Transhumanism and Palingenesis

Palingenesis is a term tracing back to the Stoics, referring to the continual re-creation of the universe by the Demiurge, which they saw as the source of all creation. “Palingenesis” derives from the Greek words palin, meaning again, and genesis, meaning birth. The word has since been applied to diverse areas, with a connotation of rebirth and renewal. In Christian theology, the term refers to the transmigration of souls, and the reinstantation of saved souls into a heavenly body. Palingenesis refers to a basic concept that transcends space and time — rebirth.

The modern philosophy of transhumanism, which seeks to transcend the human condition by redesigning the human body and brain, has always had deep roots in palingenetic ideas. In Vernor Vinge’s 1991 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” he writes “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” From our point of view, he calls this “throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye,” and that, “Developments that before were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next (21st) century.” A recent poll of 699 transhumanists found that 397 (56.8%) expected “accelerating progress then Singularity” in the coming 100 years.

This transhumanist attitude towards global rebirth, fundamental change, rests on a simple fact: making big improvements necessitates making big changes. Truly large beneficial changes, for all practical purposes, are rebirths, or palingenesis. For instance, the creation of an artificial intelligence which ends scarcity and age-related decline could be regarded as palingenesis, especially if it occurs “in the blink of an eye.”

Major changes in our fundamental assumptions, such as the apparent inevitability of death and taxes, will cause major permutations in social and political structure. What exactly these will be is hard to say in advance. We can confidently postulate such changes, though, because smaller advancements throughout history, such as the invention of the printing press or crossbow, had major social and economic effects. The creation of a machine intelligence that can cheaply copy itself, is an oracle, and provides superintelligent solutions to problems would obviously be a much more significant technological advance than the introduction of the printing press, and would have correspondingly greater social effects.

A noun often used to describe the effects of cybernetic augmentation, the end of aging, uploading into computers, etc., is transcension. While transcension is not an inaccurate term in this context, the term palingenesis appears to be more descriptive. “Transcension” is most often invoked to refer to an individual experience, whereas palingenesis refers to a global and social event and a living process. Another shortcoming of “transcension” is that it shows a psychological focus on the boundaries and limitations being transcended, while deemphasizing the vast space of possibility that opens up subsequent to the boundaries being transcended. After the boundaries are transcended, what then? A rebirth occurs. The focus on this rebirth is palingenesis.

The Source of the Changes

To comprehend the potential magnitude of the changes which could be wrought by wholescale reengineering of the human body and (especially) the brain, we have to go back in history. Preferably, way back — 10 millon years at least, maybe as far back as 600 million years. Every organism on this planet for the past 600 million years has been made out of proteins, and every single neuron that ever existed has had the same basic biochemical blueprint. Replacing proteins with synthetic muscles, or replacing neurons with microprocessors, is equivalent to throwing out this 600 million years of history. It’s like going back 600 million years, tweaking the basic physical performance of certain physiological systems by enhancing their strength and speed by orders of magnitude, then fast forwarding 600 million years and seeing what new creatures they evolve into. Applying (trans)human design creativity to the creation of novel organisms, or hybrid organisms, has the potential to recapitulate hundreds of millions of years of natural design in a matter of years or decades.

There are many examples of this process occurring in the paleontological and historical record. Agriculture was invented by leafcutter ants 50 million years ago, but not perfected until 8-12 million years ago, when the ants became able to use living leafy biomass instead of dead biomass, greatly increasing their efficiency. E.O. Wilson called ant-fungus mutualism, on which the species depends, “one of the breakthroughs in animal evolution,” on par with the ungulate rumen or the powered flight of birds. Leafcutter ants are the dominant herbivores in their ecology, harvesting more leafy biomass than any other group, about 15-20% of the total. One source claims they make up 86% of the arthropod biomass in the rainforest. That’s approaching ecological closure within their niche.

