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The Marxist and Christian roots of transhumanism

In an interesting article titled “Transhumanism has never been modern” Richard Jones argues that “[Transhumanists] have deep roots, perhaps surprising roots… in the views of the early 20th century British scientific left-wing, and in the early Russian ideologues of space exploration.”

The predictable conclusion (Jones is a great guy but he doesn’t like transhumanists much) of the essay is the tired old strawman that transhumanists are guilty of technological determinism (technology is destiny). That’s just wrong – as David Wood rightly says in the comments, “although this flavour of transhumanism is a vocal one, it’s far from being the only one, nor indeed the dominant one.”

Jones’ conclusion is, mmm, not entirely correct, but his historical and philosophical analysis of the roots of transhumanism (excerpt below) is, I think, correct.

My comment (edited):

I have long been persuaded that transhumanism is essentially a religious movement. Mine is a minority position among transhumanists, but not as much as one may think, and several “spiritual transhumanist” groups embrace it explicitly.

I agree with the key role of both Russian Cosmists (e.g. Tsiolovsky, Fyodorov) and British Marxists (e.g. Bernal, Haldane) as precursors of contemporary transhumanism [See my related essays The Russian Cosmists and John D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a transhumanist classic], and I am intrigued by your suggestion that Gioacchino da Fiore may be considered as a precursor of both.

But technological determinism is not as common among transhumanists as you think. We (that is, I and similarly inclined transhumanists) don’t make predictions, but plans. It isn’t a predetermined outcome fixed in stone, it’s a project.

Re “If you think that a technology for resurrecting dead people is within sight, we need to see the evidence.”

Of course – but I don’t think resurrection technology is “within sight.” At the same time, I consider the possible development (in the far future) of resurrection technology as not entirely incompatible with current scientific understanding, and quite compatible with some more speculative scientific models. That’s how I (and others) get through the night.

And what’s wrong with wishful thinking? Wishful thinking is what keeps you swimming in rough waters when the shore is so far that you can hardly see it. Of course wishing is not enough, you must also swim.

Excerpt:

“This line of thought has a long and fascinating pedigree. One can identify at least two distinct routes by which this kind of eschatological thinking developed to contribute to the modern transhumanist movement. For the first, we can look to the origin of the coinage “transhumanism” itself, by the British biologist Julian Huxley (not at all coincidentally, the brother of the author of the dystopian novel, “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley). It was among the British scientific left between the wars that many of the themes of transhumanism were first developed. In a remarkable 1929 essay “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” the Marxist scientist Desmond Bernal gives a slogan for transhumanism “Men will not be content to manufacture life: they will want to improve on it.” Bernal imagines a process of continuous human enhancement, until we arrive at his version of the Singularity: “Finally, consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light. That may be an end or a beginning, but from here it is out of sight.”

“The title of Bernal’s essay hints at the influence of his Catholic upbringing – what was the influence of the Marxism? The aspect of Marxism as a project to fundamentally change human nature by materialist methods is made very clear in a Leon Trotsky pamphlet from 1923, describing life after the revolution: “Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. 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.””

“The second route to transhumanism also has a Russian dimension. It comes through the pioneer of rocketry and influential ideologue of space travel, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky was a key proponent of the philosophy of Cosmism, and was profoundly influenced by Cosmism’s founder, the 19th century philosopher and mystic Nikolai Fyodorov. Fyodorov’s system of thought blended religion and materialism to create a vision of transcendence not in a spiritual heaven, but in our own material universe. “God, according to the Copernican system, is the Father, not only doing everything for people, but also through people, demanding, as the God of the fathers, from everyone alive an uniting for the resuscitation of the dead and for the settling by the resurrected generations of worlds for the governing of these lastly”. It would be through science, and the complete mastery over the material world that this would give humans, that the apocalypse would happen, on earth: “We propose the possibility and the necessity to attain through ultimately all people the learning of and the directing of all the molecules and atoms of the external world, so as to gather the dispersed, to reunite the dissociated, i.e. to reconstitute the bodies of the fathers such as they had been before their end”.”

fedorov
Nikolai Fedorov
  • mitch

    Its an interesting take on Transhumanism. One of the liberating things, that interested me in Transhumanism back in the 1990s, was its flavor of libertarianism and or freedom. I feel at least intellectually that Transhumanism has evolved far past its original Marxist and Christian traditions. I don’t necessarily view its future as a religion unto itself but rather a method of thinking of philosophy and understanding of technology that lends itself to support all other religions one can think of.

    Transhumanism as an avenue, an understanding of the far future, rather than oppose religion, or at least the rational thinking portion of religion, offers alternatives to what the theologians call the human condition. The most well known among Transhumanists is radical life extension. How rapidly achievable radical life extension Technology will arrive, depends on who you ask within the Transhumanists movement. Moving in the movement seem to believe that radical life extension technologies will be readily available within the next 20 years or so.

    But as most rationally minded people observe, many plans often go astray and life can be disappointing. The focus on what some Transhumanists have studied have put forth, specifically to run physicist Frank Tipler, and professor of engineering Hans Moravec, is the notion of reviving dead minds, personalities, send vast and distant computer future. This at least for myself sort of reminds me of some of the medieval cathedrals in Europe where to hang the large stained glass religious artwork, the carpenters of centuries ago created what was termed flying butresses, to support the weight of the cathedral roofing above the stained glass walls. These flying buttresses made stained-glass artwork inside the cathedrals possible.

    In the sense of you what Transhumanism is proposing is convivial with most of the religions practice today. It can be used to support the religion or at least it’s long-term goals. In both religion and Transhumanism both whole that the individual is important, significant, and one of the ways they do this is to the notion of resurrection.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Hi Mitch, yes, as you say transhumanism and religion point to the same overal direction. This, and the religious roots of transhumanism mentioned in Jones’ article, persuade me that transhumanism is, and always was, essentially religious.

    Re Marxists, I encourage you to read Bernal’s “The World, The Flesh and the Devil.” Here is the full text:
    http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Bernal/

    You may be (many Americans are) under the impression that Marxism is like today’s US PC totalitarian “liberalism” but, believe me, they are completely different things. Marxism is a heroic philosophy of boundless progress (“a project to fundamentally change human nature by materialist methods”). In Europe, Marxists were often big, strong working class men with big strong hearts.

  • James Steinhoff

    Hi Giulio,
    great post (and site, generally). I think the Marxist connection is very interesting and largely unrecognized. Yet, as you say, Marxism (especially in its Western forms, eg. not Soviet) is surprisingly in line with many basic transhumanist ideas, economic theory not included. Anyone interested in said similarities might find this piece (shameless self promotion) worth reading: http://jetpress.org/v24/steinhoff.htm

  • Giulio Prisco

    Great article James. I will add, and I hope you agree, that Marx was a Promethean who, were he alive today, would be likely to agree with many transhumanist ideas.

    The fake-intellectual, fake-liberal dull politically correct dummies that form much of the contemporary “left” have nothing to do with Marx. Sometimes they quote him, but never read him.

    • James Steinhoff

      Very much promethean!
      The descriptions of humanity and nature in the young Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts are particularly relevant for transhumanists, I think. Funnily, many in academia dismiss these texts as juvenilia.