[ExI] Ken MacLeod on Transhumanism

James Clement clementlawyer at gmail.com
Sun Nov 18 23:39:21 UTC 2012

Thought this might interest everyone. I don't endorse his opinions, I'm
just passing this on.

The ends of humanity

Socialism is dead, and the transhuman future looms. Is there any way to
recover a sense of global purpose?


Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a friend
forwarded me a post from an obscure email list. The writer had calculated
that the continued existence of Afghanistan would delay the Rapture by six
months. Millions around the world who would have had a chance of eternal
bliss would be irretrievably lost to natural deaths in the interim.
According to strict utilitarian reckoning, exterminating the Afghans via a
nuclear carpet-bombing campaign would be the kinder course.

This heinous calculus didn’t come from the email list of some apocalyptic
cult but from the ‘extropians’, advocates of a massive technological
upgrade in the human condition. The event in question wasn’t in fact the
Rapture but the Singularity: a predicted moment when the speed of
technological advance would go off the scale and, in passing, let us
abolish ageing, disease, poverty, and death. For extropians and other
adherents to the doctrines of transhumanism, the human condition has been,
in principle, a solved problem since 1953, when Watson and Crick published
the structure of DNA. The rest is engineering.

For science fiction writers, of course, this is catnip. I first encountered
transhumanism through the extropians, and exploited their ideas so
enthusiastically that I’ve been counted among them myself. It was an
extropian who first sarcastically defined the Singularity as ‘the Rapture
of the nerds’, and I had a character use a variant of the phrase in my book
*The Cassini Division* (1999). If you ask the internet, you’ll find the
original endlessly attributed to me — which tells us something, but I’m not
sure what.

In his book *Humanity 2.0 *(2011), Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at
the University of Warwick, uses transhumanist themes to make a challenging
point about humanism. He argues that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim
theology, along with most Western philosophy, held that there was a human
essence. Indeed, all species were defined by their essences, an idea that
goes back to Aristotle. The idea that species might change was (almost
literally) unthinkable: essences were thought to be as abstract and eternal
as numbers. Darwin dissolved all such essences into populations, each of
which had no intrinsic limit to variation. Philosophers of biology have
long recognised that the shift from essentialist thinking to ‘population
thinking’ was crucial to the modern understanding of evolution a point
first fully articulatued by Ernst Mayr.

But once ‘humanity’ becomes a variant set of populations rather than an
invariant essence, it loses its obviousness as a standard of value. The
category becomes fuzzy at the edges: some parts of the population can be
written out of humanity altogether; some superhuman (but still natural)
entity, such as Nietzsche’s *Übermensch* or the extropians’ imagined
transcendent future selves, might be seen as worth sacrificing present
humans for. Alternatively nonhuman beings could come to seem as morally
significant as humans, as is argued by animal rights advocates.

If you throw in the possibility of human enhancement — increased
intelligence and longer healthy life spans ­— it can only exacerbate the
situation. Fuller argues that many people are already moving beyond the
'human baseline', through online life and smart drugs. New and foreseeable
technological and cultural developments make the boundaries of human and
non-human even fuzzier, and possible distinctions (in intelligence, life
span, health, abilities) within the human population even sharper. The
principles of the welfare state, Fuller suggests, might be widely enough
accepted to give us a basis for moral and political discussion, action, and
eventual agreement on these questions. He argues that we should embrace the
prospect of becoming Humanity 2.0, and bring it within democratic politics.
The problem, as Fuller well recognises, is constituting a ‘we’ who can do

And so it becomes harder to imagine humanity as a unified body, able to
shape a shared project around a common interest. Perhaps the time for such
visions is already over. Since monotheism's hold on grand theories declined
in the 'West' the most ambitious, secular political movement to attempt to
frame one was socialism, particularly in its Marxist form. It did this in
two ways: theoretical and practical.

Theoretically, Marxism came up with a secular, materialist account of what
made humanity distinctive: a complex, evolving, and indefinitely extendable
interaction of labour, consciousness, and social relations, all rooted in
the mutually reinforcing co-development of hand, brain, and tongue. This
account did not depend on philosophical notions of human essence, so it was
able to withstand Darwinian dissolution. From its speculative beginnings in
the 1840s, Marxist theory had incorporated (necessarily hazy) evolutionary
assumptions and of course was an historicist account of the human
condition. It went on to welcome and include Darwin’s work: see, for
example, Friedrich Engels’s influential fragment ‘The Part Played by Labour
in the Transition from Ape to Man’ (1876), in which the philosophical
anthropology of Engels’s youth is recast as a Darwinian story of human
origins — one that palaeontology was later to confirm.

