The last canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with the poet taking stock of his unprecedented enterprise. Thus far, his imaginative journey has taken him, like the epic heroes of old, to the depths of the underworld. But, unlike them, he does not return to the world. Instead, he passes through the realm of forsaken souls to ascend the purgatorial terraces of a mountain never seen since mankind’s first parents were expelled from the garden which rests on its summit. Now, however, on the threshold of Paradise itself, he must embark on an odyssey which no mortal ever had, entering into celestial regions beyond all finite comprehension. To describe the uncanny task that his poem will undertake, Dante employs a strange term to characterize his endeavor: “trasumanar,” which has been rendered as “passing beyond humanity.” But more simply (and more literally), it means: “transhuman.”
The connotations of this word in the context of the poem could hardly be more different than the ones in contemporary discourse—and yet, the comparison is instructive. Like Dante, modern transhumanists seek to push humanity past its limits; but whereas the poet of the Comedy does so while being guided on a journey which has its original impetus in God’s mercy, no heavenly spirits inspire our present-day transhumanists. For them, the human person is not the object of the Psalmist’s awe, as when he wonders: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Ps 8:4). Having been created in the image of no one, the human animal is still an unfinished work in progress.
Transhumanism once referred only to the theories of fringe futurists who looked forward to a future indistinguishable from the most fantastical flights of science fiction. Nevertheless, their vision has inspired many at the very vanguard of research, technology, industry, and investment; now a dedicated cadre of committed zealots aim at nothing less than reshaping every recognizable facet of human life. And, almost without exception, immortality is the prize. Instead of an existence bound to a body and bounded by death, transhumanists envision an unlimited allotment of life; when the body decays, new parts can be grafted, grown, or added. And whenever death does seem inevitable, new technologies beckon—innovations that promise to extend, somehow, existence indefinitely.
These Promethean aspirations should alarm us to no end. They recall the insane-but-laughable ambitions of Stalin’s scientists who, likewise, claimed that their research would make mortality a curable condition in a matter of years; these mad dreams, however, grip an untold number of billionaires, celebrities, and modern-day aristocrats who now believe in the equally foolish (but equally intoxicating) promise of technological immortality. But these dreams could only ever be realized in a falsified world — a pure illusion, and perhaps the much-touted “metaverse” is the only place where such preposterous fantasies will appear possible, at the cost, of course, of entering an illusory “virtual” reality sustained by suspending one’s real body in a trance-like state.
Between the dreams of deathless existence and the pixilated paradise of digital illusions we find a messy middle ground. What does transhumanism’s campaign to reshape humanity’s inherited realities looks like in practice? In this realm, we find mutations and mutilations couched in terms of progress and improvement; but we also find a host of more subtle, mundane, and invasive insinuations which also justify their more exotic experiments. For—so their arguments run—aren’t we cyborgs already? Don’t the phones in our pockets and the algorithms curating our newsfeeds offer external analogues to prosthetics that we could have implanted in our hands and brains? Here, of course, their campaign finds real force, but not in the way they might think. These markers of “progress” are, indeed, real and pervasive. But the ever-encroaching regime of surveillance and ever-more-sophisticated methods of distraction they represent have not augmented but eroded our humanity day by day. Before humanity is “chipped,” it will first have been chipped away.
But these invasive psychological forays pale in comparison to long-established biological ones. The sexual revolution of the 1960s actually establishes the predicate for today’s most shocking examples of surgical self-fashioning. The project of artificial birth control has been, from the outset, transhumanist in spirit. Indeed, “the pill” works by suspending the natural cycle of female fertility by creating the hormonal mirage of perpetual pregnancy. The technological mastery that this synthetic suppression seems to offer became the blueprint for what was to come.
The transgender phenomenon emerges directly from this artificial hormonal disruption of menstrual cycle. If something as central to female biology as the fertility cycle could be broken, why not bring sexuality itself within the purview of manipulation and change? Thus, while the transhumanist project finds its most pervasive and accepted initiative in oral contraceptives, this manipulation points towards the pharmaceutical and surgical “remedies” offered to those who believe they were “born in the wrong bodies.” In these sad cases, reality is neither easy nor safe to conceal, which is perhaps why there is a militant push to inflict these extreme interventions on individuals who, in every other context, we would recognize as lacking the capacity to render legal consent.
But even here, reality resists the counterfactual dreams of ideologues. A growing group of “detrans” victims is quickly becoming something which will have the moral force, if not the media hype, of the “MeToo” movement. Maimed adults are now realizing the grotesque manipulation that was inflicted on both their minds and their bodies in adolescence. At a time of confusion when they needed protection, they were cajoled and exploited by an industry which preys on (and profits from) the delusions of parents and their charges.
Similar illusions are being pushed on the world. The promise of progress is so beguiling to tyrannical technocrats and death-haunted elites that a push for the legal acceptance of destructive experiments is easily foreseeable. Artificial Intelligence, which amazes us by adapting to our own categories and counterfeiting our own creations, will soon be touted as an unbiased and unrivaled source for policy; gene editing, and its nakedly eugenic aspirations, will soon be sold to us under the auspices of free-market consumer choice; and, in the name of convenience, a cashless society of digital (and perhaps, eventually, sub-dermal) wallets will soon be optional, recommended, required, and then enforced.
When Dante ascends, in the final canto of his poem, to receive a vision God, the last thing that captures and then dazzles his gaze is the place of Christ’s humanity within the interplay of the Trinity. In the Christian imagination, transhumanism is another word for “deification,” the ultimate goal of our sojourn on this earth. But in the false name of progress, and in the image of their own dangerous fantasies, modern-day transhumanists are foisting upon society their limited artificial “improvements.” Whereas God had placed man a “little lower than angels” (Ps artificial “improvements.” Whereas God had placed man a “little lower than angels” (Ps 8:5), our betters can only bring him down much further—and the powers now at our disposal make the damage which they are able to inflict all but incalculable.