How The Alt-Right and Covid Boosted Transhumanism
In his first of a five-part essay series on transhumanism, a leader of the movement, Zoltan Istvan, discusses what lies behind the heightened interest in transhumanist ideas.
Written by Zoltan Istvan
For the last three decades, the transhumanist movement — which aims to use science and technology to radically improve the human body — has been invisible in mainstream discourse. The coronavirus changed that. Transhumanism’s most ambitious goal is to overcome biological death, and the COVID-19 pandemic gave the movement a much-needed kick in the ass.
Around the world, governments allocated enormous resources for scientists to create therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19. Many companies and university teams worked on solutions. Not since the World Wars have countries coordinated so elaborately to fight a deadly disease.
Transhumanists applauded the response, and many of its advocates went on social media to spread the news and take advantage of the ripe opportunity to help grow the movement. And it grew, rapidly, astonishing many people by how rapidly modern science could create an effective RNA-based Covid vaccine.
But there’s another reason transhumanism grew during Covid, which I think was even more important than the science: Transhumanism was declared an enemy by the Alt-Right.
Everyone knows Covid polarized the West, with masking and vaccine controversies and endless related conspiracy theories. Thus Covid accelerated the factiousness that had been growing since the 60s and that rocketed in the Trump era. The Left’s reaction to Trump was Wokism, Antifa, BLM, and cancel culture, which lead to a backlash of Proud Boys, QAnon, and MAGA. These right-leaning groups are often called the Alt-Right. Steve Bannon, Trump’s form White House Chief Strategist, is an informal leader.
Last year, when Steve Bannon attacked me for my transhumanism ideals on his show The War Room, it became apparent that this was a new emerging battlefront. Transhumanism was a political enemy. Others, such as conspiracy theorist Mark Dice, journalists Joe Allen and Alex Jones, also assailed transhumanism. Then the intellectuals and environmentalists such as N.S. Lyons and Paul Kingsnorth joined. Kingsnorth famously compared transgenderism to transhumanism in his provocative essay The Abolition of Man (and Woman). Even Executive Editor R. R. Reno of First Things, one of the West’s most important religious magazines, castigated transhumanism in a feature titled That Haunting Nihilism.
This new right-wing coverage of transhumanism is getting millions of people thinking about what the movement really meant for the future of humanity. This, along with viral stories about brain implants and dexterous robots, brought the ideas of transhumanism to a worldwide audience. The movement had irrevocably arrived. And transhumanism technology, such as AI, artificial wombs, and genetic editing, was becoming an undeniable reality.
I’ve been a part of transhumanism for the last decade, attending life extension conferences, giving speeches, donating to longevity research missions, and even running as the 2016 Presidential nominee of the Transhumanist Party. The transhumanism movement developed in earnest in the 1990s when philosophers in California began organizing and telling the public that sometime in the next century, scientists would likely find a way to stop aging. Google confirmed these ideas in practice when in 2013 it founded its secretive billion-dollar anti-aging company Calico.
More recently, entrepreneurs such as Larry Ellison, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin, and Peter Thiel have invested in life-extension companies. Powerful nonprofits such as XPRIZE have formed prizes around anti-aging innovation, which created new reasons to get into the research. Bank of America reported that funding for extreme longevity would become a 600-billion-dollar business by 2025—up over a thousand percent in just a decade. Clearly, transhumanism and its quest to overcome death are gaining momentum.
Ultimately, it’s the vagaries and exigencies of history that catapults social movements forward. Environmentalism is a good example. Concern over Alaska nuclear bomb testing and the Exxon Valdez oil spills in the 1970s and 1980s helped launched the green movement into the mainstream. Forty years ago, most of the world didn’t consider protecting the planet a priority, but now over a billion people consider themselves avid supporters of living environmentally friendly as a way of human existence.
The Coronavirus gave transhumanism a similar shot in the arm. Until recently, most people, even those at least vaguely familiar with the ideas of transhumanism, didn’t deem radical transhuman science essential to everyday life, leaving it to unorthodox researchers and engineers. But the pandemic has awakened the world to how important both government and private enterprise responses are to existential risks. Transhumanists already see an increased push to fund scientists worldwide after Covid. The world is more open to seeking ways to strengthen the human body from the unremitting challenges of nature. The Alt-Right’s very public resistance to transhumanism is only accelerating the science since the media and Silicon Valley are generally on the political Left.