Farming, as practiced by humans, took about five thousands years to develop. The first domesticated plants were planted around 10,000 BC, and by 5,000 BC, the Sumerians had developed intensive large-scale agriculture, on which their civilization, the first, depended. So, leafcutter agriculture took approximately 40 million years to develop, while human farming required 5,000 years. This is a ratio of 8000 to 1. Humans were 8000 times faster than ants at developing agriculture. That’s the superiority of intellect over Darwinian population genetics.

Another process to compare is the development of powered flight. Powered flight was developed by nature at least four separate times (insects, pterosaurs, birds, bats). Mammals were first gliding around 150 million years ago, but didn’t evolve into modern flyers (bats) until 50 million years ago or later. In contrast, humans began attempting to glide about 1000 years ago, and built an airplane in 1903, a gap of about 1000 years. Here, the ratio is even greater, 100,000 to 1. If we compare the evolution of flight in insects, pterosaurs, and birds with the development of airplanes, the ratios may be slightly different, but probably not by more than a factor of ten. The point is that the difference is very large.

The importance of agriculture and powered flight is not a subjective matter. These innovations make a major difference for the success of the species that adopt them. Farming among leafcutter ants made them the dominant rainforest herbivores. Flight among bats has made them among the most widely distributed mammalian groups, accounting for 20% of classified mammal species. Farming among humans caused our population to explode and civilization to be created, while powered flight has transformed the global economy, geography, and geopolitics.

New Changes

There are other innovations which our species has yet to develop, but which we can expect to have a major impact when we do. The most obvious is the creation of true Artificial Intelligence. Nature took over ten million years to produce general intelligence in hominids, and humans have been working on it for just over fifty. If we assume a ratio of 100,000 to 1, we should expect general intelligence in machines 100 years after the first attempts, or around 2056. If we assume a ratio of 10,000:1, we can expect machine intelligence in 1,000 years. That seems like a bit of a long estimate.

The comparisons above actually understate the magnitude of the difference between the ouput of human ingenuity and natural evolution. While nature often requires separate evolutionary lines to develop distinct innovations, such as developing flight in one line and swimming in another, a single human civilization can pursue multiple innovations simultaneously. To the extent that machines can be interchanged, human technological development is less susceptible to “evolutionary lock-in,” whereas many natural evolutionary changes are conserved even if they become sub-optimal. Finally, many human innovations are completely novel and qualitatively transcend biological capabilities, such as lasers and nuclear weapons. Adding this all together, the amount of useful design produced per year by human ingenuity outclasses the annual evolutionary change of any other individual species by many thousands of times, maybe even millions.

The concept of transhumanism rests on taking this design power and improving the human organism. Thus far, it has mainly been applied to external objects. Only in the past couple hundred years has this power been turned inwards.

There is a tension within transhumanism, which tries to be a part of contemporary discourse, focusing on the political issues of the day, such as poverty, drones, and climate change. Meanwhile, its roots lie in the possibility of radical changes to the human condition, detailed descriptions of which reliably elicit either visceral disgust or outright disbelief among the majority of the population.  Transhumanists sometimes pretend that they have a “normal” view of history and near-term possibilities, but they don’t. For an example of a transhumanist not trying to conceal his non-normal view, see this excerpt from a recent article in the New York Post:

“I’ve made my peace with the fact that, you know, this is not going to last,” Mr. Mowshowitz said, looking out the window at weekend traffic on Sixth Avenue as though it would all disappear.

Some transhumanist figures, namely Ray Kurzweil, portray a fundamental change in the human condition as continuous with the history of technological progress, but others, such as Nick Bostrom, have expressed deep concern about fundamental discontinuities in history caused by the enhancement of human intelligence. Among the transhumanist community, there seems to be two camps — the “business as usual” camp, postulating that the introduction of transhumanist technologies will produce only incremental changes, and the “everything goes out the window” camp, postulating a sudden Singularity sometime this century. According to the survey cited earlier, about 39% of transhumanists fall into the first camp, 58% fall into the second camp. The remaining 3% expect human extinction before 2100.

