I’ve been reading Paul Berman‘s The Flight of the Intellectuals (many thanks to my boss here at RFE/RL, Jay Tolson, for lending me a copy). Although the book’s primary goal is to unearth the true ideology of Tariq Ramadan, a man whom both fans and opponents alike acknowledge is difficult to pin down, its elucidations of the links between Islamism and Nazism, located roughly speaking in the first half of the book, are extremely valuable. Berman not only provides an excellent summary of the most recent and important scholarly research into the topic, but he accomplishes the goal of making an intimate call to arms within the reader to face up to the true horrific countenance of certain ideologies.
This theme of avoidance, in Berman’s words, “the multi-motivated disinclination to discuss or even think about the very largest of crimes,” on the part of Western intellectuals, “The urge to look somewhere else — to look anywhere at all, except at the main thing,” is central to his book, and serves as the diving board for this reflection. You see, this little blog of mine is saturated by Transhumanist themes, and insofar as it reflects my mind (as close friends and sharp readers have noted, I’m not entirely candid in this digital space) it can be said to be an expression of a worldview that is, although not exclusively Transhumanist, is nevertheless deeply informed by such an outlook.
So, you’ll understand the depth of my concern when I say that Transhumanism, or at least some varieities of it, may be the Nazism, Communism, and Islamism of the future. Specifically, I fear that, if so, then it may one day be looked upon by distant generations from now as the twenty-first century’s equivalent of the antisemitism and eugenicism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — in other words, a belief system that promotes horrifying goals via terrible means, yet somehow is espoused by otherwise perfectly rational and decent people.
A few words about a word
I’ve previously remarked at length about this phrase, “transhumanism”. To recap, it can either be used to describe an intellectual and cultural movement that is actively striving to explore and implement the potential of technology to, as they see it, improve humanity’s mental and physical characteristics and capacities, or to describe phenomena that are arguably changing the make-up of our species, leaving open to debate whether the change is improvement or regression. Fundamentally, this is the difference between an ideology and an adjective, the former a worldview, the latter an aspirant to the club of neutral scholarly jargon.
In truth, the two uses of the term are not totally separable, if for no other reason than it’s unlikely that someone will identify a phenomenon as “transhumanist” without at least some prior acquaintance with the Transhumanist movement. I have in mind such examples as Kathoeys and suicide bombers, whom for most people are simply transgenders and terrorists: that these might represent incidents of human evolution and technologization is probably not going to occur to the uninitiated.
Nevertheless, to the degree that it’s possible for someone, once introduced to certain notions, to see why Kathoeys and suicide bombers might be interpreted transhumanistically, but without themselves subscribing to the specific doctrines and formulations of Transhumanism the movement, perhaps even rejecting them entirely, then the two uses of the term can be separated.
An intellectual litmus test, as it were, of subscription to the ideology, would be one’s understanding of and commitment to the “Technological Singularity”. Again, to recap, the Singularity is a hypothetical event, the moment when technological progress reaches a kind of critical mass after which the future becomes qualitatively different than the precedence of the past. And again, like transhumanism, one could distinguish between the ideology, i.e., that the Singularity is a good thing, and the adjective, i.e., regardless of whether it is good or bad, it is coming. The latter is the position I attempted to stake out in my earlier reflection.
I should also note that there are wings of the movement not rooted in belief in the Singularity but in geneticism, namely, that regardless of technological innovations, humanity is physically changing according to the already well-established dynamics of mutation and adaptation. Indeed, this is actually a far less controversial position to take, for it’s both common sensical and backed up by actual scientific research (as opposed to the high-brow and sometimes New Age-like theorizing behind the Singularity). Speaking for myself, I don’t see the Singularity or normal genetic evolution as mutually co-exclusive, nor for that matter do many of the technologically-oriented among the Transhumanist movement.
So, I’ve once more spent a lot of digital ink making distinctions, but my reason for doing so is important, because although I’m troubled by Transhumanism the ideology, I’m still committed to transhumanism the adjective. As much as they can be disentangled, essentially, to salvage the latter from any eventual excesses of the former, the better. But let’s now turn to the ideology itself.
