The History of the Word “Transhumanism”

Have you ever wondered where the term transhumanism comes from?  The standard transhumanist literature speculates that it began with Julian Huxley, who published an essay endorsing transhumanism in 1957.

Thanks to some detective work by the distinguished historian Peter Harrison and one of his students, Joseph Wolniak, we see that Huxley used the word as early as 1951, but not 1927 as some have suggested.  What’s more, Huxley may have borrowed the word and the general idea from another writer.

The Harrison/Wolniak essay appeared earlier this month in an open access journal, Notes and Queries.  In it, they trace the modern use of transhumanism back to a Canadian intellectual, W. D. Lighthall.  In 1940, Lighthall published a paper entitled “The Law of Cosmic Evolutionary Adaptation: An Interpretation of Recent Thought” in a journal called Proceedings and Transactions.  In it, Lighthall advances a view of cosmic, biological, and cultural evolution, a view he calls “transhumanism.”

What makes Lighthall intriguing is that he attributes the core idea of transhumanism to the biblical writer, St. Paul, mediated by the poet Dante.  Dante invents the Italian word, trasumanar, in a context that echoes Paul.  Harrison and Wolniak point out that the standard Victorian translation of Dante, Henry Francis Carey, renders the key line in Dante as “Words may not tell of that transhuman change…”

Lighthall, Harrison and Wolniak suggest, simply added “-ism” to Carey’s “transhuman.”  They comment on Lighthall: “…it is clear that he is seeking to baptize his new scientific version of transhumanism by invoking Dante’s trasumanar and St Paul’s rapture.”

The big question is whether Huxley read Lighthall.  Probably…but no proof.  For now, the Harrison/Wolniak contribution is the definitive reading of the history of transhumanism.  If they’re right–and I believe they are–then it is abundantly clear that the origins of transhumanism lie in religious hopes for transformation.

         

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