For anyone interested in the history of life-extension ideas, I highly recommend Ilia Stambler’s 2010 paper, “Life extension – a conservative enterprise? Some fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century precursors of transhumanism“. This extensively researched and cosmopolitan work explores the ideas of five proto-transhumanist thinkers who embedded their future-oriented thoughts in extremely different intellectual frameworks: Nikolai Fedorov, Charles Stephens, Alexander Bogdanov, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Finot. Mr. Stambler considers Finot’s thought to most resemble the ideas of today’s transhumanist movement.
The conclusions of Mr. Stambler’s research are profound and interesting to explore. One of the main insights is that it is possible to arrive at support for radical life extension from many different ideological frameworks. Mr. Stambler writes that “In different national contexts, different ideological schemes – secular humanism or religion, discrimination or egalitarianism, idealism or materialism, socialism or capitalism, liberalism or totalitarianism – appear to yield different justifications for the necessity of life prolongation and longevity research and to impact profoundly on the way such goals are conceived and pursued. As the works of the above-said proponents of human enhancement and longevity exemplify, the authors adapt to a particular national ideological milieu and serve as agents for its continuation.”
This is a welcome insight in the sense that it should be possible to attract an immensely intellectually and culturally diverse following to the cause of indefinite human life extension. However, it is also the case that some political and cultural environments are more conducive to rapid progress in human life extension than others. I have recently articulated my view that a libertarian set of policies will, by unshackling competition and innovation by numerous entities on a free market, result in the most rapid advent of the technologies sought by transhumanists. That being said, I still perceive much common ground with non-libertarians to be achievable on the issue of life extension – for instance, in the realms of supporting specific research, spreading public awareness, sharing information, and coming together to advocate for policy positions on which we can agree. Also, it is possible that non-libertarian transhumanists might benefit their own intellectual traditions by steering them toward more technology-friendly and life-respecting directions. As an atheist libertarian transhumanist, I would greatly prefer to be debating with transhumanist environmentalists, transhumanist socialists, and transhumanist Christians (yes, they do exist) than their mainstream counterparts of today.
Another key insight of Mr. Stambler’s paper resonates with me personally. Mr. Stambler ventures to “suggest is that the pursuit of human enhancement and life extension may originate in conservatism, both biological and social. There is a close conjunction between the ideas of life extension, transcending human nature and creating artificial life, in Finot’s writings and those of present-day transhumanists. The connection (and progression) between these enterprises may appear logical: the means initially designed to conserve life may exceed their purpose, and beginning as a search to preserve a natural bodily status quo, the aspirations may rapidly expand into attempts to modify nature. It appears to me that these enterprises evolve in this, and not in the reverse order. The primary aspiration is not to modify nature, but to preserve a natural state.”
Anyone who has followed my work over the years would be unable to avoid my generally conservative esthetic, my strong interest in history, and my admiration for the achievements and legacies of prior eras. I am mostly not a conservative in the American or even European political sense, but I am conservative in the sense of seeking to preserve and build upon the achievements of Western civilization – including the development of its logical implications for future decades and centuries. Technological progress and the achievement of indefinite life extension are very much the direct extrapolation of the desire to preserve the historical achievements that enable our unprecedented quality of life today. Furthermore, my transhumanism grows out of a desire to preserve my own body and mind in a youthful state – so as to maintain a life driven primarily by my own choices and the manner in which I set up the environment around me. In order for me to remain who I am, and to do what I wish to do, I need to support radical technological change and changes to our society in general. However, those changes are fundamentally aimed at supporting that pattern of life which I consider to be good – and which today, unfortunately, is far too subject to destructive external influences over which no individual yet has sufficient influence or control. Unlike some transhumanists, I have no ambitions to have my mind “uploaded,” to lead a non-biological existence, or “merge” my mind with anyone else’s. If I obtain indefinite life, I will spend it indefinitely looking the way I do (while remedying any flaws) and focusing on the perpetuation of my family, property, esthetic, and activities – all the while learning continuously and becoming a better (and more durable) version of the person I already am. For the true stability of home, family, property, and patterns of living, there must be individual sovereignty. For true individual sovereignty to exist, our society must improve rapidly in every dimension, so as to facilitate the hyper-empowerment of every person. Ironically, for one’s personal sphere to be conserved and shaped to one’s will, a revolution in the universe is necessary.
Cultural and historical preservation is also a major but seldom appreciated implication of transhumanism. By living longer and remaining in a youthful state, specific individuals would be able to create and refine their skills to a much greater extent. Imagine the state of classical music if we could have had hundreds of years for Mozart and Beethoven to compose – or the state of painting if Leonardo, Vermeer, or David had lived for centuries. Every time a creator dies, an irreplaceable vision dies with him. Others might emulate him, but it is not the same – for they do not have his precise mind. They can replicate and absorb into their own esthetic what he already brought into this world, but they cannot foresee the new directions in which he would have taken his work with more time. Each individual is precious and irreplaceable; the loss of each individual is the loss of a whole universe of memories, ideas, and possibilities. Transhumanism is a grand conservatism – an ambition to conserve people – to put an end to all such senseless destruction and to keep around all of the people who build up and beautify our world. The proto-transhumanist Nikolai Fedorov (one of those Christian transhumanists who ought to be much more prevalent among the Christians of today) even took this idea to the point of proposing an ultimate goal to physically resurrect every person who has ever lived. While, as I have written earlier, this would not resurrect the “I-nesses” of these individuals, achieving this goal might nonetheless give us the benefit of recapitulating their memories and experiences and seeing how their “doubles” might further develop themselves in a more advanced world.
It is precisely the conservative sensibility in me that recoils against “letting go” of the good things in life – whether they be my present advantages or the positive legacies of the past. It is precisely the conservative part of me that hates “starting from scratch” when something good and useful is no longer available because it has fallen prey to damaging external events. To allow the chaos of senseless destruction – the decay and ruin introduced by the inanimate processes of nature and the stupidity of men – is a sheer waste. Many put up with this sad state of affairs today because it has hitherto been unavoidable. But once the technical possibilities emerge to put an end to such destruction, then leaving it to wreak its havoc would become a moral outrage. Once we are able to truly control and direct our own lives, the stoic acceptance of ruin will become one of those aspects of history that we could confidently leave in the past.