A History of Transhumanism
How old is the transhumanist desire in man? We suspect very old indeed.
The desire of transhumanists is to avoid death. Death is the enemy. It, to a transhumanist, destroys continuity of thought, interrupts research and learning and separates us from loved ones.
Before anything else, we think it is important to define transhumanism. We will adopt the definition used in the fine Wikipedia article on transhumanism.
…an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
From our view, we shall consider technology to be anything that man uses to accomplish a purpose that lies outside his own body, whether it be a hand made tool, a medicinal plant or anything else that he somehow shapes into usefulness.
Doctors & Shamans Were The First Transhumanists
Some may seem very skeptical at seeing Shamans listed as transhumanists. But to us a belief in a metaphysical is not a prerequisite for holding to a transhumanist bent. The true question is should we as humans accept our physical bodies’ present limitations? Medicine has always said no. To us, any attempt to extend human life is at its heart a transhumanist effort. Any attempt to delay death or thwart it, is a transhumanist effort.
Shamans used plants that had been known for thousands of years to heal diseases and kill bacteria. In fact some these medicines were used in a more advanced method than the European approaches. Even today 80% of the people of the world use herbs as primary medicines. 40% of modern pharmaceuticals use original plant material.
Perhaps to show the permanence of these traditional plant-based medicines, the tradition can be traced back 60,000 years! We quote from a site dedicated to shamanic medicine traditions,
Physical evidence of use of herbal remedies goes back some 60,000 years to a burial site at Shanidar Cave, Iraq, in which a Neanderthal man was uncovered in 1960. He had been buried with eight species of plants, seven of which are still used for medicinal purposes today. On September 19, 1991, one of the most extraordinary discoveries of our Century took place in Austria’s Otzal Alps, when two hikers discovered an ice mummy preserved by freezing. The analysis of samples of organic tissues has determined that the Iceman lived between 3350 and 3100 B.C. The Ice Man died approximately 5200 years ago. At death he was between 40 and 50 years old and suffered from a number of medical conditions. He turned into a mummy accidentally almost immediately by the freezing weather conditions that turned him into the Ice Man. The Ice Man’s possessions have given scientists a better look at what life was during the Neolithic Age in Europe. Perhaps the most valuable possession, according to many scientists, was his “medicine kit,” containing a lump of a birch fungus used as a laxative and as a natural antibiotic.
of the 5th century BC
The Hippocratic Oath
Even now, companies like Shaman Pharmaceuticals in San Francisco, confers with shamans in South America, to produce modern western medicines.
Ancient Egyptian, Greek & Roman Transhumanism
To our knowledge, it seems that though we remember Hippocrates as the father of medicine in the western world, it must also be noted that he learned his skills from the Egyptians, when he trained with ancient Egyptian doctors at the temple of Amenhotep. Thus any prosthetic, any medicinal plants used constituted an
intervention against a natural process which would bring the human body down. The question that is begged by all of this understanding of pharmaceuticals and procedures is where did the
Egyptians learn this from? Already in 2750BC there is Hesy-Ra who is chief of Dentists and Physicians for King Djoser, the earliest known pharaoh. There were “houses of life,” which
were some sort of combination of temple, library and educational center.
In ancient Greece and Rome, there arose two famous healing centers called asclepieioi (ασκληπειοι), one at the city of Kos and the other in the city of Pergamum (these were not the only ones, there were many others). These centers used a form of anesthesia, entitled in Greek as enkoimiesis (ενκοιμεσις) which allowed them to perform surgery while the patient was asleep.
Thetis anoints Achilles
Ambrosia was a “drink of the gods.” The ancient Roman poet Ovid describes Thetis the mother of Achilles as rubbing some ambrosia on the body of Achilles to prevent his body from decomposing. The differences between nectar and ambrosia became blurred in many of the mythological stories. Homer recounts the original inspiration for Ovid’s work.
Then the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, answered him: “My child, let not these things distress thy heart. From him will I essay to ward off the savage tribes, the flies that feed upon men slain in battle. For even though he lie for the full course of a year, yet shall his flesh be sound continually, or better even than now it is. But do thou call to the place of gathering the Achaean warriors, and renounce thy wrath against Agamemnon, shepherd of the host, and then array thee with all speed for battle and clothe thee in thy might.  So saying, she filled him with dauntless courage, and on Patroclus she shed ambrosia and ruddy nectar through his nostrils, that his flesh might be sound continually.