A less happy consequence of the end of socialism as a mass ideology is the
end of humanity as an imagined community

Practically, socialism (in both its communist and social democratic forms)
set out to construct a common political project for the claimed ultimate
benefit of all humanity. Particularly in its communist variant, this
project sought to include not only the working class of the West but also
hundreds of millions in the then-colonial world as part of a collective
political subject (what the left-wing anthem celebrates as ‘the
Internationale’). Marxist socialism acted in the name of a future in which,
as the anthem has it, ‘the Internationale will be the human race’. What
they did includes much that makes a mockery of all that. But for all that,
they didn’t stop claiming it.

At their peak, various forms of socialism counted their proponents – and
their subjects – in the hundreds of millions. Outside communist states,
democratic socialists founded their utopian-seeming hopes in the mundane
politics of elections, campaigns, and wage claims. They argued that it was
in the self-interest of organised labour to defend democratic rights,
oppose racial and sectarian division, uphold peace, and so on. As
sociological analysis, a sentiment such as ‘Racism is a tool of the bosses
to divide us!’ might not be terribly sophisticated, or even true. But, as
politics, it works. Karl Marx laid down the law in *Das Kapital*, Vol 1
(1867): ‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the
black it is branded.’ The same logic applied to other forms of oppression.
When socialists reneged on these commitments, as they all too often did,
their own fundamental principles (and principled fundamentalists) could be
called on to bring them to account.

This is so astonishing that it’s easily overlooked. In terms of appealing
to the common interests of humanity ­­— even if purely as a cover for
smaller or more sordid interests — only the great religions have attempted
anything like it. No other secular ideology has tried to be a totalising
force in the same way. Partly in reaction to, and partly in competition
with, the communist challenge, a common sense of universalism and common
humanity did become institutionalised after the Second World War in the UN,
in a system of human rights and the development of other instruments of
international law. Inspiring as this liberal, global humanism was, and real
as its achievements have been, it has lacked socialism’s firm footing in
the material self-interests of individuals.

Now, with the death of communism and social democracy's struggle to sustain
its postwar gains, the idea of the whole of humanity as a potential
political subject barely exists. Socialism is dead, and its death — as
Nietzsche observed of God’s — has had unexpected effects. One of the less
happy consequences of the end of socialism as a mass ideology is the end of
humanity as an imagined community. This has consequences in our real
communities; the rise of far-right parties across Europe is one of them.

The aims of those who held the reins of power in communist states may have
been little more than to keep hold of them by any means possible. But the
aims of most of the millions of ordinary people who believed in socialism
were modest: full employment, social security, free education, and
healthcare. For almost a lifetime after the Second World War, it seemed as
if these were obtainable within social democratic capitalism. But they
seemed, paradoxically, to depend for their credibility on the far-off but,
to some, alluring prospect of abolishing capitalism altogether. I well
remember Britain’s late-1970s Labour prime minister, James Callaghan,
declare that we would eventually establish in Britain a society based on
the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to
his needs’. Strangely, he was not denounced as a communist; it was
understood that such grand aims were right for sentimental songs and May
Day speeches. But as soon as the grand aims were abandoned, the modest
gains were snatched away. Now we are told from every respectable outlet
that the gains were unaffordable and the aims were deluded all along.

The challenge for humanists and liberals in the face of a transhuman future
is daunting: to replace the socialist project — or to revive it. Without
something like it to underpin a sense of common human identity and common
human interest, people will divide on the basis of other identities. Many
on the left, of course, have found in identity politics a replacement for
the universalism of their past. But identity can also be seized on by the
far right. It can feed a resentful indifference to the plight of others
that comes from having one’s own plight disregarded.

All right. So the aim of a peaceful, global community of equality,
reasonable security, and material abundance was a fantasy. Make us drink
that cup to the dregs, but don’t expect us to be humanists after we’ve
wiped our lips. If labour in the white skin can never emancipate itself,
why should it care if in the black it is branded?

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