The Trouble With Transhumanism

Talk to the man in the street about the concept of transhumanism and you are likely to get a cold reception. People fear the idea of “meddling with nature” or “playing God”, and not just because they fear the unknown. The basis for the fear is much more deep-rooted than that.

People may not be able to articulate their fears clearly, but many would find the idea of a synthetic body “creepy” at best. There is a good reason why transhumanism has been described as the most dangerous idea ever. It triggers subconscious thoughts of Nazi doctors, of racial “cleansing”, of designer babies and of scientists with no understanding of or respect for ethics. In popular culture, transhumanism has been treated almost universally negatively, from Frankenstein’s half-living, half-dead monster to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to metal cybermen in Doctor Who.

I easily found plenty of scary photos to illustrate this article, but I had a hard time finding any positive ones. “Meddling with nature” always gets a bad press. Think about the opposition to GM crops. To peaceful nuclear power. To any scientific or technological advance that seems to go against the natural order.

New technologies are generally better received by the public when they proceed at an incremental pace. Looking at where a new invention might take us in the distant future can sometimes scare the horses. Would Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of hypertext links have been so well received if people had worried at the outset about the invasion of privacy and proliferation of online porn made possible by the modern internet? Maybe even the invention of the wheel would have been resisted if people realised that it would one day lead to hour-long commutes to work every morning.

What I’m saying is that if the word “transhumanism” causes people to think in terms of unethical eugenics or creepy metal bodies replacing human flesh, then it’s not surprising the result is fear and opposition.

There is a much less scary way of looking at the word. Transhumanism is not a new invention of the twenty-first century, but has a long and benign history. It encompasses such inventions as:

  • Clothing
  • Spectacles & contact lenses
  • Hearing aids
  • Cochlear implants
  • Bluetooth headsets
  • Watches & wearable electronics
  • Cell phones
  • Medicines & drugs
  • Reconstructive & cosmetic surgery
  • Replacement hips
  • Heart bypass surgery
  • Heart pacemakers
  • Organ transplants

These are life-expanding or life-extending technologies. With the possible exception of cosmetic surgery, these technological developments are generally accepted as beneficial and good. It’s only when people start to speculate wildly about imagined malevolent developments that the fear arises. That’s the trouble with the word “transhumanism.” It’s simply not a cuddly word. And enthusiastic geeks don’t communicate the concept to a wider audience in a reassuring way.

I’m not advocating that we should put our heads in the sand and refuse to speculate about the future. Without a vision, we will get nowhere. But as any tightrope-walker will tell you, you need to pay close attention to your feet. Looking too far ahead can often prove fatal.

About the author:

Steve Morris is an enthusiastic geek who studied Physics at the University of Oxford and used to do research in nuclear physics. These days he runs an internet company and writes about mobile technology at http://www.s21.com/.

Browse More

Technology is a magnifying mirror preview

Technology is a Magnifying Mirror, Not a Crystal Ball

On Manifestos and Dilemmas preview

On Transhumanist Manifestos and Dilemmas

Nikola Danaylov on Aways Another Way Podcast

Nikola Danaylov on the Always Another Way Podcast: The World is Transformed by Asking Questions

Dislike Icon. Thumb Down, Hand or Finger Illustration. Symbol of Negative. Rate Choice for Social Media, Web and Apps. Vector illustration

Magic, Manic and Monstrous: How Facebook is Programming Us

You're Fired. 3d rendering graphic composition on the subject of "Technological Displacement Of Jobs / Robotization".

On Tech Unemployment and the Labor vs Capital Balance of Power

What´s Your Why?

Technology is the How, not the Why or What

A male in elegant suit standing on a small ladder and drawing progressing lines on grey wall background

On Singularity University and the Danger of Being Exponential

Social inequality. Social inequality between the rich and ordinary people

Is the Singularity Steering us Toward the Greatest Inequality in History?