“How to Find Your Superpower” is among thousands of recent articles, books, and improvement programs about the age-old dream of an updated self. Like others in its genre, the piece offers guidance for achieving “peak performance” through a blend of passion, mastery, and hard work. “The #1 thing you can do is determine your strengths, determine your superpowers,” the authors state in coaching readers to sharpen “a dominant gift an attribute, skill or ability that makes you stronger than the rest: a difference between you and your coworker.”[i] Find that elusive something, and you are sure to succeed. Pitches like this appear everywhere these days. Witness the massive market for fitness, beauty, self-esteem, and cognitive improvement products. These range from dietary supplements and workout regimes to books, videos, and apps. Amazon is loaded with titles like Your Hidden Superpower, Finding Your Superpower, and the kid’s book What’s My Superpower? [ii]
Juvenile appeals notwithstanding, a consistent theme runs through all these books – that it is up to you alone to find, develop, or somehow acquire missing capacities. Rarely is there a mention of structural advantages or disadvantages in the superpower quest. The impulse to exceed one’s limits has a long history in Western thought, with roots in religious doctrine and philosophy. Some even link enhancement to hard-wired survival instincts. Simply put, people have been augmenting themselves for thousands of years, first by using tools, then by working in groups, and later with machines and technology. From the Enlightenment Era onward, this was seen as humanity’s “natural” impulse for continual improvement and progress. Ongoing developments in science and medicine have intensified this drive, along with the heightened sense of crisis in the 21st century. The result has been a growing mania to become stronger, smarter, and better looking than anyone else.
Then add popular culture. Everyone knows the basic superhero plot: stories begin with ordinary characters (often underdogs), who transform via accident, discovery, or gift. With new powers, the superhero battles evil and invariably prevails. Such stories now comprise the most cherished works of mainstream media, generating fortunes for movie franchises: Marvel ($18.2 billion), Harry Potter ($9.1 billion), X-Men ($5.8 billion), DC Universe ($4.9 billion), Spiderman ($4.8 billion).[iii] It’s easy to see the appeal of these films. In an essay titled “Why Everyone Has Seen a Superhero Movie,” critic Gwyneth Torrecampo explained that “The unique challenges we face in our everyday lives can be daunting and stressful, leading us to feel powerless and dejected.”[iv] Viewers thus identify with the hero as a form of wish fulfillment, she explains. “Superheroes often start out like you and me, and then go on to overcome obstacles, protect the vulnerable, or save the world. It’s a potent fantasy that inspires imitation among viewers.”
The superhero syndrome is the fantasy version of “human enhancement,” defined as “the natural, artificial, or technological alteration of the human body to enhance physical or mental abilities.”[v] On one hand there is nothing terribly new or unusual about this. Running shoes and vitamins are enhancements that people take for granted. And indeed, much of modern medicine devotes itself to such helpful interventions, especially when they address genuine needs or difficulties. An appropriately determined restoration of health and functionality always has defined the practice of healing professions, as discussed in Chapter 5. But in recent years, the marriage of science and business has gone well beyond “getting back to normal” in offering ever-more-sophisticated forms of enhancement to meet the public’s insatiable appetite for “more.” But not without controversy. The troubled histories of cosmetic surgery, fad-diets, and steroid abuse are but a few notable examples. Certainly science-fiction superpower stories play a big part in the phenomenon. But on another level, the hunger for such products feeds on the gnawing anxiety now epidemic in the U.S. In addition to economic disparities and their socio-cultural underpinnings, new levels of perfectionism percolate in mainstream culture as well. Advertising only reinforces these impulses by linking them to products.
Human enhancement fascinated German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, known for his social criticism and advocacy of science. In 1883, Nietzsche introduced the aristocratic figure of the “Übermensch” (Superman) as an aspirational ideal for the human race. He argued that this “perfect human” could be achieved though secular means on earth (rather than heaven) by improvements in health, creativity, and willpower. In making this claim, Nietzsche wasn’t simply promoting sci-fi fantasy. Putting the Übermensch in a broader context, Nietzsche explained that every society generates a set of body ideals, and that those ideals inform what societies value and how they behave. The Übermensch complimented then-popular beliefs about human evolution, especially the strain of thinking known as “eugenics.” Also introduced in 1883, eugenics applied Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to social policy by advocating the selective reproduction of certain classes of citizens over others (something Darwin never himself advocated). National leaders like Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt supported the concept, along with many others around the world.[vi] Nazi eugenicists later would cite Nietzsche’s Superman concept in their program to perfect the Aryan race through genocidal programs during World War II.
