An Anthropologist’s Study of Transhumanist Ideas
By Ingrid Bäckström
My name is Ingrid Bäckström and I am a graduate student working on a Master’s in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden. I also have the great pleasure of being titled as an associated scholar at Humanity + which I am forever grateful for. As of right now, I am located in Scottsdale Arizona where I also will be staying for two months to conduct fieldwork and gather empirical data for my master thesis on transhumanism. This is my story, so far.
Touch down in sunny Scottsdale Arizona. With a snowing Stockholm in my rearview, I now embark on my big adventure as an anthropologist out in the field. I left the comfort of the warm and safe library that resides in an edifice dating back to 1477, and from which I step out and explore the field of transhumanism, and to my surprise, I enjoyed the fresh air. But our adventure starts long before I flew across the ocean and between continents. It begins with this story in the words of Claude Levi-Strauss as he investigates the locus of experience that informs boundaries between the human physical structure and the core of agency:
In the Greater Antilles, some years after the discovery of America, whilst the Spanish were dispatching inquisitional commissions to investigate whether the natives had a soul or not, these very natives were busy drowning the white people they had captured in order to find out, after lengthy observation, whether or not the corpses were subject to putrefaction. (Levi-Strauss 1973:384).
In other words, it is not only anthropologists who have been interested in finding out what the human is and what its practices are. The question regarding the human body is one that perhaps stands the test of time since we as humans have always been interested in modifying it in different ways. Within the discipline of anthropology, body decorations and modifications are understood as a way to meet either beauty standards or to express religious or social obligations. Modifications are also in the words of anthropologists Margo DeMello: “[…] the simplest means by which human beings are turned into social beings – they move from “raw” to “cooked” as the body goes from naked to marked” (DeMello 2011: 339). Even though the ideas of transhumanism have been around for a long time, the philosophy of transhumanism is in many ways, the next step in how one can perceive the body, which is why this is a fruitful field for anthropology to explore. The question is, how do we relate to the idea of the “cooked” body or if you will, the enhanced and augmented body? What happens with our perception of the body when we take it one step further or perhaps even several steps further with ideas such as backed-up brains, avatars and super longevity?
The first day I was invited to Professor Natasha Vita-More’s study, a room filled with her marvellous achievements captured in frames that are hanging on the walls. I found myself in the middle of a goldmine as I was given the opportunity to go through some artefacts from the Extropy Institute such as Extropy magazines, newsletters and conference materials. These mark the very beginnings of the transhumanist movement. From there, the bookcase is filled with the progression of ideas over the past thirty years—three decades of transhumanist growth and advancements in the sciences, technologies, philosophy, ethics and innovations toward reaching the transhumanist goal of improving the human condition.
Provided with a little desk on my own and with a piece of history in my hands, I started the quest of trying to unravel the mystery of transhumanism and its following movement. Since then, I have conducted participant observations with my key informant Professor Vita-More at the University of Advancing Technology, where she teaches ethics courses. I have also conducted three Skype interviews with Doctor James J. Hughes, Newton Lee and Didier Coeurnelle. Lastly, I also had the great pleasure of getting a tour at Alcor Life Extension Foundation by Doctor Max More. After these initial three weeks of my fieldwork here in Scottsdale, my first impression of the movement so far is that this is a community with a strong sense of refreshing optimism and hope for the future of the human body. So, I invite you to follow me on my path of learning more about the transhumanist movement from an anthropological perspective—as I will explore questions such as: how do the transhumanist philosophy and movement perceive and relate to the biological body as well as the enhanced body, will we be able to upload our brains and how do transhumanists view the vitrified body?
DeMello, Margo. (2011). Modification – Blurring the divide: Human and Animal body Modifications in A Companion to the Anthropology of the body and Embodiment. Edited by Mascia-Lee, Frances E. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1973). . Race et Histoire. In Anthropologie structurale deux. Paris: Plon