Transhumanism and Elitism
Sometimes transhumanism receives criticisms for being an elitist movement. These criticisms are usually tangled up with issues of sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, racism, and classism—among other human rights goals. Posthumanist philosophers criticize transhumanism as being the epitome of humanist elitist goals when it neglects the full scope of the cybernetic system of all terran creatures. I won’t address posthumanist concerns of elitism in this post, but I will refer you to this post. Here, I address elitism among humans, and by extension transhumanists.
One need not look far to see articles posted about how the rich are going to leave us behind, or scientists flirting with eugenics through unethical practices. Elitism is an idea which continues to peak its ugly head into transhumanism. While many transhumanist criticisms that come from outside the movement are often misinformed, is there something transhumanists can learn from these criticisms of elitism? I think there is.
For example, Jeffrey Epstein was a wealthy financier accused of sex trafficking young girls to impregnate them with his “superior” DNA. He also had interests and connections to transhumanism. A connection was highlighted in a piece written by the New York Times. “In 2011, a charity established by Mr. Epstein gave $20,000 to the World Transhumant Association, which now operates under the name Humanity Plus. [. . .] Mr. Epstein’s foundation, which is now defunct, also gave $100,000 to pay the salary of Ben Goertzel, vice chairman of Humanity Plus, according to Mr. Goertzel’s resume.”
Before we go any further, let’s be clear, this is not the first time a man has attempted to populate the earth under the delusion he had superior DNA. This elitist mentality existed before the transhumanist movement. Genghis Khan raped women to populate the earth with his “super sperm” long before the word “transhumanism” existed. Suffice it to say, a man thinking he has superior DNA is not a new idea nor a product of transhumanism. However, transhumanist technologies have the potential to enable these harmful desires in unprecedented ways, and that should be a serious transhumanist concern.
However, what is it about transhumanism that attracts elitist criticisms? Is transhumanism an inherently elitist movement? Is there anything transhumanists could be doing to mitigate for the risks of various forms of elitism? Again, I think there is.
I write this as a religious transhumanist who serves on the board of two transhumanist organizations, and a defender of transhumanism at large. I think transhumanism is a good idea, but we have a lot of work to do which extends beyond nanotechnology, the singularity, AI, or mind uploading. Transhumanism is bigger than experimental technologies. My interrogation of transhumanism’s relationship with elitism is made to make the movement stronger, not weaker. Transhumanism doesn’t need to be torn down. It needs to be improved. Right now, transhumanism has a weak spot that needs to be confronted: elitism.
The transhumanist movement is generally led by wealthy, straight, white, male atheists. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a wealthy, straight, white, male atheist. To criticize someone based upon their identity is a weak way to attack an argument. If a person’s argument is bad, attack it, not the identity of the person giving it.
However, we also can’t deny that a person’s demographic will greatly influence their perceptions of the “human condition.” If transhumanists are interested in “enhancing the human condition” we need to take a broad look of what it means to be human. For a queer person, you cannot separate their “queer experience” from their “human experience.” They are entangled with one another in ways which are impossible to separate. Furthermore, you cannot separate social systems such as race, gender, class, or queerness from the “human experience” and by extension transhumanism. Yet, in transhumanism, it’s almost as if any human condition which deviates from being a wealthy, straight, white male is considered a “specialized concern” which doesn’t require direct transhumanist attention or action. This makes things like poverty, sexism, racism, cissexism and heterosexism “specialties” that aren’t “real” transhumanist concerns—even though those issues are directly killing people. However, I argue that if transhumanism is concerned with enhancing the human condition with technology, the human condition cannot be understood without addressing concerns of intersectionality.
Intersectionality is needed in the transhumanist movement. The “human condition” is far more complex and diverse than what we are accounting for. On top of that, if the goal is to “improve” or “enhance” the human condition, that is going to mean something different from one person to the next. Furthermore, when a transhumanist in a position of leadership talks about “mitigating for risks,” what “risks” are being referred to? Generally, this is meant to be risks which affect the entire human race, such as hunger, disease, or death. We are all susceptible to these plagues. However, these plagues affect us differently, often according to our socio-political status. For example, despite our advanced technologies, black women have higher maternal mortality rates than white women. If technology is supposed to prolong life, why are black women lagging behind? Could it have anything to do with the intersections of sexism and racism? Inaccessibility to technology that is saving white women, but not saving black women is a form of elitism. Even so, the problem isn’t the technology. The problem is we are still operating and developing technologies under elitist values.
