A question that will become more and more dominant as the century goes on is the question of what it means to be human. We are already well on our way to eroding the meaning of “man” and “woman,” a concern C. S. Lewis addressed long ago in his little book The Abolition of Man. I recently read somewhere that in Canada, in order to differentiate between the sexes, science professors are no longer allowed to use the terms “man” and “woman,” or even male or female, but must refer instead to “egg producing” and “testosterone producing” humans. It’s my guess that in a few years even that term “human” may well be jettisoned. Not long ago at a symposium at the Esalen Institute in California, a very earnest academic told me that he had a “real problem with the term human.” Personally I don’t – which isn’t to say that I am entirely happy with the species to which it refers. In fact, a certain dissatisfaction with the “only human” will inform what follows.
What I want to look at are three different ways of understanding what it means to be human. Or rather, at what three different ideas of “transcending” the human, of going beyond our apparent limitations, suggest about what we used to call “human potential,” the possibilities latent within us. These are fundamentally potentialities of consciousness, the actualising of which informs the process of what the psychologist Abraham Maslow – one of the most important figures from the early days at Esalen - called becoming “fully human.” That doubt about the term “human” should arise at the Esalen Institute, which is dedicated to the discovery and actualisation of human potential, seems to suggest that confusion about what it means to be human has spread rather far.
Maslow’s “fully human,” the fully self-actualised human being, is a goal, an ideal. No one is ever completely self-actualised, just as in Jungian psychology no one is ever completely “individuated” – the two have much in common. But we can be more actualised or less, and in this sense Maslow remarked that it seems that some people are “more human” than others, in the sense that they have “made real” more of themselves than others have.
If being “fully human” is the goal, the starting point is what we can call the “only human,” or the “good enough human”.
The “only human,” of whom we can expect only so much, is the standard, well-meaning but deeply muddled severely limited creature, devoid of free will and entirely dependent on the environment for its behavior, a kind of walking stimulus/response machine. We are flawed, inconstant individuals, and the best we can hope for is to declare our inadequacies outright and huddle together to share some human warmth.
The noblest expression of this highly restricted perception of mankind is the existentialist, that sees humans as “authentic” when we stoically endure the meaninglessness of life and the universe and our inability to make sense of either. The more common expression is the average person, who works to achieve the satisfaction of what Maslow calls our “deficiency needs”, what we lack – food, shelter, sex, and self-esteem – and is happy if he does. He feels no strong urge to go “beyond” himself. This urge to go beyond, Maslow tells us, is a “creative” or “being” need, not one of deficiency, an expression of the hunger to self-actualise, for which mere happiness is irrelevant. In fact, it can often be a hurdle.
Superheroes as models for self-actualisation
What does all this have to do with comic book superheroes? If I were asked when my interest in the sort of thing I write about began, I would have to say it started when I was around five years old and that the source was comic books. I know I was that age because I have a vivid memory of asking my grandmother for 10c to buy a comic– it was The Flash - and when I got to the candy store, the owner told me they had gone up in price to 12c. I had a considerable time getting the other 2c from my grandmother, so the event stayed in my memory. I must have been reading comics before this, because the price hike was a shock. It happened in late 1961, in the midst of what is known as the Silver Age of comics, before my sixth birthday, so I must have been a devotee from fairly early on.
Another vivid memory associated with comics involves the meaning of the word “cosmic.” My favorite comic then was the Justice League of America – the nationalist tag was later dropped – because in it you got six heroes for the price of one. Another team effort was the Legion of Superheroes, super-powered teenagers from other planets, one of whose members was Superboy. One member of the legion was Cosmic Boy. I was curious about his name. His superpower was magnetism – rather like Marvel’s supervillain Magneto – and I wondered why he wasn’t called Magnetic Boy. I asked my sister, who was a few years older than me, what “cosmic” meant. She couldn’t tell me, so I asked my mother, who didn’t know either. So you could say that I’ve been trying to find out ever since.
Comic books introduced me to a world rather different than the one I knew, a much wider, deeper, more interesting world, in which anything was possible. The everyday world of parents, siblings, schools, friends, and relatives was implacably there and would become more so as time went on. As Wordsworth says, the "shades of the prison house" close in as we move from the paradise of childhood to the dreary world of adults. But there was an escape, a portal into another world, in which one could travel through space and time, to other planets, and meet remarkable people and have amazing adventures, and at which one felt more at home than at the dinner table or in the classroom.
