How Transhumanism Works

You look marvelous, grandma. Not a day over 20.
© Sven Hagolani/Corbis

Fast-forward 60 years. Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror.

My! You look amazing! Not a wrinkle in sight. You don't look a day over 20. And what's that? You just ran an ultramarathon? Who knew someone so old could run 50 miles (80 kilometers) that quickly? Pretty impressive, but enough about you. Let's look around at the world.


Everyone is so good-looking and vibrant! Healthy and happy! That's funny; there seems to be a lot more people on Earth, too. What's that you say? I should see how many humans we have on Mars now? Wow. We've colonized Mars.

But wait, there's something not quite right about this house. I'm touching the wall, and it feels a bit funny. Oh, really? It's not a wall? It's just virtual reality? That's amazing! It's so close to real. Wait a second ... is any of this real?

If you subscribe to the transhumanist philosophy, you may think this portrayal of the future could be real. Improvements to human well-being, longevity and intelligence are all within grasp. The human race as it is now is nothing compared to what we have in store for us.

Proponents of this philosophy say that we need to take evolution into our own hands. The current evolutionary goal is to pass on our genes to the next generation, but there needs to be a shift in paradigm where humans should want more for themselves, not just their genes. Transhumanists propose that we need to use science and technology to improve the human condition to evolve better humans -- and a better existence. Cyborgs, cryonics, cloning, gene therapy, space colonization, artificial intelligence, virtual reality ... all of this and more can contribute to turning the human race into the transhuman race.


Looking Back at Forward Thinking: The History of Transhumanism

Modern folks looking for Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth may just head to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. Can't make the trip? Just order some magical water online.
© Nik Wheeler/Corbis

The desire to improve upon the human existence isn't new. People have always wanted to expand the boundaries of the human condition, whether by seeking immortality or supreme happiness and health. From the Mesopotamian King Gilgamesh, to Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, to French writer and philosopher Voltaire, people have sought out extensions to human life (and even immortality). Some have gone down the path of science, pushing for medical breakthroughs to bring about longer life spans. Others have gone after legends such as the Fountain of Youth. But the goal is the same – don't grow old; stay young; don't succumb to illness.

Over the last century, these ideas of legend have combined with concepts popular in science fiction to lead to the comprehensive philosophy known as transhumanism. In the 1920s, several seminal written works discussed how advances in science and technology could affect society and the human condition. These essays, along with notable contributions from science fiction authors (like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" from 1932) got people thinking about the future of the human race – space colonization, bionic implants, mental implants and more.


In the latter half of the 20th century, these ideas gathered momentum. The cryonics movement (frozen preservation of the body to be revived at a later date – more on this later) began, and the term "transhuman" was coined. Organizations devoted to individual elements of the transhumanist philosophy, such as life extension, cryonics and space colonization, began to bubble up. The 1990s saw the founding of the Extropy Institute, which brought these disparate groups under one umbrella of people with futurist and transhuman ideas. The World Transhumanist Association followed in the institute's footsteps, acting as a coordinating international nonprofit organization for all transhumanist groups. Most recently, Humanity+ developed, pulling together all the leaders of the transhumanist philosophy and helping to spread awareness of their related ideas globally.

Toward a Super Future: The Three Core Tenets of Transhumanism

Transhumanists advocate for any technology that helps improve the human condition, ultimately evolving us into transhumans, the next step beyond humans, but shy of post-humans, a future being that arises from humans, but whose basic capacities radically exceed those of present day people. To a transhumanist, improvement of the human condition falls under three main categories:

The first is super longevity, or living forever. And if that doesn't work, a really long time will suffice. Lord Voldemort tried to do it through horcruxes. Twilight's Edward Cullen was a vampire, so he was automatically immortal. Transhumanists, however, have traveled down a different research path to super longevity: cryonics. Just as Austin Powers and Dr. Evil froze themselves to be resuscitated later, transhumanists believe that scientific advances can take us to a place where we might one day be able to preserve ourselves at low temperatures when medicine can no longer cure us of our ailments, and then revive ourselves at a point in the future where medicine has advanced enough to heal us. In fact, hundreds of people have already placed enough faith in the emerging technology that they have chosen to freeze their bodies upon death [sources: Cryonics Institute, Alcor]. Only time will tell if they'll ever be revived.


The second item on the transhumanist agenda is super well-being. No one wants to live a really long time if that life is full of the pain and suffering that can accompany old age. Pharmaceuticals and advances in biotechnology can potentially solve this problem. Genetic manipulation may be a viable way to allow us to bring children into the world who inherit only the best traits from their parents, relieving much of the suffering that comes with inheriting genes that factor into depression, obesity and disease. Transhumanists may even advocate for the recalibration of pleasure centers, or using pharmaceuticals to remove negative emotions from life.

The third goal is super intelligence. The human mind has a high level of intelligence, but transhumanists believe that we should not feel limited by the capabilities of the human mind. Why not build machines that are superintelligent, far surpassing the best human brains in every capacity from wisdom to social skills? We may be well on our path toward this future. After all, IBM's artificially intelligent computer system Watson beat out the humans on "Jeopardy!" in 2011. Add a few social skills and you've got yourself a superintelligent being.


