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Brainstorm: The forbidden fruit: transhumanism and techno-human evolution

By Johan Steyn, November 2021

Published by Brainstorm

He waited 23 years to publish his findings, but after On the Origin of Species was released it caused a firestorm. It was what Charles Darwin feared. He struggled all those years to reconcile his scientific findings with the accepted worldview of his day.

Charles was a reclusive man. He required someone to be his champion and public defender. He needed what became known as Darwin’s bulldog and found it in Thomas Henry Huxley. Seven months after the publication, on 30 June 1860, Huxley famously debated Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in the Oxford University Museum. What became known as the Oxford evolution debate is a story of legend.

Huxley's grandchildren spread the word even further. The celebrated dystopian science fiction novel Brave New World was authored by Aldous Huxley. His brother Julian Huxley was the first Director-General of UNESCO. Julian first used the term transhumanism in his 1957 book New Bottles for New Wine. A total cosmic self-consciousness is needed to give fullness to the universal and unique substance of which it is a part, Huxley proposed. A philosophical view, with hope in the unknown future of invention, his views were religious rather than based on techno-innovation.

However, since Huxley, the definition of transhumanism has shifted. It quickly became the renaissance of humanism in the modern day. It embraces and eventually strengthens basic tenets of secular and Enlightenment humanist ideology, such as faith in reason, individuality, science, progress, and self-perfection or growth.

These days, transhumanism is a loosely coupled collection of techno-optimist concepts. The futurist Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, who later changed his name to FM-2030, is widely credited with coining the term transhuman. Building on Huxley's ideas, but moving it to the realm of technological advancement, he went on to write about the democratisation of knowledge, renewable resources, and the impending arrival of immortality and the supercharging of the human brain through genetic and bio-engineering.

FM-2030 is widely regarded as a forerunner of modern transhumanism. He had a particular impact on the American wing of contemporary transhumanism, including Natasha Vita-More, who wrote the Transhuman Manifesto in 1983. Her husband, Max More, founder of the Extropy Institute, is known for his essay A Letter to Mother Nature in which he proposes several amendments to the human condition.

What is this “human condition?” I imagine he was building on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who argued that man is in denial of his mortality, that he embodies a decaying carcass of flesh. But for More that was not a satisfactory conclusion as technology would rescue us from our evolutionary curse.

There will no longer be the “tyranny of death.” Humanity will expand through “biotechnological and computational means.” We will expand our intelligence and “supplement the neocortex with a metabrain.” Humans will no longer be slaves to its genetic predisposition while recreating our emotional and bodily vulnerability. People will expand their biological limitations by integrating technological features into their bodies.

The smart technology era, known for artificial intelligence, machine cognition and smart devices (the Internet of Things) will transform the way humans evolve. We may develop into what Neitzche called the Übermensch. Human perfection, underscored by digitisation and gene enhancement technologies will create human-technology creatures known as cyborgs.

As a collective, we have to care deeply about the changes technology is introducing to the very nature of human-ness. The day we first crawled out of the grotto of darkness and looked into the sky in the wonder of the heavenly lights, we aspired to godlike knowledge.

Darwin could never have imagined that technology could catapult our evolutionary progress. What would it mean to be human in the years to come, as carbon and silicon blend and immortality is within our reach?

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