Renewal in Nature and History

Palingenesis, while rare, appears at various points in natural history. One early evolutionary line of multi-cellular animals, the Ediacaran fauna, evolved about 575 million years ago, during a period known as the Avalon Explosion, then vanished without a trace. The “palingenesis” was the Cambrian Explosion, 530 million years ago, when hard-bodied animals diversified in a fantastic way, producing most modern phyla. In that case, the palingenesis wiped out the dominant structure before it, and its effects are felt to this day. Our entire civilization is the extended consequence of the success of that event.

An older example is the Oxygen Catastrophe 2.3 billion years ago, when anaerobic bacteria were replaced by aerobic bacteria, which produced so much oxygen that most of the anaerobic bacteria were wiped out. Jump forward to the P-T extinction 252 million years ago, which destroyed some 83% of animal genera and was the only known mass extinction of insects. If this event had not occurred, the earth might be populated with completely different animal groups. The extinction was so severe that a single terrestrial vertebrate species, the pig-sized Lystrosaurus, accounts for 95% of all vertebrate fossils in certain fossil beds dating to right after the event. Archosaurs, the ancestors of the dinosaurs, must have only accounted for a small percentage of living individuals in the post-mass extinction hellscape, but they later went on to radiate and dominate the world for 135 million years as the dinosaurs.

The same story plays out again during the K-T boundary, the extinction of the dinosaurs. A previously tiny group, the mammals, came to dominate the land. Everything began anew, all over again.

More trivially, rebirth happens every year during Spring. Millions of square miles of land covered in ice become warm again and turn into vast living swamps and tundra, until it all freezes, dies, and the process starts all over again.

Because most of the human population was separated by vast tracts of land and sea until historically recent times, palingenesis with respect to global culture has never really happened. In many places around the world, the basics of human life have not changed for thousands of years. The most notable example is the creation of civilization itself. A new energy source (agriculture) drove specialization (social structure) leading to better information management and processing (writing) resulting in the creation of conspicuous indicators of prosperity (monumental architecture) and much else besides.

Singling out candidates for the triggering palingenesis among human society or civilization itself is a challenge and controversial. Christianity, science, democracy, etc., only impact distinct segments of humanity, and are still struggling with conflicting ideologies. It’s not “palingenesis” unless the entire body, the whole, is reborn.

Transhumanism and Rebirth 

We now bring together the concepts of palingenesis, technology, and transhumanism, and a lot of controversy and potential discord springs to mind. The controversy is a sign that we might have touched on an interesting issue.

The thought of palingenesis occurring, say, tomorrow — causes discomfort. Something that threatens to detonate the familiar and predictable and replace it with something new is scary. This makes complete sense. Technology can be destructive and disruptive. In the last two decades alone, hundreds of millions of people have forgotten how to make casual conversation and deal with one another socially. Millions have never learned. The fantasy world of the Internet provides a place where we are exposed to social and political extremes, and the greater accessibility of information gives us better opportunities to reinforce our preexisting beliefs. Technology may play a nurturing role for ethical laxity, propping up corrupt systems that would have collapsed otherwise. This is analogous to how greater human intelligence and hunting capabilities indirectly contributed to a much higher incidence of myopia (poor eyesight), requiring glasses. In harsher environments, genetic drift causing myopia would have been selected out by evolution.

“Technology” is not a morally valent force. It does not “want” anything. It is a heterogeneous conglomerate of inanimate tools. “Technology”, in the abstract, does not “change the world for the better.” It only magnifies human capabilities, and sometimes makes the world worse. The same technology that can be used to help can often be used to oppress, if only through selective distribution of the technology. Since “technology” refers to so many different things, making generalizations about its effects on human culture is disingenuous.

