A discussion on Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wagerfloating-city

Transhumanism is a rising international intellectual movement that seeks to greatly enhance human capacities through emerging science and technologies, with
life extension as one of its main goals. However, for many decades, the movement has
remained outside of the political mainstream and a large part of it has only been active
on the internet. The year 2014 appeared to be a major turning point: American futurist
and thinker, Zoltan Istvan founded the first US transhumanist political party and began
running for 2016 president as its candidate, promising that biological death would be
overcome through modern science and technology in the next few decades. A former
reporter for National Geographic and correspondent for many major news media,
Istvan has been successful in drawing public attention and aspires to bring
transhumanism to the political mainstream. His radical visions and political fanfare
remind us of a science fiction novel he authored years ago, The Transhumanist Wager.
The book depicts the epic story of philosopher Jethro Knights, who sails around the
world to promote indefinite life extension and eventually starts a global revolution to
overcome biological death and transform mankind into omnipotent cyborgs.

With many parallels between the fictional character and Istvan himself, one can
say that The Transhumanist Wager is more than a fiction – it is Istvan’s grand blueprint
of the transhumanist future, an international political movement that involves everyone
on the Earth. However, if you ask a thousand transhumanists how the future will unfold,
they would tell you a thousand different stories. CEO of California Life Company,
Arthur Levinson predicts that the key to overcoming biological aging will be found
through pharmaceutical research. Director of Engineering at Google and an outspoken
transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil will prophesy man merging with the computer. Militant and
libertarian, Jethro Knights’ vision is more radical than the former two: a political
movement that spreads transhuman mindset around the globe, trumping its enemies
through military might. This is not to say Jethro’s approach is incompatible with the
former two; under the driving forces of his movement, all kinds of technological and
scientific approaches to physical immortality blossom. However, Jethro’s movement is
of a much larger scope than the former two. Jethro not only wages a bloody battle
against religion, but he also founds the nation of “Transhumania”, an independent seastanding research institute that gathers the best of human scientists to realize Jethro’s ultimate visions. When the outside world tries to interfere with his effort, he employs
his military might to force the Earth’s citizens to adopt the transhumanist agenda. A
new social order is established upon the value set he names “Teleological Egocentric
Functionalism” – a philosophy where every “transhuman citizen” pursues her own
immortality and omnipotence through merging with advanced technology and is
judged by the value she adds to the society. Needless to say, Jethro’s vision has been
widely criticized as “socially dangerous” and “inhumane” by readers on Goodreads
and Amazon.

Despite society’s instinctive judgment of Jethro’s methods, one must ask, is
Jethro’s transhumanist way of living desirable? Does the transhumanist movement in
our real world have to be militant and political to be successful? After taking a closer
look at how the depicted movement started, progressed, culminated, and contrasting
it with the movement in reality, one will discover that transhuman visions can be, and
are most efficiently realized in the private sector via economic means but not in the
public sector via mass democracy, and that transhumanism will, and should remain an
intellectual subculture within tech elites in the next one hundred years.
Jethro’s movement would not have gained public attention if it were not for the
terrorist acts committed by anti-transhumanist religious leaders. In other words, Jethro’s
enemies turned his endeavor from a private venture to a political movement. In Zoltan
Istvan’s “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”: An approach to viable politics?,
author Roland Benedikter asks: how much influence can one person have on a political
movement? Indeed, effort by one man is not enough to start a global revolution with a
vision as radical as Jethro’s, but he successfully does so in the book by relentlessly
clashing with his biggest enemy, religion. Jethro’s nemesis, Reverend Belinas, is an antitranshumanist preacher who rose to be an influential minister personally trusted by the
US president. Siding with Belinas and his church, the government passes anti-tech
policies and imposes restrictions and surveillance on transhuman scientists’ research,
cutting their funding and legality. The movement is hidden from the public eye, much
like how the modern transhumanist movement exists among small circles mainly on the
internet. By that time, Jethro has already launched his own organization, Transhumanist
Citizen, but his success in acquiring funders is very limited because of his radical
opinions; “After ten days, however, only two people made donations: one at twentyfive
dollars, and another at fifty dollars” (Istvan 92). His movement really kick-starts after
one of the leading transhuman scientists, Dr. Nathan Cohen, is killed and mutilated by
religious terrorists under Belinas’ instruction. The author observes, “killing one’s friend
had that effect. In a matter of ten days, Jethro’s fund grew from a nearly empty account
to over one million dollars” (Istvan 103). The movement got worldwide attention when
Jethro caught four religious terrorists in the act, whose attempt to bomb a cryonics
institute was live aired on national TV: “Soon everyone, from Los Angeles to Denver to
Boston, broke from their regular programming to air images of masked terrorists
setting timer bombs at a cryonics clinic” (Istvan 117). Clearly, these two religious terror
events are two important turning points where Jethro’s transhumanist movement
gained momentum and public attention. Without such strong opposition forces from
religion, progress of the movement would not be possible.
