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Transhumanism: eugenics for the digital age

Retracing the history of transhumanist thought, Oliver Dürr peels off the varnish off 'TESCREAL' to find the taint of eugenics.

Oliver Dürr is a theologian who explores the impact of technology on humanity and the contours of a hopeful vision for the future. He is an author, speaker, podcaster and features in several documentary films.

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Image: Joshua Coleman on Unsplash.

This article is the second of a series exploring and critically assessing a conglomerate of futurist ideas and technological visions united in the acronym TESCREAL - Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singularitarianism, Cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism and Longertmism. Read the first in the series: Challenging transhumanism’s quest to optimise our future.

Transhumanism is a movement dedicated to prolonging, improving, and enhancing life through science, medicine and technology. Its proponents want to free human beings from current limitations, upgrading our species, possibly even to enter a new phase of evolution. Sounds great – to many at least. The devil, however, is in the details: Who gets to decide on what’s favourable? How exactly are these goals achieved? Who will actually enjoy the upgraded version of life? And what happens to the rest?  

Such ideas – and the uneasiness they might cause those who think them through to the end – aren’t new. In fact, there is almost nothing new about transhumanism. As we will see upon closer inspection: Transhumanism is just eugenics in a new guise. This is a serious charge on people who clearly want to distance themselves from the horrors of the eugenic policies the Nazis so cruelly implemented in the 20th Century under the ideology of “racial hygiene”. To see why the charge still holds, we need a bit of historical background.  

A pedigree of improving the species 

In 1962, a group of scientists met in London to discuss the future impact of “biological research”, which, in their estimation, had the potential to enhance or destroy “every aspect of human life”. The meeting was unassumingly titled: “Man and His Future.” One of the key figures of the symposium was Julian Huxley – an evolutionary biologist, philosopher, and writer, who became an influential figure after being the first Director-General of UNESCO, a founding member of the “World Wildlife Fund” (WWF) as well as the first president of the “British Humanist Association”.  

That same Huxley was also an unwavering promoter of eugenics (still after World War II) and had even served as president of the “British Eugenics Society” from 1959-1962. Eugenics, in short, is the attempt to ‘improve’ the human species with an eye on the gene pool. Various means and strategies are supposed to ensure ‘favourable’ traits like ‘higher intelligence’, ‘better physical constitution’, ‘more sexual activity’, and ‘racial purity’ would prevail. (Note that all of these, except perhaps the last one, are still salient today).  

The general idea of improving humankind through selective breeding is old, but it gained traction after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species in 1859. Evolutionary theory provided a plausible mechanism for the evolution of life and quickly began to function like a worldview through which everything could be explained. This novel outlook suggested a continuous higher development of the human species if nature was left to its own devices. However, many also feared that these ‘natural’ mechanisms for improvement were stifled by human civilization. The consequence of which could be a “degeneration” of the human species. Against such “dysgenic” (that is, negatively affecting the gene pool) pressures, Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, devised methods and strategies for the active “cultivation” of the human species, to which he gave the name “eugenics” in 1883. This was a program, unabashedly intending to supplant “inefficient human stock” with “better strains”, which meant to “get rid” of “the undesirables” and to ensure the “desirables multiplied”. All for the grand purpose, to “further the ends of evolution more rapidly … than if events were left to their own course.” 

It’s obvious from reading Galton’s texts how the evolutionary bird’s eye view on the human species and its gene-pool conflicts with valuing the inalienable dignity, rights and freedoms of the individual person – eugenicists explicitly spoke against both Christian ethics and the Enlightenment “principle of equality”. Eugenics was based on the belief that everybody was not equal, and that for the good of humanity, we ought to do away with the “undesirables”. It is thus an important illustration of the ways in which science, values and politics intermingle. Darwin and Galton triggered an avalanche of what was now not only conceivable, but ‘scientifically’ backed up, and therefore also utterable in public. Soon these ideas would drive political agendas as well.  

It’s hard to underestimate the cultural influence, intellectual salience and political impact eugenics had globally. The movement’s motto: “eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution” has found its way into many policies and political programs around the world. It is important to note, that though eugenics and state power converged in the Third Reich in unprecedented ways, that convergence was not confined to it. After World War II eugenic policies were simply renamed and continued in many places. The United States is a sobering illustration of this: In fact, some American states, like Oregon, repealed their “sterilization laws” as late as 1983. California, which has repealed its law in 1979, had sterilized more than 20,000 people, deemed to be “feeble minded” – as has recently been discovered

The same Huxley was not only an ardent eugenicist, but he must also be regarded as the intellectual father of transhumanism 

The movement was still in full force when Julian Huxley presented his contribution at the 1962 symposium: “Our present civilization is becoming dysgenic”, he declared. “To reverse this grave trend, we must use our genetical knowledge to the full, and develop new techniques of human reproduction.”  

The same Huxley was not only an ardent eugenicist, but he must also be regarded as the intellectual father of transhumanism. First of all, he coined the term ‘transhumanism’ in 1951 (not 1957), which for him captured the “idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.” Huxley was convinced that humanity was to use all the scientific and technological means available to actively transcend the current species and achieve the next stage of evolution.  

