Re: Skeptics Take on the Extropian Concept

GBurch1 (
Sat, 28 Feb 1998 07:32:22 EST

In a message dated 98-02-27 17:11:03 EST, Doug Bailey wrote:

> [ I wish to stress that this message's sole intent is
> to make people reflect about the way certain aspects of
> the Extropy Institute are operated. Its intent is not
> to flame. After writing it I realized that it might invoke
> strong reactions from some people. Its intent is to
> represent constructive criticism. ]

[I'll try to respond in the same (dare I say it?) fashion, but let me say that
whenever one makes a strong critique of what is clearly the result of much
effort of expression of a person's core values, one should not be surprised by
"strong reactions".]

> [snip] I don't
> see what all the fuss is over the concept? Esfandiary should
> probably be credited with whole concept.

He is clearly one of the most important "founders of transhumanism" but, as
others have already pointed out, there are many, many others before him who
saw key elements of the transhumanist or extropian idea and there have been
others since the publication of his seminal works that have added important
value to the ideas and values we express and develop as extropians. Just off
the top of my head I can think of the U.S. Founders and the other giants at
the dawn of the age of classical liberalism as vital progenitors of extropian
political and legal thought. Charles Darwin is surely as important a
conceptual founder of extropian scientific thinking as many 20th century
figures. Closer to the core synthesis of uniquely transhuman thought, Mary
Shelley saw very clearly a good deal of the ethical material that obviously
concerns transhumanists and extropians. Olaf Stapleton likewise described
almost all of the core ideas and problems of transhumanism before FM 2030.
Closer to our own age, Stanislaw Lem and Arthur Clark have been writing about
the concept of technologically-mediated transcendence of biological evolution
at least as long as FM 2030. The list of other contributors to the ideas of
transhumanism and extropiansim is so long that I won't spend the very few
moments of relatively lucid thought I enjoy during my second cup of coffee
lengthening it.

> What substance is
> the act of coining a term for a concept that someone else
> created?

The act of naming an idea is fundamental to the process of cognitive progress.
While every idea has antecedents with other names, a truly new idea is in a
sense "born" when it is named separately from its antecedents. The cluster of
ideas and values that is "Extropy" earns a unique name because of our insight
into the connection between technologically-mediated transcendence on the one
hand and certain "political" and ethical ideas on the other.

> Don't get me wrong, coining terms is great idea since it can
> help to improve commmunication. Take a concept that would
> otherwise take a sentence or two to trigger the reader's
> mind and encapsulate it in a word. But I see a lot of people
> patting themselves on the back for simply coining a term.

There is surely some of this, but perhaps you mistake pride in authorship of
the insight named by the term for pride in authorship of the term. As
extropians, we share the thought that the best course through the
transhumanist period is navigated by a return to the ideals of classical
liberalism, tempered by a knowledge of current evolutionary theory (rather
than the necessarily primitive concepts of evolution current during the first
age of liberalism). We think this may well mark the development of a new
cultural paradigm, just as the founders of the modern age did: Revisit the
writings of late 18th and early 19th centuries and you will see the same tone
of excitement at living during a revolutionary age, the same sense of urgency
and pride. The folks who gathered in Philadelphia 200 years ago or so patted
themselves on the back, as well, while looking over their shoulders for
threats from the defenders of the old ways of thought. You'll find some of
that latter mentality among us, as well. "We must all hang together or surely
we shall all hang separately," said one of the first transhumanists.

> Extropian art? I've just do not get it. What is the
> significance of art by people who actively strive for
> transhumanism. I am not saying it has no significance. But
> how significant is it in the grand scheme of things? [snip]

Excuse the strong reaction, but I find this comment so far off the mark that I
can barely formulate a response. Nevertheless, for fear of it being said that
I was ever at a loss for words, let me offer the following response:

As others have already pointed out, the artistic urge may well be central to
our nature as conscious beings. The dawning of every new age has found
expression in the works of artists working out the new aesthetic vocabulary of
that age. Because of its very nature, the artistic endeavor is best
appreciated directly, rather than through textual exegesis. Accordingly, I
urge you to contemplate the flowering of Greek thought and then take a trip to
Athens, or to consider the fundamental humanist breakthrough that was the
Renaissance and then visit any of the northern Italian city-states or to
consider the liberal revolution and then spend a day (or a lifetime) at

It is literally impossible to comprehend the real dawning of humanism and not
appreciate Michelangelo's _David_. One cannot _really_ understand the liberal
ideal of the self-reliant and truly free individual without considering the
gestalt of Monticello. The strength of 17th century capitalism is nowhere
better expressed than in _The Night Watch_. A little closer to our own time,
the power of frontierism doesn't really make sense until you've seen a few
Remmingtons. Likewise, the breakdown of reason in the clash between
traditional values and modernism is _best_ expressed in the nihilism of much
of 20th century visual art.

