Karin Olsson:

This past year, Swedish news and public debate has been focused on the elderly population; one of the groups most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill if infected by the Corona virus. Discussions have been centred on how, and to what extent, we as a society should protect this large part of the population from getting ill. The general consensus has been that we should limit the spread of the virus to avoid too much pressure on the health care system, and to protect as many lives as possible. However, to what extent, and at what cost, has been debated. Some people have claimed that Sweden has failed its elderly population, that it is a scandal that so many people have died throughout the pandemic. It has been argued that we should have, and could have, gone further to prevent it through harsher restrictions. Other voices have criticised this, saying that it is unfair to limit everyone’s freedom when most deaths are among the very old, who would be vulnerable to die from a seasonal flue as well. It is natural for old people to die, this argument goes, be it from a virus or something else, and we cannot pause the whole society because of it.   

The discussions around Corona are of course complex and groups other than the elderly have suffered globally. However, the reason why I begin with these discussions is that they have not appeared in a vacuum. We live in a time in which we have more advanced technologies to slow down aging and postpone death from old age. These developments force us to rethink preconceived ideas of the progression of human life- how, and at what age, can we consider it natural to die?

Transhumanism and Människa+

In my master thesis I did research on a group that has a very clear stance on these issues and which has been at the forefront of promoting more radical technologies to prolong and enhance human life. I did fieldwork with transhumanists in Sweden and explored their views on the future possibilities for humanity. Transhumanism is built on the idea that technology should be used to better human physical and mental capacities. It sees technological enhancement as something inherently democratic, as it can “better” all different kinds of bodies and thus take away any biological weaknesses or disadvantages. The ideology is rooted in philosophy and concerns the way in which we conceptualise our future as humans, with regards to technology (Bostrom 2003).

I met most of my interlocutors through the transhumanist association Människa+[1]. It was created around 2010 as a Swedish branch of the international transhumanist organisation Humanity+ [2]. In the beginning it was a close-knit group with regular physical meetings, but with time is has become a more spread-out association that communicates mainly through their Facebook-page. The people I met from the group were almost exclusively men and many of them studied or worked in fields somewhat related to transhumanism (programming, software development, medical research etcetera). Their association attracted people of different ages, but most of the ones I interacted with were around 30 years old. Some had more personal interests in the movement (often sparked by science fiction literature) while others had more academic or career driven interests in technology and enhancement.

To cure aging

A cure for aging is one of the topics most frequently discussed by Människa+. At one event I attended they focused on this issue and argued that we should treat aging as a disease, and find cures for the ageing process in itself rather than focus on curing the diseases that come as a consequence of aging. “Cancer and many other diseases are often symptoms of aging, so why don’t we focus more on finding cures for aging in itself?” an interlocutor who gave a presentation in the event, asked. He worked as a medical scientist and his deep interest in science was also what drew him to transhumanist ideas. For him, transhumanism was not based on an idea about a meaningful life or ideology, but rather just an acceptance of science, or “the truth” as he expressed it. The idea that the human body could be seen as an entity with a soul, was something that he dismissed as an irrational belief of the past and not compatible with science. Instead, he compared the human body to a complex machine with a number of composite parts from organic to molecular level. He argued that through applying this scientific perspective of the body, one could also start to break down the idea of aging into a scientific problem. He was astonished that so few people were invested in this movement, despite so many dying each day from sicknesses directly related to their age. By treating aging itself as a sickness, scientists could soon find medical cures, he thought. If only they were given more funding. By curing old age, he meant medically intervening in the biological process of aging in order to radically slow it down, or even reverse it. Many transhumanists shared this confusion as to why people were against, or indifferent to, the idea of curing aging and radically extending a healthy life span. As another interlocutor put it: “People don’t want to die, but they also don’t actively want to live for longer. It’s perplexing. Maybe it is other people they want to see dead…”.

