Content warning: This article discusses ableism.
What if we could cure or eliminate all diseases? What if we could live forever?
For transhumanists, these philosophical questions are simply matters of engineering and scientific innovation. Put simply, transhumanism is a belief that human beings will evolve beyond species-typical levels of physical performance, cognitive ability, and sensory perception.
According to transhumanists, we have the potential to evolve so radically that we can become ‘posthuman,’ altering ourselves so successfully using technology and pharmacology that we would no longer be recognizably human. Transhumanism is a philosophy, and its adherents carry out a variety of practices to achieve their goal, including cryonics, lifestyle changes, cybernetic augmentation, neurofeedback, gene editing, and even cognitive enhancements with smart drugs.
Real research and development into transhumanism exists. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation produces leading research in cryonics. The Carboncopies Foundation accelerates neuroscience research in the hope of cracking Whole Brain Emulation — simulating the human brain and its functions — in order to reverse-engineer our biological brains to create artificial brains. The SENS Research Foundation is working on developing anti-aging therapies and educating people about them. Elon Musk’s Neuralink aims to create a way for human brains to interface with computers.
However, as fantastical and promising their pursuits may seem, transhumanist practices and innovations could lead to negative consequences to people with disabilities, going as far as suggesting that disabilities are flaws that need to be eliminated. This attitude is reminiscent of eugenics and suggests that the problem lies with people who have disabilities instead of the systemic inequities and inaccessibility that they have to deal with.
What is transhumanism?
Although it’s largely still a fringe belief, the internet has increased the dissemination of transhumanist thought. The World Transhumanist Association — now called Humanity+ — was established in 1998. Part of its stated mission is to enable humans to be “better than well”: that is, to be pinnacles of health.
Humans have strived to perfect ourselves for as long as we have existed. After Darwin introduced the theory of evolution, we began to imagine evolving beyond our current state. People adopt transhumanist beliefs for many different reasons; therefore, transhumanism is difficult to define because it often means something different for everyone.
Some people join the movement because they are sick and desperately want a cure. Some want to live forever. Others are frustrated by the limitations of the human body and want to use technology to ‘fix’ humanity so that we can exert more control over ourselves. For some people, called biohackers, experimenting on themselves and encouraging public participation in scientific exploration is fulfilling.
It’s not all fun though. Due to the cost of getting involved, most transhumanist practices are currently a largely individual pursuit, even though transhumanism was initially conceived as a way of uplifting the human species as a whole.
Science fiction or future science?
Transhumanism relies on the radical enhancement of human faculties, with the primary aim of extending human life.
In the cognitive domain, people’s expectations that cognitive enhancement drugs would work have exceeded the effects such drugs actually have. Moreover, there is little scientific evidence that smart drugs are effective or safe for long-term use by healthy people. An alternate approach, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), involves stimulating the brain by passing magnetic pulses through it. TMS is used as a treatment for depression and has been proven to have cognitive benefits, including improvements in working memory, motor tasks, and some linguistic tasks. However, its long-term effects on cognition are unknown, and side effects include a minimal risk of seizures.
Meanwhile, in 2015, Chinese scientist He Jiankui edited the genes of three babies using CRISPR to make them resistant to HIV. CRISPR is a gene editing tool that can alter human DNA with a relatively high level of precision. Evaluating whether Jiankui succeeded — and whether his actions could cause mutations that affect the babies’ biological functioning — will be challenging. The long-term effects of embryonic gene-editing in humans are unknown, and it could turn out to be highly beneficial or harmful.
Some proposed transhumanist innovations, however, seem to be clearly harmful. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned against the use of fecal transplants, which involve transferring fecal matter from the gut of a healthy person to that of an unhealthy person, to help replenish their gut bacteria after a recurrent infection. FDA guidelines state that individuals should consult a health professional before undergoing a fecal transplant.
The FDA has also condemned the idea of transfusing a young person’s plasma into an older person’s body to prevent aging. Although a rejuvenating effect was found when scientists stitched younger and older mice together so they shared the same circulatory system, there is no evidence that plasma transfusions are a legitimate anti-aging strategy for humans. Side effects of plasma transfusions include allergic reactions and circulatory overload.
