Predecessors of the Discourse on Human Enhancement

Reinhard Heil, ITAS, nanobuero

Predecessors of the Discourse on Human Enhancement (Powerpoint Presentation)

Click here for the Abstract


My talk consists of two different sections. After a short introduction, I will reconstruct the positions of early advocates of human enhancement, such as Julian Sorell Huxley, John Desmond Bernal and John Burdon Sanderson Haldane who also took part in the so called Social-Relations-of-Science-Movement. In current debates, however, the writings of these early apologists of human enhancement are scarcely being referred to (but see e.g. Coenen 2007; Rubin 2005; Bostrom 2005), although they were renowned natural scientists and influential figures in public discourse. In the second part of my talk I will point out that the main arguments of these authors can still be found in the contemporary debate about human enhancement.

Julian Huxley, biologist, humanist, eugenicist, and first Director of UNESCO was one of the most popular scientists of the 20th century. His book “What Dare I Think?” can be read as a manifest of scientific human enhancement.

Huxley not only coined the term “transhumanism” in 1957, but wrote in 1931: “Most of us would like to live longer; to have healthier and happier lives; to be able to control the sex of our children when they are conceived, and afterwards to mould their bodies, intellects and temperaments into the best possible forms; to reduce unnecessary pain to a minimum; to be able at will to whip up our energies to their fullest pitch without later ill effects”. (Huxley 1931).

What is new and original here, as compared to older ideas of improving man such as those in classical humanistic discourse, is the focus on the human body itself: the intention is no longer the development of human abilities or the adjustment of the environment to human needs, but the realisation of radical changes of the human body in order to adjust it to the requirements of a society shaped by new technologies.

Certainly, the hope to overcome the human condition is as old as human culture. The advocates of human enhancement refer to the Gilgamesh epos as the earliest evidence for the longing for immortality; they cite Dante Alighieri and Pico della Mirandola and claim that there is no real difference between, for example, agriculture and the use of so called smart-drugs. To be human is to overcome the arbitrary natural limitations.

But with the expansion of scientific knowledge, in particular the advance in biology in the early decades of the 20th century, scientists such as Haldane, Huxley and Bernal envisioned in great detail a radical transformation of the human body.

Their visions mark the transition from the „engineering for the body and for the mind“ to the „engineering of the body and of the mind“ (Nordmann).

They applied a paradigm of control (cf. Ferrari 2008): It was their goal to finally overcome the restrictions of inner human nature as well as those of nature surrounding man. In 1929; Bernal defined the „Three Enemies of the Rational Soul”: “The World, the Flesh & the Devil” (Bernal 1929), “world” meaning external restrictions, “flesh” the restrictions of man’s physical constitution and “devil” the human psyche. Bernal and Huxley were influenced by Haldane’s „Daedalus and the Future of Science“ (1924), which expressed Haldane’s vision of a potential future of humankind.

After declaring his hopes for mankind, Huxley continued: “It would be pleasant to be able to manufacture new kinds of animals and plants at our pleasure, like so many chemical compounds, to double the yield of an acre of wheat or a herd of cattle, to keep the balance of nature adjusted in our favour, to banish parasites and disease germs from the world. And there have been Utopians from Plato’s time and before it, most of whom have dreamt of controlling the stream of the race itself – not merely in its volume and quantity, but in its quality, so that humanity would blossom into a new character. (Huxley 1931: 5-6) These lines can be read as an abstract of a lot of contemporary books like “Enhancing Evolution” by John Harris or “Redesigning Humans” by Gregory Stock, among others.

Against these lines authors like Jürgen Habermas, Francis Fukuyama, Leonard Kass and others are up in arms. It is not so much the visions and topics that have changed over time, but rather the possibilities of making the visions become reality as well as their reception throughout society. Huxley knows the consequences arising out of his program. He writes “the fulfilment [of this biological wishes] will obviously have more intimate and more radical effects than the fulfilment of chemical and mechanical wishes, for it will be affecting men directly instead of indirectly. (Huxley 1931: 6-7)” Three Decades after Weisman’s discovery of the germ plasm Huxley sees “the possibility of attacking and bringing under control that earlier and more astounding part of our life-history in which a human body is produced out of a tiny speck of protoplasm“ (Huxley 1931c: 49). But for Huxley the manipulation of the germ plasm is only one way to change the human condition. Another way is the manipulation of the brain with drugs. He writes: “It should not be impossible to work out a combination of pharmacological substances, each in the right amount and right proportion, which would be capable of toning up a man’s faculties by say ten per cent., and yet having no bad after-effect by our nervous, rushing modern lives.” (Huxley 1931: 68)

