Transhumanism vs. Anthropology

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.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

7 thoughts on “Transhumanism vs. Anthropology

  1. Chris, I found your post very helpful and very interesting. I value the McFate/Mother Jones conversation too, but it seems to have foreclosed discussion of this interesting thread.

    Some of the relevant issues are rather far from my own expertise, but I can note that the corn example provides a fruitful point of articulation for several anthropological sub-fields and for connecting early 20th century anthropologies with early 21st century ones. Archaeologists and paleoethnobotanists have devoted massive amounts of work to corn domestication, of course, but there is also work on its relationship to social complexity, shifts in human health, and social change/collapse in parts of Native North America. (The archaeology of the “Mississippian” period in the Southerast, for instance.) Corn permeates every aspect of life among the Native peoples of the Southeastern U.S. with whom I work as an ethnographer and they themselves have had to recalibrate their heritage cultures with the ubiquity of corn products in the contemporary world (and the human diet). They, for instance, have ceremonies and food taboos associated with the “new” corn crop. How might one know if the corn syrup in the “maple” syrup on the breakfast table was made with last year’s corn crop (safe) or this years (unsafe until one is ceremonially purified)? (One cannot eat the new corn crop (marked by the local first harvest) until one goes through a communal ceremony.) How does one think about the ubiquity of corn when one’s people’s sacred narratives account for its revelation to your people at the beginning of time? What does GMO contamination mean for ancestral heirloom varieties that are at the center of one’s religious life? The corn conundrums are never ending and deserve further ethnography building on work already accomplished.

    I find your argument for work across this broad field very compelling. Thanks.

  2. Yeah, transhumanism is interesting/it makes me want to pull out my hair. There are important questions like, what what happens to culture as the possibilities for different configurations of body and brain rapidly multiply and become unrecognizable? But for every interesting question there seems to be a transhumanist who can’t provide any enlightening answers because their ideas about the future are shaped by the fact that they don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics, don’t understand the category of computational possibility, or just want to simulate even crazier sex.

  3. You write: “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.”

    There seems to be a tension between two aspects of transhumanist philosophy: (i) Technology is, in Kurzweil’s words, “inevitable”; or, as Mike Treder recently said in an email to me, “it’s a virtual impossibility to prevent the development of molecular manufacturing (MM).” Thus, transhumanists appear to espouse something like Langdon Winner’s notion of “autonomous technology” with respect to the development of technology as a whole. On the other hand, though, (ii) transhumanists argue that the negative consequences of current and future technologies are tractable — technologies are, according to their view, more-or-less neutral objects. In other words, while the technological enterprise is out-of-human-control, the individual technologies are in-human-control.

    The website specified above is for a paper I recently wrote criticizing transhumanism partly from an anthropological perspective. If you’re interested, read it. Oh, and lastly: Excellent post — I think transhumanism needs more historical perspective, which the Global Spiral edition did not provide (although Don Ihde’s paper was, in my opinion, brilliant as always).

  4. I stumbled on your blog by accident, but wanted to thank you for bringing this up!!! I am an anthropology major, and will be going to grad school in a year, my main motivation being the dearth of information on transhumanism and its anthropological implications. Ray Kurzweil’s perspective is so unwaveringly optimistic, it worries me that such little thought is being focused on the majority of people who can (and probably will) be harmed on this magic road to and far beyond the technological singularity.

  5. Transhumanism is not an issue that can be refuted by simple a predilection of taste or citing novels. It reduces itself not to simple rhetoric like this article and weak political and social arguments like this article uses. Human evolution, is a question for anthropology, and is progressive as any living thing that does not evolve will go extinct, humans included. To sit back in comfort and deny the possibilities like this article does is to become a Neanderthal and deny the possibilities a newer, higher species coming into view. Also Nietzsche is one of the voices promoting human ascension, the Overlords.

  6. I might be helpful to mention the transhumanist counter to the Global Spiral’s feature on transhumanism, especially because, as you noted, these scholars are more focused criticizing than engaging the issues. Here is a link to the magazine special, in which I was the guest editor, and here is a link to the book, which was a result of my efforts to offer a more scholarly set of voices on transhumanism — both pro and con.

    There are far more voices that stem from academic roots than Bostrom or Hughes. While they are both quality thinkers, their writings to not reflect the scope or depth of transhumanism.

    Natasha Vita-More

  7. For some reason my links did not post, but here is the information:

    Global Spiral special issue: “H+: Transhumanism Answers Its Critics” can be found at website if you search for this title. This issue was published in February 2009.

    _Transhumanism And Its Critics_ can be found at Amazon books.

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