You can't separate cause and effect in this process and thus somehow conclude
that the spirit of a new age is somehow more fundamental than its artistic
expression. There is a constant feedback between idea and artistic
inspiration. The realization of the dignity of man and our ability to
transcend the condemnation of superstition gave birth to Michelangelo's
vision, but the expression of that vision was itself a moving impetus to the
flowering of that realization.

The more I think about the idea of automorph art, the more I am convinced that
this idea is the core artistic expression of the transhumanist agenda. If the
urge to artistic expression is, as even the most superficial study of history
clearly demonstrates, fundamental to our nature, and technological self-
transformation is the core of transhumanism, then automorphism is the artistic
movement of the transhumanist period. Period.

> Extropa-groups (or whatever the living communities are called).
> My wife and my children as a unit, we strive for self-improvement.
> We actively seek to prepare ourselves for the future. But we
> do not feel the need to use embody our "community" with a term
> to illustrate this. What point does calling a group "extropa-
> something" serve? More on this below.

Again, history teaches that the coming of a new cultural paradigm generates
social experimentation on the one hand and the desire of the first pioneers of
a new memetic country to band together. Likewise, the goal of creating "ideal
communities" seems to be inherent in the enterprise of developing new ideas.

The more I read of evolutionary psychology, the less inclined I am to believe
that biological humans can improve on the mating pair bond as the foundation
of community. But the mating pair bond is only the building block of
community: larger structures obviously must be formed for enterprising
entities to capture the benefits of division of labor. It would be surprising
indeed, given the extropian interest in spontaneous orders and agoric social
structures, if we didn't experiment with new higher-order social structures.

> Sex and fashion. I visited the site (which I
> must profess looked more like an excuse to lock up a site name
> than a substantive information resource). These two subjects
> were major subject areas. I just do not see the relevance of
> even addressing sex or fashion in the same context with
> discussions about nanotechnology, AI, uploading, Singularities,
> etc. Like art, maybe these subjects have some peripheral value,
> but elevating their status makes me wonder whether its a vision
> of the future thats trying to be emphasized or just an iteration
> of alternative subculture (such as goth, cyberpunk, etc.)

Another historical note, although perhaps a digression. I have a fascination
with the history of "fashion" seemingly inconsistent with my public persona of
"Texas trial lawyer". However that may be, the instinct to adorn seems to be
near the core of our being and the universal use of "fashion" as a medium of
communication cannot be doubted. Put simply, one can tell a lot about an age
by what the people in it wore. Look at the riot of change in fashion among
elites between 1400 and 1900 to see just how rapidly people's conceptions of
themselves and the ideal social order was evolving. In particular, I've
always been fascinated by the period between the baroque and middle of the
19th century: at the beginning of this brief 300 year period, our intellectual
forbearers clothed themselves in "semiotic envelopes" or "wrappers" (as Sasha
Chislenko might call them) beyond the dreams of the wildest fops of our day;
by 1850 men's fashions at least had evolved to a uniformity and drabness
unmatched since classical times. In particular the period between 1790, say,
and 1850, marks the adoption of an egalitarian ideal in fashion that cannot
but be a reflection of the transformation of the political Zeitgeist

As for the importance of sex, I commend a bit of evolutionary psychology, in
particular, Buss' book, _The Evolution of Desire_ or Pinker's _How the Mind
Works_. Self-replicators of our kind are inescapably and fundamentally
sexual. The biological imperatives of our nature as sexual self-replicators
are so powerful and all-pervasive that it isn't much of a stretch to see the
entirety of culture as merely the thinnest garment worn by the figure of our
true erotic selves. The truth of this was glimpsed, albeit through a glass
darkly, by Freud and, in so seeing we have been given tools of self-knowledge
of unprecedented effect.

A program of transcending our biological natures that ignored sex would be
like automotive technology that ignored road-building (hmmm). Seriously, we
will be -- for the immediately foreseeable future, at least -- beings grounded
in a sexual nature. Understanding what we now are is crucial to creation of a
rational plan of self-transformation.

> New ways of thinking are very vulnerable to being viewed as
> cultish nonsense. Nonsense in the vein that people seize ideas
> that resemble salvation from present circumstances. Designated
> groups, name changing, questionable commitment to the real issues,
> it sounds like a cult more than an intellectual critique of the
> future (and more importantly how we can get there while also
> performing the trick of survival).

Thus it always has been and always will be. Immediately behind the cutting
edge will be those who grasp only part of the spirit of the new age and who
seek formulae for capturing its increasingly obvious power. Thus the now-
apparent absurdity of such 18th and 19th century "scientistic" oddities as
mesmerism, phrenology and primitive "social Darwinism". That such cultish
nonsense happened does not undermine the obvious power of the new age that was
dawning in those times.

> Drexler himself said that
> if you do not want to imperil funding sources for the various
> technical people who will be needed to make the breakthroughs
> that would harbor the future we speculate about here then:
> "please keep the level of cultishness and bullshit down"

Amen, brother! :-)

Greg Burch <>----<>
Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
-- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover