Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

I Coulda Been a Messiah!

I recently had an exchange with a progressive friend. He had just announced that he had become a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), a prominent transhumanist venue. Since I had trod that path before him, we inevitably came to the part where I pointed out that transhumanism is composed almost exclusively of white American men — and its upper echelon entirely so (H+ devotees invariably counter that most of their gofers are female and/or ethnic, so there!). Whereupon my friend replied: “Yes, it’s a white boys’ club. As far as I know that’s not because of a policy of exclusion. It’s because primarily white boys think about this stuff.” Which puts him in the same group (and class) as Larry Summers, who declared that women aren’t in the sciences because their brains just aren’t wired for numbiz.

Now, I’d been thinking and talking about issues colonized by transhumanists ever since I became a biologist: genetic engineering, prostheses, organ replacement and regeneration, longevity, brain function – for the simple reason that they are core domains in biology (to say nothing of medicine, society, etc). And ain’t I a woman? A dark ethnic one, at that? So no, Virginia, thinking Bik Thotz is not limited to white boys. But I guess that a thought doesn’t count as big (or even as a thought) until/unless a white boy utters it. Or, as a reviewer for one of my research manuscripts once opined, “If what you report were true, someone would have discovered it.”

The exchange made me realize the fatal error I committed about two decades ago: I neglected to call my thoughts a movement, give it a sonorous name and the glitzy rhetoric to match and register it as a non-profit with me as CEO – or President of the Board, I’m not picky. I could have become the Madame Blavatsky of transhumorism… er, transhumanism.  After all, given what passes as biology in the movement, I could do it half-asleep: I would recycle my Biochem 101 primer decked out in shiny costume jewelry with futuristic terms sprinkled liberally on the word salad. If qualified biologists objected to my prophesications, I would call them bioluddites and sic my devoted groupies on them. And like Pharaoh Hatshepsut, I would attach a beard to my chin and stroke it thoughtfully for more gravitas (and to illustrate postgenderism in action).

Alas, I did not avail myself of the golden opportunity. Instead, I opted to do basic research in the neurobiology of mental retardation and dementia. Not for me the mindmelds of the Humanity Plus Summits (where, this year, a satellite workshop will discuss “whole brain emulation, mind transfer, digital personalities, gradual replacement techniques…” – perhaps with hefty participation by the Syfy channel). Not for me the acolytes who would swoon from interacting with my Second Life babelicious bod. This lack of prescience will preclude me from being a Rupturee. No frolicking in the Matrix Hereafter in a clingy black patent leather outfit.

But I know myself too well. I’d be bored stiff in any place where charlatanism passes for provocative thinking or cutting edge science. Cults are very similar in that you have to actively suppress your brain processes to play along. I told my friend that we should revisit this conversation when his stint at the IEET is done. Unless the Singularity happens first, of course.

Image: Agent Smith and his homogeneous whitebread associates (The Matrix)

More references for those thirsting for enlightenment:

Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!
Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

16 Responses to “I Coulda Been a Messiah!”

  1. Caliban says:

    Two thoughts. First, you are a scientist, and the essence of science is doubt and questioning, neither of which is compatible with proselytizing. This is where many scientists (primarily male) go off the rails as they age–they stop doubting and questioning and start believe in the truthiness of whatever thoughts happen to wander across their frontal lobes.

    Second, your “progressive” friend may have had a point, but not the one he thought he had. First a digression. Once a former academic friend (who happens to study feminist issues in science fiction) opined that rockets and planes were, well, phallic in shape because aerodynamics was dominated by men, leaving open the possibility that if only women were involved, they might discover that O’Keefesque flower shapes might be equally effective. I suggested in jest the opposite, that aerodynamics was dominated by men precisely because men were subconsciously attracted to the phallic shapes to be found in that subject.

    My point is that maybe transhumanism is a white boys club, not because it requires Big Thotz, but rather because transhumanism is rife with fantasies of immortality and unlimited power, and it is the power fantasies that attract white boyz. (I call it the Captain Kirk syndrome, the insistence that there must be some way you can always win.)

  2. Athena says:

    You’re right on both counts; I believe that my friend was implying the same thing as you do, but the assumptions behind that sentence are worth exploring. To extend your first point, when truthy stuff meanders through women’s frontal lobes, they’re socialized to smile ruefully and continue mending socks, not start religions or wars.

    In connection with your second point (and that of my friend), the pertinent question is: why do power fantasies attract white boyz? To follow your aerodynamics reverse paradigm (and reconnect to frontal lobes versus social conditioning), I think it’s not that power fantasies attract white boyz exclusively or even predominantly; it’s that the power fantasies of white boyz are far likelier to be taken seriously and put into practice.

  3. Susan says:

    I agree – delusions and fantasies about power and ego are common to everyone – it’s just a small section of society whose desires are constantly facilitated to the effect that they can indulge in these illusions.

