It’s been almost 40 years since Natasha Vita-More wrote the first version The Transhumanist Manifesto. She was attracted to transhumanist ideas from an early age, but felt they were too radical to gain widespread acceptance at the time. She also didn’t want to pursue a career in medicine, which her family favored, and went into art instead. For a time she lived with a group of Navajo Indians, traveled to the Amazon jungle and produced a film about escaping social norms. Since then, she has worked as a designer, philosopher, educator, scientist and movement builder.
She joined the London Futurists Podcast to discuss how her work has seeded the global growth of transhumanism.
A dangerous idea?
Transhumanism is the idea that technology and evidence-based science can and should be used to augment and improve humans to overcome the limitations that evolution has left us with. As the name suggests, it is rooted in humanism, but adds optimism that cognitive and physical improvement is both possible and desirable.
At first glance, the idea that people should be allowed to use technology to live healthier and happier lives doesn’t sound dangerous or even controversial. But it provokes strong opposition: in 2004, Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea.” The force of this claim is somewhat undermined when you consider how wild his previous big idea turned out to be: in 1992 he declared that because the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, history ended. However, Fukuyama is not alone in fearing transhumanism.
What is “natural”?
Some people object to transhumanism because they think we should try to be “natural” and be satisfied with what evolution—or their god—gave us. But of course the definition of what is “natural” changes over time. Nature did not gift us with glasses, and few now argue that they should be banned. Now we have cochlear implants and many people feel like their smartphones are an extension of themselves. In the future, we will have the hotly debated possibility of increasing our IQ with smart drugs or gene therapy.
Transhumanism has more support today than it did 40 years ago, but is probably still a minority view. Most people have given very little thought to whether it is possible or desirable for humans to enhance their minds and bodies through technology. Of those who have, there are probably only a minority who think it’s definitely a good idea, subject to debate and regulation.
This is partly because most religious leaders oppose transhumanism, fearing that it is heresy or that it might undermine their position. Instead, they suggest we accept the state of life we have and look to the afterlife for improvement.
They and us
Others fear that cognitive and physical improvements will deepen and entrench inequality because they will only be available to the rich. This ignores the fact that wealthy people tend to be guinea pigs for early versions of new technologies, allowing manufacturers to push the learning curve and produce cheaper versions. Companies make far more money by selling affordable goods and services to everyone than they could by selling diamond-encrusted versions to oligarchs and celebrities. The iPhone was a rich man’s gadget in 2008, but today smartphones are an indispensable item for billions of us.
As reasonable as the basic idea of transhumanism may be, there will likely be deep disagreements between its proponents and opponents as technologies become available to allow us to substantially improve ourselves. These disagreements can lead to conflict.
Refuting the naysayers
During her lifetime of advocating transhumanism, Vita-More has been forced to rebut her opponents on numerous occasions. In 2004, a group of renowned bioethicists contributed to a major report on gene therapy that was presented to President George W. Bush. It argued that gene therapy and other forms of human enhancement were immoral and unethical. Vita-More prepared and chaired a virtual conference with key transhumanist scientists to refute the report. This meeting was the beginning of the pro-action principle, which asserts that the freedom to innovate is essential to human well-being and points out that throughout history the most significant innovations were not recognized as such at the time.
In 2011, Vita-More was surprised to read disparaging and misleading comments about transhumanism from well-known scientists including Katherine Hayles, Don Ihde, and Andrew Pickering in an academic journal article published by the MetaNexus Institute. Vita-More called the editor-in-chief to protest, and he urged her to edit the issue of the responses, which she did with the help of half a dozen other transhumanist scholars. This exchange was the best-known academic debate on transhumanism up to that time, and led to the publication of a book called Transhumanism and its criticswhich is still widely quoted today.
Transhumanism and women
Vita-More grew up in the 1950s, a time when women had to work twice as hard as men to achieve any recognition. Her father didn’t want her to go to college, so she worked three jobs because of it. She was a fierce radical and instinctively faced discrimination against women.
When Vita-More wrote the Transhumanist Manifesto, her friend FM Esfandiary (who famously renamed himself FM-2030 because he thought he was born too soon) was against her writing it. In addition to being an important contributor to transhumanist thought, Esfandiary was a very handsome Olympian and UN diplomat, but he seems to have disliked having a woman distract him. He encouraged her to start a TV show in Los Angeles, but as she became more successful, he became less supportive.
There has been great progress in the level of opportunity for women since the 1950s, but there is still a long way to go. This is especially true in futurism, and indeed technology in general, where women are underrepresented. Vita-More thinks there are many women active in transhumanist circles, but they don’t come forward as fervently as men often do.
Training of small worms
Vita-More has an abiding interest in memory, and as she grew up, she became increasingly concerned about memory loss due to aging. This led her to do some scientific research in cryobiology using a very small, simple animal called C. Elegans. This nematode (roundworm) has no brain, but has 302 neurons and can be trained to learn tasks. Vita-More taught hundreds of baby worms to associate food with a certain non-toxic chemical odor and later, as adults, vitrified them using a technique similar to embryo freezing and placed them in cryonic suspension. When she revived the nematodes, she was pleased to discover that they had retained the association between food and smell. This evidence that memory can survive cryonic suspension has important implications for the future.
Today, Vita-More is the executive director of Humanity Plus (H+ for short, formerly known as the World Transhumanist Association), a non-profit organization that advocates for the ethical use of technology to enhance human capacity. He organizes the H+ Academy Roundtable, a bi-monthly discussion and debate that is available on YouTube. It also sponsors Transvision Summits around the world, including one in London hosted by London Futurists Podcast co-host David Wood. Vita-More hosts a Transhumanist Studies Group every Friday, which is sort of like a post-graduate study group, and H+ will soon publish a new magazine called The rejuvenation revolution and a book called Beautiful science.
Clearly, transhumanism is alive and well and not limited to the West. H+ is active in Africa with projects in Ethiopia and South Africa, where it is hosting the Longevity conference in August 2023.