To never die

The ultimate goal for transhumanists is not merely to slow down the process of aging, but to actually live forever. This could be done through replacing our bodies with machines and become cyborgs. Through “mind uploading” we could merge our consciousness with computers or robotic bodies when our biological ones would stop functioning. Many of the members of Människa+ had already inserted a microchip into their bodies, one small symbolic step towards becoming a cyborg. As a fairly new technology that the society generally is not very invested in, the microchip cannot be used for that many things in practice. Yet, my interlocutors still had faith in its future possibilities and wanted to be on the forefront of experimenting with new kinds of enhancement techniques.

Transhumanists often refer to their bodies as “köttpåsar”, roughly translated as “bags of meat”. This illustrates an unsentimental relationship to their own physical bodies, viewing them as weak entities completely distinguished from mind and brain. Thus, merging the (weak) body with (strong) technology was an appealing idea to them. Further, I found that the longing for a more technologically driven future corresponded to my interlocutors’ rational way of conceptualising the world. Many of them seemed to prefer the predictability of machines, as opposed to the unpredictability of human beings.

However, since we don’t have the science or technology yet to live forever, many transhumanists put their faith into the idea of cryonics. In brief, cryonics is the deep freezing of the body at the time of death, with the hope of preserving it and enabling future resurrection at a time where more advanced technologies could cure whatever caused the death. The idea is to use dry ice to freeze down the body, replace the human blood with ethylene glycol (an anti-freeze) and preserve the body in liquid nitrogen. I learned at a cryonics event that researchers have managed to make the technique work on worms, but are still struggling with mammals (although they were apparently getting closer of making it work in mice). Many of the transhumanists I talked to put their faith in this and were ready to pay large sums of money to big cryonics companies in order to be frozen and shipped to cryonics centres in the USA at the time of their death. Some didn’t have the economical means yet to do it, but dreamed about being able to at some point. This resonated well with the general drive amongst transhumanists to always find solutions, even if they (as seen by people outside of the movement) seem quite far-fetched. One interlocutor described how transhumanism for him was a practical tool to come up with solutions to the issues in the world “To just state that there are problems, without contemplating on solutions, has never been my mindset”. In the case of the cryonics, the problem is that we will all die one day, and the solution is to freeze yourself until future science can wake you up again.

The un (natural) human being

The members of Människa+ talked about how the human race is “oppressed by biology”, and that we should use our rational brains to take control of our own evolution instead of just letting nature shape us. Transhumanists generally believe that we as humans have an ethical obligation to explore ways to enhance humanity, we should not simply trust that the natural process of evolution has created the optimal form of life for us. This message is very clear in the slogan of the Människa+ group: “Mänskligheten bär sitt öde i egna händer”, translated roughly as “Humanity is responsible for its own fate”. Constant change and the urge to progress is the only true human characteristic. My interlocutors talked about how this is something we have always done, and through it we have evolved over the years. This is why transhumanists are unconcerned about preserving “natural” human features. They do not believe that we ever stop being human, even if we radically enhance our bodies and minds. We as humans are not a finished project, and our humanness is not in any way bound to our biological and cognitive features as they happen to look now. Anything that could enhance our brain or prolong our existence is thus positive, regardless of how different our bodies and minds would end up looking. When asked about limits when it comes to enhancements, one interlocutor replied, “Every time you integrate something new into your body, you become a new person, with new limits”. For transhumanists, we humans are never a finished project. Donna Haraway (1985) paints a similar picture through her cyborg metaphor for the future human. Her posthuman account shows that a cyborg is never complete, it is constantly developing and is never fully human nor machine.

