Transhumanism as “newgenics”
Vice just published an article on how “prominent AI philosopher and ‘father’ of longtermism,” Nick Bostrom, “sent very racist email to a 90s philosophy listserv.” Bostrom “said that ‘Blacks are more stupid than whites,’ adding, ‘I like that sentence and think it is true,’ and used a racial slur.” The article mentions that the listserv was a “gathering place for transhumanists online,” but says nothing more about transhumanism and its connections with ableism and, as a result, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. Yet these three things very much go together. In fact, it’s impossible to understand any one of these terms without the others. But few people realize that transhumanism is a eugenic worldview that implicates ableism, racism, and cissexism.
Before elaborating on this claim, I should note that Bostrom is the co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, which seeks to “eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” through the use of technology. His current work argues that “dysgenic pressures,” caused by people with “lower IQs” outbreeding “intelligent” people, could threaten the viability of the human race. Bostrom hopes to increase “eugenic pressures” to produce an “intellectually superior” race of humans. Put differently, he wants to eliminate mental disabilities, and thus people with mental disabilities, and to produce more nondisabled (high-IQ) people. This position is patently eugenicist in that it seeks to enhance socially desired traits and (ipso facto) populations and to eliminate socially undesired traits and populations. As such, it is also ableist, racist, and cissexist, since eugenics is inextricably linked with these other systems. I hope that this scandal helps to raise awareness about the links between these interlocking systems of oppression, which I will unpack here.
Transhumanism is Ableist
Transhumanism is a form of ableist eugenics that perpetuates the logic of the Nazi regime, albeit through “gentler” means, i.e., by scientifically engineering disability out of existence. Eugenics, as such, has moved from the dark ghettos of Nazi Germany to well-lit science labs, but retains the same aims. Transhumanists want to reduce and eliminate disabilities and to engineer nondisabled bodies. This project fits Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s definition of eugenics as “an ideology and practice” that aims to “rid society of the human characteristics that we consider to be disabilities in the broadest sense and, often by extension, of people with disabilities” (2015: 14). Garland-Thomason uses the language of “characteristics we consider to be disabilities” rather than simply “disabilities” to flag that the concept of disability is not a natural kind or biological property, but rather a contingent and contestable social construct. As Shelley Tremain puts it, “disability is a historically and culturally specific and contingent social phenomenon, a complex apparatus of power rather than a natural attribute or property that certain people possess” (2016: 2). There is nothing inherently negative, tragic, or pitiable about disability as such, nothing that would warrant eliminating it from the human population. As a mutable social construct, disability should not, and cannot, be eliminated. Even if scientists succeeded in engineering a “super-human” race, the concept of disability would simply shift to the “unenhanced” population, which would be “disabled” by comparison. Indeed, this is the premise of the film Gattaca, in which “natural-born” people are second-class citizens labeled as “in-valids” and denied civil liberties, like equal access to jobs, housing, and basic respect. The film demonstrates that the mainstream concept of disability is a political apparatus used to uphold ableist hierarchies of power. Science cannot eliminate disability, but it can be used to police and punish “disabled people,” whoever they may be. This is the likely future of eugenics.
Now, one might object that mental disabilities are not like other disabilities; perhaps these disabilities are inherently bad and ought to be eliminated? This way of thinking is one of the most culturally-accepted and pernicious forms of ableism. As Stacy Simplican observes, “intellectual capacity” is a social construct used to gatekeep the rights and privileges associated with citizenship and personhood, withholding these entitlements from “intellectually disabled” people. Historically, the category of “intellectually disabled” took a number of forms – Locke, for instance, used the term “idiot” to describe Indigenous people, the poor, and other “social undesirables” – and these labels were used to police oppressed groups by designating them as irrational, savage, and unruly. The inventor of the IQ test, Henry Goddard, believed that “mental deficiency was rampant among blacks, immigrants, and poor whites” (Simplican 2015: 9). The IQ test was used to justify racist immigration and sterilization policies, and to “prove” the genetic superiority of whites. Bostrom’s racist comments confirm that these racial associations are not a thing of the past. An intelligence test cannot measure the worth of a person, which includes kindness, generosity, playfulness, and other relational properties that do not correspond with (and may correlate inversely with) IQ. Even if this were not true, IQ should not be used to assign social status, institutional access, or quality of life, which are basic human rights. But IQ is, still to this day, used to rank and police disabled people. Transhumanists think that the solution is to get rid of intellectual disability, whereas Simplican wants to get rid of IQ tests; “when we approach people with intellectual disabilities with an outstretched measuring stick, we repeat the worst flaws with the medical model: stripping the person down to their diagnosed flaw, refusing to see them as a complex person whose characteristics defy measurement, and judging by their measured outcomes” (Simplican 2015: 10). Intellectual disability is not a diagnosable impairment; it is a form of biodiversity that contributes to positive experiences, meaningful relationships, and solidarity in many people’s lives.
