Transhumanism: More Nightmare Than Dream?

On the eve of the 20th century, an obscure Russian man who had refused to publish any of his works began to finalize his ideas about resurrecting the dead and living forever. A friend of Leo Tolstoy’s, this enigmatic Russian, whose name was Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, had grand ideas about not only how to reanimate the dead but about the ethics of doing so, as well as about the moral and religious consequences of living outside of Death’s shadow. He was animated by a utopian desire: to unite all of humanity and to create a biblical paradise on Earth, where we would live on, spurred on by love. He was an immortalist: one who desired to conquer death through scientific means.

Despite the religious zeal of his notions—which a number of later Christian philosophers unsurprisingly deemed blasphemy—Fyodorov’s ideas were underpinned by a faith in something material: the ability of humans to redevelop and redefine themselves through science, eventually becoming so powerfully modified that they would defeat death itself. Unfortunately for him, Fyodorov—who had worked as a librarian, then later in the archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs—did not live to see his project enacted, as he died in 1903.

Fyodorov may be classified as an early transhumanist. Transhumanism is, broadly, a set of ideas about how to technologically refine and redesign humans, such that we will eventually be able to escape death itself. This desire to live forever is strongly tied to human history and art; indeed, what may be the earliest of all epics, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, portrays a character who seeks a sacred plant in the black depths of the sea that will grant him immortality. Today, however, immortality is the stuff of religions and transhumanism, and how these two are different is not always clear to outsiders. (…)

Yet transhumanism is increasingly influential in the world we live in. Modern medicine, after all, is concerned with prolonging and improving human life, and even mundane technologies, like cell phones, can grant us radical extensions of our natural abilities; like gods of old, we can communicate across continents in a blink, can navigate cities we’ve never been to with instantly conjured-up maps. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud defined the human as “a kind of prosthetic god”; for Emerson, “a man is a god in ruins.” Transhumanists surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, frequent Silicon Valley—and a fascinating new book by Mark O’Connell, To Be a Machine, attempts to examine, define, and perhaps redefine transhumanism for the masses. O’Connell’s book is by turns intriguing and unsettling, insightful and comedic, populated by transhumanists—both famous and working in the shadows—who are often as outsize as their ideas.

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By Gabrielle Bellot

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