  4. Athena says:


  5. intrigued_scribe says:

    So true! And to me, as prominent as the obvious privileges enjoyed by that small section of society is a kind of irony accompanying said charlatanism; the more shine and pomposity it’s wrapped in, it often seems, the more eagerly its enthusiasts receive it.

  6. Michael says:

    Walhydra cheers you on…and she wants to know more about transhumorism.


  7. Athena says:

    Heather, you’re absolutely right. The Emperor’s New Clothes has remained valid and pertinent for a reason!

    Michael, transhumorism is people opining loudly that mainstream science needs snake charmers and handlers to make real progress. I’ve long been tempted to write a book about it. Time to perfect cloning, so that Athena2 can do this! *laughs*

  8. I’ve wondered why transhumanism is so consistently upper-class white male, too. (Although the first guy who lent me his copy of Extropy back in high school is ethnically Hindu, the first Alcor member I met is ethnically Chinese, and so on, but I’ll grant that the bias you point out does hold pretty strongly, over all, especially with regard to the penis thing.) I suppose one possibility is that transhumanism is, as you accuse, a thought-suppressing cult led by charlatans, much like Objectivism, and that (as I think you are implying) only upper-class white men are vulnerable to being tricked into such cults.

    On further consideration, though, I can think of any number of thought-suppressing cults led by charlatans that are more or less gender-balanced. So, for the time being, I am going to leave unanswered the question of whether transhumanism is or is not such a cult, as it seems to be irrelevant to the main question: why transhumanism is so consistently upper-class white male.

    So here are some suggestions:

    Maybe transhumanism is not primarily a discipline, like neuroscience, but primarily a subculture, a group of people who adopt its values and beliefs not because they are objectively proven, but because they know other people who hold them. In this case, the reason transhumanists are mostly upper-class white men in California is that the folks who started it happened to be upper-class white men in California, and they mostly knew other people who were a lot like themselves. A side aspect of this is that often groups of people who share a common background will enforce aspects of their common culture inside the group that serve to exclude people from a different background. I can’t even talk about what some of those things are here for fear I’ll offend somebody white.

    Transhumanism is deeply geeky. Several other deeply geeky activities — contributing to open-source software, getting Ph.D.s in high-energy physics, reading hard science fiction — have vast preponderances of maleness, and usually upper-class white maleness, for that matter. I could write volumes about why this is or might be, but there’s no need for me to do so; other people already have. (I recommend my friend Linley Erin Hall’s book, “Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie?”) Maybe some of the same reasons apply across more than one of these fields.

    Maybe particular personal characteristics of particular individuals involved in the movement serve to drive women, people from other ethnic groups, etc. away from the movement.

  9. Athena says:

    I never imply, either in the article or in the comments, that white anglosaxon middle-class middle-aged men are uniquely susceptible to being seduced by cults. On the contrary, history shows that everyone’s vulnerable. However, if transhumanism wishes to be taken as something more than a goofy hobbyists’ club, its adherents have to go past congregating around the waterhole with friends to share wet dreams of infinite control or discuss the latest hard scifi book. Many cultural and political movements started from a particular nexus group. But they consciously overcame this parochialism on their way to becoming resonant and effective. Also, transhumanism needs to really understand the difference between science and scifi, and act accordingly.

  10. That was purely my misreading that attributed that implication to you, then. Sorry about that. And thanks for fixing up my markup.

    With regard to becoming “resonant and effective”, there are several possible outcomes.

    On one axis, transhumanism, conceived as a sort of club or faction, could become larger or smaller, and independently could become more or less powerful. By virtue of the privilege held by the particular people who happen to be inside that club, they’re already fairly powerful for their size, having obtained, for example, quite a bit of NSF and corporate funding for molecular nanotechnology research, Xanadu, SSL, Tor, secure operating systems, and the like; and efforts like Singularity University seem like they could increase both the power and the size of the faction considerably, even if most of the people who join are also upper-class, white, and male. Maybe especially in that case.

    On a second axis, transhumanism, conceived as a set of propositions or predictions about what will happen in the world, might turn out to be simply false, or true but of minimal importance, or true and of importance. Certainly, if its predictions are based on scifi rather than science, (especially in the SyFy Channel sense of scifi rather than the sense that “As We May Think” was scifi) they will be less likely to come true. But the skin color or genital configuration of the people making those predictions has very little to do with their chance of being correct.

    Of course, if they’re practicing a policy of exclusion, even unconsciously,they’re excluding information from people with the wrong skin color or genital configuration, which could be a major cognitive handicap.

    There’s another interaction between these axes: the more the predictions come true, the more members and credibility the faction is likely to have. Reminded by a chat with a friend of mine who lives overseas because of financial laws in their home country, I just read The Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto the other day, and I reflected that it seems a little less far-fetched now than when it was written in 1988 or when I first read it in 1992.

    So I guess we’ll see what happens. I worry a little bit when I see Eliezer self-consciously posing as a prophet of rationality, because I remember what happened when Ayn Rand did that. But on the other hand, people seem to be learning stuff, and maybe their AI research will even bear fruit; I don’t know.

