Re: Message to Membership

Date: Mon Jan 03 2000 - 08:20:07 MST

In a message dated 1/2/00 8:13:22 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

> I just signed on to receive the message service so that I may find out more
> about the Extropian movement. It has been interesting. I have been somewhat
> concerned about the rampant elitism running through the postings. Something
> that seem quite out of keeping with people who purport to be acting in the
> best interest of humanity.

I've always thought that the word "elitism" is fairly ambiguous: Does it mean
that the object of the description is only intended for a small,
highly-qualified group, or is it used with the more negative connotation of
exclusiveness and therefore exclusion? While I am very happy that many
transhumanist and extropian ideas are moving into the mainstream (once again
I refer to my editorial in Extropy Online magazine, in reality the ideals, values and
goals that define extropians are still not widely held.

As I've written before, far from being finished, the work of the
Enlightenment is actually barely begun. Most of the world lives in ignorance
of the scientific method and it's real fruits. The core values of individual
liberty and tolerance that energized the Enlightenment have only barely begun
to be accepted in the political and cultural sphere and most of the human
race continues to firmly believe that their own group - ethnic, social,
religious, linguistic - should enjoy special legal privileges and cultural

When you look at the sway that superstition and intolerance still hold over
the world, you come to realize that only a tiny minority of the human species
has really passed through the cultural transformation of the humanist
Enlightenment. Transhumanists - who take the values and goals of the
Enlightenment to their logical conclusions - are yet a further minority
within that minority. Thus, one might well apply the term "elite" to us, in
the non-pejorative sense of the word. But for its unhappy association with
violent revolutionary movements in general and Bolshevism in particular, the
word "vanguard" might be appropriate.

Like all cultural pioneering movements, transhumanism and extropianism can be
seen as a tender shoot, in need of both nurturing and protection. Seen as a
minority within a minority, transhumanists might be best viewed as an
experimental memetic creation, barely ready to be tried outside the hot house
of its birth within the unique environment of late 20th century West Coast
technological optimism and post-countercultural social experimentation. As
optimistic memetic gardeners, we need to be willing to make that trial, but
we should also be aware that this is a new creature, encountering a well
established ecology of ideas.

> Even so, I have viewed this to be due to the
> excesses of some members as I have not heard anything similar from Max
> So, I was beginning to believe that it would be something worthwhile to be
> part of. However, when Greg Burch wrote:
> >I've decided that a more systematic approach to concern about sources of
> opposition to our ideals and
> >goals is necessary. To this end, I've begun work on a website in which I
> >will collect links to groups and resources that appear to present a
> >or potential threat to the transhumanist agenda.
> This gave me pause to reconsider. This is the Vice President of the
> Institute whom I assume has leadership support for this announcement.

I hope my post yesterday made clear that my "watch list" isn't an official
Extropy Institute endeavor. Rather, it is merely a personal project,
motivated by my own study of the history of ideas. (When Bill Clinton plays
the saxophone, should we take it as an official government endorsement of

> Eliezer Yudkowsky in quite correct in his response to Robert Owen's note
> that we exist in a political environment. Of course. Any relationship
> people is in the broadest sense political, but this different.

Actually, I consider the notion that transhumanism and extropianism are
somehow "apolitical" quite strange. We are advocating that human beings can
and should have the right to re-write their genetic code, create synthetic
intelligences, employ technology to augment their mental power, lengthen
their life spans indefinitely and migrate from Earth. Every one of these
agenda items implicates public policy and, in many countries runs counter to
some powerful legal prescription. The fact is that there are more or less
well-established ideological and political groups who oppose all of these
things in principle and, once our goals become widespread, will oppose them
in the political process.

> Even so, it is
> unclear what the opposition is.

That you can make this statement indicates to me that studying the cultural
environment in which transhumanism and extropianism will grow is all the more
necessary. My personal opinion is that the opposition will come from three
ideological "zones": "Naturism", fundamentalist religion and racism.

> Already people are buying into the program in
> many ways and values are changing.

This is true and is a very, very good thing. But even a cursory study of
history reveals that cultural change is neither smooth nor monolithic. It's
not as if people in Europe woke up one morning in the middle of the 15th
century and all realized that the "Middle Ages" were over and that the
Renaissance had begun. Likewise with the coming of the Enlightenment 200
years later. In fact, the progress of both of those eras took place
relatively slowly, and not without substantial opposition. There were false
starts, reversals and wrong turns. Only by coming to know the cultural
environment in which our ideas exist and the historical dynamic that has both
given rise to them and will create opposition to them can we have a hope of
ultimately prevailing in our goals. I've said it before and I'll say it
again: There is no such thing as historical inevitability. Belief in
historical inevitability is in fact superstition. Clothing it in the garb of
science is the worst perversion of the insights gained in the Enlightenment.
The bloody legacy of the 20th century is in large part due to this error.

> All I can see is that some do not feel
> things are going fast enough. This is "youth" talking.

Well, at my age, I'm glad to be accused of youthful error :-) Things are NOT
going fast enough in my opinion, at least in a few key areas. One of the
insights we offer to the world is that in technological development lies the
hope for resolution of many of the problems we have inherited from earlier
times. Only by developing a more sophisticated biological science can we
remediate the damage that has been done to this planet's biosphere. Only by
developing tools for more rational living can we overcome the violent
prejudices we have inherited from our primate ancestors. Only by augmenting
our own intelligence can we hope to solve the complex problems that the
development of technology itself has bequeathed to our age and to our

> Greg's posting stands
> out all the more because it is the thinking and tactics of agrarian and
> industrial age plotters and revolutionaries, something the world is
> to leave behind. I strongly suggest that members become aquatinted with the
> history of some of the leaders and participants of the political and social
> movements of the last 200 years. It is most instructive.

With respect, I suggest that you take a look at the annotated bibliography at
my web site. In addition to the material you'll find identified there, the
shelves of books here in my study not documented at my site (reading dating
from the geological eras before my web site) include dozens of works about
revolutionary periods in history - the main subject of my own personal
education for the last 30 years. You will find no more vehement opponent of
"revolutionary" politics than me: A study of such periods as the end of the
Roman Republic, the American and French Revolutions and the Bolshevik and
Chinese communist revolutions (the eras in which I can claim at least some
expertise) all teach that revolutionaries almost always do more harm than

A belief that we have somehow completely transcended history has been an
error too common in the modern era Yes, technological developments in each
period of human history have created unique new social dynamics and unique
new problems and issues. But some characteristics of life in society are
constant, transcend even human history and are shared by our biological
ancestors. One of these constants is that no new thing develops in isolation
or without a "dialectical" process of interaction - often in the form of
conflict - with structures and processes that already exist. I agree with
you most deeply that we must study history to avoid the mistakes of the past.
 This endeavor is perhaps most important for transhumanism, because our
values and goals DO have "revolutionary" potential. It would be far too easy
to fall into the traps of "revolutionary thought". We must avoid that kind
of mentality at all costs, because at best it would consign us to the
cultural margins and, at worst it would make us into monsters. Only with a
solid knowledge of history can we navigate between these two extremes.

      Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                                -- Desmond Morris

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:01:57 MDT