Examining the possibility of technology-triggered palingenesis in our immediate future is more about asking questions about humanity, and what humans are likely to do in given situations, than about technology. Asking questions about human behavior tends to make engineer and computer scientist types uncomfortable, because of all the fuzziness, uncertainty, and psychological elements involved. Conversely, understanding technology in enough detail to correctly estimate the hugeness of its likely impact over the 21st century is more in the mental realm of the engineer — right-brain types trying to grasp these details reach a wall, like an ocean vessel approaching the Ross Ice Shelf. Only when we consider both the magnitude of the impact of technology (boring to many feeling types) and the likely behavior of human societies (tedious to many logical types) can we make any progress on predicting what might actually occur.

Empowerment by advanced technology may allow small groups to exploit vast new domains of value, both economic, military, and otherwise. Ideas that are very unpopular or even completely unknown in the current environment could become the foundations of new states. Over the past century, nearly every country in the world has undergone major upheavals, invasions, and/or profound political transitions. The only exceptions are the United States, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Vatican City. These transitions are caused by groups of people that often begin as small groups, in some cases only a single individual. Revolutions are not exceptions — over the past 165 years, they have been the rule. New groups rise to power constantly, and form new states in their own image.

One educational example of this phenomena would be Cambodia in 1975. After a century of relative peace and stability, the Khmer Rouge regime seized power and murdered two million people, roughly 25% of the population. The Paris student group that formed the nucleus of the ruling apparatus consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, and were the most educated leaders in the history of Asian communism. Few would have guessed that they would go on to perpetrate such a bloody and radical revolution, characterized by some of the most brutal state-sponsored terror campaigns since Hitler and Stalin.

Rebirth can also be wonderful. The two centuries after the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) were among the most intellectually productive in the history of mankind, as the Greeks made fundamental discoveries in mathematics, science, technology, military strategy, and authored some of the most respected literature ever composed. The world’s most significant contributions were made by a group of ten million people living in a domain accounting for one-thirtieth of one percent of global land area. The stage for the development of all modern technology was set by the quantitative and logical thinking invented by the Greeks. Their impact was so great that the discovery of a few of their old books was primarily responsible for initiating the Renaissance.

There are three primary categories of human organization which have been tried over the years — liberal democracy, strong central rulers, and Communism. All three ideas are alive and well today. Throughout the 20th century, the three fought it out, and liberal democracy won. Today, billions of people live in liberal democracies. Over 1.4 billion people live in Communist China. Besides those two groups, there are plenty who already have or would prefer a strong central ruler for their state. Take Russian president Vladimir Putin — for much of his rule, his approval rating has been in the high 70s, at times pushing 90%. About 140 million people live under the authoritarian leadership of Putin, and five million enjoy the benefits of authoritarian leadership in Singapore.

There are various “miracle technologies” that could offer small groups huge power. I’m not going to argue for that point here, just take it for granted. Potential candidates for these technologies include molecular manufacturing, intelligence enhancement, AI, and whole brain emulation.  Let’s assume a few more points: that some group will achieve this power by 2060, and that the political makeup of the world will be more or less the same between now and then. I’m not saying that this is likely, just assuming it for the sake of argument.

I’m further going to assume that, if the “miracle technology” is unleashed, major social changes will occur. The technology will go to some relatively small group, empowering them greatly. They go on to have a huge impact on the world. The character of that impact will be determined by which of the forms of human organization they subscribe to. They won’t have a choice to “not make an impact” — their technological (and thereby economic) superiority will ensure that their interpretation of the world system is subsidized and competitors are curtailed, even in the absence of direct imperialism. More crudely, they might export their preferred interpretation of human organization through actual invasions, but a huge impact is still assumed even if outright invasion never occurs.

Taking all these assumptions into account, we can expect the radical magnification, within the next fifty years, of either liberal democracy, strong central rulers, or Communism. Let’s put up some semi-arbitrary numbers — liberal democracy has roughly 2.6 billion adherents, which is essentially the Americas plus Europe. In the category of “strong central rulers”, let’s throw in Russia, Africa and the Muslim world, and a quarter of a billion sprinkled across other countries. That’s about 3 billion people. The balance is China, roughly 1.4 billion people.

