A History of Transhumanist Thought

Nick Bostrom

Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University Journal of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 14 - April 2005 


This paper traces the cultural and philosophical roots of transhumanist thought and describes some of the influences and contributions that led to the development of contemporary transhumanism.

1. Cultural and philosophical antecedents

The human desire to acquire new capacities is as ancient as our species itself. We have always sought to expand the boundaries of our existence, be it socially, geographically, or mentally. There is a tendency in at least some individuals always to search for a way around every obstacle and limitation to human life and happiness.

Ceremonial burial and preserved fragments of religious writings show that prehistoric man and woman were deeply disturbed by the death of loved ones. Although the belief in an afterlife was common, this did not preclude efforts to extend the present life. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (approx. 1700 B.C.), a king sets out on a quest for immortality. Gilgamesh learns that there exists a natural means – an herb that grows at the bottom of the sea.1 He successfully retrieves the plant, but a snake steals it from him before he can eat it. In later times, explorers sought the Fountain of Youth, alchemists labored to concoct the Elixir of Life, and various schools of esoteric Taoism in China strove for physical immortality by way of control over or harmony with the forces of nature. The boundary between mythos and science, between magic and technology, was blurry, and almost all conceivable means to the preservation of life were attempted by somebody or other. Yet while explorers made many interesting discoveries and alchemists invented some useful things, such as new dyes and improvements in metallurgy, the goal of life-extension proved elusive.

The quest to transcend our natural confines, however, has long been viewed with ambivalence. On the one hand there is fascination. On the other there is the concept of hubris: that some ambitions are off-limits and will backfire if pursued. The ancient Greeks exhibited this ambivalence in their mythology. Prometheus stole the fire from Zeus and gave it to the humans, thereby permanently improving the human condition. Yet for this act he was severely punished by Zeus. In the myth of Daedalus, the gods are repeatedly challenged, quite successfully, by the clever engineer and artist who uses non-magical means to extend human capabilities. In the end, however, disaster ensues when his son Icarus ignores paternal warnings and flies too close to the sun, causing the wax in his wings to melt.

Medieval Christianity had similarly conflicted views about the pursuits of the alchemists, who tried to transmute substances, create homunculi in test tubes, and invent a panacea. Some scholastics, following the anti-experimentalist teachings of Aquinas, believed that alchemy was an ungodly activity. There were allegations that it involved the invocation of daemonic powers. But other theologians, such as Albertus Magnus, defended the practice.2

The otherworldliness and stale scholastic philosophy that dominated Europe during the Middle Ages gave way to a renewed intellectual vigor in the Renaissance. The human being and the natural world again became legitimate objects of study. Renaissance humanism encouraged people to rely on their own observations and their own judgment rather than to defer in every matter to religious authorities. Renaissance humanism also created the ideal of the well-rounded person, one who is highly developed scientifically, morally, culturally, and spiritually. A landmark of the period is Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), which proclaims that man does not have a readymade form and is responsible for shaping himself:

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.3

The Age of Enlightenment is often said to have started with the publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, “the new tool” (1620), which proposes a scientific methodology based on empirical investigation rather than a priori reasoning.4 Bacon advocated the project of “effecting all things possible,” by which he meant using science to achieve mastery over nature in order to improve the living condition of human beings. The heritage from the Renaissance combines with the influence of Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, the Marquis de Condorcet, and others to form the basis for rational humanism, which emphasizes empirical science and critical reason – rather than revelation and religious authority – as ways of learning about the natural world and our place within it, and of providing a grounding for morality. Transhumanism has roots in rational humanism.

2 See e.g. (Newman 2004).
3 (Pico della Mirandola 1956). 4 (Bacon 1620).

In the 18th and 19th centuries we begin to see glimpses of the idea that even humans themselves can be developed through the appliance of science. Condorcet speculated about extending human life span through medical science:

Would it be absurd now to suppose that the improvement of the human race should be regarded as capable of unlimited progress? That a time will come when death would result only from extraordinary accidents or the more and more gradual wearing out of vitality, and that, finally, the duration of the average interval between birth and wearing out has itself no specific limit whatsoever? No doubt man will not become immortal, but cannot the span constantly increase between the moment he begins to live and the time when naturally, without illness or accident, he finds life a burden?5

Benjamin Franklin

I wish it were possible... to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.6

After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), it became increasingly plausible to view the current version of humanity not as the endpoint of evolution but rather as a possibly quite early phase.7 The rise of scientific physicalism might also have contributed to the foundations of the idea that technology could be used to improve the human organism. For example, a simple kind of materialist view was boldly proposed in 1750 by the French physician and materialist philosopher, Julien Offray de La Mettrie in L’Homme Machine, where he argued that “man is but an animal, or a collection of springs which wind each other up.”8 If human beings are constituted by matter that obeys the same laws of physics that operate outside us, then it should in principle be possible to learn to manipulate human nature in the same way that we manipulate external objects.

