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The Opposing Leaders of the Transhumanist Movement Got Salty in a Debate

Transhumanist point-counterpoint.
Caption: Zoltan Istvan (left) debates James Hughes. Photo by Alex Pearlman

Zoltan Istvan is widely known as the leader of the Transhumanist movement through his well-publicized presidential campaign. However, there have been multiple past leaders, including Dr. James Hughes, the former head of the World Transhumanist Association (the organization now known as Humanity+).

The basic political difference between the two futurist thought leaders is that one is a libertarian (Istvan) and one is a democratic socialist (Hughes). But Istvan and Hughes are are also emblematic of the East-West American intellectual divide; Istvan is a shiny new product of Silicon Valley's rabid individualism and venture capitalist approach to business and politics, while Hughes has been a student of history and sociology in the hallowed halls of New England academia and an activist of the far-left for decades.


Naturally, some prickliness has emerged between the old guard and Istvan, specifically related to the way he has taken the movement and transformed the idea of Transhumanism into a reflection of his own ideology through his Transhumanist Party.

"Today within the attempt to grapple with transhumanist politics, we see a wide variety of political views," said Hughes during his lecture on Thursday night. "And there is quite a vigorous debate about market versus state, and egalitarianism versus libertarianism."

For the first time, Hughes and Istvan met on the debate stage, in a small classroom auditorium at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass. It wasn't exactly a clash of ideas so much as a clang. It's clear that Transhumanists on either side of the political spectrum share a basic tenet of the philosophy, the vague notion of the need to use science and technology to make humanity better, but from there on out, everything else is up for debate.

Here are takeaways on a few of the big politics sticking points Transhumanists disagree on.


Istvan has advocated for a flat tax, but also supports universal basic income, as well as free education: "A universal basic income would give everyone enough money to survive, have food, have a roof over their head. But I only support it if it's going to make government at least equal or smaller. There is a Libertarian attitude for that, probably in ten years, when we start giving our jobs to AI."


Hughes wants to increase taxes on the wealthy: "To believe that we are going to eliminate taxation and have a universal basic income, there is a problem. In order to have a real universal basic income, which I agree is going to be necessary in the future, we need to also a have a redistributive state. We are going to radically increase the progressivity of taxation in the United States in order to make sure everyone gets fed. "


Istvan is a militant atheist who rejects his Catholic upbringing: "We live in a culture that for thousands of years has embraced a Judeo-Christian framework that really teaches us that the best way to live to live a good life and then to die and meet a maker in heaven. And it doesn't matter if it's the president swearing on the Bible, or the Pledge of Allegiance having the word 'God' in it, it's all around us. And even if we don't believe in it, it's still our framework and it leads to this culture of 'deathism'."

Hughes is a Buddhist scholar: "Buddhism and Hinduism are much more fluid in the understanding between humanity and gods [as opposed to the Abrahamic faiths], where their gods are flying around on moon discs, with eight arms and green skin and 12 heads, and some of them are half-animal. It's also a much more science fiction future that they imagine, and it's also a much longer one."


Istvan, whose wife is a doctor: "In my Transhumanist Bill of Rights, I advocate morphological freedom, the freedom to do what you want with your own body, as long as it's not hurting somebody else… When biohackers want to experiment on themselves, I think they need to be able to do it, and I wish we had a system where surgeons can perform [body hacks] without worrying about their careers at stake.


"An article that came out recently was about two friends who want to get brain implants so they can interface with artificial intelligence… They have to find a doctor on the black market, and that's a problem. We need to create a scenario where people can do whatever they want.

"With some of the CRISPR gene technology coming out, and people trying to grow tails and whatever they're trying to do, there's going to be new ways of looking at ourselves as a species and I very much think we need to embrace that."

Hughes, who is a bioethicist: "I think that we have a Food and Drug Administration for a reason. The history of medicine illustrates amply that the 'buyer beware' stance doesn't work very well for people. We end up with all kinds of bad drugs, and we should agree that there must be some kind of regulatory mechanism to ensure that things are safe.

"I don't believe in medical tourism… I think we need transnational regulation of medicine and we need international harmonization [the idea that medical ethics standards and trade practices are accepted and agreed upon, across international boundaries]. It's one of the things that I think would solve some of the regulatory bottlenecks of the FDA. International harmonization comes with risks, I understand that. But I don't think the answer is the Wild West."


