In my ongoing quixotic attempt to highlight places where anthropology should be and isn’t, I thought I would bring up the issue of transhumanism, once more with feeling.
Over the years of being a participant-observer amongst geeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself amongst transhumanists. I’ve even written about it a bit, though only as a kind of limit case for certain understandings of history. The only good scholarly work on transhumanism I know of is by Richard Doyle (which is to be distinguished from scholarly work BY transhumanists, which is actually remarkably common if you cast a wide net). I’m a bit gun-shy from trying to engage experimental philosophers, but I’ve often wondered why there is so little interest from anthropologists in this brand of scientific-cum-theological thinking—or vice versa. It seems to me that crap like Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near is pretty bad press for this group—worse in any case than Ted William’s freezing his head, which is just the kind of creepy shit the press loves. There are a lot of interesting variations on transhumanism, from your basic immortality by downloading consciousness onto silicon, to more probable concerns with alteration of the human body through drugs, surgery, or bionic additions. This is just to say that like any ism, it’s pretty hard to pin down.
So I was happy to see that a publication I had never heard of before— “The Global Spiral: A Publication of the Metanexis Institute”— has published a series of articles by scholars in science studies, philosophy and literature (Andy Pickering, Don Ihde, Katherine Hayles and others) about transhumanism (volume 9, Issue 3). Unfortunately, they are all pretty un-anthropological in their approach, preferring to criticize transhumanism rather than engage it. I know why… extreme versions of transhumanism can be pretty unctuous, raising specters of race-purity, eugenics, bad technological determinism etc. However, I for one am pretty surprised by the continued growth of this “movement” (what makes it a movement?) and lately, I’ve started to think that it might well move into a more mainstream light as there are people like Nick Bostrom (an Oxford Ph.D.) and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies gaining attention and authority… Wait a minute, ethics and emerging technologies? Isn’t that what I study?!? Quick, freeze my head!
In any case, I think this is yet another place where there is the possibility for an interesting dialogue. Most of the critiques of transhumanism center around its more speculative aspects, like the notion of the singularity, the emergence of artificial intelligence etc. But I think there is increasingly an opening here for thinking about what we do and what we do not have control over as humanity evolves. Most transhumanist rhetoric seems to imply that there is no control—it’s just the next stage of evolution—but when push comes to shove, whatever “evolution” means to them, it isn’t simply your basic genetic-species evolution, but involves culture and technology as well. And there are some interesting bridges between transhumanism and anthropology as well. I often wonder what transhumanists would think of Carl Elliot’s Better than Well as a kind of middle ground between transhumanism and Foucault… especially since the motto of the World Transhumanist Organization is… “Better than Well.” More generally, I think the transhumanists could do with some more rigorous historical work on the relative importance of figures like Nietzsche, Julian and Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapeldon or Teilhard de Chardin—to say nothing of outsiders like FM-2030, an Iranian exile who wrote novels and lectured and created the core of the movement in the only obvious place in the world for transhumanism to begin: Los Angeles. Most of what is written so far is just a lining up of “father figures” rather than any careful attempt to think about the differences and their social impact on thought in general… a little careful history goes a long way.
In any case, i think that transhumanists will increasingly come to dominate discussions about the controlability of technology and its effects on people and their potential. But more than that, I think anthropologists are already interested in transhumanism, we just don’t call it that because we’ve given up (or just studiously avoid) trying to define the human. So, I wonder, once more, if our ability to participate in such public discussions will be any better in this case than it is in others
Consider a few examples where the issues of transhumanism might be relevant:
1) corn, high fructose corn syrup and ethanol: Corn is domesticating us as we monoculture it beyond all reasonable limits. It’s changing our bodies, it’s changing our ecosystem, it’s changing our technology, and it itself is becoming unrecognizable (i.e. most of it is no longer edible off the stalk, but has to be processed to be used). This is transhumanism, no?
2) the pharmaceutical industry. It’s all well and good to dream of drugs that modify our bodies and minds at will, but we hardly need speculation… it’s in the water, literally. The explosive growth of the number of different prescribed drugs is a massive collective experiment, whether it’s obese kinds on statins, Viagra in the water supply, an entire population on mind-and-mood-altering drugs… we’ve already gone transhuman in this respect.
3) Exercise fads. Bring out your Marcel Mauss (Techniques of the Body) and talk to me about the cultural variation of bodies today— perhaps it seems too silly, but between yoga and pilates, soloflex machines, extreme sports (to say nothing of professional sports and doping, where this issue came up before), and the various medical interventions one can have after injury (or before, depending on when you get your hips and knees replaced), what more speculation do we need to think that we haven’t already started well down the path of evolution in whatever sense transhumanists think they mean?
I like to think that anthropologists would develop better bio-cultural models and explanations of these kinds of things than the current crop of transhumanists will… but I’m not sure I think that anyone other than anthropologists will listen, and perhaps this is the most important part of why transhumanism is so appealing, and why it is so hard to distinguish it from religion: it makes promises about the future.