The Failures of Transhumanism

Since I first discovered Transhumanism around 2010, I been drawn to the big philosophical thinking and ideals of thetranshumanist declaration and the Mormon transhumanist affirmation. I still see a lot of careful, generous, and aspirational thought behind them, but I have come to the conclusion that the most effective transhumanist organizations are not any with the name “transhumanist,” but instead those working toward equality and sustainability, now.

Technological Research

There are scientists the world over working on projects with the potential to help billions of people or to unlock yet unrealized human abilities. Almost all of this research has the potential to contribute, at least in part, to ethical transhumanism. But within the current economic structures of our world, most of it is directed toward ultimately consumptive—and consequently destructive—ends.

Gut microbiome-brain connection

As an example, we have relatively recently learned about strong connections between the bacteria and fungi in our intestines (the gut microbiome) and our mental and physical well-being. In the last 20 years the number of publications in this area have exploded. Here are the basics:

I listened to an American Chemical Society webinar on this topic, and a few things stood out to me. Someone with more time could pretty easily double check all of this (and maybe should), but since the patterns match what is seen in other areas, I'm confident in sharing my imprecise memories.

As individuals we can work towards these ends (e.g. supporting local agriculture, changing to a mostly vegetarian diet, slowing our lives down so we have time to prepare fresh food, etc.), but all of these things fight against how our society is arranged, and they are hard and often expensive. In contrast, here is how it is, now:

So what is most of the research being done?

It's not to say that these latter two paths of research do not benefit society. They are simply designed to benefit shareholders first and whoever can afford the product second.

I chose this example of what could be considered a transhumanist technology because I'm more familiar with it than many others. Hopefully this example illustrates how development of transhumanist technologies within selfish, capitalist systems creates selfish, capitalist technology. It has almost nothing to do with the intent of the scientists involved. Perhaps all of them want to do work that is interesting and beneficial to humanity (I haven't met any who don't have these desires, and I've met and listened to more than a few), but they also want jobs that let them take care of themselves and their families now. How we've organized our economy means that those jobs are working for corporations whose only responsibility (for the last 30-40 years) is to make money for shareholders. If their research isn't leading toward corporate profits, it gets stopped. So of all the hundreds of millions (probably billions) of dollars poured into gut-microbiome research, only a tiny percentage is specifically directed toward understanding how to help people eat better in order to improve our health.

Transhumanist Associations

I'll start by admitting limited involvement with transhumanist organizations. I spent a lot of time with the Mormon Transhumanist Association several years ago. I interacted with people trying to start a Transhumanist political party in the US. I've tangentially observed what prominent transhumanists write about, what other transhumanist organizations write about and publish on their social media feeds, and I've observed the demographics of these organizations. Here are the things that seem most prominent in these circles:

Of course there are small amounts of all sorts of other things, and it can be a lot of fun, if you like this kind of stuff. These groups tend to be fairly optimistic, thinking we humans have a pretty good chance of solving our biggest problems, even while recognizing that some things threaten the very existence of humanity. But some parts of the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation get more attention than others.

Transhumanists mostly aren't focused on changing the social order so that it's possible for responsible decisions to be made. They are more often focused on new tech to extend lives like their own than on policies spreading wealth to relieve and empower the billions of poor in the world. They are more often focused on the possibilities of technological advances than on the costs of the advances that can be externalized to other people and places in the world. The artificial health regimens of rich tech leaders trying to live forever get more attention than reducing our resource footprint so that miners and communities in China, Argentina, and the Congo don't have to suffer the effects of rare metal mining. Solar power advances get more attention than ways we could use less energy as a society. There is a lot of talk about changing the world with technology, and not a lot of is talk about changing the fundamental systems within which the technologies are made.

Changing the Systems

Many transhumanists know we have to change the systems. To some of us it is obvious that a fundamentally greedy, consumerist, capitalist system will produce selfish, wasteful, ultimately destructive technology. Just look at Elon Musk and other private companies cluttering space, for the purpose of making money on Earth, to the point that we are beginning to impede space science and could eventually prevent humanity from traveling to the stars. Without a focus on changing our current social and economics systems in some fundamental ways, we will fail in realizing the Transhumanist Declaration. Without a focus on new systems that undo the greed of capitalism and consumerism, transhumanist activism and activities will inevitably fail in realizing their hopes of an ethical, thriving future.

So for me, after a few years of reflecting on my transhumanist involvement, I've decided the most effective transhumanist groups don't even think about transhumanism. They are the groups working for equality and dignity for all humans. They are the groups resisting authoritarianism and fascism. They are the groups working to preserve our environment. They are the groups resisting capitalist greed. They are the groups recognizing all that we share and working to use it responsibly. They are the groups fostering greater democracy in our nations and in our businesses. They are the groups undoing discriminatory laws.

It's not the so called tech visionaries that are going to save humanity. Maybe they can save themselves, if they are selfish and lucky enough. It's the revolutionaries working for peace and justice that will save humanity. They will make the systems that work for all of us—not just for the rich and powerful. And within those new systems we will have a hope of developing ethical new technologies that can lift up all of humanity.