What is transhumanism? Taking a look at merging biology and technology

Brandon Paykamian • Dec 10, 2018 at 10:23 AM

The controversial research by Chinese researcher He Jiankui, a scientist who recently claimed to have created genetically edited infants before being ordered by the Chinese government to halt research, had me thinking about a topic in medical science I’ve always been interested in and curious about – transhumanism.

You may be asking yourself, “What the heck is transhumanism?” Simply put, transhumanism is the idea that the next stage of human evolution will involve how we utilize technology to better ourselves as we increasingly seek to merge biology and technology.

It’s a controversial idea, one that conjures up images of cyborgs and mad scientists who seek to play God in real life. But according to many prominent transhumanist thinkers, we are already on the path toward a transhumanist future.

“Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values,” transhumanist thinker Max More is quoted as saying in 1990 on whatistranshumanism.org. 

According to thinkers like More, transhumanism is viewed as an extension of humanism, which stresses the value and goodness of human beings, common human needs/goals and rational problem-solving. Transhumanists take this a step further by saying humans can use technology to better ourselves and “move beyond human.”

Some transhumanists think we will soon be able to utilize advanced nanotechnology and computer science to fight disease and increase the power and longevity of the human brain. If we were able to do such things, transhumanists argue we could drastically increase life expectancy and fight conditions like dementia. If we could somehow make these new medical technological advancements accessible to all people, many transhumanists believe the possibilities could be endless when it comes to human civilization’s political and social advancement as a whole. 

Sure, it sounds pretty radical, but let’s take a look at how we are already moving toward transhumanism and compare the technological advancements we have now to a century ago. Back then, we would not have imagined that it’d be possible to develop many of the prosthetic body parts we are now able to – such as prosthetic hearts and “robot” limbs, some of which are able to operate much like our own. Medical advancements such as these could be considered “proto-transhumanism.”  

Outside of medical technology, look no further than your smartphone to see how some technological advancements have essentially become almost like an extension of our bodies. Whether it's for better or worse, these devices have almost fundamentally changed the way in which we communicate, and a lot of folks can’t seem to go anywhere without them anymore. A century ago, the thought of this would’ve seemed very bizarre. 

Assuming we are able to combat the effects of climate change fast enough to retain a somewhat sustainable and livable world, the medical technology we will be able to develop a century from now will likely be beyond some of our wildest dreams. 

We’re probably already on our way toward a transhumanist future, as some transhumanist thinkers believe we are. But there are definitely valid concerns about equity, access and the motivations some might have when moving toward this strange future. 

This reminds me of the ethical concerns Evan Butts, a lecturer in the East Tennessee State University Department of Philosophy and Humanities, raised about He’s research in China, which he considered unethical and premature scientific adventurism.

When it comes to radical advances such as these, Butts said questions of motivation will be a deciding factor in how new medical technologies are utilized and how they should be viewed. 

“It’s not just about whether or not these techniques can be used for good things, it’s also about why parents will want to or why societies will want to genetically engineer children,” he said.

“When ethicists, bioethicists and philosophers think about this sort of thing, we don’t just focus on the good outcomes and possible bad outcomes, often you want to take into account the motivations of people going into these actions,” Butts later continued. “This is what characterizes a thorough philosophical approach to this type of issue.”

As we make more radical advances toward transhumanism, let’s hope we can take a thorough philosophical approach to the matter. 

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