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by Stacy RobisonGenetic Crossroads
July 11th, 2003

For three days in June, scholars, computer programmers, scientists, social theorists, and bioethicists gathered at Yale University for Transvision USA, a conference sponsored by the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). This year's event, the first Transvision conference to be held in North America, was an attempt to promote transhumanism among mainstream scholars and scientists in the United States. Approximately 130 people from around the world attended.

What is transhumanism and why all the fuss?

Transhumanism is a recent intellectual and cultural movement that argues that technology can and should be used to overcome the limitations of the human body. The term "transhuman"—short for "transitional human"—typically refers to an intermediary form between human and "posthuman." Since posthumanity has yet to be achieved, it's difficult to define exactly what a posthuman is, although the term is loosely defined as an entity whose capabilities so radically exceed those of humans that they constitute a new being. According to the WTA website, a posthuman could be a completely synthetic artificial intelligence or even an information pattern.

The transhumanist movement grew out of the predominantly male Internet culture of the 1990s, and was initially closely associated with extreme libertarian political and social values. This is especially true for one subset of transhumanists—called extropians—who are opposed to any authoritarian social control.

In the late 1980s, two graduate students at the University of Southern California—Max More and T.O. Morrow (it's common for extropians to change their names)—developed the term "extropy" to identify their futurist philosophy. Extropy (the opposite of "entropy") was said to represent the expansion of human powers, intelligent technology, and spontaneous order. Extropianism is one form of transhumanism—all extropians are transhumanists, but not all transhumanists are extropians.

In the early 1990s, during the expansion of the Internet, More and Morrow formed the Extropy Institute, which held its first conference in Silicon Valley, California in 1994. A subsequent write-up on the conference and the Extropians in Wired magazine significantly increased transhumanism's popularity among scientists, academics, and futurist philosophers. More recent extropian conferences have featured scientists and business figures including UC San Francisco geneticist Cynthia Kenyon and Calvin Harley, chief scientific officer at Geron, as keynote speakers.

In 1997 the World Transhumanist Association was formed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in reaction to growing dissatisfaction with the extropians' extreme libertarian-capitalist views. The WTA sees itself as the liberal-democratic wing of the transhumanist movement. (The Extropy Institute eventually affiliated with the WTA.)

All transhumanists embrace a variety of technologies including cryonics (freezing corpses in hopes that they will one day be reanimated after medical technology has progressed), uploading (transferring an intellect from a human brain to a computer), virtual reality, artificial intelligence, smart drugs, genetic enhancement, and nanotechnology (manipulating matter at the molecular level).

The conference

This year's Transvision USA conference, titled "The Adaptable Human Body: Transhumanism and Bioethics in the 21st Century," included sessions on topics such as "Why Not Re-Invent Humans? Is This the Best We Can Do?" The program notes that this year's conference is an attempt to begin the discussion between the transhumanists and "communities with which transhumanists have rarely been in dialogue"—namely bioethicists and critical social theorists. The program opened with a debate between George Annas, professor of health law Boston University, and Gregory Stock, director of UCLA's Program on Medicine, Technology and Society.

Annas argued in favor of applying the Precautionary Principle to human genetic technologies, particularly those with the potential to alter or endanger the human species. Stock's response? "I don't care about the species, I care about individual people," he told the almost entirely male crowd. (Bailey, Reason online, 7/2/2003)

Ron Bailey, the libertarian science editor at Reason magazine, was the conference's closing keynote speaker. His column on the conference, which doesn't mention his role there, relies on an extended metaphor inspired by an Australian bioethicist who told the participants that "the job of bioethics is to be the French letter [condom] on the prick of progress." Bailey's summary comment: "[W]hile insisting on the maintenance of standards for safety and efficacy, in most cases transhumanists are happy to ride the prick of progress pretty much bareback." (Bailey, Reason online, 7/2/2003)

Transhumanists explicitly reject the racialist and classist assumptions associated with eugenics. But they also argue that parents have a "moral responsibility" to make use of embryonic screening and genetic technology to increase the probability of a healthy and "multiply talented" child. Transhumanists believe society should not be neutral as to whether a child is born healthy or disabled. They strongly advocate the use of germline manipulation, asserting that "some degree of uniformity is desirable and expected if we are to make everyone congenitally healthy, strong, intelligent, and attractive." (The Transhumanist FAQ)

In a conversation with CGS, George Annas noted that the transhumanists' "rhetoric is self-control, but their argument is first, that they cannot control themselves (the technology is 'inevitable') and second, that they really want to control not only their bodies, but the bodies of their children as well."

Philosopher Evelyne Shuster, another of the few critics of transhumanism who spoke at the Transvision conference, told CGS that the participants represent "a group in search of a philosophy to support their views."

The WTA goes so far as to acknowledge that biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence are potentially dangerous, and that the ethical, social, and cultural implications of these technologies are huge. But, Shuster commented, most transhumanists "reject any government regulations, treaties, or laws that may prevent them from doing whatever they want to do to achieve transhumanistic goals." According to Gregory Stock in the opening debate, "the least likelihood of abusing this technology and protecting ourselves is to allow individual choice."

Many transhumanist ideas—such as cryo-preserving one's head or uploading one's neural networks to achieve immortality—are difficult to take seriously. But it may be a mistake to dismiss the transhumanists as a harmless group of under-socialized techno-geeks. Their vision of a world in which atomized individuals use technology and free markets to achieve dominance over others differs in degree, and not kind, from much of the real world today. At a time when many people feel powerless to influence social conditions, their message—don't worry about society; technology will make you smart, strong, and attractive—could seem compelling. Those committed to social justice, equity, and global inclusion can begin to counter its attractions by exposing the inhumanity of the transhumanist vision.

Further reading:

Transvision 2003 USA Conference

The World Transhumanist Association FAQ

James Hughes, "The Politics of Transhumanism"

Ed Regis, "Meet the Extropians," Wired magazine (October 1994)

Ron Bailey, "Making the Future Safe: Notes from the WTA's annual conference," Reason Online (July 2, 2003)


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