In sharp contrast to transhumanist thinking (and “philosophical commonsense” in general), crip theorists generally hold that the existence of disability is a positive good, something that should be embraced and valued. In Garland-Thomson’s words, “the human variations that we think of as disabilities” are something we should converse and protect, “because they are essential, inevitable aspects of human being and because these lived experiences provide individuals and human communities with multiple opportunities for expression, creativity, resourcefulness, relationships, and flourishing” (2015: 13). Elizabeth Barnes similarly affirms that disabilities are not inherently negative, but can be a source of pride, solidarity, knowledge, and creativity, just like any other minority position. Indeed, this is the standard view in crip theory, as I have explained elsewhere; most crip theorists see human diversity in general, and disability in particular, as a social good worth protecting and preserving. Indeed, there is an entire culture, “crip culture,” structured around the value of disability, and eugenicists seek to dismiss, disvalue, and ultimately eliminate this culture through (in effect) a process of cultural genocide.
The transhumanist view of disability as “impairment” is part of a eugenic ideology that aims to disvalue and eliminate disability and disabled culture, depriving disabled people of a sense of pride, community, and political power. This view is not only ableist but racist and cissexist, given that eugenics cannot be understood independent of these other systems of oppression.
Transhumanism is Racist and Sexist
It is unsurprising that a leading transhumanist would make racist claims, given that eugenics, i.e., the basis of transhumanism, is linked with white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. These intersections have been documented by a number of scholars, including Garland-Thomson, Rose, and Sabrina Strings. Since I have discussed these connections elsewhere, I will just give a brief overview here. In Fearing the Black Body,Strings traces the origins of fatphobia to the beginnings of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. For most of the 19th Century, a “round,” “fleshy” figure was considered ideal for women. This changed at the turn of the century, when Harper’s Bazaar published an article stating that “‘stoutness, corpulence, and surplusage of flesh’ are never desirable ‘except among African savages.’” Around this time, white authors started publishing descriptions of Africans as “corpulent,” “excessively fleshy,” “lazy and thieving,” “sexually and orally indulgent,” and “simple and stupid.” These descriptions solidified the associations between Blackness, fatness, and intellectual disability in the public imagination. Black women in particularly were stereotyped as fat, indolent, and sluggish. The paradigm of the fat, Black, “stupid” woman was “used to both degrade black women and discipline white women,” says Strings. It “disciplined” white women by motivating them to adopt diets and beauty regimens designed to promote thinness (e.g., diet pills) and whiteness (e.g., skin-lightening products). Strings’ genealogy reveals that Black femininity was mythologized under slavery as multiply-disabled (fat, unintelligent). Blackness in general was imagined as impairment, something to be avoided and eliminated. Today, the beauty industry still makes billions of dollars a year selling products that promise a classically European look, and the disabling apparatus of racial capitalism is alive and well, which confirms that the associations between whiteness, thinness, and able-bodiedness are not a relic of the past. Blackness was constructed under slavery as disability, and still carries this implication in modern times.
Other scholars have drawn similar connections. Rose explains how, in the wake of the industrial revolution, African Americans, immigrants, and women were consigned to the most dangerous jobs (e.g., mining, handling toxic chemicals), which resulted in high rates of disabling injuries, workforce exclusion, and public dependency in those groups. That is, racialized minorities and women were positioned as paradigmatically disabled under capitalism. In The Beauty and the Freak, Garland-Thomson uses iconography rather than labor dynamics to underscore the same associations. She points out that 20th-century “freak shows” exhibited disabled people (with “anomalous bodies”) under the banner of “armless wonders,” “Siamese twins,” “fat men,” “bearded women,” “spotted boys” (with vitiligo), and other disfiguring descriptions. In the lexicography of the time, freakishness was disability. At the same time, beauty pageants displayed thin, white, cisgender women with nearly-identical bodies. This contrast exemplifies the conflation of Blackness, genderqueerness, and disability on the one hand, as opposed to the ideal of white, cisgender, able-bodied sameness on the other hand. Historically, disability was affiliated with Blackness and genderqueerness, and these associations persist today. (As McRuer puts it, “queerness broadly conceived… is regularly understood or positioned in contemporary culture as always a bit disabled,” and vice versa (2020: 63)). Consequently, to promote a nondisabled body is to promote a white, cisgender body – that is, a “normal,” non-freakish body. Transhumanism’s quest to eliminate disability is entangled, historically, structurally, and symbolically, with racism and cissexism. While transhumanists might want to deny these connections, they are deeply embedded in the construction and positioning of disability. Intellectual disability in particular has been used to oppress racial and sexual Others.
