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From Humanism to Transhumanism

Posted: Sun, January 06, 2013 | By: José Cordeiro

Transhumanism is a new philosophy that has been proposed to continue the ideas of humanism in a new world where science and technology are the major drivers of change. Julian Huxley, the English evolutionary biologist and humanist that became the first director-general of UNESCO and founder of the World Wildlife Fund, wrote that:

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny. 

Huxley originally published those words in his essay Religion Without Revelation (1927), which was later reprinted in his book New Bottles for New Wine (1957). Other scientists and philosophers discussed similar ideas in the first half of the 20th century, and these ideas slowly helped to create new philosophical movements considering nature and humanity in a continuous state of flux and evolution. English scientist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane and French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin helped to identify new trends in the future evolution of humanity. Thanks to them and many others, the philosophy of transhumanism has greatly advanced since Huxley first used that word. The philosophy of Extropy (see Appendix 1) and Transhumanism (see Appendix 2) explore the boundless possibilities for future generations, while we approach a possible technological singularity.

“Humans” can no longer be regarded as a stable category let alone one which occupies a privileged position in relation to all that is subsumed under the category of the non-human. On the contrary, humans must be understood as a tenuous entity which is related to the animal, the “natural” and indeed other humans as well. Humans are at a crossroads like other natural species that are reclassified in the face of new relational dynamics and shifting epistemological paradigms. Moreover, such dynamics and interpolation serve to reveal the boundaries of humans as a corporal, cognitive, and agency-laden construct. Discovering such boundaries, one may glean where humans end, where humans are called into question, and where humans stand to augment themselves or become more than human.

Our understanding about ourselves and about our relationships with nature around us has increased significantly due to the continuous advances in science and technology. Reality is not static since humans and the rest of nature are dynamic, indeed, and both are changing constantly. Transhumanism transcends such static ideas of humanism as humans themselves evolve at an accelerating rate. In the beginning of the 21st century, it is now clear than humans are not the end of evolution, but just the beginning of a conscious and technological evolution.

The Human Seed

Since English naturalist Charles Darwin first published his ideas about evolution on The Origin of Species in 1859, it has become clear to the scientific community that species evolve according to interactions among them and with their environment. Species are not static entities but dynamic biological systems in constant evolution. Humans are not the end of evolution in any way, but just the beginning of a better, conscious and technological evolution. The human body is a good beginning, but we can certainly improve it, upgrade it, and transcend it. Biological evolution through natural selection might be ending, but technological evolution is only accelerating now. Technology, which started to show dominance over biological processes some years ago, is finally overtaking biology as the science of life.

As fuzzy logic theorist Bart Kosko has said: “biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny.” Photo-qubits might also come after standard silicon-based chips, but even that is only an intermediate means for augmented intelligent life in the universe.

Homo sapiens sapiens is the first species in our planet which is conscious of its own evolution and limitations, and humans will eventually transcend these constraints to become enhanced humans, transhumans and posthumans. It might be a rapid process like caterpillars becoming butterflies, as opposed to the slow evolutionary passage from apes to humans. Future intelligent life forms might not even resemble human beings at all, and carbon-based organisms will mix with a plethora of other organisms. These posthumans will depend not only on carbon-based systems but also on silicon and other “platforms” which might be more convenient for different environments, like traveling in outer space.

Eventually, all these new sentient life forms might be connected to become a global brain, a large interplanetary brain, and even a larger intergalactic brain. The ultimate scientific and philosophical queries will continue to be tackled by these posthuman life forms. Intelligence will keep on evolving and will try to answer the old-age questions of life, the universe and everything. With ethics and wisdom, humans will become posthumans, as science fiction writer David Zindell suggested:

“What is a human being, then?”

“A seed.”

“A… seed?”

“An acorn that is unafraid to destroy itself in growing into a tree.”


I am not a Humanist.

“Central to antihumanism is the view that concepts of “human nature”, “man”, or “humanity”, should be rejected as historically relative or metaphysical”. In which case Transhumanism is also anti-Humanist.

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 06, 2013 at 5:49am

It’s A Beautiful Article!!! wink

By Jherok Teijeiro on Jan 06, 2013 at 6:16am

Thanks José - I think this is an excellent and strangely necessary recapitulation of the foundations of transhumanism.

@Dirk - is that from W’s collected works (“not with us” blabla “against us” etc)?