Since the 2020 US Elections, US President Biden has worked with Congress to support improved measures that protect Americans from existential risk. It’s not just pandemics transhumanists are warning the world about. We also worry about asteroid impacts, rapid climate change, rogue artificial intelligence, bioterrorism, super volcanoes, geomagnetic storms, and the 14,000 live nuclear weapons worldwide. Biden has also signed over significant resources to the US Government to “end” cancer as we know it. And organizations like the World Economic Forum, which I have spoken for before, have also been longtime supporters of upgrading human beings.
Pushing transhumanism forward while simultaneously worrying about existential risk is essential. Oxford University’s Future of Humanity scholars Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg reported in a paper—based on an informal survey of participants at the 2008 Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at Oxford—that humanity has a 19% chance of destroying itself by the year 2100. If we are not careful, Coronavirus could be just the first calamity of a calamitous century. Transhumanists want to avoid as much loss of life as possible by getting governments, nonprofits, and private enterprise to take pre-emptive action.
The transhumanist community is not alone in this quest. Recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded million-dollar grants to organizations working on a universal vaccine for the flu, which killed around 50,000 Americans last year. Mark Zuckerberg also donated 3 billion for a goal he hoped would help end all disease by the end of the century. Elon Musk gave 10 million to a nonprofit fund to ensure AI remained safe and controllable. And Jeff Bezos is donating 10 billion to mitigate climate change.
Ironically, because of transhumanism, some of the existential risks are just the thing the Alt-Right has been warning the world about. Some thinkers, such as conservative bioethicist Wesley Smith, a traditional conservative, often pillory transhumanists and their aim to avoid existential risk. His headlines in the National Review are often mocking: Transhumanism’s Utopian Fantasy Land and Transhumanism, the Lazy Way to Human ‘Improvement’ are some of the most lauded. Smith likes to point out that God made us mortal for a reason, and life is precious precisely because earthly existence is temporary, always ending with death.
But Smith is part of the reason transhumanism is gaining ground. He is warning the world precisely about the problems that transhumanists might cause in the future. And the world is responding not by avoiding transhumanism, but specifically by addressing his concerns, making transhumanism a far better, stronger movement worldwide.
The truth is that few transhumanists are arguing about living forever as gods made of wild technology, since nobody knows if that’s possible. But most agree that we don’t want the constant specter of death hanging over us. Coronavirus has heightened this fear.
For all the tragedy COVID-19 caused to the West (and is still causing in places like China), one small recompense is that humanity is being awakened to the need for a comprehensive cultural science movement that aims to provide greater security from the threat of death. Transhumanism is what the world needs, and the movement is becoming more mainstream precisely because of the incessant attacks of its enemies.
Zoltan Istvan began his career at National Geographic as a journalist. Later he penned The Transhumanist Wager, a novel that launched the activist side of the transhumanism movement. He is the founder of the Transhumanist Party and the creator of the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, now a crowdsourced document.
It’s amazing the lengths people will go to in order to avoid accepting the inevitability of death and entropy in the universe. “Life extension” is supposedly a wonderful, life-affirming movement, but to me, it just looks like the childish inability of Western materialism to create meaning beyond the Individual. I can’t imagine a more milquetoast civilization than one comprised of senior citizens pumped up with drugs, avoiding any physical risk, all to exist as a bland technocrat for another few decades.
I'm always willing to hear people out, but I can't help but feel you're hiding the ball here, when Transhumanism gets discussed only in passing as a movement "which aims to use science and technology to radically improve the human body." It's interesting that your movement got a boost - but, pray tell, what exactly are some of those "radical improvements" to the human body?
Let's see, from the wikipedia article on transhumanism, some things being pursued or variously included under the transhumanist banner (see full article for far more):
- Abolitionism, the concept of using biotechnology to eradicate suffering in all sentient beings.
- Extropianism, an early school of transhumanist thought characterized by a set of principles advocating a proactive approach to human evolution.
- Immortalism, a moral ideology based upon the belief that radical life extension and technological immortality is possible and desirable, and advocating research and development to ensure its realization.
- Postgenderism, a social philosophy which seeks the voluntary elimination of gender in the human species through the application of advanced biotechnology and assisted reproductive technologies.
Any right-leaning person (and plenty of folks elsewhere on the political spectrum) would find reason to oppose this worldview, as it may be the quintessential Leftist position - that human nature can be perfected (this time by technology!). The conservative mindset - yes, even the Far Right - views the world as one of limits, as human nature as constant (and not meant to be tampered with), and - I would argue as well - much of the misery of our modern times can be attributed to our failure to live harmoniously within the bounds set by nature and within nature, as natural creatures attuned to their nature as social creatures. Messing with our own wiring, acting as we know better is destined for disaster. We play god at our own peril.