It’s easy to argue over these exact numbers. The point is not the exact values, but that there are three main ways of looking at how human society should be organized, and that they each have a substantial number of adherents. For the most part, each of them are living in a bubble where they are taught that the other political philosophies are not merely wrong, but insane. For instance, a common teaching in the United States is that all authoritarian systems are equivalent to fascism and that Communism is evil. From within traditional authoritarian systems, liberal democracy is seen as crazy. Within Communist societies, liberal democracy and traditional authoritarianism as seen as counter-revolutionary… you get the idea.

Since advanced technology is not equally produced worldwide, the probability of which system will be amplified cannot be determined by global population numbers alone. Taking this consideration into account, the numbers lean more towards liberal democracy and away from strong central rulers and Communism. I welcome a more precise calculation, but for now I’ll just throw out some rough numbers again: 10:1:3. Liberal democracy gets 10 tech points per capita, strong central rulers 1, and Communism is assigned 3 points. So, multiplying by the population distribution, we get probabilities of liberal democracy being amplified at 71%, strong central rulers are at 7%, and Communism gets the rest with 22%.

There are many more qualifiers which may be added to this model. I hope the starting place has been put in focus. One qualifier might be that Communist leaders feel less encumbered by political correctness, thereby being more willing to pursue controversial research that may lead to palingenesis, such as uncovering the genetic roots of intelligence. Feel free to add as many qualifiers as you like. If you feel that the world is going more in the direction of liberal democracy, for instance, then that group should be assigned even greater probability mass, since the total is averaged over the next 50 or so years.

One last bit here. We must use caution when interpreting political trends. Democracy has not “won”. In the 1950s, Communism was widely respected, including in the West, but by the 1980s, it was largely defeated. In the 1750s, it probably felt like monarchy would continue forever, but over the next century it suffered a series of devastating blows. The situation is further complicated by the observation that political change in general may be accelerating.

The Impact

To reduce cognitive dissonance and do what they see as best for the world’s people, the empowered palingenetic group will export their political views. They might not even recognize them as “political views,” because within the bubble of each major system, those views are sacralized, considered “common sense,” “normal,” even “post-political”. Regardless, the elite will copy them in an effort to emulate their success. Their preference for interacting and trading with those of their own group will also increase the power of that political ideology. All these phenomena are in full effect even if the palingenetic group is not expressly trumpeting their political ideology.

What will happen? Let’s take a look at each major possibility. Note that I am not trying to make any political points here — just mechanically extrapolating the results if representatives from either of the world’s three dominant political ideologies acquire superlative powers, based on historical precedent. This entire section is much more speculative than what has been discussed thus far. Replace it with your own intuitions, if you like.

If a group that believes in liberal democracy is empowered, I assume (perhaps cynically) that the global result is likely to be similar to the foreign policy of the United States from 2001-2012, magnified many times. For instance, instead of staying out of Syria and North Korea, we would go in. The martial and strategic superiority afforded by the miracle technology would allow for less costly invasions, both in terms of lives and relative resources. If the technology is decisively superior, as would be the case with weapons produced using molecular manufacturing, the force multipliers could be in the tens of thousands, meaning a single soldier backed by the palingenetic group would be able to defeat tens of thousands of enemy soldiers.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ratio of American military fatalities to Iraqi military fatalities was about 1 to 150. Simplistically, we could say the US Army was 150 times more powerful than the Iraqi army. Even still, the subsequent costs of occupation were so high that many of its former advocates greatly regret supporting it, and the social fabric of the nation was torn apart fighting over it. What if the cost of invading Iraq had been much smaller? We might have still left, but when? The choice would be made entirely based on the will of the people in control, unpressured by practical considerations such as dollars and lives.

