The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future

Edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More

Wiley-Blackwell | 2013 | 480 pages

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

The general misunderstanding of evolution has truly been monumental.

There are those, of course, who don’t believe that the natural process of evolution through natural selection exists at all, preferring to believe that some supernatural entity willed all manifestations of life into being in one go, fully formed, complete, and ready for extinction.

No monkey uncles for them, they contend, in fact insisting that the continuing existence of monkeys is the proof against evolution, for if we evolved from monkeys why are they still around?

The flaw in their thinking, outside of the fact that we did not evolve from monkeys, but rather share a common primate ancestor with them, is assuming that evolution is a smooth process of one species not so much evolving as morphing into another species, like the misleading animations of the evolution of particular species (especially us) we have seen in science documentaries for years.

Even people who accept the evolution of life through natural selection seem to have this image of it in their head. And the mistake many of them make, displaying the universal solipsism we seem to have evolved into, is thinking that we today, Homo sapiens in the Twenty-first Century, are not only the end goal of all our past evolution, but of all of life’s past evolution.

The evolutionary buck, it is felt by these people, stops here.

This is simply not true.  The blind forces of evolution have not stopped for any of the species on this planet, including Homo sapiens. The difference, though, between us and all other species—solipsism possibly justified here—is that where they are still at the mercy of the blind forces of evolution; we, because we have evolved to have tool making capabilities, intelligence, and ambition, can wrestle some of those blind forces of evolution and—it is seeming more and more likely —come out on top.

In other words, we can take control of our own evolution and guide us, if we so choose and we most likely will, from what we are today—human—to what we could evolve into in the future—post-human.

The philosophy giving consideration to the science, mechanics, and ethics of how we cross the bridge from the one to the other is called Transhumanism.

The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More would be a good place to begin for anyone uninformed but interested in the philosophy. It’s a necessary book for anyone ill-informed about the philosophy, assuming they would be willing to learn. And it’s a handy, indeed, essential, compilation of the history, ideas, mind-blowing concepts, scary aspects, ethical considerations, existential realities, and controversies of the philosophy.

In the past Transhumanism was more often found in the pages of science fiction, and there are some contributors here known for their science fiction, such as David Brin, Vernor Vinge, and Russell Blackford. But these gentlemen are PhDs and workers in the groves of academia, so the turns of their minds they reveal here are not just fanciful musings on wild concepts, but thoughtful considerations of concepts wild to some, obvious to others.

Also, possibly because they have spent time writing for readers looking for both intellectual stimulation and/or pleasure (not that they are mutually exclusive), their writings in The Transhumanist Reader are among the more readable offerings, other essays rustling with that dry academic language that the non-academic can find sleep-inducing.

But then, this book is intended mainly for an academic audience. Nonetheless, the potential closeness of Transhumanist imaginings becoming reality (decades not centuries) makes this a book I would recommend to any general reader with an interest in the human future. There are concepts and considerations here that should be attended to. We wouldn’t suddenly want to find ourselves evolved into post-humanity without any warning, would we?

Transhumanism is the philosophy of human enhancement through science and technology. It sees that enhancement as focusing on extending our lifespans, possibly to a state of immortality, with the complimentary conquering of illness and aging; and expanding our cognitive abilities with, it is hoped, attendant deeper wisdom and a more refined emotional capacity for joy, sensual pleasures, fun, empathy, and excitement.   Transhumanism sees as inevitable that we will end our confinement to planet Earth, and the enhancements it promotes are possibly necessary in order to end that confinement in a big way.

It is assumed by Transhumanists that we have not yet reached our human potential in this universe, and the question of how we will do that is the concern of Transhumanism.

And yet -- there is the concept of post-humanity. Is post-humanity no humanity at all? As we move through a transhuman phase that may see us melding with machines, either physically for stronger corporeal skills and far longer, and consistently healthy lives, or mentally for exponentially enhanced intelligence; may find us uploading our minds to substrate-independent minds within computers; or existing in a cyberspace that may be larger than the known universe, what becomes of who we were?

Are we, by doing so, gleefully causing the extinction of Homo sapiens? And, if so, is that necessarily a tragedy? Or is it just a transition? A non-spiritual transcendence?

And what about the Singularity? That point when, possibly through the creation of true Artificial Intelligence we create machines that take over the creation of even greater intelligence (disinviting us from the party) creating a world that we, literally, cannot fathom as we cannot fathom the physical laws (if there are any) inside a black hole?

Transhumanism is not simple (and certainly not simple-minded). Human enhancement for a longer, livelier life extending out into the universe sounds fine; a dream come true, in fact, even if we evolve into another Homo species. But signing our own execution order and giving “birth” to non-biological mental entities who may find it embarrassing to think of whence they came, if they think of us at all...?  

All of this is covered in The Transhumanist Reader, and needs to be. For the technology to allow any of these scenarios to happen is coming, cannot be stopped, and so must be given intelligent consideration. Not just by the writers of the essays here, such leaders in the field as Max More, Marvin Minsky, and Ray Kurzweil among others, but by those now studying in major universities around the world who will be there in the future, and by interested members of the public, those in positions of power and those who just vote, who might be called upon to comment, decide, and prepare for whatever lies across the Transhumanist bridge.

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