An important question that immediately rises is whether the Transhumanist movement has at least some of its origins in some of the darker ideologies of the past. I actually don’t know the answer to that at the moment because I haven’t done the proper research just yet (readers’ suggestions would be appreciated). Nevertheless, intuitively it makes sense that at least some wings of the present ideology have their roots in Social Darwinism, Ariosophy, Theosophy, Nazism, Communism, and the like.
If not the present movement per se, then at least some of its core concepts and ambitions helped provide a framework for the genocides of the twentieth century. For example, Nazi and Communist aspirations of the Übermensch and the Novus Homo, respectively, were clearly motivated not just by an ideology of extreme rationalization and instrumentalization, as Richard L. Rubinstein points out, nor just by a modern reiteration of brutal, archaic tribal instincts, which is the popular wisdom of today, but by a quest to usher in the next phase of human evolution. Consider these well-known remarks:
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…” — Friedrich Nietzsche
“The human species, the coagulated homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training.” — Leon Trotsky
“Will the new socio-economic system reproduce itself in the structure of the people’s character? If so, how? Will his traits be inherited by his children? Will he be a free, self-regulating personality? Will the elements of freedom incorporated into the structure of the personality make any authoritarian forms of government unnecessary.” — Wilhem Reich
(I offer the quote by Nietzsche in full knowledge of the debate surrounding it, strictly to highlight how it could be construed transhumanistically.) And this is just to highlight the most egregious cases. Transhumanism has supplied a justificatory framework for many less grand-scale atrocities throughout the world, and arguably it is lurking somewhere in the conceptual background of the present Islamist vision of the Mujahid, too, particularly its Shahid aspect, in which human beings are purported to achieve perfection by permanent revolution and self-weaponization.
The capacity of Transhumanism to enable horror upon the world needs to be countenanced, most of all by avowed members within the movement and sympathetic parties such as myself. James J. Hughs, in his essay, “The Politics of Transhumanism”, offers these two alarming quotes, one from a Transhumanist who has lost his way and one from another who is struggling to find the most ethical social program for his beliefs:
“[T]he Third Reich is the only model we have of a Transhumanist state… It’s high time for Transhumanists to face up to the fact that what we are trying to do cannot be done in our present political system. Democracy and transcendence are mutually exclusive concepts. I am searching for a radical alternative, and that search led me to consider Nazi Germany, which, for all its imperfections, at least had some concept of human evolution and transcendence.” — Lyle Burkhead
“[It’s been pointed out that] Transhumanism can remind a lot of Nazism, and we should be very aware about this. ‘We must not be tempted by the dark side.’ We should be ready and have a mental defense ready if fascist(s) were ever to try and adapt Transhumanism, so we can keep them out. I totally agree in this. We want to be posthumans not Übermensch.” — Max Rasmussen
Yet, as with the distinction between the ideology and the adjective, can we really totally separate the posthuman from the Übermensch? I don’t think so, for a two reasons.
First, the more radical or strident wing of the Transhumanist movement doesn’t seem intellectually aware or honest about the purgative aspect of the Singularity that they hope for and are working toward achieving. Indeed, if “Übermensch” is taken in its strictest German sense of “overcomer”, then the accomplishment of posthumanity would appear to necessarily entail, well, a concomitant process of Untermensch-ification. The real question, then, is who is to be overcome? Who is to be reduced to the what of an obstacle? Distressingly, the answer would seem to be all of the present species of homo sapien.
Second, even if one is committed to the more neutral belief that humanity is still physically evolving, then one is still necessarily committed to the belief that at some point in the future posthumans shall emerge. With or without a Singularity, that process will likely entail purgative violence at some point, most likely on the part of the posthumans against their predecessors. Transhumanist thinkers like Hughs want to find a way to keep the process of posthumanization as peaceful and democratic as possible. The real question here is whether that’s possible.
To be sure, to the extent that I interpret some of the principles of my religion, the Baha’i Faith, in a transhumanistic fashion, and hence view God as indeed on the side of a peaceful evolution, indeed, efflorescence of humanity —
“Education and religion are alike based on the assumption that it is possible to change human nature. In fact, it requires but little investigation to show that the one thing we can say with certainty about any living thing is that it cannot keep from changing. Without change there can be no life. […] Moreover, in progress and development among creatures of all grades we find two kinds of change — one slow, gradual, often almost imperceptible; and the other rapid, sudden and dramatic. The latter occur at what are called ‘critical stages’ of development.