The hopes and possibilities described by Julian Huxley to change the nature of man physically and psychologically were criticized amongst others by his younger brother Aldous Huxley in his famous book “Brave New World”. In 1931 Julian Huxley wrote “It would be an even greater triumph for medicine if it could invent something which would make the average well man feel better, and persuade the population at large to adopt it, so that not thousands but millions would simultaneously be taking their ‘little daily dose.’” (Huxley 1931: 69). These “little daily dose” is near to Aldous Huxley’s Soma. The difference between therapy and enhancement vanishes. But Julian Huxley did not only anticipate technological possibilities, he also thought about the social outcome of the biological revolution. About sex selection he wrote “Should it be in the power of any parent to regulate the sex of his offspring at will? If so, would not there be a great over-production of males? If, on the other, it were left to the State, would there not again be a great over-production of males, for purely militaristic reason?“ (Huxley 1931: 14).

He does think about the consequences for the society but he is in good company with contemporary advocates of human enhancement when he writes “this new practical control will in many respects have more fundamental effects than the old, since it will be exerting its influence not on the nature around man, but upon man himself. The prospect is disturbing, in some ways perhaps even alarming. But that is all the more reason for facing it in time and in the right spirit. There will be no preventing its coming, no possibility of holding back the tide. But we can prevent its advance being piecemeal and haphazard, and can use our imaginations ahead of the event.” (Huxley 1931: 72). Again such arguments can often be found in the contemporary debate on human enhancement.

Another early visionary of human enhancement is John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, philosopher and historian of science, political activist and author of the well-known book “The Social Function of Science”. In 1929 he published “The World, The Flesh & The Devil”, a transhumanistic vision of the future of humanity.  Like Julian Huxley, Bernal claims the necessity of altering the human body and mind. Similar to contemporary advocates of human enhancement, such as John Harris, he argued that we have been enhancing us since our ape-ancestors first used stones as tools. He wrote: “With the adoption of clothes there began a series of permanent additions to the body, affecting nearly all its functions and even, as with spectacles, its sense organs.” These additions are extrinsic, but in the view of Bernal the progress of science makes it feasible to alter body and mind permanently. Bernal writes: “The increasing complexity of Man’s existence, particularly the mental capacity required to deal with its mechanical and physical complications, gives rise to the need for a much more complex sensory and motor organization, and even more fundamentally for a better organized cerebral mechanism. Sooner or later the useless parts of the body must be given more modern functions or dispensed with altogether, and in their place we must incorporate in the effective body the mechanisms of the new functions.” At the end of this development described by Bernal humanity overcomes the biological substrate of life.

Some parts of his essay sound as if they were written by Marvin Minsky, Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec and other leading figures of today’s intellectual transhumanism. Bernal imagines a brain in a  jar, with various new senses, like x-ray or infrared sight, highly connected with other brains, more consciously, more rational and in no need of sleep. For Bernal “[n]ormal man is an evolutionary dead end; mechanical man, apparently a break in organic evolution, is actually more in the true tradition of a further evolution.” Even immortality is in reach: Brains organised in a hive would share their memories and emotions. So, if a brain dies its memories are not lost. But Bernal thinks even further: It could be possible to replace a previously organic brain-cell by a synthetic apparatus and this replacement would not destroy the continuity of consciousness. This man of the future, Bernal concluded, “must appear to those who have not contemplated him before as a strange, monstrous and inhuman creature, but he is only the logical outcome of the type of humanity that exists at present.” Bernals vision of the future is technocratic. Ratio defines the human race; rationally thinking people also known as scientists have to save the future. Scientists must exert influence on politics and society. Bernal did not believe that humanity as a whole will transform. With the beginning of the mechanization of humanity “there would be an effective bar between the altered and the non-altered humanity”. He speculated that only a tenth of the worldwide population will be willing to overcome human nature. Bernal well knew, unlike Julian Huxley, that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Bernal hoped that “Mankind as a whole given peace, plenty and freedom, might well be content to let alone the fanatical but useful people who chose to distort their bodies or blow themselves into space; and if, at some time, the magnitude of the changes made them aware that something important and terrifying had happened, it would then be too late for them to do anything about it. Even if a wave to primitive obscurantism then swept the world clear of the heresy of science, science would already be on its way to the stars.”

