The Memetics of Transhumanism

Or: How is the Memetic Health of Transhumanism?

This is based upon a posting to the Extropians list Nov 24 1994.

What memes are compatible with transhumanism and which are not? From a memetic standpoint, one should expect memes which occupy the same or a very similar "ecological niche" to feel threatened, and try to repulse transhumanist memes. On the other hand, memes whose niches are not threatened, or even helped, by the tranhshumanist memes to support them.

Transhumanism as a Religion

The transhumanist memes often bind to memetic receptors normally linked to religious memes, at least the typical western monotheistic religions. Both types of memes have similar baits: the promise of a brighter future, health, prosperity, freedom, happiness, immortality and eventual transcendence. The difference is mainly how these changes should be achieved and what implications they have. Both memes protect the host from many negative emotions by providing an explanation for things and most importantly a future goal. Like all good memes they protect themselves against competitors by denouncing foreign memes as "heretic" or "entropic", or by building a world-view where competing memes are obviously wrong. One of the more unique defenses of the transhumanist meme is its emphasis on openness and tolerance for all other memes as long as they are also tolerant; memes which reject this (like most religious memes) are themselves rejected (this is very similar to Axelrod's Tit-for-Tat strategy in the Prisoners Dilemma).

Its worth noting that Christianity and transhumanism doesn't necessarily contradict each other. The evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin shows that it is possible for both memes to be combined, although this meme isn't very widespread, partially due to suppression from the Christian meme, partially due to inherent weaknesses. Currently this meme is mainly spread in a mutated, secular form among transhumanists as the belief in the Omega Point.

Note that this is both good news and bad news for transhumanism. Religoid memes have shown themselves to be extremely successful. But they also often promote irrationality and mindless acceptance of the meme. And transhumanism runs the risk of being subjected to convergent evolution, to end up a religion.

I have already noted disturbing signs that some transhumanists regard their views as so self-evident and morally sound, that any critique is dismissed or seen as an attack. This is natural, since successful memes tend to form strong emotional defences (partially because they protect the host from many anxieties and fears, and thus removal implies loss of protection). While these defences help the host, they also protect the meme by making it indispensable and causing any competing memes to appear as threat to the emotional wellbeing of the host.

The "Millennial Fever" is in the air right now. Its quite natural and common, regarding the ideas of the dominant religions in the world and the profound effect they have had on every aspect of culture. Although the outward reasons might be different (ecocalypse, the Singularity, the Aeon, the Rapture, WW III, etc), the meme itself is simple: Something Big Is Going To Happen. It can bind to just any other meme (a so called co-meme, and is attractive (and increases the attraction of the host meme somewhat, by making them more urgent and dramatic).

Just like the religoid memes, the millennial co-meme is neither good or bad. It can enhance the spread of transhumanism, but provokes irrationality and has a time-limit (less so for transhumanism than many other religoid memes, since we can always move the Singularity forward in time with little effort).

What is needed right now is to critically survey the memes linked to (or forming) transhumanism in its various forms, and to see which memes should be supported, which can be ignored and which should be resisted. I don't think many of us would like to see transhumanism turned into a religion (Frank Tipler may already have taken the first steps in this direction with his ideas about God-Omega), so we must endeavor to find ways to prevent this without making our memes too noncompetitive.

Transhumanism as Politics

When it comes to political memes, transhumanism in its purest form doesn't have any fixed niche. Instead each host or group of hosts link it to their previous political views, or find new views which doesn't interfere too much with the tranhshumanist meme (or in some cases subordinate the meme under their views, but this seems to be rarer, possibly because transhumanism uses a more powerful memetic receptor). What political memes fit the transhumanist meme? Since by its nature the transhumanist meme is dynamic, and for change and flexibility, it will contradict most memes which regard stability or very slow changes as good (i.e. most forms of conservatism). In the same way its emphasis on technological advancement contradicts anti-technology and anti-science memes, or memes with strong ties to these (like some parts of environmentalism).

Extropianism, which is a combination of transhumanist memes and libertarianism, seems to be one of the more dynamic and well integrated systems. This has been successful, mainly because the meme has been able to organize its hosts much better than other transhumanistic meme-complexes. This has led to a certain bias among transhumanists linked to the Net towards the extropian version of the meme since it is the most widely spread and active.

One of the main memetical problems for current transhumanism is that many listeners confuse transhumanist ideas with other, more well-knonwn groups. This is especially unfortunate since many people associate ideas of superhumanity, rationally changing our biological form and speeding up the evolution of mankind with unfashionable or disliked memes like fascism. This is partially due to the fact that transhumanism is unfamilliar to most people, and they want to relate the meme to another meme they have encountered (and thus search the "far out" parts of the meme-space first), and partially because many transhumanist ideas had counterparts (real or apparent) among the fascists.

However, there are other possibilities for recombination with politics. Milder forms of transhumanism, or parts of the transhumanist meme can be combined with many political views without much trouble. Such "watered down" versions or co-memes encounter less resistance, and can spread easier. This represents another memetic danger/opportunity: in order to become more accepted transhumanism has to become less extreme. Its worth noting that this "watering down" is opposed to the religioid form of transhumanism, which emphazises the dramatic effects.

Strength Through Diversity

One approach, which I have pondered, is to try to split transhumanism into several directions. Currently we must admit that transhumanist memes mainly appeal to a rather small culture (consisting largely of well-educated, self-affirming western people with a strong predominance of un-PC white males). In ecology, its well known that species existing within a limited niche are vulnerable to more general competitors or if the niche disappears or changes. This is IMHO the main problem of the feminists, they have become very tied to certain political movements, which makes them dependent on them. In order for transhumanistic ideas and memes to flourish, we need to break out of our limited niche!

For example, our current rhetoric doesn't work too well among many women, who apparently sees it as too technical, too much "toys-for-boys" and not linked to more practical concerns (these are my impressions, and may vary quite a bit). But what if we rephrased our views, removed certain memes and encouraged others? For example, freedom to decide over one's body would probably appeal even more to women than men, while many of the more radical technological ideas like uploading and the Singularity could be dropped in favor for simpler and more direct ideas about life-extension. I'm not exactly proposing a "Women's Transhumanism", but a different style of presentation which isn't as linked to the current memetic niche. In the same way we might want to spread non-technical transhumanism, where the fulfillment of the potential of humans is emphasized, while the technical aspects are regarded as less important (and left to the technical transhumanists).

In the same way we might want to spread transhumanistic ideas into other memetic niches and cultures, with different changes. For example, the individualism western transhumanism demonstrate might not be suitable for the far east, where the ideals of self-organization might take its place. Note that not all of these versions of the original meme will be equal, and many might ally themselves with memes we currently dislike. But the overall effect would be much more diversity, many more approaches to our problems and a much safer future for our ideas.

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Anders Sandberg /