“Bahá’u’lláh declares that just as lesser living things have times of sudden emergence into new and fuller life, so for mankind also a ‘critical stage,’ a time of ‘rebirth,’ is at hand. Then modes of life which have persisted from the dawn of history up till now will be quickly, irrevocably, altered, and humanity enter on a new phase of life as different from the old as the butterfly is different from the caterpillar, or the bird from the egg. Mankind as a whole, in the light of new Revelation, will attain to a new vision of truth; as a whole country is illumined when the sun rises, so that all men see clearly, where but an hour before everything was dark and dim.
“‘This is a new cycle of human power,’ says ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. ‘All the horizons of the world are luminous, and the world will become indeed as a rose garden and a paradise.’ The analogies of nature are all in favor of such a view; the Prophets of old have with one accord foretold the advent of such a glorious day; the signs of the times show clearly that profound and revolutionary changes in human ideas and institutions are even now in progress. What could be more futile and baseless therefore, than the pessimistic argument that, although all things else change, human nature cannot change?” — J.E. Esselmont
— then I’m with Hughs that it can be done. However, history gives me pause, for insofar as it can be argued that we are now, in our present era, or that we have always been throughout time, moving toward posthumanity — indeed, that we have always been in a state of transhumanity (could it not be argued that the homo sapien is the posthuman to the homo erectus?) — then all the terrible bloodshed of the past could very well be tantamount to an unconscious genocide or self-purgation of the species on a massive scale.
Toward a different tomorrow
Think about it: each of us alive today are the product of innumerable and oft-forgotten rapes, pillages, and pogroms. Violence would thus seem inescapable, if not intrinsic, to the story of humanity, transhumanity, and posthumanity. There immediately arises, then, the temptation to excuse the brutalities of a future Transhumanism ideology run amock as simply obeying the law of Nature. It is precisely here that my faith most loudly protests, for Nature is not to be the measure or master of either justice or evolution:
“And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained. Consider! These battleships that reduce a city to ruins within the space of an hour are the result of material civilization; likewise the Krupp guns, the Mauser rifles, dynamite, submarines, torpedo boats, armed aircraft and bombers–all these weapons of war are the malignant fruits of material civilization. Had material civilization been combined with Divine civilization, these fiery weapons would never have been invented. Nay, rather, human energy would have been wholly devoted to useful inventions and would have been concentrated on praiseworthy discoveries.
“Material civilization is like a lamp-glass. Divine civilization is the lamp itself and the glass without the light is dark. Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. Divine civilization is like the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit, otherwise it becomes a corpse. It has thus been made evident that the world of mankind is in need of the breaths of the Holy Spirit. Without the spirit the world of mankind is lifeless, and without this light the world of mankind is in utter darkness. For the world of nature is an animal world. Until man is born again from the world of nature, that is to say, becomes detached from the world of nature, he is essentially an animal, and it is the teachings of God which convert this animal into a human soul.” — Abdu’l-Baha
In other words, although it is by no means certain, perhaps genocide has been in some awful way necessary for our species’ evolution. Yet, if so, that was a condition of the past. Not only in the future, but right now, in the very present, humanity can achieve posthumanity without falling back into the old pattern. Indeed, if the eventual posthumans are indeed supra-natural — cyborgs, artificial intelligences, and so on — then it would be all the more fitting if the logic of Nature and the programming of animality are leavened and enlightened by eloquence of Reason and the freedom of spirituality. Time will, of course, tell.
To conclude for the time being, my interest in transhumanism has always sprung from the same emotional and intuitive well as my interest in metaxology and mysticism, namely, of the transitoriness of existence, and the remarkable potentials and energies latent within that transitoriness. I see the light and the dark: those latent energies are as equally destructive as they are constructive, and I do not explore them in my reflections carelessly. I have previously argued that the dark is not always dark nor the light always light, so I pray that whatever the truth of both the future and the past, of whether Transhumanism has the potential to become the next great black ideology and whether genocide has been necessary to our evolution, that the tomorrow beyond tomorrow is truly qualitatively different. I, for one, as a scholar and journalist, intend to do my part toward making that difference a reality.