A Transhumanist’s Essays: Unpopular Word

Transhumanism is a philosophy and social movement that has been defined and redefined in the following ways:

  • Julian Huxley in Religion Without Revelation (1927): “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”[1]
  • Max More (1990): “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.”[2]
  • Wikipedia on “Transhumanism”: “Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”

Transhumanism is a composite of “trans-” and “human” and “-ism” and it’s been unpopular even within the transhumanist community. For some, the word “transhumanism” too closely resemble the philosophy of humanism, one obvious influence. For some, the word reminds them of “transgender”, itself a concept of purposeful change, and this makes them feel uncomfortable. For some, the weight of the word is too much on the prefix for change and crossing a threshold; for others, not enough. For some, the word is too human-centric. It’s too limiting. Too easy to ridicule. Doesn’t directly evoke the technology and science at the center of the philosophy. Evokes evil eugenics of the past. Sounds like science fiction. Sounds elitist. Exclusionary. Complicated. Crazy.

But people began to call themselves “transhumanists” in the 1980s while they worked on defining the modern philosophical tenets and social movement of transhumanism. For a few years a group of transhumanists began calling themselves “extropians” while touting the philosophy of extropianism and their “Proactionary Principles.” Other labels arrived as the transhumanist movement matured. I participated in a rebranding of the World Transhumanist Association in 2009 as “H+”, “Humanity+”, “HumanityPlus”, based in part on the work my h+ Tucson peers and I had done with marketing our transhumanist club to students at the University of Arizona. But we did not call ourselves “hplusers”. Transhumanism is a word that no one has been able to replace successfully and “transhumanist” is still the quickest way to describe us like-minded technology enthusiasts.

In 2006 when I helped start the h+ Tucson transhumanist club, transhumanism seemed to emphasize academic discourse. Academics and ethicists like Nick Bostrom and James Hughes led transhumanist thought by writing papers, lecturing, and participating in discussions. Their primary concerns for transhumanism was strong philosophical underpinnings and an articulated ethics.

The emphasis has shifted since then. If you search for “transhumanism” and look for recent articles that include the word, you will find a great many, especially widely shared and syndicated essays about transhumanism by writers like Zoltan Istvan (who has also written a popular science fiction novel titled The Transhumanist Wager) that appear on news websites like The Huffington Post. In Istvan’s March 10, 2014 essay “A New Generation of Transhumanists Is Emerging” he critiques existing definitions of transhumanism while making prominent use of the word. He states, for example, that the Wikipedia entry “is protected by a vigilant posse, deleting additions or changes that don’t support a bland academic view of transhumanism.” According to Istvan, the transhumanist movement is growing, but “its potential is being challenged by some older transhumanists who snub the younger generation and their ideas. These old-school futurists dismiss activist philosophies and radicalism, and even prefer some younger writers and speakers not have their voices heard.” Istvan provides in his essay a sense of modern transhumanism: “Today, transhumanism is increasingly being influenced by actual science and technological innovation [instead of science fiction], much of it being created by people under the age of 40.” Transhumanism is more diverse, more hands-on, and more urgent than ever before. Regarding an emerging sense of activism, Istvan states that “a primary goal of many transhumanists is to convince the public that embracing radical technology and science is in the species’ best interest” because “the more people that support transhumanism, the more private and government resources will end up in the hands of organizations and companies that aim to improve human lives and bring mortality to an end.”

My own sense of transhumanism today is that it emphasizes the hands-on work required to invent the technologies that will transform us and improve the human condition. Many of the transhumanists I know from our h+ Tucson club and elsewhere have since relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, finding there a region sympathetic to their transhumanist goals. They launched their own companies and research and development. Companies like Halcyon Molecular, now defunct but the founders already moving on to their next cutting-edge idea. Velorum Capital. 3Scan. Gene and Cell Technologies. Arigos Biomedical. Infinome.

Like Istvan points out in his essay, transhumanism is resurgent, but more importantly its tenets have become the core values of various technologists, technology efforts, companies, and industries. The same goals and emerging technologies that transhumanists have long touted, like radical life extension, the quantified self through wearables and the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Metaverse, and space exploration and colonization of other celestial objects, are the stated public ambitions of many technologists and companies today. Do all of these people consider themselves transhumanists? Do they use the word “transhumanism”? Some of them do, some of them don’t, but I don’t think it matters. The founders of Google, for example, have never referred to themselves publicly as transhumanists, but Larry Page announced on September 18, 2013 that Google was forming a new company named Calico “that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Facebook announced on March 25, 2014 that it had agreed to acquire Oculus VR, the company that created the cutting-edge virtual reality headset Rift that launched for consumers in 2016. Oculus VR is a company whose founders routinely use the word “Metaverse,” coined in the science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson to refer to an immersive virtual reality technology platform. Elon Musk has publicly disclosed his goal of creating a massive permanent human colony on Mars. These technologists rarely use the word “transhumanism”, but they do use words and phrases that evoke transformation and improvement of the human condition, and they publicly express ambitions that are transhumanist in nature. They are, in my opinion, transhumanist in action if not by label.

For better or worse, “transhumanism” remains the best word to express this particular confluence of ideas, this emphasis on technology to improve the human condition. It is neither necessary to use this word nor coin another. We already live in a world that is transhumanist in ambition and in nature, where people already work hard on the technologies that will transform our species and our condition. The problem with the word “transhumanism” is not that it hasn’t caught on. The problem is that it can be used by people to dismiss an entire package of ideas. The problem is that many people still think the word means something futuristic, intellectual and academic, even though it’s in fact current and active. We’re already transforming! The problem is that it allows people to cling to old debates, academic musing, and political lines that fracture any mature social movement.[3] The problem is that the word “transhumanism” has long since been eclipsed by the impact of transhumanism, as it plays out in the real world, led by a generation of transhumanists who spend much more of their time getting their hands dirty building the future than trying to figure out what word best describes their philosophy, their ambitions, their work, their everyday, their reality.

It’s the word we’re stuck with.

[1] Huxley, J. (1927). Religion Without Revelation. London: E. Benn. Quoted from Bostrom, Nick. “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” 2005. PDF. 15 June 2014.

[2] As quoted on the “Philosophy” page on the Humanity+ website.

[3] Cohen, Cathy J. “What Is This Movement Doing to My Politics?Social Text, No. 61, Out Front: Lesbians, Gays and the Struggle for Workplace Rights. Duke University Press, 1999. 111-118. PDF file. 2 Nov. 2011.

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet. His first published poem, "Roadside Freak Show," arrives on August 21, 2017 in Impossible Archetype.  His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).