The evolution of a common understanding of cultural values proceeded rather simply: from survival with the help of gods (into religion) to survival with the help of mind (into politics and economics) until people started asking what can be done to facilitate attainment of an enjoyable life for all (people, initially); thus humanism came to be.  In time people realized the implications of life’s interconnectedness as well as its historicity, and transhumanism emerged as the next logical step.
The concepts you mention are indeed “historically relative or metaphysical”, but why reject them?  They were appropriate for the time.  We need to build on these foundations.  Any “transhumanism” not based on the values of inclusiveness (as a possibility), first postulated by humanist thinkers, is nothing but a collection of dead dreams.

By René Milan on Jan 06, 2013 at 8:00am

@Rene The problem is that “officially” Transhumanism is defined as “Transitional Humanism” which implies that Humanism is the philosophical starting point. I disagree - the starting point that makes us unique in history is the use of technology to extend or change what it means to be Human. A more accurate description would be “Transcending Humanity”. I suspect the original definition, and the inclusion of Humanism at all, was a way of saying “Hey - we are not Nazis - look, we are Humanists!”

Also, non-inclusive Transhumanism is a possibility still on the agenda. There is no inevitable equitable PostHuman future. The issue is still to be decided.

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 06, 2013 at 9:37am

The use of technology is a property of being human, not trans-, post-, or non-human.  Transhumanism has nothing to do with technology and everything with taking conscious and willful control of the engines of evolution. 

I hope your suspicions about “the original definition” are wrong, but whoever these “original” transhumanists were (can you name some examples?) once they felt the need to point out (to whom?) that they were no nazis, they should have packed up and gone home, unless they indeed were nazis of course.

“non-inclusive Transhumanism is a possibility still on the agenda” - absolutely, which is why i pointed to the “possibility”.  The main ethical imperative remains respect for choice.  I would no more deny the right of violent death worshippers to practice their lifestyle (amongst each other) than the right of a yogi to find his solitary mountain top.  (This is one of the reasons that space migration remains a high priority.)
In the meantime those willing to take their chances together will still have to develop concepts like liberté, egalité, fraternité, under the fundamentally changed conditions implied by technopathy.

Unless and until we start learning about and accessing extraterrestrial roots of life as we know it, andor encounter true otherness, all our imaginations are fairly firmly based on terrestrial experience.  Even the principles of hive minds that you extolled so eloquently and appealingly elsewhere are rooted in our genetic and memetic makeup.  At this time there aren’t many options outside of continuity, so let’s acknowledge José‘s point.  Creating unnecessary dichotomies is an age old problem in politics, one we can avoid.

By René Milan on Jan 07, 2013 at 4:06am

“Transhumanism has nothing to do with technology and everything with taking conscious and willful control of the engines of evolution.”

In which case I guess the Nazis make the H+ list then.

“I would no more deny the right of violent death worshippers to practice their lifestyle (amongst each other) than the right of a yogi to find his solitary mountain top. “

A very Western liberal attitude and one which most of the world does not share.

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 07, 2013 at 6:18am

“Nazis make the H+ list then” - had you paid attention you would not say that unless you think their ideology is based on humanism.

“most of the world does not share” - can you prove this ?  And if you can, is it relevant ?

By René Milan on Jan 07, 2013 at 9:33am

Transhumanism has nothing to do with Humanism in my opinion, nor should it be tied to a specific philosophy. If you read Natasha’s work on the first use of the word in Dante you will see it has nothing to do with Humanism and everything to do with transcending the Human.
In short, I am not going to accept that Transhumanism = Humanism

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 07, 2013 at 12:25pm

With all due respect to the pioneering work by Natasha and the other FAQers, I don’t take her etymological wisdom at face value.  In contemporary italian the word doesn’t seem to exist.  The latin prefix trans always implies the (through and) beyond, never the outside of, direction.

“I am not going to accept that Transhumanism = Humanism” - good for you, neither would i.  Did someone actually ask you to do so ?  Maybe you should reread just the title of José‘s article.

Transhumanism without foundation in humanism, a strange concept.  Maybe i shouldn’t have dismissed DC’s incessant critique of robot cultism quite so readily.

It’s disappointing though not unexpected that instead of dealing with my arguments, you first invoke majority thinking and then doctrine.  FAQal infallibility ?  Ah, the gods to the rescue,  Nuff said.

By René Milan on Jan 08, 2013 at 5:16am

“Transhumanism without foundation in humanism, a strange concept. “

Not at all. In fact, in science fiction at least, and up until Transhumanism had a formal definition, it was all about the technology and nothing to do with any philosophy. Back in the late 70s the preferred term was IIRC “Immortalists”. I recall discussing uploading with Madsen Piri at a party in 1977. “Humanism” was nowhere to be seen.

It’s time that the “Humanism” was dropped from the definition. Indeed, I have suggested a formal redefinition where it is absent. What makes my definition less worthy that those of the WTA and ExI?

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 08, 2013 at 2:00pm

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