I did not expect to encounter questions like this when writing a bioethics brief on gene manipulation back in 2015. When researching the ethically questionable uses of gene manipulation, I encountered a collection of scientists hell-bent on the quest for immortality, determined to use every tool in their arsenal to transcend mankind’s current limitations.

You would expect to find such sci-fi-worthy aspirations espoused by pseudo-scientists and fan fiction bloggers not by minds affiliated with the world’s elite academic institutions — Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT, to name a few. These scientists called themselves “transhumanists” and were spearheading what was, at the time, a fringe movement despite their prestigious academic affiliations. Their chief aim is to facilitate humanity’s evolution through modern technology into a “post-human” species, one that is unhinged from current human limitations, like weakness, ignorance, and, especially, death.

At the time, Humanity+, the world’s largest transhumanist organization, adopted Oxford professor Max Moore’s definition of transhumanism as: The continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology.

To mitigate the public backlash against Moore’s eugenics-encroaching definition, Humanity+ has since qualified its aims to ensure that it, in fact, does not “advocate for the concept of immortality for elitists” but rather “for all humanity.” Some may “rest assured,” but I certainly don’t. The historical and philosophical connection to eugenics is too close to ignore.
Science as religion

Similar to their 20th-century eugenicist predecessors, transhumanists are the latest iteration of Neo-Darwinists. The term “transhuman” was coined by the Darwinist and early transhumanist Julian Huxley, the brother of the “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley. After World War II, Julian was appointed as UNESCO’s first director-general. During his post, he partnered with Charles Galton Darwin, the cousin of the father of evolution himself, to explore how the new technology developed during the war to elevate humanity’s evolutionary trajectory.

It is no coincidence that both Huxley and Darwin were committed eugenicists. Their founding of transhumanism was the natural ideological progression of their eugenicist beliefs. Eugenics sought to create a super race through population control, abortion, and euthanasia. Transhumanism aims to create a transcendent race through technology not available to their eugenicist predecessors. Their aims are the same; they only differ in capacity.

Huxley’s 1927 book “Religion Without Revelation” gives insight into his future aims:

“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.”

The ironic nature of transhumanism is that it appeals to a desire that is, in fact, deeply human: the yearning to transcend the human condition, which is as old as humanity itself. As the transhumanist philosopher and Oxford professor Nick Bostrom wrote:

“The human desire to acquire new capacities is as ancient as our species itself. We have always sought to expand the boundaries of our existence, be it socially, geographically, or mentally.”

He’s right. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Prometheus stole Zeus’ fire. Ponce de Leon sought the fountain of youth. Humanity’s main problem, as Nietzsche rightly diagnosed, is that we are “all too human.” However, while most people have historically sought salvation in entities transcendent of themselves, transhumanists are determined to work out their own salvation through becoming transcendent entities akin to those found in holy scriptures. As the pop-transhumanist author Belinda Silbert wrote:

“Responsible Omniscience; Omnipresence; Omnipotence AND Benevolence would be the totality of the sensory apparatus of the new human.”

When I first encountered the transhumanists in 2015, I was reminded of what was, at the time, the most recent “Amazing Spiderman” film starring Andrew Garfield. The villain, Dr. Curt Conners, attempted to heal his deformed arm by injecting himself with the isolated gene that enables lizards to regenerate their tails. When the experiment backfires and transforms Dr. Conners into a mutant lizard, he gladly disowns his humanity and makes the contentious claim:

“I spent my life as a scientist trying to create a world without weakness, without outcasts. I sought to create a stronger human being, but there’s no such thing. Human beings are weak, pathetic, feeble-minded creatures. Why be a human at all when we can be so much more? Faster, stronger, smarter. This is my gift to you.”

Max Moore couldn’t have said it better himself. However, it’s critical to consider why this fictional champion of transhumanist values is the villain to the rest of us. If Max Moore is correct in his assessment that the “body is not sacred” but rather a “pure, random accident,” the worldly salvation transhumanism offers may justify its questionable means.

However, the visceral reaction to consider Dr. Conners the villain emerges from the implicit belief that there is, in fact, something sacred and dignified in being human. That is why strength, knowledge, and power unhinged from human dignity appear grotesque and become the inspiration behind supervillains. Is it any coincidence that superheroes often embody the same traits as their villains but only differ in their defense of human dignity?

Transhumanists have become more mainstream and tempered in their language since I first encountered them nearly a decade ago. Still, their aims remain just as ambitious and morally fraught. Though they appeal to a profoundly innate desire to transcend the human condition, their movement, like their eugenicist predecessors, comes at the cost of human dignity. Is that a price we are willing to pay? Or will we, to paraphrase Julian Huxley’s brother, cry out for “God, poetry, real danger, freedom, goodness, and sin”? In short, will you still yearn to be human?


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