In his contribution to the 1962 symposium, he excitedly described humanity as “spearhead”, “torch bearer” and “trustee” of what he understood to be “self-conscious evolution”.  It was in light of this vision, Huxley became convinced that there can be no real objections to a eugenic policy, “when the subject is looked at in the embracing perspective of evolution, instead of the limited perspective of population genetics or the short-term perspective of existing sociopolitical organization.” The task at hand was larger than any nation state, culture, or even religious sensibility. Humanity was to achieve the next step of evolution – obstructing this, Huxley was convinced, was outright “immoral”.  

More on more 

Though he is not credited by self-professed founder of the “philosophy of transhumanism” Max More (perhaps for strategic reasons) it is nevertheless fair to say, that Huxley pre-empted all the major concerns of the transhumanist movement today. More merely reiterates Huxley’s – and for that matter basic eugenic – ideas, when he writes that we are the “vanguard of evolution”, must now “consciously take charge of ourselves” to “accelerate our progress”, move “beyond mere humanism” to “focus on our evolutionary future” and that science and technology are the means to achieve this. What is different today is just the extended set of scientific and technological tools available. When transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom [who recently was at pains to clear his record of a racist email he wrote in the 1990s] writes about “dysgenic pressures” on humanity, he plainly reproduces eugenic arguments:

“Currently it seems that there is a negative correlation in some places between intellectual achievement and fertility. If such selection were to operate over a long period of time, we might evolve into a less brainy but more fertile species.”

Such a strain on human intelligence, for Bostrom, amounts to an “existential risk”, given the challenges humanity is facing today – not least: figuring out how to deal with an artificial superintelligence that might destroy humanity, no less.  

If transhumanists deal with their eugenic pedigree at all, this consists mainly in reassuring everybody that: transhumanism isn’t eugenics. In doing so, they prematurely identify eugenics with state-sponsored coercion, against which they promote a “liberal eugenics”. Bostrom writes:

“The last century’s government-sponsored coercive eugenics programs … have been thoroughly discredited. Because people are likely to differ profoundly in their attitudes toward human enhancement technologies, it is crucial that no one solution be imposed on everyone from above, but that individuals get to consult their own consciences as to what is right for themselves and their families.”  

At first glance, this looks fair enough. The problem, however, is that the ‘freedom’ in such matters is not a binary between either ‘state coercion’ or ‘individual choice’. Liberty is much more enmeshed with a cultural imagination, social expectations, and widely shared attitudes in a civil society – also educational, economic or even religious factors play a role here. Such soft factors can exert considerable pressure on individuals, even if they consider themselves to be, and legally may well be, ‘free’. There are good reasons to consider ‘liberal eugenics’ a self-defeating idea.

Contemporary transhumanism has not really reckoned with its history and thus, devotedly repeats both the ideas and mistakes of its eugenic antecedents. 

At the same time, we have seen above, that eugenics cannot so easily be written off, by identifying it with state coercion. Recounting the entwined history of eugenic and transhumanist ideas, historian Alison Bashford correctly observes that “Eugenics functioned as often through liberal governmentalities, as it did through authoritarian coercion, arguably more so, depending of course on national context.”  

Again, Julian Huxley is a good example: He would have emphatically agreed with the transhumanist critique of Nazi Germany, was an outspoken anti-racist. Being as he was ‘liberal’ in many regards – like, for that matter, many exponents of classical eugenics – he was opposed to any form of authoritarian, totalitarian or politically coercive measures, even in his wildest dreams about the evolutionary future. Rather, he believed that most people would find the working out of an “effective and acceptable eugenic policy” not only “urgent” but “an inspiring task.” Transhumanists like Max More and Nick Bostrom seem to prove his point. 

There simply is no clear distinction between transhumanism and eugenics. The reason for this being, that contemporary transhumanism has not really reckoned with its history and thus, devotedly repeats both the ideas and mistakes of its eugenic antecedents. The problem with any form of eugenics (liberal or other) is that it is profoundly incompatible with the basic tenet of a liberal democracy, namely, to accept, unconditionally, the dignity, autonomy and rights of each and every human being in it.  

Consider, as an alternative, a Christian perspective on the dignity of human beings. Christianity sees every individual, and precisely how it is now, as an image of God. Of course, Christians believe that one can live up to this or live in denial. In whatever patchy way we live out this endowment, we are, nevertheless, dignified as creatures in the image and likeness of God, of which we see the fullest picture in Jesus Christ, who is explicitly described in the New Testament as ‘the image of the invisible God’. From that point of view our current form, though finite and frail, is quite good enough. Technological innovations can be celebrated, but they do not have the burden of creating a 'dignified' life in the first place. 

In the strictly evolutionist framework of transhumanism, however, there is just no basis for such things. The unceasing drive to ‘improve’ the quality of life runs the risk of measuring (according to whose standards?) the ‘worth’ or ‘worthlessness’ of human lives in objectifiable terms. Despite any transhumanist protestation, the fact remains that their entire outlook is profoundly immoral, incapable of accepting our fundamental equality. It is prone to spawn injustice – as history has shown time and time again. For transhumanists, ultimately, humanity is just a meaningless by-product of greater evolutionary processes. As a consequence, we are merely the steppingstone for what is to come (or at least the smart ones amongst us are). Whenever scientific and technical innovation converge with an evolutionist outlook, political activism and, for good measure, a tad of entitlement, eugenic ideas emerge. Transhumanism is just another case in point. So, before you sign up to transhumanism, I suggest you read the fine print of the T&Cs. 

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