The excesses of early eugenics movements have tempered contemporary thinking about human enhancement but have done little to dampen yearnings for superhuman updates to the body and mind. Unforeseen consequences often come from what initially seem good ideas. And enthusiasm has little patience for downsides. Adding commerce, culture, and health benefits to the mix, it’s no mystery why the update impulse is stronger than ever. This chapter examines the resulting contradictions in today’s improvement culture, as they play out in beauty, fitness, wellness, intelligence, and ability. Key in this discussion is the assertion that in themselves enhancements are neither good nor bad. Like many things, what matters is the degree to which they are pursued, as well as what happens when external values or pressures are placed upon them.
Many use the term “transhumanism” to describe the contemporary update impulse in everything from robotic cyborgs to artificial organs. As the name implies, transhumanism wants humanity to transcend its limitations, with a strong emphasis on subjective autonomy and the specialness of the human species. Philosophically speaking, the movement sees humanity in a contest with nature and the natural world. It partakes in the belief that humans should use nature for their own ends and master its processes with science and technology. This takes form in enhancements to augment the “natural” body or, ultimately, to forestall or eliminate the natural occurrence of death. Because of this, some critics equate transhumanism with anthropocentrism, as well as historic tendencies to denigrate groups seen as uncivilized, savage or otherwise less-than-human owing to their proximity to nature.
Transhumanism differs from the similar term “posthumanism,” which looks at the way the human self is technologically mediated, and how the humans coexist with other organisms. Writing in The Posthuman Glossary, Francesca Ferrando explained the distinction: “Transhumanism and posthumanism both emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, but the drives motivating them are rooted in different traditions of thought. Transhumanism traces its roots within the enlightenment and does not reject the human tradition; on the contrary transhumanism focuses specifically on human enhancement.” In contrast, posthumanism focuses on “the postmodern deconstruction of the human started in the 1960s and 1970s underlining the fact that, historically, not every human being has been recognized as such.”[vii]
British futurist Max More often gets credit for mapping out the first full-fledged philosophy of contemporary transhumanism in his 1990 “Principles of Extropy.”[viii] More used the term “extropy” (the opposite of entropy) to assert the continual evolution of “intelligent life beyond its current human form and limitations.”[ix] This can include anything from prosthetic limbs, brain implants, and gene splicing to futuristic plans for extending the human life span or uploading consciousness to the cloud. Most of what is seen in contemporary science fiction falls within the transhumanist realm, for better or worse. While transhumanism focusses on the laudable goal of improving people’s health, ability, and wellbeing, it often glamorizes technology as an end in itself. Transhumanists imagine a future in which people become liberated from the constraints of infirmity and death but remain essentially human.
Transhumanism often finds itself tangled in ethical debates about technology’s appropriate role in life. Some critics worry that too many changes might alter what it means to be human in the first place. Others point out that technologies often get misused or run out of control. And still others express concern about the high costs of enhancements. Underscoring this last point, some of transhumanism’s most well-known boosters are tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Peter Theil. New technologies often spring from genuine needs and good intentions. Yet they inevitably become contingent on cultural attitudes, market forces, and the institutions that enable them.
[i] Gwen Moran, “How to Find Your Superpower,” Fast Company (Jun. 8, 2018) https://www.fastcompany.com/40578240/how-to-find-your-superpower (accessed Apr. 22, 2022).
[ii] Becca North, Your Hidden Superpower (Independently published, 2018); Carter Hughes, Finding Your Superpowers: Keys to Cementing Your Identity and Reaching Your Goals (Independently published, 2020); Aviaq Johnson and Tim Mack, What’s My Superpower? (New York: Inhabit Media, 2017).
[iii] Jennifer M. Wood, “10 Highest Grossing Movie Franchises of All Time,” MF (Mar. 18, 2019) https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/70920/10-highest-grossing-movie-franchises-all-time (accessed Apr. 19, 2022).
[iv] Gwyneth Torrecampo, “10 Reasons Why Everyone Has Seen a Superhero Movie,” Medium (Aug. 16, 2018) https://medium.com/framerated/10-reasons-why-superhero-films-are-so-popular-2ce69d2d93ea (accessed Apr. 19, 2022).
[v] “Human Enhancement,” Stanford Encyclopedia off Philosophy (Apr. 7, 2015) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enhancement/ (accessed May 20, 2022).
[vi] Victoria Brignell, “When America Believed in Eugenics,” New Statesman (Dec. 10, 2010) https://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/12/disabled-america-immigration (accessed Apr. 24, 2022).
[vii] Francesca Ferrando, in Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, The Posthuman Glossary (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) p. 439.
[viii] See, Max More, “The Philosophy of Transhumanism, in Max More and Natasha Vita-More, The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on Science, Technology, Philosophy of the Human Future (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) p. 10.
[ix] More, p. 3.