Editor’s note: Published on August 16, 1945, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a dystopian novel that eerily reflects the realities of 2020, putting into a memorable fictional form ideas expressed in Lewis’s non-fiction work, The Abolition of Man. To mark the former book’s three-quarter century anniversary, Evolution News presents a series of essays, reflections, and videos about its themes and legacy.
James A. Herrick is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope College in Holland, MI. His books include The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition.
This post is adapted from Chapter 10 of The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West. See also,
- “The Abolition of Man and the Advent of the Posthuman“
- “Why C. S. Lewis Wrote The Abolition of Man“
- “C. S. Lewis, Science, and Science Fiction“
C. S. Lewis’s prophetic appraisal of certain scientific trends in The Abolition of Man finds confirmation in today’s discourse of our biotechnological future. The vision of technologically enhanced posthumanity arises out of a synthesis of scientific culture’s most robust mythologies — progress, evolution, the superman, and the power of collective intellect. Technology will conquer death, space, and human nature, and deliver us into the future as highly evolved demigods. The Internet is humanity’s first major step toward a unified web of consciousness — Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere — that will first blanket the earth and then pervade the universe.1 The objections of “bio-conservatives” will be silenced through popular argument and public art, and the way opened to unlimited progress, miraculous technologies and visionary ethics. Then comes posthumanity and Bertrand Russell’s “world of shining beauty and transcendent glory.”2 Transhumanism affirms that the time has arrived to make good on such prophecies by crafting a technologically enhanced, globally connected and immortal race — Stapledon’s “splendid race.”
Contemporary Transhumanism draws inspiration from Utopianism, Renaissance Humanism, Enlightenment Rationalism, nineteenth-century Russian Cosmism, New Age Gnosticism, science fiction, speculative techno-futurism, and apocalyptic themes in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nick Bostrom, Oxford University philosopher and one of the founders of contemporary Transhumanism, captures the movement’s fundamental orientation:
Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means, we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.3
Evolution by Technology
Evolving humanity, long a theme in popular scientific writing and science fiction, has now emerged as a major topic in bioethics, philosophy and religion.4 Ongoing evolution will “eventually produce a unified cooperative organization of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole.”5 Evolution is now a process in which human beings may actively participate by technological means. The present human being is not the crown of evolution’s creative work as a step toward something grander — the posthuman. But, even posthumanity is not the ultimate goal. Inexorable evolution is producing, by means of its human and posthuman surrogates, ever more advanced technologies as part of its plan to achieve omniscience and omnipotence. Ambitious evolution is merely using us and our descendents as its cat’s paw to snatch technological divinity from the cosmos’s chaotic flames.
The specific characteristics of posthumanity are debated; what is crucial is the conviction that the posthumans are near, that they will represent a profound improvement over our present condition, and that we ought to work diligently for their arrival. One Transhumanist advocate affirms:
Trust in our posthuman potential is the essence of Transhumanism. We trust that we can become posthumans, extrapolating technological trends into futures consistent with contemporary science, and acting pragmatically to hasten opportunities and mitigate risks. We trust that we should become posthumans, embracing a radical humanism that dignifies the ancient and enduring work to overcome and extend our humanity.6
The posthuman future is not limited by biology but will involve human beings merging with machines, at first by simply mechanically augmenting the body but eventually by depositing human consciousness in mechanical devices. Thus will we achieve immortality, universal knowledge, and unified global consciousness.
The process of creating posthumanity is fundamentally evolutionary, but with an important difference when contrasted to the old Darwinian model. As Lewis speculated in The Abolition of Man, biotechnologies will permit us to be active participants in our own evolution.7 Transhumanist leader James Hughes writes that we “must accommodate the ‘posthumans’ that will be created by genetic and cybernetic technologies.”8 “This vision, in broad strokes,” affirms Oxford’s Bostrom, “is to create the opportunity to live much longer and healthier lives, to enhance our memory and other intellectual faculties, to refine our emotional experiences and increase our subjective sense of well-being, and generally to achieve a greater degree of control over our own lives.” According to Bostrom, the aggressive pursuit of biotechnology is a radical reaction against current convention, “an alternative to customary injunctions against playing God, messing with nature, tampering with our human essence, or displaying punishable hubris.”9 Efforts to coax the public to embrace the ideology of posthumanity, however, will surely provoke a contest. Thus, Hughes predicts that “the human race’s use of genetic engineering to evolve beyond our current limitations would be a central political issue of the next century.”10
The Kingdom Comes by Internet
More may be ahead than domestic political debate, however. According to some experts, the near future will usher in a global culture enabled by a massively more powerful Internet. Computer engineer Hugo de Garis takes as simple matters of fact that “the exponential rate of technical progress will create within 40 years an Internet that is a trillion times faster than today’s, a global media, a global education system, a global language, and a globally homogenized culture” which will constitute the basis of “a global democratic state.” This new order of things, which de Garis calls Globa, will rid the world of “war, the arms trade, ignorance, and poverty.”11 The coming transformation of the human race and the world it inhabits is nothing short of an apocalypse — the Kingdom arrives via the Internet.