Ethical consequences of transhumanism
There are plenty of ethical conundrums raised by transhumanism. Depending on the availability and cost of enhancement procedures across the world, a posthuman society could be even more unequal than our current one. Currently, many transhumanists are white men based in Western countries, and some of the procedures they undergo are prohibitively expensive. For instance, Silicon Valley millionaire Serge Faguet spent 250,000 USD on biohacking, including hearing implants he doesn’t need, frequent biomarker tests, oestrogen blockers to boost his testosterone, and frequent consultations with Ivy League health professionals. Although the community is large and varied, to some extent being able to pursue transhumanism — to move beyond mere survival to self-driven evolution — reflects a level of privilege many can only dream of.
Even if large-scale augmentation was widely available at a lower cost, there is no guarantee that most people would submit to transhumanist procedures. Some of the procedures are highly invasive, and there are well-documented security risks associated when medical data is collected by electronic devices like implants. Furthermore, in a world with rising distrust in science and governments, society could perhaps be stratified into humans and posthumans, with both sides adamant that they made the right decision. Many science fiction novels have explored the perils of similar scenarios.
A slippery slope toward eugenics
A variety of devices and therapies that make the world easier to navigate for people with disabilities already exist. Some are implanted in the body, like cochlear implants, which improve hearing for those who are hard of hearing or are deaf, and have several settings for different environments. Some, like exoskeletons, are wearable devices that assist in limb movement, either for physical rehabilitation or restoring mobility. French medical device company Wandercraft recently unveiled its latest Atalante exoskeleton, which allows people with paraplegia to walk with a “more natural gait.” The exoskeleton is self-balancing and remote-controlled, but due to safety regulations, it must be suspended from the ceiling during use.
It can be argued that transhumanism is simply arguing for a more extensive use of such assistive devices. However, the rhetoric of transhumanists is implicitly an ableist one. It assumes that people with disabilities are in need of ‘fixing,’ and that their lives would be improved by giving them the same abilities as abled people.
Take the example of Zoltan Istvan, the leader of the Transhumanist Party in the US, who caused an uproar in 2015 when he wrote an article that many considered horrifically ableist. In sum, he argued that the government does not need to spend money on making places more accessible; this money should instead go into scientific research to ‘enhance’ people with disabilities. Transhumanism also advocates for genetic or embryonic screening, so that parents can choose whether to have children with disabilities.
This view is informed by a reductive focus on competition between individuals — survival of the fittest — as the fundamental organizing principle of society. This focus, based on how some people interpreted ‘fitness,’ was the argument that was used to justify the emergence of eugenics in the nineteenth century. However, it has been argued that a crucial component of survival is social cooperation and support, which such rhetorics ignore.
Because transhumanism focuses on ‘correcting’ human flaws, the movement evokes comparisons to eugenics — the pseudoscientific and racist movement to ‘improve’ humans through selective breeding and other physical enhancements. Some transhumanists claim that everyone has a disability, because human beings are flawed and unsuited to our environment. Others claim that no one would ever rationally choose disability, since it hampers a person’s ability to live a good life.
This argument has been frequently disputed by disability activists: it is clearly possible to both have a disability and live a good life. Some people who have disabilities do experience a lower standard of living, but that is due to systemic inequities that reduce their access to things abled people take for granted. Instead of physical or mental conditions, it is societal attitudes and the resulting barriers that are disabling, because they make the world less accessible for people with certain characteristics.
The medicalization of disability turns a structural problem — the problem of an inaccessible society — into an individual one. Therefore, it is more prudent to remove barriers to accessibility than to try to eliminate disability itself. For instance, one of the guiding principles for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is “respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity.”
The ethical considerations of widespread human enhancement, particularly regarding disability and unequal access, are complex. For now, transhumanism is largely not viable. However, if the scientific evidence changes, we will need to have difficult conversations to move the philosophy beyond the realm of science fiction to something that will legitimately transform human existence for the better.