Emerging Technologies to Improve the Human Condition

John Rodriguiz, then-president of cryogenics company Trans Time, stands inside one of the empty Cryon tanks used to contain the frozen bodies of humans and other animals.
© Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

The world of science fiction is a world of unrealized potential to transhumanists. Why can't we have a planet full of cyborgs with machinery implanted in their bodies to correct problems or enhance current standards? Why can't we try to clone particularly fine specimens of the human race? Transhumanists are placing their bets on several ideas and emerging technologies to help us one day make this science fiction into reality.

Transhumanists believe in the potential of science to improve our lives. To be able to have thorough control over matter to build machines to help us, transhumanists often look to molecular nanotechnology. This manufacturing technology makes it possible to build complex, three-dimensional structures. With precise control over placement of the atoms that make up our world and an understanding of the molecular structure of all things desirable, the philosophy claims we could make anything we wanted, from cell repair machines to even more compact computing systems.


Speaking of computing systems, the transhumanist philosophy relies heavily on the potential of artificial intelligence to create a better existence. Uploading -- transferring intellect from a biological brain to a computer –- may help us get to a place of having superintelligent beings. And maybe we can even use the power of computing to develop a virtual reality to change our current environments into ones that are more pleasing.

Virtual reality may become a necessity if we are to expand beyond planet Earth and colonize in outer space. Transhumanists also advocate for research on space colonization. With the increased population that will result from longer-living people, we will need to find more space into which we can expand.


The Downsides to Transhumanism

The transhumanist philosophy sounds really great on the surface. You get to live a long time. You get to be happy and completely healthy. Maybe you can even have a virtual reality programmed where you wake up to an ocean view everyday. Not bad. But digging a little deeper, this philosophy may bring about several societal problems.

First, implementation of many of these technologies will be expensive. For example, preserving the body through cryonics currently costs several hundred thousand dollars [source: Alcor]. Huge potential exists to create an even greater divide in society between the have and have-nots, where the rich and powerful have the resources to afford these vast life improvements and the rest of society lags even further behind.


Second, increased population growth comes along with the increased life span that transhumanist technologies would provide. Earth already is straining to provide resources to the billions of people currently living on our planet. If everyone were to live longer, the human population would skyrocket. The response that transhumanism advocates give is that we then must expand into space, colonizing the moon and other planets. Easier said than done.

And then there are the risks. Some of the technologies that transhumanists tout are only in their early stages. Transhumanists support a full exploration of the hazards behind each technology before it becomes implemented; however, there will always be greater risk for the early adopters of any new technology.

Perhaps the biggest risk associated with these technologies is what we might do with them. Deliberate and destructive uses of nanotechnology and biotechnology, as well as development of "evil" artificially intelligent machines, are doors that may be opened if proper regulations are not in place.


Ethical Considerations in Transhumanism

Is there any ethical standard that tells us what "improvement on the human condition" might be? Who decides what traits should be eliminated through genetic manipulation? Is it OK to tamper with death and the natural order of things?

There are so many ethical considerations to elements of the transhumanist philosophy. Many have likened parts of transhumanism to the eugenics movement, which sought to selectively sterilize the genetically "unfit" and encourage breeding of the genetically "superior." Transhumanists, however, claim no relationship between their philosophy and eugenics. They say that parents should be allowed to choose for themselves how to reproduce and whether to use any technology like embryonic screening or genetic manipulation. Their argument is that since people will choose for themselves the "type" of child they want, there will be a natural diversity in the children that are born – some with musical ability, some with athleticism, but certainly none with fatal or crippling diseases.


Is it OK to create "better" people? Transhumanists might argue that the ethical question at hand is really, "Is it OK to not create 'better' people if we are capable?" In fact, they say, aren't we already well on our way to a transhumanist society anyhow? For centuries, we have been developing medicines to treat illness, prolonging our life spans. With prosthetics and implants commonplace, aren't we already a world full of cyborgs? Haven't we created computers that outsmart humans? Perhaps the ideas of transhumanism seem far-fetched, but look around. Maybe we're already become them.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Transhumanism Works

In some of the reading I did for this article, I saw references to people with implants – even something as simple as contact lenses – as cyborgs. I never thought of myself as a cyborg before. Cool.

It's interesting to think of the evolution of this philosophy. Right now, I think parts of it are absurd. But had the philosophy been described centuries ago, I think we'd already qualify as living a transhuman existence. Fast-forward 100 years and maybe these ideas won't seem silly at all.

Related Articles

  • Alcor Life Extension Foundation. "Complete List of Alcor Cryopreservations." Dec. 19, 2014. (Jan. 28, 2015)
  • Alcor Life Extenstion Foundation. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Jan. 30, 2015)
  • Anissimov, Michael. "Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies." Lifeboat Foundation. (Jan. 22, 2015)
  • Bostrom, Nick. "What is Transhumanism?" World Transhumanist Association. (Jan. 22, 2015)
  • British Institute of Posthuman Studies. "PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism." Nov. 5, 2013. (Jan. 22, 2015)
  • Cryonics Institute. "The Cryonics Institute's 128th Patient." Jan. 14, 2015. (Jan. 28, 2015)
  • Humanity+. "Transhumanist FAQ." (Jan. 27, 2015)