Who doesn’t want to live forever?
Every society has its own set of myths about finding eternal life: the Fountain of Youth for the Spaniards and Shangri La for the Chinese, for example. For the transhumanists, this myth may become a reality.
Dr. Jennifer Huberman is a cultural anthropology professor at UMKC whose recent research has focused on this emerging high-tech society. Initially, Huberman did not set out to study the transhumanists.
“I came across a book by Martine Rothblatt called ‘Virtually Human,’” Huberman said. “It was about developing technologies for mind-cloning so that we can live forever. I said, ‘This is completely crazy.’”
But Huberman reminded herself that as an anthropologist, her job is not to judge other people, but to understand why they think the way they do.
According to Huberman, transhumanists view the body as a work in progress, and they place value on the mind over the body.
“For them, the problem is our biology and our biological limitations,” said Huberman.
Transhumanists have a ‘post-human’ vision of the world where humans can design their evolution.
Many of the transhumanists are Silicon Valley techies, inspired by the works of science fiction authors. Huberman describes the stereotypical transhumanist as a “kind of geeky, sci-fi, techie, computer savvy person.” The group, as Huberman describes it, is “a predominantly male, white, in many ways, elite kind of movement in the United States.”
For any anthropologist, collecting data is tough work. The traditional study will bring the researcher to an exotic location, such as an isolated tribe in the Amazon. With the transhumanists, however, it isn’t that easy.
“There isn’t one locale where they all are,” she explains. “A lot of their interaction in society happens online or at conferences.”
Despite the difficulty transhumanists pose as a unique society, Huberman was able to collect plenty of data through her research because transhumanists are vocal and want to spread the word about their work.
A great deal of transhuman literature focuses on whether or not it is ethical, or even possible.
“The biggest challenge was actually developing a proper anthropological mindset,” Huberman said. “That kind of judgmental thinking is antithetical to the ways that anthropologists usually work.”
Huberman took this challenge as an opportunity to develop a book to equip the next generation of anthropologists with the proper tool kit to examine modern societies. Her book, Ancestors and Avatars: Anthropological Approaches to Transhumanism, “is about using this very futuristic movement as a way to introduce students to the discipline of cultural anthropology,” Huberman said.
The book applies anthropological wisdom to understand new and futuristic movements through its chapters by focusing on classic anthropological topics in the context of the transhumanists.
For more information on the transhumanist community, Huberman recommended The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia by Anya Bernstein and articles by Jon Bialecki, who is currently writing a book about the intersection of Mormonism and transhumanism.
The transhumanists leave us with a lot of questions about our future. However, while those questions do not have immediate or simplistic answers, research like Huberman’s does shed light on the futuristic topic of transhumanists.