What was “previously sought through magic and mysticism,” writes Hughes, will now be pursued technologically.12 Bostrom imagines a utopia in which posthumans enjoy “aesthetic and contemplative pleasures whose blissfulness vastly exceeds what any human being has yet experienced.” The new people will experience “a much greater level of personal development and maturity than current human beings do, because they have the opportunity to live for hundreds or thousands of years with full bodily and psychic vigor.” He continues:
We can conceive of beings that are much smarter than us, that can read books in seconds, that are much more brilliant philosophers than we are, that can create artworks, which, even if we could understand them only on the most superficial level, would strike us as wonderful masterpieces. We can imagine love that is stronger, purer, and more secure than any human being has yet harbored.13
At What Cost the New Era?
Bostrom and Hughes strike a winsome note in their predictions of the posthuman future. However, at what cost does the New Era arrive? Will we forego individual rights, as Lewis feared, in the pursuit of a greater collective good? Science writer Ronald Bailey contends that democratic majorities often oppose “avant-gardes minorities.” If “the transhuman future we are all hoping for” is to be achieved, it may require efforts more aggressive than those suggested by Bostrom’s irenic reverie. Regrettably, democracy often has placed limits on cutting-edge scientific research. Bailey argues that in some “benighted jurisdictions” promising research agendas can be stopped in their tracks by “majoritarian tyranny.” Despite the apparent lessons of history regarding programs for improving humanity, Bailey looks hopefully toward the day when an emerging posthuman race will transform the world — that is, if democracy doesn’t get in the way.14 Perhaps Lewis’s fears about religious devotion to inevitable processes were well founded.
Considerably more reassuring to wary audiences is the central figure in the contemporary human enhancement movement, inventor Ray Kurzweil, best known for his theory of exponential technological progress culminating in the Singularity. At a moment in time not more than a few decades away, a technological explosion will change everything permanently. Kurzweil’s vision of a transformative human future has recently captured public attention in books such as The Singularity Is Near and movies such as Transcendent Man.15 He confidently affirms that exponential progress in the biological sciences will soon allow us to “reprogram the information processes underlying biology.”16 While the idea here is vague and expressed for a lay audience, the planned reprogramming of foundational human biology is the specific goal of Lewis’s Conditioners. For Kurzweil and other techno-futurists, the future will reveal unimaginable improvements to the human condition. Nature will yield to technology; the battle will have been won.
An Accountant’s Demeanor
Kurzweil has become the public face of human enhancement, an affable front man with an accountant’s demeanor. The heavy theoretical lifting, however, is done by others. Philosopher John Harris, among the four or five leading apologists for human enhancement, argues that assisting evolution is a moral obligation. He writes, “The ‘progress of evolution’ is unlikely to be achieved accidentally or by letting nature take its course.” Joining Savulescu in urging the necessity of enhanced evolution, Harris argues that “if illness and poverty are indeed to become rare misfortunes, this is unlikely to occur by chance… It may be that a nudge or two is needed: nudges that will start the process… of replacing natural selection with deliberate selection, Darwinian evolution with ‘enhancement evolution.’”17 While Harris’s metaphor suggests a gentle technological push along coordinates of improvement already plotted out by nature, it would be wide of the mark to imagine that science has identified such an evolutionary trajectory for future humanity. It is more likely that educated guesses grounded in hopeful narratives about progress substitute for actual knowledge in this and similar scenarios.
