An Introduction to Transhumanism

Attempting to Make a New Type of Person

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By E. Christian Brugger

WASHINGTON, DC, APRIL 21, 2010 ( The ideas of the young international movement known as «transhumanism» are beginning to characterize the thinking of an increasing number of clinicians and bioethicists. I thought therefore that our readers might profit from a brief introduction to them.

Transhumanism is really a set of ideas that has developed in response to the rapid advance of biotechnology in the past 20 years (that is, technology capable of and aimed at manipulating the physical, mental and emotional condition of human beings). Conventional medicine has traditionally aimed at overcoming disorders that afflict the human condition; it has prescribed leeching, cauterizing, amputating, medicating, operating and relocating to dryer climates, all in order to facilitate health and militate against disease and degeneration; in other words, the purpose has been to heal (i.e., has been broadly therapeutic).

Technology is now making possible interventions that in addition to a therapeutic aim are intended to augment healthy human capacities. There is a gradual but steady enlargement taking place in medical ideals from simply healing to healing and enhancement. We are all too familiar with «performance enhancing drugs» in professional sports. But biotechnology promises to make possible forms of enhancement that go far beyond muscle augmentation.

Germ-line gene therapy, for example, still in its infancy, aims to genetically modify human «germ cells» (i.e., sperm and eggs) in order to introduce desirable intellectual, physical and emotional characteristics and exclude undesirable ones. Since the modifications are made to cells in the «germ line,» the traits would be heritable and passed on to subsequent generations. Drugs to improve mental function such as Ritalin and Adderall are increasingly being used by the healthy in order to enhance cognitive abilities. One study has shown that close to 7% of students at U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants for enhancement purposes.[1] That number appears only to be increasing.

Research is rapidly progressing on advanced technologies such as direct brain-computer interfacing (BCI), micromechanical implants, nanotechnologies, retinal, neuromuscular and cortical prostheses, and so-called «telepathy chips.» While it is true that each of these technologies may play a role in transforming the lives of disabled patients to enable them better to communicate, manipulate computers, see, walk, move their limbs and recover from degenerative diseases; transhumanism sees them as potential instruments for transforming human nature. The 2002 version of the Transhumanist Declaration states: «Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.»[2]

Their most radical proposal is to overcome death. Although the aim sounds fanciful, there are influential scientists and philosophers committed to it. The prominent transhumanist scientist and inventor, Dr. Ray Kurzweil, argues that for most of human history death was tolerated because there was nothing we could do about it. But a time is rapidly approaching where we will be able to isolate the genes and proteins that cause our cells to degenerate and reprogram them. The assumption of death’s inevitability is no longer credible and ought to be retired [3]. Michael West, the CEO of one of the largest biotech companies in the U.S., Advanced Cell Technology, agrees. He argues that «love and compassion for our fellow human being will ultimately lead us to the conclusion that we have to do everything we can to eliminate aging and death.»[4]

Although I think the majority of people in the Western world do not yet share transhumanism’s more radical ideas, the assumption concerning human autonomy that underlies the transhumanist philosophy is practically universal in secular medicine and bioethics today. Living wills enshrining people’s right to refuse life-sustaining treatment for practically any reason, even if they are not dying, are becoming as routine in our hospitals as informed consent forms. Oregon, Washington and Montana have legalized physician assisted suicide each using as a rhetorical bludgeon the argument that autonomy guarantees a person’s right to exercise self-determination not only over his life but also over his death. If autonomy extends to these things, then surely it guarantees the liberty to enhance my capacities.

I fear that the only thing presently preventing wide-scale affirmation of the transhumanist imperative is an emotional «yuck» factor, which we can be sure will gradually subside under the gentle and inexorable prodding of secular opinion. When it does, our rationality insulated by this extreme notion of autonomy will find itself helpless against the technological imperative which says: if we can design our perfect child [5], if we can be smarter, stronger, and more beautiful [6], if we can extend human life indefinitely [7], then we should do it. If embryos are sacrificed through the experimental process required to perfect this technology, or if inequalities are introduced to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others; these are the costs of progress!

The 2008 Vatican Instruction on bioethics, «Dignitas Personae,» addressing the use of biotechnology «to introduce alterations with the presumed aim of improving and strengthening the gene pool,» strongly cautions against the «eugenic mentality» that such manipulation would promote. The mentality likely would stigmatize features of hereditary imperfection generating unfair biases against people who possess them and privileging those who possess putatively desirable qualities.

The instruction concludes saying: «It must also be noted that in the attempt to create a new type of human being one can recognize an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator» (No. 27).

Endeavoring to manipulate human nature in this way «would end […] by harming the common good» (No. 27).


[1] See H. Greely, B. Sahakian, M. Gazzaniga, et al., «Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy,» Nature 456 (December 2008), 702-705.

[2] From the website of Humanity+: The World Transhumanist Association (WTA), now the largest transhumanist advocacy organization in the world, was founded in 1998. For image reasons it recently changed its name to Humanity+.

[3] See interview with Kurzweil at:

[4] Ibid.

[5] See statements to this effect by the influential Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu, quoted in Peter Snow, «Woe, Superman?» Oxford Today: The University Magazine, vol. 22, no. 1 (Michaelmas 2009), 14; see also Savulescu’s appalling (and influential) theory of «procreative beneficence» in: «Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,» Bioethics, vol. 15, issue 5-6 (October, 2001), 413-26.

[6] See the utopian maxim of Humanity+: «Healthier, Smarter, Happier»; at

[7] See the aims of the new organization Coalition to Extend Life

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vi
anney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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