It is rare for a high-profile transhumanist to address extinction risks of marginalized populations which often makes the transhumanist movement unappealing or inaccessible for said populations. For example, a privileged population such as white colonizers didn’t really care much about addressing the extinction risks of indigenous people. In fact, white colonizers advocated for indigenous extinction. Those with the more powerful technology, more lethal weapons, won. The white technology didn’t enhance the human condition for indigenous people. It killed them. Even enlightened white male philosophers like Hegel, a great intellectual of the time, advocated for indigenous genocide and other forms of racism. So if I’m talking to an indigenous person about transhumanists (led by intellectually elite males) using technology to improve humanity, she is likely going to have a much different perspective of what that means. From her perspective, when white men came with their technology to “improve the human condition” for themselves they invaded her home, raped her, and killed her family. It doesn’t take a philosophy degree to see why she might be skeptical about white technologists improving the “human condition” with their technology, especially when a guy with transhumanist connections just got accused of sex trafficking girls to impregnate them with his “superior” DNA. Perceptions matter and from her angle we sound, or are, elitist. That’s what we need to change.
Even our language is negligent of what the “human condition” means for people of color. Transhumanists ignorantly and regularly talk about “colonizing” Mars or other planets with their wealth and technology. Again, it isn’t hard to see why a person of color would reject anything to do with “colonizing” when colonization for black folks meant slavery, non-consensual medical experiments, rape, or genealogical theft. If we are improving the human condition through “colonization,” we sound elitist.
Moving forward, if transhumanist advocates cannot account for the way technologies have been used to oppress various groups of the “human condition,” the words “extinction risk” will sound silly and maybe even threatening. Extinction risk for whom? It certainly wasn’t indigenous peoples. It doesn’t take nanotechnology to understand why an indigenous person might be apprehensive to the idea of joining a transhumanist movement mostly led by men who resemble and sound like white colonizers. Of course, not all indigenous people or people of color will feel this way, but there is something to be said about a long history of white people using technology to harm, exploit, and kill people of color, women, the poor, and queer folks. Of course, oppression isn’t strictly a transhumanist issue, but our technologies have the potential to create far more harmful systems of oppression than ever before. The stakes are high.
This isn’t a past issue either. This isn’t just a demonstration of how technology has harmed marginalized populations in the past. This is still happening. Right now. Everyday we collectively are choosing who lives and who dies—who crosses boarders, who gets health care, who has access to live-saving technology, and who doesn’t. If this isn’t a transhumanist issue, I don’t know what is. We literally have the technology to save people’s lives, yet our elitist attitudes impinge on a more equitable distribution of said technology.
It would be easy to think that I’m suggesting the transhumanist movement should be led exclusively by marginalized populations with the primary goal of dismantling oppression and we should stop all efforts toward technological advancements until elitism has been completely eradicated. However, this is not what I am suggesting. I’m suggesting that dismantling various forms of elitism must not be treated as a “specialized” concern for transhumanists. If transhumanism is aimed at “improving the human condition,” we need to understand the “human condition” cannot be divorced from powerful social systems which are intimately bound to the human experience. All transhumanists should be, at the very least, vocal about condemning elitist behavior such as Epstein’s. At most, we should be thought leaders in how to radically improve the human condition with technology for the poor and marginalized—not just through a trickle down effect, but through active engagement.
I am suggesting that transhumanists, even our most visible leaders, should be actively condemning elitism within the movement. The transhumanist movement must be actively engaging in dismantling elitism while also creating better technologies if the movement is going to stop being perceived as a group of elitists. If we, as transhumanists, don’t stand against various forms of elitism, we are the elitists they think we are. We won’t just be perceived as elitist. We will be elitists unless we face the uncomfortable past and present of elitism within transhumanism.