Who do we think we are?
Author Joanna Kavenna demands answers from our Transhumanists’ Club, convening at London’s Barbican centre on 27 July
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”
Here we are discussing transhumanism, defined by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in 1957 as the belief that the human species can and should transcend itself “by realizing new possibilities” of and for human nature. What relevance could the poet John Donne have to such a discussion?
A more recent explanation of transhumanism, by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, calls it “a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades… Attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.” This formulation resembles the poetry of English clerics even less than Huxley’s did.
But though Bostrom does not express himself in quite the same fashion as Donne, the overarching sentiment is not dissimilar: Death, thou shalt die, or at least thou shalt be postponed as far as possible. Bostrom continues: “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.”
In other words, before death postponed or otherwise, life might be made considerably nicer: less fraught with disease and suffering, and altogether less “half-baked”. This is a metaphor from cooking, and transhumanist rhetoric is awash with such, at times treacherous, metaphors.
“Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.” Bostrom’s lovely sentiment – that the half-baked human must be improved by “the responsible use of science” – has driven humanity for millennia, ever since we began using technologies of flint and fire and so on, and through innumerable and utterly vital developments in medicine and science. So one key question that we must pose and seek to discuss is how, specifically, the transhumanist “movement” will depart from or further enhance this consistent strain in human history?
Transhumanism’s signature ambition, that we may become “posthuman”, leads us to a baroque and venerable question: what does it mean to be human, anyway? If we want to go beyond something, to transcend it, it is clear we must understand our starting point, the point beyond which we desire to go. The quest to fathom the self, to understand what it means to be human, is fundamental to almost every civilisation known to us. It defines one of the earliest works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, in which our protagonist embarks on a quest to understand who on earth he is and what he’s meant to do with his mortal span of years. In ancient religious texts such as the Upanishads, all creation begins with the moment of becoming: “I am!” That is, the world comes from mind itself.
In many global religions, the human self is divided into body and soul, a material and an immaterial part. During the Enlightenment, Descartes famously tried to reconcile this ancient distinction and also placate the church by proposing that the material and immaterial somehow communicated or mingled via the pineal gland. (Click to Site)