By Libby Emmons
Transhumanism is an ideology which holds that humans must harness technological advancements to take an active, intelligent role in our own evolution and the evolution of our species. When we think about these developments as a society, we tend to consider them in relation to the improvement of the human race as a whole. However, we must begin to consider the profound implications for the sovereignty of the individual and the primordial question of what it means to be human.
When the transhumanist movement began a few decades ago, its ideas had more in common with speculative science fiction than reality. But, inspired by Darwinian theory, the notion of human-directed, intelligent evolution has flourished alongside recent technological developments. The transhumanist perspective insists that humans have a distinctly separate mind and body, and that what happens to one need not affect the other. Understood in this way, apparently unrelated movements in biotech, tech, and social justice reveal themselves to be part of the same transhumanist project and aimed at the same objective: liberating the human being from the limitations of the body.
Cleaving consciousness from the brain requires a proper understanding of what consciousness is, and certainty that it can operate independently of the mind from which it emerges. Philosophers and scientists alike are, for the time being, in agreement that these preconditions are beyond our reach. However, research is advancing rapidly. Experiments in reanimating slaughtered pigs’ brains are being conducted by neuroscientists at Yale. Investigations into creating a complete diagram of the brain’s signals and connections, with the aim of encoding memory and personal identity and copying that information to an artificial neural network, are underway. In time, it is hoped that this will allow a duplicate of an individual’s memories and experiences to survive the death of her material body.
This all seems far fetched—and it should. But so has every great human innovation at inception. It should not be surprising that we are finally applying our tech to ourselves. So much of this is already possible or on the brink of becoming so: mentally controlling artificial prosthetic limbs that are not connected to one’s body, receiving text messages directly in one’s brain, stem cell and mitochondrial DNA research toward life extension, 3-D printable organs, Turing test passable chat bots, nanobots made of folded DNA strands designed to repair the body in a minimally invasive way, gene editing, and so many more examples.
All this tech sounds very cool and exciting, and it is. It is imaginative, creative, and powerful, but we need to come to terms with the profundity of its implications. If past progress is any indication, we will willingly sacrifice part of our autonomy in the name of advancement. Those who want to copy and upload their neurological minds to a synthetic, biotechnical nervous system are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of relinquishing some of their existing capabilities. In the service of an impulse that craves immortality, we have children, develop religious ideas that promise eternal life, and seek the kind of recognition that keeps our names alive long after we die. But with every freedom we gain through tech, we sacrifice some autonomy. Smart phones grant us access to a world of road maps and obviate the need for self-orientation. The human memory is no longer required to store or recall much now that vast resources of information are only a mouse-click away. We have already willingly given up so much in the name of access and convenience, that we barely notice each time we we are asked to surrender a little more.
The transhumanist push towards a reimagining of the human, humanity, and our shared future is a primary component of three growing cultural trends: artificial intelligence, human augmentation, and the transgender phenomenon. The means of effecting these transformative developments are entirely technical, and promise liberation from reproduction, liberation from disease and mortality, and liberation from the body itself.
Theoretically, artificial intelligence (AI) will provide the repository for a liberated consciousness. Though we have not yet fully understood what consciousness is, that will not prevent experimental attempts to isolate and transfer it, to use it to control bodies that are not our own, and to augment it with biotech or hard tech. Once these goals become attainable, AI will be the means of implementation. AI is about more than creating facsimiles of cognizant beings, it is about augmenting and supplementing the original human form. Adding human elements to tech and tech to humans is part of the same project. It is hoped that AI will create pathways to connect mind to cloud, to give an AI-augmented brain instant access to vast stores of information. Conversely, this will also allow the mind to be accessible to others, allowing for the experience of mental telepathy, and the emergence of a collective consciousness.
AI is already making rapid strides in human companionship. The lonely elderly adore robotic pets, using them as a repository for the love and affection that no human companion wishes regularly to receive, and with none of the practical responsibility. The demand for sex bots continues to grow, as people who lack intimacy or want to pursue obscure fetishes clamor to have their itches scratched. Cybernetic caregivers can help to solve nursing shortages. AI augmented weaponry can sally forth into dangerous territory, and so on.
Human augmentation, also known as ‘biohacking,’ has developed from a combination of the aesthetics of body modification and emerging biomedical developments. On its face, biohacking resembles a counterculture fad, born out of trends such as tattooing, piercing, or tongue splitting. But the implications are more than skin deep, as biohackers endeavor to proactively augment their bodies with technology.
Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) chips can now be implanted sub-dermally and used for identification, electronic payments, opening security doors, or offloading information such as medical records. In this way, the body becomes the key, the debit card, and the receptacle for information the mind cannot to retain. Magnetic implants give the wearer the extra sensory perception of magnetic fields, or the ability to perform party tricks such as attracting paper clips and bottle caps to a fingertip. The community of ‘grinders,’ as they call themselves, favor self-experimentation and trying out new body hacks on willing participants, just as Jonas Salk first tested his world-changing polio vaccine on himself.
