Transhumanism and Superheroes
When I tell people I study transhumanism I get three responses: “What?” “Wow!” and “Is that like posthumanism?” Depending on the interest and education of the person I’m talking to, my answers range from the simple (“technology and philosophy,” “cyborgs and genetic engineering” or just “bioethics”) — to the complex ("feminism and biopolitics, specifically phenomenology of self and reproductive rights, within the scope of the bioethics of human enhancement”). Usually any one of those answers is enough to satisfy the person’s curiosity and the conversation moves on. But on the rare occasions when someone actually wants to talk about transhumanism, I don’t have much of a prepared response. One of my better responses involved explaining the three flavors of “human”: critical posthumans, transcendent posthumans, and transhumans."
Critical Posthumans: This is what we all are. Critical posthumanism is simply the idea that our concept of “human” as a natural, non-technological thing was wrong from the beginning. Humans are most human when using technology, modifying ourselves and our surroundings.
Transcendent Posthumans: This is what we (most of us) wish we were. Flawless, immortal, godlike. Abilities so above and beyond humans that they are almost unimaginable.
Transhumans: This is what we are becoming and what I study. Nanotech, organ transplants, genetic engineering, prosthetics, cognitive- and mood-enhancing drugs, cloning, morphological freedom, and anti-aging medicine are a small sampling of the tech helping us overcome our biological limits.
Though technically accurate, this answer gives the right idea but the wrong mindset, inevitably triggering responses like: “Oh no, cloning! That’s terrible!” So I started looking for examples of cultural artifacts that people already liked that also exemplified transhumanism. Now, when someone asks for an explanation of transhumanism, I use pop culture as my guide. For animal uplift, I use Remy from Ratatouille and Dug from Up!. For sentient robots I use The Iron Giant and Wall-E. For transhumanism I use superheroes; namely Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Superman. With these four heroes, plus a few X-Men if necessary, I can explain any idea in the transhumanist repertoire. The key is not to get the example just right but to give the new idea a place to land in the person’s mind.
We start not with Batman, but with Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne is as close to a perfect human as one can get. He is naturally brilliant, athletic, and talented. He has taken these natural abilities and built on them with the best schooling, training, and practice possible. Naked in an empty room, Bruce Wayne is one of the most formidable fictional beings ever described. But he isn’t naked. As Bruce Wayne he is wealthy, admired, trusted and respected. His cultural and social power is immense. Before he ever becomes Batman, Bruce Wayne is as close to a fully self-actualized person a human being can be. And then he puts on the mask and the suit. He becomes the symbol of the bat, the master of fear. He has at his disposal technology more advanced than any army by decades, an arsenal of custom devices, an entire surveillance network, and a wing of a major corporation that can build or get whatever he needs. He represents ideals: law, order, self-control, and justice. Bruce Wayne as Batman represents the greatest possible outcome of a single human being at our given point in history. He is the sum total of the best of humanity — its intelligence, power, and creativity. And yet, Batman is only as strong as a human can be, as intelligent as a human can be, as fast and as limber. Even if he is in the 99th percentile of every possible measure of aptitude, he is still slower than a horse, weaker than a gorilla: he still gets sick, has indigestion, heals slowly and imperfectly, ages, and will die. Bruce Wayne as Batman is best of the best of humanity, yet he is also only human. He represents the human condition, maxed out to its perfect form. He is a superhero and a transhumanist, but he is unable to become transhuman. He is super in his impossible maxing out of human potential, and transhumanist in his self-made effort to move beyond any limits he can. Batman thus represents humanity’s current stage.
Iron Man and Spider-Man together represent the two sides of the transhuman coin.
If Batman is a transhumanist in his actions, but remains merely human in fact, who are the best representatives of being transhuman? There are two ways one could significantly overcome the limits of biology: through external but integrated technology or by directly altering biology. Thus, Iron Man and Spider-Man together represent the two sides of the transhuman coin. Peter Parker’s DNA is modified at a fundamental level by a spider’s DNA. It allows him super-human/transhuman strength, agility, abilities (web-slinging and wall-crawling), and even a sixth-sense. Despite Batman’s intense training and physical prowess, Spider-Man is simply stronger, better, and faster because of his altered biology. One of the most interesting aspects of Spider-Man, when viewed in contrast with Batman, is that there is no one who can “train” Spider-Man to use his abilities. There is no Ducard or League of Shadows to make him into a ninja, no multi-billion dollar corporation to give him weapons or technology, and though intelligent, Parker has nowhere near the intellect and willpower of Wayne. Spider-Man is super because of his hybrid, transhuman biology and his humane heart.
