|Image: Wikimedia / Patche99z (CC)
Today is “Darwin Day” — the anniversary of the great naturalist Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809 — which is as good a time as any to reflect on the complicated ways in which Darwinian thinking influences the transhumanists. This is discussed at several points in Eclipse of Man, the new book by our Futurisms colleague Charles Rubin, which you should go out and buy today.
Professor Rubin lays out some of the ways, both obvious and subtle, that the Darwinian idea of evolution via competition was picked up by the predecessors of today’s transhumanists. This fundamental idea is in tension with the ideas of other major thinkers, like the philosopher Condorcet’s sunny belief in human improvement and the economist Thomas Malthus’s worries about scarcity and limited resources. “Through to our own day,” Rubin writes, “much of the debate about progress has arisen from tensions among these three men’s ideas: Condorcet’s optimism about human perfectibility, the Malthusian problem of resource scarcity, and the Darwinian conception of natural competition as a force for change over time. The transhumanists, as we shall see, reconcile and assimilate these ideas by advocating the end of humanity.”
Transhumanism, Professor Rubin writes, is
an effort to maintain some concept of progress that appears normatively meaningful in response to Malthusian and Darwinian premises that challenge the idea of progress. Malthusianism has come to be defined by thinking that the things that appear to be progress — growing populations and economies — put us on a self-destructive course, as we accelerate toward inevitable limits. But it almost seems as if, in the spirit of
Malthus’s original argument, there is something inevitable also about that acceleration, that we are driven by some force of nature beyond our control to grow until we reach beyond the capacities of the resources that support that growth. Meanwhile, mainstream Darwinian thinking has done everything it can to remove any taint of progress from the concept of evolution; evolution is simply change, and randomly instigated change at that.
Transhumanism rebels against the randomness of evolution and the mindlessness of a natural tendency to overshoot resources and collapse. It rejects … the “assumption of mediocrity” in favor of arguing that man has a special place in the scheme of things. But its rebellion is not half as radical as it assumes, for transhumanism builds on the very same underlying conception of nature that the Malthusians and Darwinians build on, vociferously rejecting the thought that nature has any inherent normative goals or purposes. While it rejects blind evolution as a future fate for man, it accepts it as the origins of man. While it rejects a Malthusian future, it does so with threatening the same old apocalypse if we do not transcend ourselves, and, in the form of Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns, it adopts a Malthusian sense that mankind is in the grip of forces beyond its control.
Because transhumanism accepts this account of nature, it is driven to reject nature. Rejecting also any religious foundations for values, then, it is left with nothing but socially constructed norms developed in response to human power over nature, which, given the unpredictable transformative expectations they have for that power as it becomes not-human, ultimately amounts to nothing at all. Transhumanism is a nihilistic response to the nihilism of the Malthusians and Darwinians.