The gods, conceivably, could have simply spoken a word and preserved a body, but instead they used this liquid or food. From what we can tell, neither Ambrosia or nectar was made by the gods. It apparently grew in a spot which they knew and could harvest it. Nevertheless, it was something outside the gods, a form of technology much like a medicine today would be a technology. Again Ovid in his Metamorpheses Book 9, line 394, recounts how Hebe, whose Roman name was the goddess Juventas, and who supplied the nectar and ambrosia to the cups of the gods, rejuvenated Iolus, the cousin and lover of Hercules.
And all the while that Iole told this, tearful in sorrow for her sister’s fate, Alcmena weeping, tried to comfort her. But as they wept together, suddenly a wonderful event astonished them; for, standing in the doorway, they beheld the old man Iolaus, known to them, but now transformed from age to youth, he seemed almost a boy, with light down on his cheeks for Juno’s daughter Hebe, had renewed his years to please her husband, Hercules.
The Alchemical Tradition in Rome, Egypt, Judaism and Islam
There of course was the alchemical tradition of transhumanism, in connection with Hermes Trismegistus (Ἑρμῆς ὁ Τρισμέγιστος who as a combination of Hermes and Thoth and was considered by some to have been a real person), Thoth, and the Jewish patriarch Enoch (חֲנוֹךְ). Enoch is associated with an Islamic prophet named Idris (إدريس) by Ismail Hakki Bursevi. His view is now generally considered a misinterpretation of a passage in the Qur’an.
Nevertheless, whether accurate or not, correct or not, scientific or not, these men pursued the “elixir of life,” which if described in modern terms would be a liquid or substance than when ingested would keep the individual from aging and keep him living indefinetely. This elixir was produced through the diligent research and knowledge of the individual. Thus, it was by our definition a piece of technology.
This elixir, which was widely believed to be “drinkable gold” or “aurum potabile” in Latin, was put to many uses during the middle ages and no doubt earlier. There was in the middle ages an alchemical tradition both in Jewish circles and Christian which spoke of famous biblical figures drinking this gold to extend their lives. This was said of men such as Enoch, Noah, even Adam.
Islam has a very close connection to alchemy. The word itself, is an Arabic word al-kimiya الكيمياء which has a much disputed meaning. The consensus seems to be that it originated from the Egyptian word kemi.
In his work entitled Egyptian Magic, Budge provides reasons for believing “Alchemy” originated in Egypt. The derivation of the world “Alchemy” is usually referred to the Arabic al Khemia but it has also been states that it may be derived from the Egyptian word Kemt, which means “black” or :dusky”, and which was applied to the country on account of the dark colour of the mud which forms the soil on either side of the Nile.
Because many of the original Greek and Latin alchemical texts have been lost, the main source for the study of alchemy in pre-Islamic times are in Arabic. For a list of famous Arab alchemists look here and here. To underscore the idea that Arabic alchemists were also seeking this elixir of life, it shouod be noted that the very English word elixir comes from the Arabic word Al-lkseer الإكسير meaning combination or mixture.
According to Syed Akheel Ahmed in his book Islam and Scientific Enterprise, Islamist alchemists considered alchemy to have begun all the way in the garden of Eden with Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, JAcob, Joseph, Moses, David Solomon, Ezekiel and Daniel, all the way to the prophet Muhammad. He further stated, “Muslim alchemists considered Jesus Christ a resourceful alchemist with great ability and an advocate of the “honorable” art.” However we have not been able to find any details for such claims. Ulf Lagerkvist states in his book, The Enigma of Ferment: From The Philosopher’s Stone To The First Biochemical Nobel Prize, that
“…these medical paragons [Rhazes and Avicenna] seem to have been more interested in the supposed ability of the philospher’s stone to cure disease, than in its use to transmute base medals into gold.”
Thus through the use of tinctures of lead, mercury and other elements, early Islamic alchemists attempted to cure diseases and hoped eventually to renew youthful health. They worked against the natural aging process and through alchemy, attempted to surpass the what was at the time considered to be the limits of the human body.