Timothy Leary — transhumanism with a SMI2LE
June 9, 2013 by R.U. Sirius
Most people know Timothy Leary as the “LSD guru” who encouraged people to “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” in the 1960s. But a surprising number of transhumanist types don’t know that he was one of them.
In fact, Leary may have been the first to signal a memeplex for the transhuman future — SMI2LE (Space Migration Intelligence Increase and Life Extension) — back in the mid-1970s.
My new book, Timothy Leary’s Trip Thru Time, explores Leary’s life and philosophies, including his transhuman explorations.
1976–1996 — Transhumanism with a SMI2LE
Leary emerged from prison in 1976 as one of the advocates for advances in the human condition that would soon be called transhumanism. At that point in time, you could probably have counted the number of proto-transhumanists with a voice in the world on the fingers of one hand.
In fact, going back to 1974, about a year after Leary expressed, in his Starseed Transmission, his wild prison fantasy of taking 5,000 advanced mutants out to galaxy central, Gerard K. O’Neill, a physicist and professor at Princeton University released a paper claiming that human settlements could be built in space at Lagrange points — locations where a habitat could theoretically remain stable.
One of these stable points was called “L5” and it soon became the focus of a movement to colonize space. Besides Leary, a number of major figures in 1970s culture became part of the movement for space colonization, including Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson, Stewart Brand — a former Merry Prankster who had started the Whole Earth Catalogue and was about to become, arguably, the central figure in the creation of digital culture, NASA astronaut Rusty Schweickart, and California Governor Jerry Brown, who sponsored a conference to explore the possibilities. (This is where he got the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.”)
Other people cycling through the movement who would later become widely known for their participation in other techno-movements included K. Eric Drexler — considered by many the father of nanotechnology — and Hans Moravec, one of the early proponents of “strong AI” (Artificial Intelligence that exceeds human capacity).
The enthusiasm for Space Migration dissipated not so much because the L5 concept was unworkable as that it was way too expensive to pull off. While space colonization fell into disrepute, arguments are once again being raised that it is the only way to resolve problems of population, energy consumption and the psychosocial impact that the absence of a frontier might be having on the human species.
Timothy Leary’s arguments for Space Migration were tied in with his advocacy for Intelligence Increase and Life Extension (SMI2LE). Always one for sloganeering, Leary came up with “No Rejuvenation without Space Migration,” believing that issues around overpopulation, limited resources and the potential for exhausting personal and cultural novelty on this limited planet could be answered by spreading out and finding new adventures in the stars. (He would later believe he’d found an answer to at least the latter problem in Virtual Reality.)
The potential for technologies that increase intelligence and expand lifespans beyond their apparent biological limits has become the obsession of a large and growing movement called transhumanism.
The first of eight points in “The Transhumanist Declaration,” originally written in 1998 and revised, reads, “We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering and our confinement to planet earth.”
In other words, SMI2LE. Leading transhumanists rarely acknowledge that Leary defined the movement with precision 38 years ago.