    All of this, of course, is pretty orthogonal to the question of why the current transhumanist movement is so homogeneous, and also the question of whether the world they predict is desirable.

  11. AnneC says:

    Hopefully on-topic: one of the main things that turned me off to transhumanism was the fact that it was, for lack of a better phrase, “too easy”. The folks who considered themselves bigwigs in the “movement” were (in my opinion) WAY too easily impressed. So long as you used the right buzzwords and seemed to agree with them, you would be given generous praise and talked to like you were some member of an elite intellectual cadre. And frankly, that sort of thing really gets to me even when it’s me being given the praise. Rigor and criticism are fundamentally necessary to science, as much as enthusiasm and interest are.

  12. Athena says:

    Kragen Javier:

    In this era of shrinking pies, when transhumanism receives money for bogus science it takes that money away from legitimate science. Also, its bleatings that mainstream science does not address critical issues play right into the hands of reactionary politicians and their fellow travelers. Transhumanist biology is a mishmash of dated textbook rehashes and wishful thinking (plus a sprinkling of misused cutting-edge terms equivalent to the ab/use of quantum mechanics by New Agers). So it’s unclear that people who learn about biology within transhumanism learn anything useful. The Singularity University’s curriculum is frankly pitiful and confirms that the venture is simply a vanity piece for CEOs — and, of course, a source of easy money for the founders.

    Although the accuracy of any prediction (scientific or not) does not depend on race, gender or ethnicity, the questions posed and the assumptions that often dictate the answers do. This is a handicap in addition to excluding context-free expertise. The makeup of a group skews both the enterprise and its applications, especially if a core assumption is that their own way of thinking and being is the only legitimate one, and is/should be the default for all humanity. Or, as a pertinent cartoon says, “So the Singularity is the nerd way of saying, ‘in the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.'”

    As for predictions coming true, prophets are about as right or wrong as the average population — they just have an audience ready to disseminate their sayings. The strong messianic streak in transhumanism alone makes it a poor fit with reality and with future species fitness. And if you look around you, you will see that people cling to beliefs completely independently of whether a scintilla of their prophecies has come to pass or not. Credibility has little to do with accuracy, as Cassandra found out.


    You’re right about the lack of rigor. That’s because most “upper echelon” transhumanists are people who turned their teenage or midlife crisis into something cosmic: CEOs who wanted to play with their golden parachute money in ways more creative than golfing; sysadmins who had too much time on their hands between system crashes; scifi writers who ran dry and wanted to be known (and heeded) as “futurists”. The level of collective scientific expertise in transhumanism is about freshman college, if that.

  13. Walden2 says:

    Athena, please let me know what the rules are and where you keep the forms for becoming one of your groupies. And what are the fees?

    On a maybe related note, check out this article on the new film Eat, Pray, Love:

    As I once read a Native American saying in response to the white folks brief craze for everything Native American after Dances with Wolves came out, why can’t they focus on their own culture and religions?

  14. Athena says:

    Hmmm… let me get back to you on that! I must think of an induction ceremony and fee structure. *laughs*

    I read the Salon review of Eat, Pray, Love. Sounds like the usual “finding yourself” by touristifying at exotic locations. Snort.

  15. Sue Lange says:

    If the Singularity that the transhumanists are looking for doesn’t happen, this will go the way of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (which from what I understand is making a comeback, so there’s that) and astrology: there will always be a small but fervent following while the rest of humanity plods forward using the old-fashioned method of survival–work, eat, work, eat, work, eat.

    The thing that makes me think this might be a bit more dangerous is that some of the true believers hold powerful positions in such entities as the military. And in order for them to make a more perfect world for trans- and post-humanism to operate in, the environment (as in mother nature) and our culture has to be changed. Even if posthumanism is not possible, these powerful people will napalm the planet if they feel it is necessary to create the correct medium for their future post-Singularity. They will do it for our own good even if the most of us, us lesser minorities, don’t want it, don’t need it, and are basically happy with our bodies and the world biological evolution has given us.

    These people might very well be positioned to force us all onto the grid of the future. And like every marginalized group that has had their land and culture ripped out from underneath them so that a dam could be built, a mine could be dug, a mountain removed, a river diverted, or hunting grounds turned into pasture and gardens, we will lose what we love.

    That’s the danger of transhumanism. I couldn’t care less if people want to freeze their heads so they can wake up in a hundred years (good luck with the future shock), but when they force their cryogenic planet on me, well, that’s just rude!

  16. Athena says:

    Work, eat, and also make love. But you’re right about the danger. Rand’s theories did skew economies, via Greenspan if nothing else, and may have brought the country to today’s sorry pass. And the Rupture and all its variants sound eerily like concentration camps, where those who “cooperate” with the higher intellects (AI, cyborg or various combos) will be allowed to survive — or at least survive a little longer, and/or take a morsel of the supposed largesse.