If Peter Parker’s Spider-Man is the representative for biological transhumanity, then Iron Man is unquestionably the representative of technological transhumanity. Tony Stark is an irreversible cyborg: without his artificial heart, he will die. Like Bruce Wayne, Stark is almost impossibly intelligent and wealthy, but unlike Batman, he is quite literally at one with his technology: the Iron Man suit is powered by the same thing that lets Stark’s heart keep beating. Inside his singular piece of hardware, Tony Stark combines every tool possessed by Batman into an embodied technology, the natural completely at one with the artificial, linked literally at the heart of the system. Iron Man is orders of magnitude stronger than Batman, shooting weapons far more deadly and powerful, utilizing on-board computers to retrieve significantly more battle data, and… yeah, he can fly. As Iron Man, Stark becomes a one man army. Through his union with technology, Tony Stark in the Iron Man suit exemplifies how technology can work in harmony with biology to improve and protect the still vulnerable body.
All of these men, Wayne, Parker, and Stark are still mostly human. Peter Parker is a dork. He’s poor. He longs after Mary Jane and struggles to do the right thing without much of a support network. Tony Stark is a drunk, a womanizer, and doesn’t always make the best decisions. Despite being significantly more enhanced than Batman, Stark and Parker still face very human problems. And, of course, Bruce Wayne is just human. Their memories are imperfect, so they forget certain details and facts, taking them longer to solve crimes. They are, all three, emotional and prone to outbursts, be it rage or melancholy or love. All three men still get diseased, they suffer, they age, and they die. All three are clearly superheroes, but none of them are posthuman.
Superman, however, is. He matured at the same pace as human beings, but his aging is slowed. He does not get sick. He suffers no pain. * Superman has at his fingertips the accumulated wisdom of Krypton, a planet advanced centuries beyond human progress. He can survive in space, shoot lasers from his eyes, fly unaided, see through walls, stop bullets, run faster than anything, freeze rivers with a breath, and lift mountains. Superman isn’t transhuman, he is posthuman. He’s something else altogether, something alien. The great emotional struggle for Superman is simply pretending to be human. He looks human, but can’t act human. Nothing hurts him. Everything is easy for him. He has to act vulnerable and pretend to be a little slow and awkward. Beyond that, he is the boy scout of the comic world — always able to do the right thing in the right way. He is so powerful, life is so easy, that his commitment to righteousness is not distracted by the small, human problems of other superheroes. The way he is puts Superman beyond humanity both in ability and how he sees himself, making him the exemplar of posthumanity.
And there you have it: four superheroes that can help you navigate an introductory discussion of transhumanism. Batman is a human maxed out, Spider-Man is a biological transhuman, Iron Man is a technological transhuman, and Superman is a posthuman. They aren’t perfect analogies, but they help get the conversation started on a familiar level. It is not my intention that these examples be used to dumb down the conversation. I don’t see this article as an over-simplification for the sake of a listener who just won’t “get it” otherwise. Quite the opposite. By giving the conversation a solid handhold in the form of these familiar superheroes, there is a much better chance the curious person will feel more comfortable asking interesting and informed questions. This comfort in turn betters the chances that they will stay interested in transhumanism. And, after all, who doesn’t love another excuse to talk about superheroes?
* h+ editor Jay Cornell, made a good point here: "Not true! Green kryptonite hurts him, and maybe other things." But, really, kryptonite is a plot device and doesn’t even appear in the first four issues of the Superman comics. It doesn’t change the fact that Superman is so super-powered as to be incomprehensibly alien. Even his pain and weakness are externalized as an element, not internal and ever-present like our own. For true nitpickers, I defer to Mark Waid’s “The Real Truth About Superman" in Superheroes and Philosophy. He too neglects mention kryptonite. It isn’t essential to Superman. My omission is in good company."