The ultra- enlightenment

Although posthumanism and transhumanism share common ground as they both imagine a humanity beyond what it is now, they also differ in their perspectives. While transhumanism focuses on contemporary and future technologies as a means of human transcendence, posthumanism examines a future in which humans and non-human entities coinhabit earth in a more equal manner. Further, transhumanism separates the brain and the body in a Cartesian manner, and follow a rational humanism defined by the enlightenment. Posthumanism instead breaks away from the philosophy of humanism, as it aims to de-centre the role and privileges of the human. Posthumanism could be seen as a form of counter-enlightenment, while transhumanism is more of an ultra-enlightenment as well as intensification of humanism (Bernstein 2019). Transhumanism believes in humanity, but the enhanced future version of it, rather than humanity as it looks now. From a traditional humanist perspective (which values human life as it looks now) the problem with transhumanist ideas always seems to come back to the fear that if we alter the human condition too much, we also risk making life less meaningful (Farman 2017).

To stay forever young

Some transhumanist thoughts and practices may seem extreme, but many of the ideas are widespread today. To treat old age as a medical problem to solve rather than as a natural progression of human life goes in line with the general obsession with youth and productivity in Western society. Things that used to be considered completely “natural” such as having a body which ages and becomes weaker with time, are increasingly medicalised today. Procedures which seek to delay or prevent the “natural” processes of aging, such as anti-aging techniques and bodily enhancements, have become normalised. This alters people’s experiences of their bodies and the expectations on what they should be able to perform (Hogle 2005). As an example of this, Kaufman et al. (2006) show how routine medical practices of life extensions in the U.S. are changing the societal views on aging and “natural” causes of death. More aggressive medical treatments for cardiac disease, that before would have been considered unnecessary and too risky for old people to engage with, are nowadays being more readily available and even pushed onto the elderly population. To prolong life as much as possible is the norm, to the point where it is nowadays almost unthinkable to not intervene in the aging process

A Cyborg future

Many people would probably agree that aging, and ultimately dying, has a function to play in human lives. The fact that we go through different stages in life that we all share, no matter who we are brings some kind of unity to humanity. Further, one could argue that the insight that we will not live forever, makes living more meaningful and exciting. Transhumanists, on the other hand, would argue that aging and death makes life meaningless as it hinders the continuity of human achievement (Bernstein 2019).

If we decide as a society to take greater measures to enhance our bodies so that we can live for longer and to a greater extent avoid death, we will also lose important features of human life as we know it. Transhumanists are not scared to change any of these natural markers of human life, but do we as a society have any articulated idea behind our drive to stay forever young? What happens when a core facet of humanity, the cycle of babies being born and old people dying, is altered for people to live for longer, or forever?

If transhumanism is just a more extreme expression of what is already evident in our society – a stark belief in medical and technological inventions as a way to enhance human life – we have to prepare ourselves for a future in which humanity looks radically different. In the end, transhumanists are right, the only way to really escape our vulnerability to age and death is to also escape our weak biology. We have to ask ourselves- how much would be left of humanity, if we would cast aside all our vulnerabilities? And what will happen with the people and other living beings who are left behind when we potentially enter this new “upgraded” era?


Karin Olsson has a master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Stockholm University. This text is based on some of the ideas that she explored in her master thesis, titled “The (Un)Natural Human Being- An anthropological exploration of how biohackers and transhumanists challenge the limits of being human”. Her research interests lie within the field of medical and cyborg anthropology, and in particular how medical and technological inventions changes societal views on physical and mental health.

Notes:

[1] See http://www.manniskaplus.nu/

[2] See https://humanityplus.org/about/

 References

Bernstein, Anya. 2019.  The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bostrom, Nick. 2003. “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective”. Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 493-506.  

Farman, Abou. 2017. “Transhumanism, Tragic Humanism, and the View from Nowhere”. Platypus: The CASTAC blog, http:// blog.castac .org/2017/07/transhumanism- nowhere/

Haraway, Donna. 1985. “Manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980s”. Socialist Review, Vol. 80, pp. 65–108.   

Hogle, Linda F. 2005. “Enhancement Technologies and the Body”, Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 34, pp. 695-716.

Kaufman, Sharon R., Janet K. Shim, & Ann J. Russ. 2004. “Revisiting the Biomedicalization of Aging: Clinical Trends and Ethical Challenges.” Gerontologist.  Vol. 44, No. 6, pp. 731– 38.