Humans are unusual among the animal kingdom. While a few rare species
use tools, none do with such regularity and proficiency as we do. Other species are
undoubtedly faster and stronger, yet we undeniably skyrocketed to the top of the
food chain. It didn’t take long before natural selection was only a factor outside our
species, not within it. We began evolving, in a sense, by altering our own
capabilities, rather than letting nature do it slowly over millions of years. Where a
stingray eventually evolved a dangerous barb to attack with over the course of
millennia, we simply tied a pointy rock to a stick and called it a day. And it worked!
It didn’t matter that a tiger was stronger and had sharp claws, we wanted to kill the
big hairy elephant. And unlike the tiger, we managed it. Humans were soft and
small with no claws or horns, yet we managed to improve ourselves.
Fast forward to the earliest recordings of civilization and we start to hit on
one of the biggest advancements to humanity: writing. This was like an external
hard drive for our brains, vastly multiplying the amount of knowledge we could
store. In a sense, it was the first mental augmentation for humanity; we improved
our memories beyond what could be previously imagined, even across generations.
And much like many advancements today, there were skeptics and worries about
this new technology. Today we have no writings directly from Socrates, only what
Plato wrote about him, and for good reason. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates
criticizes the concept of writing, arguing that nothing of value can be gained from it.
He said knowledge could only be gained through dialogue and banter. Worse yet,
with everyone writing everything, our natural memories will decay and people will
no longer be able to recite Homer’s plays. In a sense he was right: you’d be hard
pressed to find anyone today that can recite The Odyssey without a book in front of
them. However the need for it is gone. We improved ourselves beyond what was
previously imaginable, and the implications at the time were hard to fully
comprehend without being raised with it.
This cycle of advancement and skepticism has continued for all of human
history. A more recent example takes us to classic science fiction, Frankenstein.
This story capitalizes on very real fears at the time with medical experiments
involving electricity (although Shelley herself may have had other ideas, but that’s
better left for a literature class). Today defibrillators rarely bring to mind the
thought of Frankenstein’s monster. However our history is full of fear of the
unknown future our advancements bring. We worry we might lose out on
something that makes us human and instead become monsters. However to be
more than human is to be human. Our earliest ancestors were different from other
animals not because they were slightly less hairless, but because of their intelligence
and ability to move beyond their limitations. And as our limitations lessen, the
question of personhood evolves.
The next posts will more clearly define what transhumanism means today
and how it will look in the future, but for now I thought it would be wise to frame it
with some perspective on our past. To lighten the mood a bit, I thought I’d share a