Evolution and the Postman Future
An inevitable force with motives of its own, evolution is central to the techno-futurists’ vision of the posthuman future. Evolution produced us and through us, technology. It, not God and not the Tao, is also the source of the moral principles that have brought us to the point of transformation as a species, and that will ensure our continued evolution. Computer scientist Hugo de Garis affirms that “because of our intelligence that’s evolved over billions of years, we are now on the point of making a major transition away from biology to a new step. You could argue that… maybe humanity, is just a stepping stone.”18 Physicist Freeman Dyson agrees — we will be transformed as “many opportunities for experiments in the radical reconstruction of human beings” present themselves.19 But there is more to our posthuman future than simply improving our lot here on earth: The new humanity, toward which the present human race represents a mere step along the way, will propagate itself throughout the cosmos. This was the cosmic vision of scientific planners and science fiction authors that prompted Lewis’s skepticism about space exploration. Sounding a theme reminiscent of Wells, Dyson writes that “when life and industrial activities are spread out over the solar system, there is no compelling reason for growth to stop.”20 Technologically assisted evolutionism is becoming, as Lewis warned, a comprehensive narrative of an inevitable force’s ultimate universal triumph.
Four Technologies for Human Enhancement
Human enhancement advocates focus attention on four technologies — nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science, or NBIC. But technology is not the whole story of the turn toward Transhumanism. “The NBIC technologies,” writes Hughes, will “change how we work, how we travel, how we communicate, how we worship and how we cook.”21 Whereas work, travel, and communication are perhaps expected in this list, and cooking seems trivial by comparison, “how we worship” is arresting. Traditional religion has been the bête noir of enhancement advocates, an anti-technological and anti-futurist force to be actively opposed. Hughes’s comment, however, hints at a new approach — the re-imagining of religion along Transhumanist lines. For some in the movement posthumanity and advanced technologies are objects of worship, hope in the Singularity a religious faith. The new wine of Singularity religion will require the new wine skins of innovative religious expression; techno-futurism will discover transcendence in techno-religion.
Tomorrow, “C.S. Lewis and Critical Reactions to Transhumanism.”
- See: Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (San Francisco CA: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008). Wells also advocated the idea of collective intellect that would achieve conscious self-awareness: “[W]e want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself. To work out a way to that world brain organization is therefore our primary need in this age of imperative construction. The World Brain (Garden City NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1938), xvi. The idea may have originated with Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) and was adopted by the movement known as Russian Cosmism, an important precursor to Transhumanism. On Cosmism, see: Michael Hagemeister, “Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and Today,” in The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, Bernice G. Rosenthal, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 185-202.
- Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future (Baltimore MD: Penguin, 1961), 13.
- Nick Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values,” April 18, 2001, accessed May 12, 2012, http://www.nickbostrom.com/tra/values.html.
- See, for example: Allen E. Buchanan, Beyond Humanity? The Ethics of Biomedical Enhancement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Human Enhancement, ed. Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- John Stewart, “The Potential of Evolution,” What is Enlightenment? (February/March 2007), accessed May 23, 2012, . http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j35/stewart.asp.
- Lincoln Cannon, “Trust in Posthumanity and the New God Argument,” Transhumanism and Spirituality Conference (Salt Lake City, October 1, 2010), accessed May 23, 2012, http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2010/10/transcript-of-presentation-at.html. Many intellectually inclined younger Mormons embrace Transhumanism and find it to comport with their theology. The largest Transhumanist chapter is the Mormon Transhumanist Association in Salt Lake City.
- Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
- James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004), xv.
- Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values.” See also Nick Bostrom, “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 37 (2003): 493–506, accessed May 26, 2012, http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/genetic.html.
- Hughes, Citizen Cyborg, xii.
- Hugo de Garis, “Globa: Accelerating technologies will create a global state by 2050,” January 19, 2011, accessed January 20, 2011, http://www.kurzweilai.net/globa-global-state-by-2050.
- Hughes, Citizen Cyborg, xviii.
- Bostrom, “Genetic Enhancements,” 494-495.
- Ronald Bailey, “The Democratic Threat to Transhumanism,” “Humanity+ Summit: Rise of the Citizen Scientist” (June 10-12, 2010, Harvard University). For a fuller version of his case, see “Transhumanism and the Limits of Democracy,” Reason.com, April 28, 2009, accessed May 23, 2012, http://reason.com/archives/2009/04/28/transhumanism-and-the-limits-o/singlepage.. Bailey is a writer for Reason magazine and author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution (New York Prometheus, 2005).
- See Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin, 2006). Also, Transcendent Man, Directed by Barry Ptolemy (2011).
- Time magazine interview, Steve Koepp, “10 Questions for Ray Kurzweil,” accessed May 12, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BUYbEgOZt4.
- John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 11. Emphasis in original.
- Hugo de Garis, “Think About It.” (video), accessed December 12, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A_5-Van9m4.
- Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 157.
- Ibid.,, 156.
- Hughes, Citizen Cyborg, 8.