Hughes, in opposition to Istvan's Transhumanist Party: "I argue that strategically, the way Transhumanists should engage around politics is with caucuses within parties.


Caption: Zoltan Istvan pictured on his coffin-shaped Immortality Bus outside Richmond, VA in December 2015. Photo by Alex Pearlman

"Part of the job of techno-progressives is to take a futurist perspective to [other movements] and build within those movements and not in opposition to them. And as an example, I have attempted to be pretty nuanced on the disability issue—Zoltan is tone deaf… We have to sensitively engage around these issues."

Istvan, in response to the accusation of 'tone deafness': "I think that when James talks about me being tone deaf, I am 100 percent guilty. But to me, the Transhumanism movement is too small to worry about every single little detail. We are still a developing movement. We'll work it out later.

"I had to make a decision quite early on to be tone deaf, and to put forth policies that were just sensational enough to get picked up by the media and just believable enough to make sense. [Building a party] takes years. The Libertarian party is finally going to be on the ballot in all 50 states this year, and that has taken since 1979. So we're like a baby… But the next go-around, if the Transhumanist party is still here, there probably will be a national caucus.

"Ultimately, I think the two-party system in America is a bummer. It sucks".


Hughes believes we need to deal with climate change, but we must engage experts: "We could probably sell environmentalism better if we had a sexy, high-tech, non-pastoral vision for what a sustainable future would be.


"The key sustainability factor is having technology… but let's first deal with the issues facing the environment before we begin changing ourselves."

Istvan thinks humans can change themselves to adapt to a changing planet: "I have advocated, instead of trying to reduce the carbon footprint, instead we should be inventing brand new technologies. We worry so much about the ozone layer, but I've advocated for things like a bionic lung to deal with the atmosphere. More importantly, we can use new technologies like CRISPR to grow back the rainforest, or eat meatless meat… We could replenish the planet in ten or fifteen years."


Istvan insists aging research needs a massive influx of funding: "The fundamentalism that is dedicated toward this idea that many people don't mind dying is what needs to be changed. It's why I drove a coffin across the county. We can change this. It's not a matter of religion or right or wrong. We have the science to stop it, but no one is putting any money into it. All it really needs is money. We need to wake up America and say 'Listen, we can do this!'… I know it sounds totally radical, but a trillion dollars isn't a lot… If we spend 15 percent of what we put into the war in Iraq, we could do that."

Caption: Zoltan Istvan pictured on his Immortality Bus outside Richmond, VA in December 2015. Photo by Alex Pearlman

Hughes believes life extension research needs more social justice: "Capitalism in the United States, as we practice it, is causing middle-class Americans to have higher rates of drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide. Plus, obesity which is also class-related…


"Virtually all life expectancy improvements have been social—clean sanitation systems, improved education, smaller family sizes—medicine has had almost nothing to do with improving life expectancy. If we really want to save lives, we can't just talk about hypothetical technologies, we also have connect it to the social justice mission that will make it real for people."


Hughes accuses the libertarian wing of Transhumanism of being under the thumb of Silicon Valley billionaires: "Peter Thiel, who runs a billion dollar hedge fund, is also one of the principal backers of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and a bunch of other far-right operations in the country. And he also happens to be the financial backer of two of the most prominent Transhumanist organizations in San Francisco, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) and the SENS Foundation, Aubrey de Grey's operation.

"Does that mean that they are towing his political line? No. But does it establish a certain kind of constraint? The plurality of transhumanists are on the left, but the ones on the right have this disproportionate hegemonic influence in transhumanist politics."

Istvan rebuts this accusation, but supports using technology to become wealthy: "Frankly, no billionaire has come to the defense of Transhumanism so far and stuck a whole bunch of money into the social part of our movement… The Transhumanist Party has had virtually no funding. I don't take any money for my campaign whatsoever. I have not taken a dollar, outside of the Immortality Bus.

"For anyone that's working as an engineer or a technologist or someone that's going to be working on AI, you can all become filthy rich. I think that is important for a lot of engineers out in Silicon Valley that are working on this stuff… There will be a whole generation of billionaires made because of Transhumanism."

Extra Sick Burn:

Hughes on Zoltan's novel, The Transhumanist Wager: "It's like Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged and then ran for office as a Democrat… At least in Atlas Shrugged the rich people buggered off and left everybody alone."