There are limitless possibilities in this area of research and application; the replacement of healthy limbs with higher functioning prosthetics, or organs with artificially grown hearts, lungs, livers, instead of cadaver parts. Unlike the fleshy limbs and organs with which we are born, these prosthetics and replacements will be connectable to wireless monitoring, so that their efficacy can be reviewed and managed. As these devices become interconnected, the human body becomes part of the ‘Internet of Things.’ Just as artificially intelligent beings will be interconnected, so too will human bodies be interconnected with other humans and machines.
Both of these concepts speak to a dramatic shift in our relationship with both our bodies and our children. Liberating the body from reproduction liberates humanity from our own physical continuation. At first glance, reproductive advocates may tout this as progress, but removing reproduction from our bodily purview does not only liberate us from the body, it also subjects us to the tyranny of the mind. Removing the body from reproduction is primarily the elimination of women from the process of creating human beings. Liberation from reproduction is liberation from sex, both in act and biology. At which point, gender truly becomes fashion with no remaining foundations in the story of human origins.
Transgender advocates will answer that we are more mind than body, and this is what makes transgender ideology an essential component of the drive toward transhumanist acceptance, whether transgender advocates realize this connection or not (a Twitter search reveals that many do). The ongoing effort to change language, and redefine ‘male’ and ‘female’ so they refer to something other than sexual dimorphism, is designed to establish a Cartesian mind-body dualism in which the mind can dominate body to such an extent that personal subjectivity can decisively contradict biological reality. Transgender practice is the ultimate biohack. The claim that one has been born into the ‘wrong’ body is a total rejection of mind-body unification, and a statement that mind and body can be so disparate that the body must be thoroughly altered to match the mind’s perception of how it ought to be.
Contrary to popular perception and much of the transgender movement’s own rhetoric, transgender activism is not about compassion and dignity. Although transgender advocacy is couched in the language of oppression and identity, the idea that it is merely the latest facet of an ongoing civil rights struggle is a misconception. In the current cultural climate, to question the concept of transgenderism is to question the right of trans individuals to exist. This is an extremely effective strategy that deters the skeptical from digging into an ideology by labelling them bigots for doing so. But the implications of transgenderism are so serious and far-reaching that questions must be asked. At issue is not simply societal acceptance of people with alternative views or lifestyles, but the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.
It is no anomaly that the movement is hitting its cultural stride in the debate over pronouns. The first step in changing how we think about our bodies and what it means to be human is to change how we speak about these things. Transgender speech codes demand that we renounce our bodies’ basis in biology, and instead consider them constructs of arbitrary (and somehow unjust) societal expectations. We are not to think about ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as reproductive terms, but as culturally specified relationships. This aggressive effort to change and police the use of language, and to redefine terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ to deny the sexual difference characteristic of all mammals, is designed to uncouple mind from body and humans from evolutionary and reproductive logic. Instead, an ideology of emotion is to be given dominion over biological reality.
With the widespread acceptance of human augmentation, bio-tech, AI, and transgenderism, we are removing agency from the human body, and granting it entirely to the mind. But our humanity lies not in our consciousness, but in the biological bodies from which that consciousness arises. It is our bodies that suffer pain and spectacular sensation, and that feed our minds with data about the external world and our relationship to it. In its various forms, transhumanism is an attempt to reify an illusory mind-body dualism that has consequences well beyond what we can currently imagine. This is an idea that is advancing without a constituency. As long as transhumanists are the only ones focused on the issue, they can effect enormous changes in the absence of a large constituent base, because ethics conversations lag behind huge advancements in tech and identity politics.
But concerns we perceive to be on the fringes of culture, or esoteric and only vaguely relevant to some distant future, are in fact part of a giant ideological redefinition of humanity. If we do not attend to these debates and their implications, we are going to awaken one day to find that developments have overtaken us, that it’s too late, and that our bodies are of no importance. What we forget is that the mind must serve the humanity of the body—in suffering, joy, pleasure, pain, tickles, itches, even death. Without that submission, the mind is nothing but ego, without any checks on its power or influence. To be a mind without a body is to have no relationship to the physical world, and no stake in it. If we perceive ourselves and others to be disembodied minds piloting meat machines—bodies of mere matter that do not matter—what horror will we be capable of inflicting on the bodies of others? When we renounce our humanity, we forget what it means to inflict pain and to suffer.
Choice, the determining factor, resides with each individual alone. The transhumanists are right in at least one respect: the responsibility for humanity lies not with the state, nor any NGO, but with each of us. In awarding the mind complete power and authority over the flesh, we are not liberating ourselves, but submitting to the oppression of a consciousness we do not yet properly understand. The risk is that we only belatedly realise that transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.