In other words, comic books were my earliest introduction to romanticism, not as a school of literature and thought – that wouldn’t happen for another few years – but as a hunger for something more than what I later learned the philosopher Heidegger called “the triviality of everydayness.”
This hunger for something more than everyday life, which is the essence of romanticism, is also the essence of our “evolutionary appetite,” our innate urge to transcend ourselves, to self-actualise; in other words, to grow, to master life and explore our possibilities. We can say that the “only human” are those who, once entered into adulthood, jettison the interest in “other worlds” and reluctantly or otherwise, accept the “triviality of everydayness” as inevitable. Whatever loss they feel in “putting aside childish things” is made up for in satisfying their deficiency needs: earning a good living, having a home, a family and the good opinion of others.
Some individuals reach the furthest limits of these lower needs and receive the esteem of thousands, even millions of people; these are celebrities. Maslow posited a level beyond this, free of the need for immediate gratification, that could sustain itself through its own creative activity, what Nietzsche called becoming a “self-revolving wheel.” These are the self-actualisers. They are motivated by something coming from within, not by the pursuit of external rewards.
Romantics who are unable to cope with the real world, but who lack the vitality, talent, and sheer stubbornness to force the world to take them at their own valuation, usually have a difficult time of it. Their appetite for other worlds takes on a different character, their magic carpets coming in the form of alcohol, drugs, or some other means of escape. We can say that the superhero is the romantic who is not defeated by life, who maintains his inner vision in spite of it. He or she is in some way able to transform life, to re-create it, to, in a sense, make the fantasy real. That is, to actualise it.
It strikes me that a favorite comic book hero of mine embodied the essence of romanticism. I don’t know if Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and Mike Sekowsky realised it, but in Adam Strange – who appeared in DC’s Mystery in Space – they had hit on the perfect metaphor for the romantic consciousness: the sense that man is a creature of two worlds.
In the Adam Strange stories, this notion was taken literally. The hero is an archaeologist and on a trip to the Andes something remarkable happens: he is hit by a weird ray of light coming from outer space – he later learns it is called the “zeta beam” – and finds himself transported to the planet Rann, an earth-like world, orbiting Alpha Centauri, some 25 trillion miles away. There he meets a beautiful woman, has adventures, saves the planet, and becomes a hero, all the while sporting a nifty rocket pack and ray gun.
But the effect of the zeta beam wears off and he finds himself back on earth. He discovers where and when the zeta beam will appear again, and for the rest of the series he is off, heading into the jungle or up a mountain, to intercept the zeta beam and return to Rann, only to be sent back to earth once again. But he is determined to become a citizen of this new world and to find a way to remain on Rann forever…
This is the romantic’s dream. It is also the neurotic’s fantasy and the creative individual’s model for how the world should be. Not that he would wish an exact copy of Rann – that would be too much - but he can wish that life on earth should be as exciting and interesting as it is there.
Teenage mutants on the rise!
It was while writing my first book, Turn Off Your Mind, about the “occult revival” of the 1960s, that I noticed that this notion of some coming evolutionary change in humans, that would produce a new race of supermen, was at the centre of the popular culture of that decade. It was also at the heart of the burgeoning youth movement. The book that kick-started the 60s occult revival, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, spoke about mutants and a coming mutation affecting the human race. I saw a correspondence of this idea with several other products of sixties pop culture, specifically the film Village of the Damned, which came out in 1960 – the same year as The Morning of the Magicians – and which was based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957, and the Marvel comic The X-Men, which started in 1963. This idea of a breed of children possessing strange powers who threaten the older generation with extinction was also hitting the streets in Haight-Ashbury. By 1966, in the San Francisco Oracle, the hippies were declaring themselves “mutants” and were encouraging others like them to join them in order to “be free.”
Marvel cornered the mutant superhero market, but science fiction had got there first. Most hippie households included copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1954), Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human (1953), and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on Clarke’s story “The Sentinel” (1950) was about “ancient aliens” tampering with human evolution. These works approached the mutant theme more seriously than the comic version. But one work of science fiction dealing with the idea of a sudden change coming over the human race rarely gets mentioned. It was not a hippie “must read,” and was written decades before they appeared. And the change it foresaw was not one the hippies would have welcomed.