Another early visionary of human enhancement was John Burdon Sanderson Haldane who again was an eminent natural scientist (in particular in the field of population genetics) and a left-wing political activist like Bernal. Haldane’s talk “Daedalus or Science and The Future”, published in 1924, has, amongst others, influenced Huxley and Bernal. Haldane often wrote in an ironical style. For example, in Daedalus he argued that “in the future perhaps it may be possible by selective breeding to change character as quickly as institutions. I can foresee the election placards of 300 years hence, if such quaint political methods survive, which is perhaps improbable, ‘Vote for Smith and more musicians’’, ‘Vote for O’Leary and more girls’, or perhaps finally ‘Vote for Macpherson and a prehensile tail for your great-grandchildren’.”

This has surely an ironic touch. But with some of his discourse strategies we are very familiar in the contemporary discussion. For Haldane there is no qualitative difference between Ectogenesis, the creation of mammalian life outside the uterus, and drinking milk. He writes “The milk which should have been an intimate and almost sacramental bond between mother and child is elicited by the deft fingers of a milk-maid, and drunk, cooked, or even allowed to rot into cheese. We have only to imagine ourselves as drinking any of its other secretions, in order to realise the radical indecency of our relation to the cow.” All great biological inventions were blasphemic at the time of their emergence. Haldane is optimistic about the future. Yes, there are biological inventions that threaten to damage or destroy the fabric of our societies but if we are able to handle this rationally, society will change but not end.

To sum up, I provide a list of relevant topics in the aforementioned  works by Huxley, Bernal and Haldane:




  1. The human body and nature must change permanently to adapt to changing environments.
  2. Man must continue, as he has done since very early times, to actively interfere with evolution, and humanity will soon have the means to take over evolution and to fully control it in a rational way.
  3. The difference between therapy and enhancement vanishes.
  4. Humanity must overcome its biology to extend its senses, strengthen its rationality and to overcome sleep and death.
  5. Human enhancement is, above all, cognitive enhancement, the human brain can be improved by technological means.
  6. A split of humanity in different biological groups or even species will take place in the future.


As you know, all these arguments still shape the contemporary discussion about human enhancement technologies and transhumanism.

In the view of John Harris and colleagues, for example, there is no relevant difference between the use of smart drugs on the one hand and education, exercise, nutrition or sleep, on the other. All these practices are changing the neuronal structure of the brain, and so, they conclude the “drugs just reviewed, along with newer technologies such as brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips, should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology — ways that our uniquely innovative species tries to improve itself.” The subtitle of the first Chapter of Harris book “Enhancing Evolution” is labelled “From ‘Yuck!’ to ‘Wow!’ and How to Get There Rationally” and echoes Haldane. Harris would like to replace natural selection with deliberate selection and he is sure that we have to intervene “in what has been called the natural lottery of life, to improve things by taking control of evolution and our future development to the point, and indeed beyond the point, where we humans will have changed, perhaps into a new and certainly into a better species altogether” (Harris 2007: 4). And if you take a look at the growing transhumanist literature you will find numerous other echoes of the early visions of human enhancement.

Arguably, the discourse strategies of the advocates of human enhancement haven’t changed for almost a century. Be it hive-minds, the extension of life span, brain doping, the creation of new body structures, the taking over of evolution by Man himself or the splitting of humankind into different species: throughout the writings of Huxley, Haldane and Bernal each of the fundamental topics of today’s discourse can be found.


Bernal, John Desmond (1929): The World, the Flesh & the Devil. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and London.

Bostrom, Nick (2005c): A History of Transhumanist Thought. In: Journal of Evolution and Technology, 2005, Vol.14, No. 1. (Online:

Coenen, Christopher (2007): Utopian Aspects of the Debate on Converging Technologies, in: G. Banse, A. Grunwald, I. Hronszky, G. Nelson. Assessing Societal Implications of Converging Technological Development. Berlin: Sigma, 141-172.

Ferrari, Arianna (2008): ‘Is it all about human nature? Ethical challenges of converging technologies beyond a polarized debate’, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 21:1, 1 — 24.

Haldane, John Burdon Sanderson (1924): Daedalus or Science and the Future. A paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge on February 4th, 1923. London.

Harris, John (2007): Enhancing Evolution. The Ethical Case for Making Better People, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Huxley, Julian (1931): What Dare I Think?, London.

Rubin, Charles T. (2005): “Daedalus and Icarus Revisited,” The New Atlantis, Number 8, Spring 2005, pp. 73-91.

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