It has been said that the Enlightenment expired as the victim of its own excesses. It gave way to Romanticism, and to latter day reactions against the rule of instrumental reason and the attempt to rationally control nature, such as can be found in some postmodernist writings, the New Age movement, deep environmentalism, and in some parts of the anti-globalization movement. However, the Enlightenment’s legacy, including a belief in the power of human rationality and science, is still an important shaper of modern culture. In his famous 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment?”, Kant summed it up as follows:

5 (Condorcet 1979).
6 (Franklin et al. 1956), pp. 27-29. 7 (Darwin 2003).
8 (La Mettrie 1996).

Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence! 9

It might be thought that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would have been a major inspiration for transhumanism. Nietzsche is famous for his doctrine of der Übermensch (“the overman”):

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? 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?10

What Nietzsche had in mind, however, was not technological transformation but rather a kind of soaring personal growth and cultural refinement in exceptional individuals (who he thought would have to overcome the life-sapping “slave-morality” of Christianity). Despite some surface-level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism – with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings) – probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche’s contemporary J.S. Mill, the English liberal thinker and utilitarian.

2. Speculation, science fiction, and twentieth century totalitarianism

In 1923, the noted British biochemist J. B. S. Haldane published the essay Daedalus: Science and the Future, in which he argued that great benefits would come from controlling our own genetics and from science in general. He projected a future society that would be richer, have abundant clean energy, where genetics would be employed to make people taller, healthier, and smarter, and where the use of ectogenesis (gestating fetuses in artificial wombs) would be commonplace. He also commented on what has in more recent years become known as the “yuck factor”:

The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.11

Haldane’s essay became a bestseller and set off a chain reaction of future-oriented discussions, including The World, the Flesh and the Devil, by J. D. Bernal (1929)12, which speculated about space colonization and bionic implants as well as mental improvements through advanced social science and psychology; the works of Olaf Stapledon, a philosopher and science fiction author; and the essay “Icarus: the Future of

9 (Kant 1986).
10 (Nietzsche 1908). 11 (Haldane 1924). 12 (Bernal 1969).

4 Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(1) April 2005

Science” (1924) by Bertrand Russell.13 Russell took a more pessimistic view, arguing that without more kindliness in the world, technological power would mainly serve to increase men’s ability to inflict harm on one another. Science fiction authors such as H. G. Wells and Stapledon got many people thinking about the future evolution of the human race.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, has had an enduring impact on debates about human technological transformation14 matched by few other works of fiction (a possible exception would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 181815). Huxley describes a dystopia where psychological conditioning, promiscuous sexuality, biotechnology, and the opiate drug “soma” are used to keep the population placid and contented in a static, totally conformist caste society that is governed by ten world controllers. Children are manufactured in fertility clinics and artificially gestated. The lower castes are chemically stunted or deprived of oxygen during their maturation process to limit their physical and intellectual development. From birth, members of every caste are indoctrinated during their sleep, by recorded voices repeating the slogans of the official “Fordist” religion, and are conditioned to believe that their own caste is the best one to belong to. The society depicted in Brave New World is often compared and contrasted with that of another influential 20th century dystopia, George Orwell’s 1984.16 1984 features a more overt form of oppression, including ubiquitous surveillance by “Big Brother” and brutal police coercion. Huxley’s world controllers, by contrast, rely on more “humane means”, including bio-engineered predestination, soma, and psychological conditioning to prevent people from wanting to think for themselves. Herd-mentality and promiscuity are promoted, while high art, individuality, knowledge of history, and romantic love are discouraged. It should be noted that in neither 1984 nor Brave New World has technology been used to increase human capacities. Rather, society is set up to repress the full development of humanity. Both dystopias curtail scientific and technological exploration for fear of upsetting the social equilibrium. Nevertheless, Brave New World in particular has become an emblem of the dehumanizing potential of the use of technology to promote social conformism and shallow contentment. 

Cont. reading...