Transhumanism: who wants to live forever?

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher Auditorium 2Scientific skirmishes

Transhumanists aspire to go beyond the biological and other limitations of our species, including the human body and the human lifespan. Recent scientific and medical developments suggest we have more control over biology than ever before, with genome editing allowing us to make precise alterations to our DNA. Ethicists and policymakers are careful to distinguish between genome editing to treat disease and its use for human enhancement. There is also an important distinction to be made between making amendments to the part of our genome that can be inherited – the ‘germline’ – and that part which cannot be passed on, the ‘soma’. But while ethical debates and legal regulations proceed with care, DIY ‘biohackers’ may not be content to wait for offical approval for their efforts to modify their biology.

The term ‘transhumanism’ was coined by philosopher WD Lighthall in 1940 and popularised by biologist Julian Huxley in the 1950s, but its seeds were sown earlier. In the wake of the First World War, geneticist and polymath JBS Haldane not only predicted in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) – a technique via which more than eight million babies have been born over the past 40 years – but anticipated a situation where the human reproductive cycle would move entirely outside the body. Haldane emphasised the centrality of biology to modern science, arguing that revolutionary biologists should not be likened to Prometheus, who was punished for stealing fire from the gods (a myth invoked by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), but instead compared to another mythical figure – Daedalus, who helped a Cretan queen mate with a bull to produce the Minotaur, and then escaped punishment for the consequences.

Transhumanism’s interest in defying death owes much to Robert Ettinger, who in the 1960s began promoting cryonics – the preservation of (parts of) our bodies via freezing, in the hope of future resuscitation. This year saw renewed interest in the field, when researchers successfully revived nematode worms that had been preserved in Arctic permafrost for more than 40,000 years. Meanwhile, transhumanist visionaries such as futurist Ray Kurzweil, currently Google’s director of engineering, look to information technology and artificial intelligence, alongside biomedicine and cryonics, to enhance and extend human consciousness. Kurzweil has popularised science-fiction author Vernor Vinge’s concept of the ‘singularity’, a term that conveys a profound and ever-accelerating entanglement of human and machine capabilities.

What is the relationship between transhumanist ideas and the Big Tech companies, mostly headquartered in the USA, whose products and services are increasingly central to our lives and societies? Does transhumanism represent a confident belief in and promotion of human potential, or does it underestimate the extent to which humanity has always transcended natural limitations? Do transhumanists perceive themselves as subjects of change, consciously bringing about radical transformation, or as objects of change giving themselves over to forces – such as the singularity – which have their own inexorable logic?