There is a clear desire by certain elements in the US and Europe to go into Syria and help the insurgents, but we just can’t do it due to pushback from China and Russia. If liberal democracy were truly in charge, it wouldn’t have to worry about their opinions. It’s possible that liberal democracies could invade new countries every year, and simply stay there, installing democratic governments and making them unassailable. Of course, they might change their minds over time, but this analysis is trying to focus on the initial large impact rather than the longer-term evolution.

Within the U.S., there is a strong attitude that the more democracy the world has, the better. (This attitude is called Wilsonianism.) So, a democratic palingenesis would export democracy worldwide, whether it works for each country or not. This version of palingenesis might actually involve the least change, as much of the world is already made up of nominally democratic states.

Since liberal democracies seem the most likely states to view themselves as charities, a democratic palingenesis might do a lot of good for the world’s poor countries. Conversely, it just might make them more dependent on the United States. Of course, many volumes have been penned on that topic.

Next, let’s look at a Communist palingenesis. To be cynical yet again, and looking at history, I would be most pessimistic about this eventuality. Communist regimes were responsible for killing at least 85 million people during the 20th century. If we look at the majority of years of Communist rule, they were failures. During the Cold War, NATO overestimated the economic strength of the USSR many times. An interesting exception to this failure is China since 1995, where GDP has multiplied nearly ten times over and standards of living have improved tremendously. This might give us a flicker of hope, but the sample duration is fairly limited.

Lastly, there is the “strong central leader” palingenesis. To me, this is probably the most interesting of the three possibilities, since it plays on such deep hopes and fears in human nature. Monarchies have a history of being far less apologetic than the other types when it comes to casually conquering neighboring territories or engaging in nationalism. Monarchies tend to have fewer laws than democracies, but enforce them more strictly. A monarchic or traditionalist palingenesis offers the greatest variance in outcomes, because the activity of the state is based on the direct designs of one person or a small group. The state has more freedom to act than in the other two systems.

Like liberal democracies in the West, monarchies tend not to indulge in mass murder of their populations. In fact, there are no historical examples of monarchies committing genocide against their own core ethnic group. Putting down rebellions of ethnic and political minorities, yes; systematic genocide, no.

Dictatorships have resulted in genocide against citizens, but Nazi Germany doesn’t resemble historical monarchies, which seem like a more popular model for the world’s authoritarians than dictatorships. In any case, throughout the course of Roman history, there were numerous dictatorships where civilization and progress got along well. Then there were emperors who were horrible. History shows that emperors, kings, and dictators can be both good and bad. Throughout the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, Europe was dominated by royalty, which more often patronized artistic and scientific progress than stifled it.

The impact of a monarchic palingenesis would depend heavily on the virtues, or lack thereof, of the group or individual at the top, as well as the constituency making it up. In monarchies, more important state decisions are made by experts as opposed to popular will. To the extent that structural decisions are better made by experts (true in most domains), government would improve. The influence of the popular will wouldn’t disappear, either — in historical monarchies, the masses had plenty of influence over culture and commerce, just not over the mechanisms of government.

Because monarchies seem the most excited about expansion, this palingenesis would be the most likely to lead to traditional empires. Sometimes, empires are a plus for their citizens — the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire was the most legendary period of ancient history, the only serious rival to Classical Greece. For the Roman people, the founding of the Empire provided much-needed peace after nearly a century of internal bloodshed, economic failure, and political uncertainty that came before it. Of course, some of the tribes they conquered may have a different view.


Trying to peer over the palingenetic horizon, of which the Singularity is but one example, is like looking through a glass darkly. The uncertainties involved are enormous, and the possibilities outlined here may never transpire. The objective has been to build a model of discontinuous technological and social change occurring around 2060 or so, and spell out possible consequences of that model being true. The future may be a confusing place, but since we’ll be spending the rest of our lives there, we might as well take a closer look at it.

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