Cyborgism vs. Transhumanism
At this point, one might object that a tranhumanist may want to use technology to cultivate more human biodiversity, the very thing that Garland-Thomson advocates for. After all, couldn’t we use reproductive technologies to select and produce more disabled babies?
But this isn’t what transhumanists want – at least, it’s not what Bostrom wants. The World Transhumanist Association, as we saw, seeks to use technology to “eliminate aging” and “enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Transhumanists are committed to a eugenic future. And our society is on their side. Biomedicine is moving in the direction of eugenics and away from biodiversity. As Jacqueline Mae Wallis attests, “selection for genetic deafness… encounters widespread disapproval in the hearing community, including mainstream philosophy and bioethics” (2020). The same can be said for other disabilities, which are routinely selected against. Transhumanism has the overwhelming support of the public and the private sector. The Bostrom-led Future of Humanities Institute, which publishes transhumanist policy papers amongst other things, has received millions of dollars in funding from various sources, including $1 million (shared with the Center for the Study of Existential Risk) from Elon Musk, the same billionaire who reopened Tesla in violation of public health orders, called people worried about coronavirus “dumb” (an ableist slur), laid off the entire accessibility engineering team at Twitter, and made disparaging comments about Tourette’s Syndrome. Musk’s actions have consistently shown that, while he claims to care about the future of humanity, he does not seem to care about justice for the disabled people who already exist.
Musk’s donation, moreover, is an example of the type of anti-democratic “philanthropy” that I have denounced on this blog in the past, which is harmful to disabled people as an oppressed group, forced into dependency on public aid, private charity, and institutional accommodations. When philosophers accept dirty money from corrupt billionaires, they become subservient to neoliberal interests that are at odds with disability justice. Put simply, they sell out. They are helping the rich transform education, which should be a public service, into a private commodity that makes money for corporations, churns out corporate propaganda, and helps billionaires burnish their reputations. The philosophers hurt most by these deals are those who publish research antithetical to a corporate agenda, which includes crip, queer, and decolonial theorists. Our work is increasingly dismissed as “ideological,” “impractical,” and “counterintuitive,” in contrast to the “intuitive” and “scientific” views of corporate-backed scholars.
Transhumanism, then, is not a good vehicle for disability justice or the preservation of human biodiversity. But there is a theory that is compatible with these goals, and it is called cyborgism. The figure of the cyborg was popularized by Donna Haraway in A Cyborg Manifesto, which imagined the cyborg as a transgressive figure capable of deconstructing and dismantling Western dualisms, like those between man/woman, human/animal, and human/machine. As crip theorist Donna Reeve points out, many disabled people are cyborgs in that they use assistive technology. Yet cyborg theory is not a panacea; it cannot “offer solutions for the material disadvantage faced by disabled people in society,” for example (Reeve 2012: 91). Having said that, cyborgism was introduced by Haraway to challenge binaries in western, and especially western feminist, thought, and to open new possibilities for resistance, liberation, and solidarity. As Alison Kafer argues, cyborg theory “suggest the possibility of crip futurities, futurities grounded in something other than the compulsory reproduction of able-bodiedness/able-mindedness” (2013: 106). A “freakish” body, a “deviant” body, an “impaired” body, could be reimagined as a cyborg body, a site of contestation, resistance, and coalition-building. Cyborg theory, then, emerged from a desire for resistance, and contains the potential for disability activism and justice. This is in stark contrast to transhumanism’s past and present politics of enhancement, sameness, eugenic world-building, and compulsory able-bodiedness. For these reasons, I consider cyborgism to be a much better fit with disability justice than transhumanism, given the two theories’ contrasting genealogies, symbolisms, and affiliations.
It is also worth noting that transhumanists are, by all appearances, overwhelmingly white, cisgender, male, and nondisabled, unlike the majority of cyborg theorists. These types of correlations are, I believe, instructive. Theories attract people who benefit from them, and if transhumanists are disproportionally from elite social groups, they will tend to perpetuate the elite interests of these groups.
In sum, if the Vice article accomplishes anything, I hope it is not to shame a specific person, but to shine a light on transhumanism’s history and ongoing connections to eugenic systems of power. We need alternatives to these ideologies, and crip theory is a fruitful source of critical insight.