Star Begotten (1937) is a late novel by H.G. Wells, published well after the early science fiction that made him famous. Its protagonist, a historian, detects some strange change coming over the people around him. The normal, ordinary, familiar world seems somehow – wrong. People close to him now seem distant, and his own work strikes him as insipid. When he overhears a conversation about how cosmic rays may be increasing human intelligence, he begins to wonder if some purpose is behind this…
He discovers that Martians are using cosmic rays to turn human beings into – well, better, more mature people. The rays induce a new seriousness about life, a disinclination to waste time on trivialities, a rejection of old, inefficient behaviors, and above all a desire to apply one’s energies to some worthwhile purpose beyond oneself, not to the pursuit of riches, power, or fame, the means of shelter, sex, and self-esteem, the lower rungs on Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”
In fact, the Martians are making people more the way Wells himself wanted to be, as he makes clear in his Experiment in Autobiography, published in 1934. “I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business.” What was his proper business? To do “originative intellectual work.” “The originative intellectual worker is not a normal human being and does not lead nor desire to lead a normal human life. He wants to lead a supernormal life.”
We can say he wants to lead a self-actualised life.
Wells hit on a metaphor to describe people like himself, and those in Star Begotten who have been affected by the Martians’ experiment. He says they are like “early amphibians… struggling out of the waters into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted necessities…But the new land has not yet definitively emerged from the waters and we swim distressfully in an element we wish to abandon.”
This is what Wells meant when he said that just as birds are creatures of the air and fish creatures of the sea, human beings are creatures of the mind. Or at least we should be. We are not yet, not fully, but it is our evolutionary destiny. Most of us still need large helpings of approval from others, and after a few hours of intellectual work, are happy to sink back into stupid living – the present writer is no exception. But in people like himself and other creative workers, Wells saw the beginning of a race that would be able to maintain itself purely through mental activity, without the props and supports that come from outside. In other words, he had a sense of a generation of Maslow’s self-actualisers on the rise.
Attack of the Mind Parasites
One writer of science fiction who took Wells at his word was the British existentialist Colin Wilson. In Beyond the Robot I spell out Wilson’s attempt to create a new “positive existentialism,” to replace the dreary old one of Sartre and Camus. In this, Wilson draws on Maslow, particularly his notion of the “peak experience,” the sudden bursts of “newness,” that Maslow believed were experienced by all healthy people.
Another thinker bubbling in Wilson’s evolutionary brew is Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, which is essentially the study of the structures of consciousness. One place where these two thinkers come together most effectively in Wilson’s oeuvre is in his Lovecraftian novel The Mind Parasites (1967), written at the behest of August Derleth for his Arkham House Press.
Wilson too believed that a change had come over humanity. He placed its start in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of romanticism, that sudden sense of man as something godlike. Yet so many of the later romantics died young or went insane. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, asked why they did. In The Mind Parasites he arrived at an phenomenological answer to that question, in the form of a kind of psychic vampire, that has been sucking dry human vitality and killing off its visionaries for the past two centuries. Wilson’s hero discovers their existence, but he also discovers the means of expelling them: intentionality, which is the central point of Husserl’s philosophy. We can say the parasites are defeated by phenomenology – a first, I think, in science fiction, or any genre.
The Black Room
Husserl’s central insight is that perception is intentional. We have a “will to perceive” as well as perceptions. Consciousness is not a passive reflection of the world, as Descartes believed, but an active reaching out and “grabbing” it. We “intend” the world, but are unaware that we do. Wilson’s protagonist is able to reach into himself, to the source of intentionality, with the result that he is able to throw off attacks by the parasites – waves of existential despair, madness, depression, suicidal thoughts – by inducing Maslow’s “peaks.” But he discovers that intentionality can also affect the physical world. He and his colleagues develop enormous psychokinetic powers which eventually defeat the parasites by pushing the moon, where they are based, out of earth’s orbit. (Readers familiar with Gurdjieff will note the allusion.)
We can say that the protagonists of The Mind Parasites develop what we would call superpowers, solely through understanding consciousness, that is, by becoming “fully human.” Through phenomenology, Wilson’s “evolutionary existentialism” reveals powers latent in the human mind that we call psychic, or occult, but which are exactly like those attributed to superheroes.
