It is nearly 40 years since Natasha Vita-More wrote the first version of the Transhumanist Manifesto. She was drawn to transhumanist ideas from an early age, but she felt they were too radical to gain widespread acceptance at the time. She was also disinclined to pursue the career in medicine which her family favoured, and went into the arts instead. She spent some time living with a group of Navajo Indians, travelled to the Amazon Jungle, and produced a film about escaping social norms. Since then she has worked as a designer, a philosopher, an educator, a scientist, and a 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 in order to overcome the limitations that evolution has left us with. As the name suggests, it stems from humanism, but it adds an optimism that cognitive and physical improvement is both possible and desirable.
On the face of it, the idea that humans should be permitted to use technology to live healthier and happier lives does not sound dangerous, or even contentious. But it does provoke strong opposition: in 2004, Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea”. The force of that claim is somewhat undermined when you consider how wildly wrong 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 had come to an end. Nevertheless, Fukuyama is not alone in fearing transhumanism.
What is “natural”?
Some people object to transhumanism because they think we should strive to be “natural”, and to be content with what evolution – or their god – have given us. But of course the definition of what is “natural” changes over time. Nature didn’t endow us with spectacles, and few people now argue they should be banned. Now we have cochlear implants, and many people feel that their smartphones are extensions of themselves. In the future we will have the option of raising our IQ with smart drugs or with gene therapy, and these will be hotly debated.
Transhumanism has more support today than it did 40 years ago, but it is probably still a minority opinion. Most people have given very little thought to whether it is possible or desirable for humans to improve their minds and bodies using technology Of those who have, it is probably only a minority who think it is definitely a good idea, subject to debate and regulations.
This is partly because most religious leaders oppose transhumanism, fearing that it is heresy, or that it could erode their standing. They propose instead that we put up with the condition of life as we have it, and look to an afterlife for improvement.
Them and us
Others fear that inequality will be exacerbated and entrenched by cognitive and physical improvements, because they will be available only to the rich. This ignores the fact that rich people tend to be guinea pigs for early versions of new technologies, enabling producers to go up the learning curve and produce cheaper versions. Companies make far more money selling affordable goods and services to everyone than they could by selling diamond-encrusted versions to oligarchs and celebrities. The iPhone was a rich person’s gadget in 2008, but today, smartphones are an essential item for billions of us.
However reasonable the basic idea of transhumanism may be, there are likely to be profound disagreements between its proponents and its opponents, as technologies become available which enable us to improve ourselves substantially. These disagreements could lead to conflict.
In a lifetime of advocating for transhumanism, Vita-More has been obliged to rebut its opponents on numerous occasions. In 2004, a group of renowned bioethicists contributed to a major report on gene therapy that was submitted to President George W. Bush. It argued that gene therapy and other forms of human enhancement are immoral and unethical. Vita-More produced and chaired a virtual conference with key transhumanist scholars to rebut the report. This meeting was the origin of the Proactionary Principle, which argues that the freedom to innovate is essential to human welfare, and points out that throughout history, the most significant innovations have not been recognised as such at the time.
In 2011, Vita-More was surprised to read disparaging and misleading comments about transhumanism by noted scholars 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 invited her to edit a response edition, which she did with the help of half a dozen other transhumanist scholars. This exchange was the best-known academic debate about transhumanism to that date, and it led to the publication of a book called Transhumanism and its Critics, which remains highly cited today.
Transhumanism and women
Vita-More grew up in the 1950s, at 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 to do it. She was a feisty radical, and instinctively confronted the discrimination against women.
When Vita-More wrote the Transhumanist Manifesto, her friend FM Esfandiary (who famously re-named himself as FM-2030 because he thought he had been born too early) was opposed to her writing it. As well as being an important contributor to transhumanist thought, Esfandiary was a very handsome Olympian athlete, and a diplomat at the UN, but it seems he disliked having attention drawn away from him by a woman. He had encouraged her to launch a TV show in Los Angeles, but as she became more successful, he became less supportive.
There has been a great deal of progress since the 1950s in the level of opportunities for women, but there remains a long way to go. This is especially true in futurism, and indeed in technology generally, where women are under-represented. Vita-More thinks there are many women active in transhumanist circles, but they don’t promote themselves as assiduously as men often do.
Training tiny worms
Vita-More has an abiding interest in memory, and as she grew older, she became increasingly concerned about the loss of memory due to aging. This led her to undertake some scientific research in cryobiology, using a very small, simple animal called C. Elegans. This nematode (roundworm) has no brain but it has 302 neurons, and it can be trained to learn tasks. Vita-More taught hundreds of baby worms to associate food with a particular non-toxic chemical odorant and later, at their adult stage, she vitrified them by using a technique similar to embryo freezing, placing them in cryonic suspension. When she revived the nematodes she was delighted to discover that they retained the association between the food and the odour. This proof that memory can survive cryonic suspension has important implications for the future.
Today, Vita-More is executive director of Humanity Plus (abbreviated as H+, formerly known as the World Transhumanist Association), a non-profit organization that advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. It organises the H+ Academy Roundtable, a bi-monthly discussion and debate, which is available on YouTube. It also sponsors Transvision Summits around the world, including one in London which is organised by London Futurists Podcast co-host David Wood. Vita-More hosts Transhumanist studies group every Friday, which is like a graduate studies group, and H+ will shortly publish a new journal called Rejuvenation Revolution and a book called Beautiful Science.
Clearly transhumanism is alive and kicking, and it is not limited to the West. H+ is active in Africa, with projects in Ethiopia and South Africa, where it is organising a Longevity conference in August 2023.