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by Alexandra Taylor Published on 4th Sep 2015
by Alexandra Taylor Published on 4th September 2015
A year ahead of the next US presidential election, candidates from both major parties present a colorful cast of characters. In keeping with this theme, meet Zoltan Istvan: the 2016 Transhumanist Party nominee. Istvan is many things: A husband. A father. The inventor of volcano boarding. And now, a presidential candidate. This weekend, Istvan will kick off his nationwide tour, spreading the Transhumanist message as part of his political campaign. Many within the Transhumanist community are already familiar with Istvan and his antics. For those new to the scene, Transhumanism seeks to improve the human condition and experience by using technology to influence biology. If this sentence conjures up images of cyborgs, you are not far off—many Transhumanists support using robotics and artificial intelligence to extend the human lifespan ad infinitum. Indeed, conquering human mortality is the number one priority for the Transhumanist Party, and for Istvan’s campaign. With proper investment in research, he estimates that this goal is attainable within the next twenty years.The ‘Immortality Bus’ What better way to spread this hopeful message than by travelling the country in the very thing he wishes to avoid: a coffin? This weekend, Istvan will begin touring the US in his Immortality Bus, a 40-foot vehicle fashioned to look like a casket. A crowdsourcing campaign has exceeded the $25,000 necessary to put this plan into action.The Immortality Bus campaign heralds the vehicle as “a pro-science symbol of resistance against aging and death.” Istvan’s own campaign site proudly displays an endorsement from Robert Kennedy, Jr., a public figure whose relationship with science is contentious at best. Other guests slotted to accompany Istvan include longevity scientist Maria Konovalenko, writer Jamie Bartlett, and Dr. Lisa Memmel, a California-based physician and Istvan’s wife. The bus will also be home to an interactive robot named Jethro Knights, in addition to other miscellaneous tech gear aimed to surprise and delight. As Istvan told Tech Insider, “When you are a third-party candidate, half of what you do is entertainment…because you are actually trying to spread a message knowing you have very little chance of winning.” The campaign will kick off in San Francisco on September 5 before travelling north, hitting major cities on the west coast, and then heading east to end in Washington, DC. Istvan and company will protest pollution near the Mississippi River, wind through the Bible Belt preaching at megachurches, and stop off in Detroit to discuss automation and the job market. The tour will culminate on the steps of the United States Capitol, where Istvan will read out the Transhumanist Bill of Rights. “The bill will advocate for government policy to support indefinite lifespans in our species,” Istvan wrote in the Huffington Post, “as well as the use of synthetic and robot technology to live healthier and better.”The Evidence According to Istvan, the Transhumanist movement has grown considerably within the past few years. Recent advances in medicine and significant investments by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have bolstered hopes of living to well over 100. But while the average human lifespan has indeed improved, conquering death is a separate question entirely. Very little concrete evidence exists to suggest that immortality is attainable, at least in so short a timeframe. Istvan’s articles invoke different experts who give varying estimates of how far we are from this goal, but the Transhumanist Party’s website and Istvan’s personal campaign site are conspicuously bare of concrete scientific data. While this would not be the first time a candidate has delivered empty promises, it does not bode well for his cause. Investing trillions of dollars to research areas such as stem cells, telomeres, and artificial organs is sure to spur advances. However, many of these roads will likely be dead ends for immortality. As LIFEMAG has noted before, the public is much less likely to fund a quest for the fountain of youth than it is to support research for age-related diseases that affect us here and now. While greater financial support for biomedical research will reasonably lead to longer, healthier lives, any candidate should be expected to back up scientific claims with hard evidence.The Issues Problematically, Istvan’s own background is as a writer, not a scientist. He is arguably most well-known as the author of The Transhumanist Wager, a science fiction novel in which protagonist ‘Jethro Knights’ (get the link?) “sails around the world promoting indefinite life extension,” hotly pursued by anti-Transhumanist Christians. Istvan is a former employee of the National Geographic Channel and a regular writer for media outlets such as Gizmodo, The Huffington Post, and Slate. His media savvy has made him moderately successful in raising awareness for his personal vision of Transhumanism. In his column for the Huffington Post last October, he announced both the founding of the Transhumanist Party and his own nomination as the party’s presidential candidate. Rose-colored glasses When confronted with potential issues surrounding immortality, Istvan’s answers are vague and endlessly optimistic. He advocates for environmental protection, but assumes that “the world will find the best path to preserve the shining brilliance of this ecologically fragile planet.” He shrugs off the specter of overpopulation: “The Transhumanist age is ushering in new wealth to the world… and with it will eventually come a balanced and acceptable growth rate of population levels.” His belief that everything will fall into place is directly at odds with the present and future concerns of the average American voter.Istvan’s refusal to focus on the issues of the day, coupled with his lighthearted dismissal of the country’s founding principles (“We laughed,” he wrote in Gizmodo, “thinking it ridiculous to try governing a country with a 226-year-old document in the Transhumanist age”), negates his chances among moderate voters. Istvan is a controversial figure within the Transhumanist community itself—not all support his extreme vision, which includes a history of anti-religious sentiment. As the leader of a political party that he himself founded, Istvan aims to build support and awareness for life extension science. For a candidate of his background, the political arena seems an odd choice to accomplish this end. “Like the great bus tours of the 1960’s that brought a culture of hippie love to America and the West, the Immortality Bus hopes to bring a culture of desiring far longer lifespans via science,” Istvan wrote in the Huffington Post. This comparison ultimately seems fitting—both parties have viewed the world through rose-colored glasses. Like the hippie movement, the Transhumanist Party campaign may one day be revealed to have a dark side. By peddling theatrics under the guise of a pro-science platform, Istvan risks marginalizing the same people that many legitimate research institutions would like to attract.