However, in the real world, would religion and the government really go as far as
to murder privately funded scientists working on transhuman experiments? Granted,
the tension between religion (mainly Christianity) and Transhumanism does exist. Istvan
claims to constantly receive email death threats, a lot of them from religious fanatics.
The World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations made a declaration denouncing
“global abuse of science and technology in efforts by some to promote
transhumanism, posthumanism, futurism, etc.” and called for the establishment of an
international criminal court for “unethical” human research experiments. However,
most of the oppositions are either verbal attacks or legal denunciations made by
religious entities. Although there have been instances of religious terrorist attacks
targeting scientists or doctors in the past 50 years, they only happened in regard to
already established and nationally debated technologies such as abortion. As a nonmainstream political movement with its technologies still in R&D stage, the
transhumanist movement is far less likely to induce such attacks. Therefore, a war
between transhumanism and religion that jumpstarts the whole movement is not likely
to happen in reality. If so, the transhumanist movement will stay outside of the political
mainstream, and remain a privately funded venture at its core.
On the other hand, Jethro’s movement’s crucial success is achieved through
private funding, not public support. Unable to hold up the long haul with the
government and anti-transhumanist religion forces, the transhumanist movement
wanes in power and Jethro has no choice but to close off most Transhumanist Citizen
offices. At the same time, he suffers the loss of his beloved wife, Zoe Bach, to a
religious terrorist attack. At this crucial stage, the movement would have died out if
Russian oil magnate Frederick Vilimich did not come to Jethro’s aid in time, when only
a gigantic amount of capital donation can turn the table and save the movement. One
of the richest men in the world, Vilimich donates half of his fortune to Jethro’s
movement, which is a staggering 10 billion dollars. Vilimich shares a personal
connection with Jethro, partially because he owes his life to Zoe Bach, who correctly
diagnoses his developing colon cancer when he is scouting for oil fields at a war zone.
But most importantly, he, too, suffers from loss of dear family members, his wife and
son to terrorists, and hopes that the transhumanist movement can open up possibilities
to “bring them back”. This new funding enables Jethro to build a sea-standing
research institute and an independent nation on its own, Transhumania, “a floating
nation that could support tens of thousands of transhuman scientists” (Istvan 189). The
cruciality of Vilimich’s role demonstrates that a single but important person’s support
through private wealth is necessary as well as sufficient for the success of the
transhumanist movement; Jethro’s crowd only follows him when capital and funding are
secure. Indeed, Jethro himself asserts that “the capable will listen, and they’re the only
ones who really matter” at the final confrontation with Belinas (Istvan 244). Wealthy
tech elites at Silicon Valley like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Peter Thiel are
currently the real world’s central force to realize transhuman visions. Mark Zuckerberg
and Sergey Brin fund the Breakthrough prize, offering millions of dollars to the
development of life extension technologies. Google incorporated Calico Labs in 2013,
a research and development company that aims to understand the biology that
controls lifespan and enable people to lead longer and healthier lives, operating on a
budget of the billions. Most of these people are already accomplished entrepreneurs,
scientists, and inventors, and they are the ones who are most able to turn the wheel of
history.