In another novel, The Black Room, an espionage story, the hero attains similar powers while trying to crack the challenge of a sensory deprivation chamber, designed to break his will. I said that the official view of humankind is that we are entirely dependent on stimuli coming from the environment to motivate us. This view has been at the centre of western psychology since John Locke first argued that there is “nothing in the mind that wasn’t first in the senses.” We are tabula rasa , blank slates, until impressions from the outer world “write” something on our minds. This suggests that our minds are like empty flats, and that we have to go to the epistemological equivalent of Ikea to fill them up.
Wilson rejects this, and in The Black Room, the hero makes contact with the wellsprings of intentionality and so is able to remain in the chamber indefinitely, when others had gone mad. He is no longer dependent on outside stimuli because he has gripped an inner purpose. We are at our best, Wilson noted, when faced with a challenge. This is why his “outsiders” throw themselves into “living dangerously.” But when the challenge recedes, we slip back down to our “only human” selves, just as Adam Strange found himself sent back to earth. If we are ever to become Nietzsche’s “self -revolving wheels”, we must learn how to draw on the vitality we tap when faced with a challenge, without the challenge, without anything outside ‘stimulating’ us. This is something many of us have had to face in some form during the Covid 19 crisis.
We’re only transhuman, aren’t we?
What does this have to do with transhumanism? Transhumanism strikes me as a literalising of the powers associated with superheroes, a means of “actualising” them in a very literal way through technology. But my main question is: is it really transhuman at all? Does it aim for something that truly transcends the human in the way that Maslow’s “fully human” transcends the “only human,” or is it really interested in only an extension of what humans already do – which in essence is what technology can achieve, and what thrilled adolescents like me when reading about our favorite superheroes?
We can put it this way: which Superman does transhumanism aim at? Nietzsche’s or Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s? We know their Superman is “faster than a speeding bullet” and “has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.” We know that the transhuman agenda includes the kind of invulnerability, super strength, speed, flight and so on that Superman possesses, provided not by our yellow sun and earth’s low gravity (compared to Krypton), but by technology and science. Superman was known as the “man of steel” and the “man of tomorrow,” and that’s whom the transhumanists have in mind.
Nietzsche’s Superman possesses no powers, unless his ability to say “Yes!” to life and to will its eternal return is one. He is able to affirm life as it is - no mean feat - because he has tapped the inner springs of power and health, the Dionysian “yea-saying”. He cannot fly or see through walls, but no technology can induce the sense of “zest and well-being” that comes to those who become “self-revolving wheels, “ or who can endure the challenge of the black room without sinking into insanity. The heroes of The Mind Parasites achieve extraordinary power over the outer world, that a “super science” could conceivably match. But can technology produce the ability to perceive a meaning independent of the senses, a certainty of inner purpose that defeats the black room? If this is achieved, it is solely through our efforts at understanding the mental actions involved in intentionality, which is essentially the process of becoming aware of the active character of consciousness.
Transhuman, all too transhuman?
Nietzsche, I think, might regard the techno-superman as “transhuman, all-too-transhuman,” meaning that his aims and purposes remain on the level of the “only human” and do not “transcend” these at all. They strike me as the dreams of clever school boys who are determined to really fly, in a very literal sense, rather than discover how to take the interior journey that the hero of the black room does.
The term “transhumanism” was coined by the biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, in the early 1950s. Huxley’s picture of man as “the managing director of evolution” has much more in common with Wells’ “Martians” or Maslow’s self-actualisers, than it does with the transhumanism of today, which acknowledges Huxley’s coinage, but is quite clear about its own agenda. More than half a century ago, Huxley recognised that humanity had reached the point where we could determine the direction our evolution would take. He saw that the way to our future lay in “exploring human nature” in order to “find out what are the possibilities open to it.” He saw those possibilities in art, culture, spiritual achievement, social improvements, science – but he said little about technology. If anything, like many at the time, Huxley was concerned about technology’s increasing dominance and its effect on society, just as his brother was. One wonders what he would have said about the usurpation of his belief in a “transhuman” future by the very technology that worried him? He might agree too that it was sadly, “transhuman, all too transhuman.”
I would suggest that unless what goes by the name of transhumanism today is willing to forget its emphasis on technology and embrace something along the lines of a “fully humanism”, it should really change its name. I would suggest “non-humanism” or “un-humanism”, since the future it envisions seems aimed at doing away with the human altogether (posthumanism) and replacing us with some technological version of the hermaphrodite, part human, part machine, which is, I guess, what we know as Star Trek’s Borg. And we know how that worked out.