an interesting form of self-criticism. In fact, not only do transhumanists promote the idea that human nature can be modified in order to enhance our abilities; but they also remain aware of the hypothetic defects that would turn the utopia of a “perfect world” in which everyone has more knowledge, more brain and body power, is healthier and lives longer, into a dystopia featuring artificial intelligences taking over humanity, destructive uses of nanotechnology, biological warfare or even nuclear war.

It is interesting to point out that the name “Humanity+” refers to the abbreviation H+ (or h+) that is sometimes used to refer to the word “transhumanism”. This symbol of addition has a strong meaning: can we define a transhuman as “human with something more”? Another less common abbreviation of “transhumanism” is >H, that could be read as “greater than human”. Besides, in French, “plus” can be read as both “more” or “no more”. Is a transhuman (h+) more than a human, no more a human, or even more than a human to the point it is no more a human? British biologist Julian Huxley, who is generally considered as one of the founders of transhumanism, describes transhumanism in these terms:

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.

In everyday language, the term “transcendence” means “going beyond”, and therefore “self-transcendence” means going beyond a prior form or state of oneself. This is coherent with the several definitions of transhumanism cited above, although they appeared a few decades later. Thus, the core issue of transhumanism seems to be the very definition of “human”.

What is human?

What is human? What makes us human? And how do you tell when you’ve exceeded it? Science fiction writer Veronica Sicoe reminds us that a historic and religious point of view defines humans as God’s creation, but sciences — be it applied sciences like biology or physics; or social sciences such as history, sociology and philosophy — make us think about things from a different perspective. What do we use to define our species? Our DNA profile? On a purely biologic level, if your DNA is consistent with Homo sapiens, you are human. But it appears rather obvious that being human means more than that. Is it our evolutionary ancestry that makes us human then? If you believe in British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, at some point we ceased being great apes and became human. We developed an ability to communicate through language, managed to develop knowledge and reason, came up with tools and inventions to enhance our natural abilities. A common belief is that human differ from animals by their ability to laugh, but it has been proved wrong many times. So, would it be a good definition to only state that “Humans are self-aware social mammals generally possessing the ability to reason, speak, and use complex tools”? Note the use of the term “generally”, which already makes this interpretation imperfect. And what about our behaviours, our compassion, our minds, our emotions, our consciousness?

In an article for the web magazine ExtremeTech, editor Sebastian Anthony comes up with a quite relevant point of view, which is to look at being human as a sliding scale.

If you were to build a human from scratch, from the bottom up, at some point you cross the threshold into humanity. Likewise, if you slowly remove parts from a human, you cross the threshold into inhumanity.

Somehow, the idea of building a human from scratch is similar to the theory of evolution mentioned above, and how the human species evolved: from the Australopithecus inventing the first stone tools, to the Homo Erectus mastering fire, to the Neanderthal actually making clothes and cooking, and up to the Homo sapiens which we are today. Thereby, we can only admit that human beings have always pushed their limits and overcome their weaknesses, especially by making tools. Human transcendence is neither futuristic nor present; it has existed for millions of years.

This is a position taken by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, for whom humanity has been enhancing and augmenting itself through technique since prehistory. He states that tools are artificial organs, similar to out-of-body extensions of our internal organs and limbs. Stiegler says the 20th century marked a turn in transhumanism: we started modifying the human body from the inside rather than the outside. It all started with the pacemaker, which is about 70 years old, but also shortly after with the first organ transplants. Thanks to the exponential growth of digital technologies, fields such as medicine have become much more powerful to cure diseases and disabilities. Stiegler also points out that the word digital has derived from the Latin “digitus”, meaning finger, which shows the creative function of technologies. But again, transhumanism shouldn’t be considered as only inherent to technology, but rather to the natural craving for enhancement that seems to be human nature, especially through the development of tools from a generic point of view. These tools could therefore embody the symbol “plus” in h+.

The boundary between human and transhuman

American physicist Marcelo Gleiser has a very clear opinion on the matter of humanity and technology.

Almost no one in modern society is purely human. Our integration with technology is evolving us into something else.

In fact, Gleiser cites numerous examples to show that “we are already in the transhuman era”: medication changing our chemistry and therefore turning us into something else, vitamins or protein enhancing our physical performance, or even prosthetic leg implants like the ones Oscar Pistorius wore to run a 400 meters race against non-disabled athletes at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Gleiser also gives examples of additions to the human body that are external to it: a smartphone for instance, plays a significant role in everyday life for more and more people. The device has become an almost indispensable extension of who we are.

Forgetting one at home is tragic: a sense of loss, of disconnection, no memory, no schedule, no music, camera, news, email, maps, GPS, Facebook, Twitter, games. Nearly every app is an extension of our mental faculties, part of who we are.

But the smartphone was not made to change who we are in a physical way — or was it? On the contrary, powered exoskeletons, also known as powered armours, which are mostly used in the army and the rescue of endangered people, are indeed designed to improve the physical capacities of those who wear them. Likewise, transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), which is used by US military snipers, speeds up reaction times by running a very weak electric current through the brain.

In a more futuristic perspective, Japanese metabolist architects produced a manifesto in 1960 which suggests that in a few decades, every one will have a “brain wave receiver” in his ear, which will convey directly what other people think and vice versa. Any one will be able to know exactly what every one thinks: there will be no more individual consciousness, but only the will of mankind as a whole.

So what lies in-between humanity and transhumanity? Is there a boundary, a threshold beyond which you are no more human but become transhuman? It would seem that the examples and opinions mentioned in this article converge towards the same hypothesis: no. It appears that what really differentiates us from inhuman machines — robots, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, you call it — is everything a machine cannot yet reproduce or synthetize. For example, our ability to perceive feelings and emotions could be defined as “something that makes us human”. But feelings are a complex combination of thoughts (neuronal activity) and physical activity (hormones produced by our body and altering it). Could they someday be made up entirely by technology?

Conclusion: is transhumanism even a thing?

To conclude, the very notion of “transhumanism” might be, as Stiegler suggests, a bit of an overreaction. The term transhumanism itself might not be very relevant. In fact, it would seem that the craving for enhancement has always been part of human nature, and therefore we will never be transhuman: we already are, because we are human. The growth of this notion during the last few decades could simply be due to that of new technologies, and the fact that these enhancements are now part of, or even inside our bodies. One key difference may lie in the very purpose of these technologies: is it to cure a disease or a disability, like Parkinson’s for Emma, or go beyond the capacities of our bodies, like military exoskeletons? Here again, the boundary is quite subtle, and depends on what you call normality, that is to say, on what makes us human.