What about the majority of the general public, who either do not care or
strongly oppose transhumanist values? Benedikter points out that Istvan’s motivation
behind his political campaign is “first, supporting life extension research with as much
resources as possible“ and “secondly, to spread the transhuman mindset”. However,
converting the mass crowd is unnecessary and comes at a price that outweighs the
benefit, regardless of whether it is achieved through military or civil means. Jethro
insists that a war against the outside world is inevitable and necessary, spending half of
his budget on weapons and military forces, but sighs with regret when thinking of “the
exorbitant dollar amount that could’ve been spent on transhuman research” (Istvan
218). At this point, the movement does not have the need to conquer the world; In
merely five years, “there was already enough technological advancement on
Transhumania to guarantee every citizen a far greater extended life: 120 years plus,
easy” (Istvan 230). Realization of physical immortality for people who want it is already
guaranteed on a well-funded research institution like Transhumania. However, it is
Jethro’s aggressive military approach that eventually catalyzes a war. Belinas is unable
to persuade the president to sanction Transhumania at first, until a war aircraft armed
with large missiles is spotted near the seasteading nation. If Jethro has not been
intentionally showing the world the powerful and super-advanced weapons he is
developing, the United Nations, with their staggering economy, would not consider
Transhumania as an imperative threat that needs to be sanctioned at any cost. For the
purpose of developing transhuman technologies to help a small group of citizens
realize physical immortality, Jethro’s military effort is hardly worth it.
However, Jethro’s real ambition is far beyond immortality for himself and the
Transhumania citizens. He wants to transform the whole human race “into stronger,
more durable, more ideal beings” (Istvan 284), and firmly believes that people “could
be turned and recast: formed and guided away from being sheepish, religious, fadchasing
consumers into being independent thinkers and creators” (Istvan 230). When
the transhumanist militia triumphs against the United Nations, Jethro goes on
destroying the governments and cultural monuments of every country, an act that
shocked most readers of the book. Every man or woman on Earth is then given a
choice: The Transhumanist Wager. They either accept the wager and live a life based
on transhumanist values—that is “to pursue the most expedient course an individual
can take to reach one’s most powerful and advanced self” (Istvan 284)— or leave the
civilized world. As a result, Transhumanism is truly turned into the mainstream of
thought.
From the analysis above, we can already see that converting the general public
is neither sufficient nor necessary for the realization of transhuman visions such as
physical immortality. In fact, a homogenous world full of transhumanists is neither
viable nor desirable, and transhumanists would be better off in a world where the
center of the movement is held inside a small but well-organized research institute like
Transhumania. Jethro himself admits running an entire posthuman world is “going to
be a lot more complicated than running a city full of well-mannered, over-educated
scientists, all striving for the same goals.” (Istvan, 233). Stepping out of the small circle
of transhuman elites to convert the general public not only costs an enormous amount
of time and resources, but it also makes maintaining social order more complicated
than it already is on Transhumania. In his book, Istvan does not address the details of
how to establish a stable social order and economy in a democratic, posthuman world
guided by “personal autonomy” based on TEF values; the world economy just
magically recovers after transhuman scientists take over. Therefore, the author does not
give a viable solution for maintaining a functional society in a homogenous world full of
transhumanists.
Instead of squeezing everyone into a discordant posthuman society all at once,
an intermediate, pluralistic society where transhuman values coexist with other values
such as religion and tolerate one another is much more desirable, both for
transhumanists and people with other beliefs. Based on our current level of technology,
the available resources to mankind are still limited. If the majority of the population do
not hope to achieve immortality and enhance themselves in the best ways possible but
have differentiated goals in life, transhumanists would have more resources available to
achieve their own goals. For a nation with proven success at maintaining a diverse,
pluralistic society like America, this is certainly possible. Moreover, not every
transhumanist thinks like Jethro. A lot of transhumanists’ primary will is to transform
themselves, not others. Comparing the present world to a posthuman world full of
ruthless competition and where everyone acts on cold, machine-like reasoning as
described in the book, they would prefer the world as it is.
Transhumanists have the power to realize their visions in the next few decades
without converting everyone on the Earth to think like themselves. Instead of fighting a
war with non-believers, or trying to convert them, transhumanists should appreciate
and preserve this diversity of thought. Although transhumanists are almost always
outnumbered by people who don’t agree with their values, they should not feel
pressured to convince them. They should feel glad.

Selected Sources:
Istvan, Zoltan. The Transhumanist Wager. Futurity Imagine Media LLC, 2013. Print.
Benedikter, Roland. “Zoltan Istvan’s “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”: An
Approach to Viable Politics?” 24 July 2015. Web. 7 Jan. 2016.