Transhumanism, simply put, is the belief that the human condition is not unchanging. Through the use of applied reason, humanity has a moral obligation to use technologies in an effort to advance far beyond the current human situation. This advancement extends beyond personal modification, but rather, it includes a general societal evolution whereby Homo sapiens evolve into Homo technologicus, a post-human reality made possible by the application of technological advances. Practically speaking, such a philosophy opens the door for body augmentation (e.g., robotics), enhancement (e.g., certain gene therapies), and, in its more extreme forms, Ray Kurzweil’s vision of uploading human consciousness onto some digital, silicon-based substrate.
Allow me to offer a brief analysis of this controversial philosophy and then put it into conversation with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tale. First, contra traditional sources for understanding humanity, transhumanism fundamentally conceives of human nature as malleable. Nothing is fixed. Traditional Christianity, by contrast, holds not only that all humanity is bound by a common condition (sin), but also that their bodies—even its limitations—are fixed because of the human’s fundamental creatureliness. They were made to be a certain way by God, and this informs how humans are to interact with one another as people under a common authority.
Human nature’s possible malleability has a more logical home in evolutionary theory, since all life proceeds through chance and mutation from one form of being to another, albeit over exceptionally long periods of time.
Here there is no established boundary of humanity’s limits, either physically (since all physical features are subject to change in order to better pass on one’s genes) or socially (since theological sin is a concept that has no analog in scientific inquiry).
The second feature of transhumanist philosophy is a moral imperative: humans have the responsibility to push through humanity’s current limitations in order to create a society with dramatically increased lifespans, contentedness, and general well-being. This includes the drive to eliminate death itself. Surely this rings with the notes of Enlightenment optimism, a hearty endorsement of the Myth of Progress that has clear symmetry with Shelley’s tale.
Optimism is rife within Frankenstein, present in both the Doctor and the Beast. Victor Frankenstein is described largely as a passionate, perhaps obsessive, optimist. He is keenly aware of the great possibilities that lie with scientific discovery, even the great fortune and honor that await him as a result of fulfilling one’s potential in an epic opus magnum. As the Doctor exclaims, “I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”
But, in an instant, his actual creation presses on him a condition of revulsion. Frankenstein is absolutely committed to expelling the Monster from society, driving it to oblivion, then ultimately hunting down the outsider because it is the lasting testament to his own naiveté. The creator not only expels his creation from human communities; the creator himself is so bound in his misery that he withdraws from society as well.
The strangely and fragilely optimistic Monster dares to hope that his appearance, though obscene, could be overlooked in favor of his self-taught erudition. He observes a family from a hiding spot in the woods, looking for an opportune time to approach the patriarch and win the favor of the family.
In this sense, the Monster is actually embodying a gnostic concept of transcendence through knowledge (gnosis).
These gnostic societies played themselves out in one of two ways: 1) the physical body meant nothing, therefore, a life of hedonism was acceptable or 2) the physical body was evil and therefore should be brought into submission through strict asceticism. Both find home in the Monster’s lifestyle. Playing the role of a hedonist, the Monster is a slave to its own impulses; its murderous rampage is analogous to a child with an acute sense of rage but with no self-control. The only aim is to satisfy the beast within. Yet, as an ascetic-of-sorts, it lives a Spartan life, surviving primarily on foraging with an absolute minimum of creaturely comforts.
The Monster proceeds from the possibility that true community is less about embodiment and the physical kinship of creaturehood, and more ethereally bound to that which unifies two or more individuals in intellect. His optimism mirrors that of Frankenstein, though perhaps in a concave fashion, upside down and distorted. The Monster hopes that the communal membership is bestowed by virtue of a common set of ideals or beliefs. Ultimately, he comes face-to-face with the hard reality that he is not welcomed into the family despite his best efforts. His response is not a virtuous “pressing on” in hopes of a society-wide increase in tolerance; he knows that he is doomed. Tragically, he is driven to the wasteland in fear of his life, affirming his worst fears in his rhetorical musing, “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?”
So, where does this leave us? The short story is truly a horror story, for the tale never fulfills the optimism present in either Dr. Frankenstein or the Monster. The reader is left with a harrowing tale that time and time again challenges the status quo that everything is going to be okay. In addition, the reader is forced to confront the very essence of community.
How, precisely, does an outsider become an insider? Does community require a certain measure of commonality—in particular, physical commonality?
Perhaps the present social experience is exactly that: one’s community is a group of friends that generally look and think alike. Of course, there are religious communities, for example, that will resist this simple description. The narrative of the New Testament may suggest a different bonding agent, when many of the earliest Christian communities were drawn together by a common confession of faith—and included the physically deformed or sick, such as lepers. The confession of the contemporary age, however, may be profession of post-human hope—a creed that attempts to cast off the physical nature of community for a more gnostic touch.
Is community that which defines itself by exclusion or inclusion? The clearest distinction between the Frankenstein tale and modern myths of transhumanism might be a difference of direction.
Whereas the Monster seeks to move into the human community, the transhumanist project is one that seeks to move past human community into a grand utopian vision.
Many of the leaders in the transhumanist movement have implicitly suggested that, with a new race of superhumans, those who are left un-augmented may be left in the dust as monsters themselves. Kurzweil himself admitted that communication would largely be impossible between the post-humans (i.e., those who have been modified or augmented with technology) and “regular” people. Perhaps Homo Sapiens will be living on the outside of the future community, seeking to learn the new languages and customs of the post-human existence, deeply aware of its own genetic limitations. Whether this is scare-mongering or prophetic, the Frankenstein tale continues to be a relevant voice in a world that has blurred the lines of the creator-creature relationship as well as the very nature of community itself.
Coming full circle, when I had finally reached my eighth grade year, I had shifted from the witness stand to the jury box, eyeing each new boy who walked into the first day of classes at St. John’s elementary. As fortune would have it, one of my new classmates was a gifted point guard. My best friend, Craig, asked me at lunch if I had seen this fellow on the basketball courts earlier in the day, to which I replied, “Oh yeah, he’s a monster.”
Joel Oesch is Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University Irvine. The original posting of the essay can be found at Joel’s blog, http://fishingforleviathan.com.