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"Posthuman Aesthetics" Online Course Preview 2: On Early Ideas of Human Evolution

This is a preview of one of the lectures from our open online course Posthuman Aesthetics.

What did early twentieth-century scientists think about the human of the future? In their three-volume popular science work The Science of Life (published in 1929-30) the biologist Julian Huxley, the science fiction and popular science writer H. G. Wells and his son G. P. Wells set out to popularize the biological sciences. In the last chapter of their work called “The Present Phase of Human Association” they had a subsection on the future of man in which they wrote on the possibility of one collective human mind and will:

“Just so far as a human mind is well informed and soundly instructed, so far is it able to understand, that is to say to identify itself with, other well-informed and soundly instructed minds. By means of books, pictures, museums and the like, the species builds up the apparatus of a super-human-memory. Imaginatively the individual now links himself with and secures the use of this continually increasing and continually more systematic and accessible super-memory.”

Reading these lines almost a hundred years later, the description the authors gives of a super-human memory with all the knowledge from books, museums and pictures might make us think about the Internet or Wikipedia. But Wells, Huxley and Wells’ ideas about the human of the future and his super-memory needs to be seen in a broader context that is not merely linked to the possibility of future technology as seen from their vantage point in the early twentieth century. The idea underlying The Science of Life was to give an account of all things known about the biological sciences, from how the digestive system in humans work to descriptions of fossils of pre-historic fish; all placed in the context of the theory of evolution.

In the final chapter of the work, the authors concluded that because of natural selection and our ability as a species to survive, modern man has a ‘superfluous amount of energy’, which he – at that point in time at least – used for things like recreational sports, art, literature and scientific research.This surplus of energy, the authors argued, will increase as humans get more and more free time, and in the end it will surpass the individual and be a part of a new unifying consciousness of the human species. In this respect we differ from animals, because they have an “individual conscious existence limited strictly to their individual experiences”. Because the human mind moves ‘in more dimensions’, Wells, Huxley and Wells professed that the future of the human species is far more fundamental than developments in technology or what we will spend our free time on. Instead, through a fundamental change in our species we will achieve a collective human mind that will be the next evolutionary step. And for the authors of The Science of Life, this next step in evolution will take place on every level, from the molecules in our bodies to the structure of our societies. As this example shows, visions of human futures are not a novel phenomenon, and although certain themes (here the collective mind) recur through history, each discussion must be seen as contextually imbued.