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.