The Transhumanist Movement Is Having an Identity Crisis
A schism within the global Transhumanist Party calls into question whether the party can survive in politics at all.
Image adapted from JD Hancock/Flickr
How many fringe movements, subcultures, and special interest groups have been torn apart by infighting right when they were at the verge of reaching a larger audience? It's a common phenomenon that has thwarted many important discussions before they even began, and now it seems to be happening to the Transhumanist Party.
The first inkling of a rift began with a blog post on October 12 written by the leader of the UK's Transhumanist Party, M. Amon Twyman.
"I feel that I must address the question of Zoltan Istvan," Twyman wrote, referring to the movement's highest-profile US figure, Zoltan Istvan. (Full disclosure: Istvan writes an occasional column for Motherboard.)
Istvan is currently running a symbolic campaign for US President under the banner of the Transhumanist Party, but other transhumanists are calling the legitimacy and legality of his campaign into question, as well as how he's portrayed himself within the movement.
"Recently we have heard a lot of disgruntled mumblings about schism, and disunity within the movement," Twyman wrote. "Once such issue has involved unilateral statements made by Zoltan Istvan, ostensibly on behalf of the Transhumanist Party."
Transhumanism may be too big and too multifaceted of a concept to be embodied by a central organization
Transhumanism is the belief that humanity should do everything in its power to use technology to overcome the limitations of human biology, and is perhaps best described as a philosophy or intellectual movement. But the major players within transhumanism aim to politicize it, to raise their profile worldwide and potentially have people with legislative power representing their interests: to that end, they created the multinational Transhumanist Party in 2014.
According to the Institute for Social Futurism, the Transhumanist Party is an informal global umbrella concern, dedicated in turn to establishing smaller Transhumanist parties in countries around the world. As a whole, the movement is pretty disorganized, and how the different groups relate to each other is excessively labyrinthine. (I was provided this explanatory wiki by transhumanist David Kelley; you are welcome to it.)
Now, the two biggest Parties-within-the-Party are currently in ideological conflict, and their squabble raises some rather big questions: is the Transhumanist movement too far-reaching and too vague to support unified political action? If so, how will we as a society address the legal and ethical concerns that will undoubtedly arise as biotechnology becomes more advanced?
In a statement on his party's blog, Twyman calls for inclusion of all ideas, and touts this as one of transhumanism's greatest values:
"The strength of the Party is the same as the strength of the wider Movement of which it is a part: Cooperation, and a sense of unity which paradoxically arises from an acceptance of diversity and pluralism. In other words, the Transhumanist Party—worldwide—is thriving because we understand that our members do not all have to believe exactly the same things in order to be on the same team and achieve common goals."
Transhumanism is meant to be a big tent, with room for ideological disagreement and debate. Twyman's problem is not with Istvan's opinions, but with his conduct. To Twyman, Istvan is overstepping his bounds within the already tenuous democracy of the global Party, falsely communicating his ideas as representative of the Party as a whole. For example, Istvan's primary concern is immortality, and how humanity can achieve it—but as Twyman points out in his statement, the importance of immortality is not a concept all transhumanists agree on.
And according to a former colleague, Istvan's campaign is not complying with FEC regulations. Hank Pellissier was formerly the secretary of Istvan's iteration of the party, but has since left and distanced himself from Istvan. Pellissier contacted Motherboard with concerns about Istvan's legitimacy as a worthy figurehead for transhumanism, and pointed us to a Vox article where Istvan openly admits to flouting the FEC's regulations.
As Pellissier told Motherboard via email, "his 'Party' is a LLC that is legally a PAC, but he advertises it as a Political Party, for his publicity purposes. His representation of it as such is illegal via FEC rules. We're getting a legal research paper drawn up on that topic." (The "we" refers to a group of Istvan's opponents whom Pellissier was reluctant to name.)
Pellissier also points out that being both the party's chairman and its candidate simultaneously (as Istvan is doing) would be illegal if the party had been properly legitimized, which it has not done in the US as it has in the UK.
The FEC declined my request for comment, saying "the Commission doesn't comment on the campaign activity of specific candidates or committees as matters have the potential to come before the agency."
Istvan has dismissed Twyman's statement as a power grab, and compared the movement to a startup that is still too small to require true democracy. "The Transhumanist Party will be given to the people when enough people have signed up for it," Istvan told Motherboard. He says he's amassed much more support for the movement in the US than Twyman has in the UK, and that the UK branch of the party wouldn't disclose proof of its official numbers to him. Twyman claims 500 members, but Istvan thinks this is a fabrication.
"Even if there are 500 members, it still doesn't really constitute a political party in terms of it being a real, legitimate force," Istvan said. "It's not a real candidacy, it's a cult."
In the end, the argument between Twyman and Istvan is really a he-said/he-said. In a statement to Motherboard, Twyman said his national party is bigger; Istvan says the opposite. Istvan says he is a cofounder of the global Party; Twyman says he is no more than a vocal advocate. And the actual facts are well obscured by the chaotic nature of the movement and its attendant organizations.
Transhumanists don't agree on much, it turns out, from the structure of the party in the US to whether transhumanism should even be politicized. A request to Pellissier for clarification on some of the details in this article devolved into a chain of emails in which a dozen or so transhumanists argued about various aspects of the movement and whether it could be effectively politicized. None of them could really agree on an answer to my question, and eventually they seemed to forget I had been copied on the discussion at all.
Both men at the center of the debate are, for the most part, taking great pains to be polite. Twyman has said that Istvan is "passionate" and "valued," and Istvan says he and Twyman are still friends.
Overall, Istvan seems unperturbed by Twyman's statements, and chalks it up to the awkward fledgling stages of developing a political party. "Any kind of conflict between the party, is something that can be easily worked out. This is the nature of politics. We'll find a good way and Transhumanism will grow because of it," he said.
But the fact is, a successful and enduring multinational political party would be an unprecedented feat in political history. Transhumanism may be too big and too multifaceted of a concept to be embodied by a central organization. Perhaps the answer lies in focusing on advocating via special interest groups, rather than a separate party.
None of them could really agree on an answer to my question
I reached out to several prominent transhumanists about this, and most of them disagreed with me, saying they believed in the potential power of a political party. One expressed doubts, however. Transhumanist Peter Rothman told me via email that "transhumanists already hold political positions and possess political beliefs. If you look at these they are quite varied across the entire spectrum of right/left, anarchy/big government. A singular party can not represent this sort of diversity of opinion."
Either way, we will inevitably need to address the concerns of transhumanism as we slide ever closer to becoming something more than human. If the Transhumanist Party wants to lead that global discussion, it will need to refocus its efforts.
Lead image adapted from JD Hancock/Flickr