Nikolai Fedorov and the Dawn of the Posthuman, by Nader Elhefnawy

 [ Public Domain img: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Pasternak_fedorov.jpg ] Posthumanism, the idea that human beings will in the future acquire such command over nature that they can alter the most fundamental conditions of human existence (birth, death, the limits of space, time and economics as we know them, etc.) is generally regarded as a twentieth-century phenomenon. However, while most closely identified with figures like Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil and FM-2030 in our time, and earlier thinkers like J.D. Bernal and J.B.S. Haldane occasionally mentioned, something of this idea may in fact be as old as civilization. It is probably significant that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great work of literature in history, centers on its hero's pursuit of immortality. Alchemy, with its homunculi and transmutation of elements, its toying with the line between life and death (not least of all in its own pursuit of immortality), can certainly be seen as a forerunner as well, and one not unconnected to modern science—no less a figure than Isaac Newton having himself been an alchemist. Antecedents are also evident in the earliest stirrings of the Scientific Revolution of the early seventeenth century, in the calls of Francis Bacon and Renée Descartes for human beings to master the forces of nature and effect all things possible—with a glimpse of the results in Bacon's New Atlantis. The inhabitants of Bacon's utopia of Bensalem have, among other technologies, life extension, robots, and the ability to control earthquakes and storms.

Nonetheless, a great deal of this can be considered a prehistory of the concept. The quest for personal transcendence, the speculations of philosophers like Bacon (notoriously conservative in their reading of the societal implications of these staggering technologies) are quite different matters from a wholesale transformation of the species into something no longer bound by age-old constraints. Nikolai Fedorov (1828-1903), a Russian librarian and teacher, may have been the first to produce that, not only the fullest and most coherent vision of human transcendence through science up to his time, but one that many argue is unmatched even in ours.

Known to us today principally through the posthumous collection, Philosophy of the Common Task, Fedorov's work may never have appeared in its entirety in English, but a substantial portion of it was published in 1990 in What Was Man Created For? (New York: Hyperion, 1990), translated and edited by Elizabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto. (All quotations of Fedorov's writing in this article come from that edition.) With Fedorov's unprecedented consideration not only of possibilities and means but also ends, the prehistory of the posthuman idea arguably came to an end, and its history properly begun.

The Origins of The Common Task

At first glance, nineteenth century Russia may seem an inauspicious place for the emergence of such thinking. However, on closer examination, it is not so surprising after all. Thinkers in nineteenth century Russia were preoccupied with the meaning and direction of history, and especially with the question of human freedom, interests shaped in particular by both Russian Orthodox Christianity, and the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. (Hegel's central idea—that world history was made by the universe's progressive realization of its inherent rationality, its movement toward a higher unity manifested in a community of free, self-conscious human beings who recognize each other as such—is a starting point for many Russian thinkers of this period, Fedorov included.) A common product of this combination of ideas was the pursuit of "the Kingdom of God not in the world beyond, but here and now" (132), and a belief that prayer was no substitute for actual human effort. It would come about not only for, but through, man, their Christianity one of action.

It was the way in which he expected humans to achieve this that really separated Fedorov from the others. His model for what human society should be was the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, individuality retained within an indissoluble union (65-66) existing in a "boundless love ... that excludes death" (143), the latter a critical point. The absence of kinship and brotherhood, the prevalence of separation between human beings everywhere—between town and country, learned from uneducated, between individuals, classes, nations, generations and even between thought and action—was in his view inseparable from the problem of death. Death, the great divider, was the "true evil" (109), and rather than a fundamental aspect of the "human condition," or part of a necessary duality along with life, he saw it is a "state conditioned by causes; it is not a quality which determines what a human being is and must be" (99). The cause was specifically "our being at the mercy of the blind force of nature, acting without and within us and not subject to our control" (90).

The question of the relationship between human beings and nature is therefore at the center of his work. For Fedorov, humans are the "part of nature ... which has attained consciousness" (107). (Extending the metaphor, the universe's electromagnetic fields were an underdeveloped nervous system, awaiting a more mature organization by that consciousness manifest in human beings (100).) The non-human world "has no will, and for beings endowed with feeling and capable of action and not mere contemplation, the world is not solely a representation, but a project of liberation from bondage" (113).

Accordingly, rather than accepting and submitting to the rest of nature as it is, venerating and deifying it (as in paganism or, implicitly, Social Darwinism)—or alternatively, "the pillage and plunder of nature ... through its exploitation and utilization" in the manner of capitalism (79)—the ethical response is to "be its regulator, its manager." In place of the earlier blindness human beings would subject it to conscious purpose in the "common task" of resurrection, transforming it from a death-giving force into a life-giving force.

Overcoming death was the only doctrine "which demands not separation but reunification ... the doctrine of kinship" (43) among not living human beings, but their predecessors, "the fathers." A fully developed sense of kinship meant defeating death on their behalf as well, shifting from the "mythical patrification" of ancestor worship to "actual resuscitation" (43), which he termed "the supreme good, the supreme task" (80). "Out of the child's love, the son's and particularly the daughter's love, arises universal love" (119), Fedorov argued, resurrecting the dead nothing less than filial duty (99), or "sonship." (Notably, he repeatedly referred to Christ as the "Son of Man.")

By contrast, the economic and political ideologies, and ideological conflicts, that emerged out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment were in his view woefully inadequate. The "natural" struggle against death trumps the "social" struggle, success in the former resolving the problems of the latter, which were rooted in death. Social problems, for instance, were in his view a response to poverty, which would never be eliminated so long as death existed (83). Mastering nature would eliminate poverty and disease, and the proper unification of the world in the project would end war. "Regulation will solve the social problem, put an end to proletarianisation ... and do away with the miseries of our time" (156), he taught, everyone becoming a scientist of sorts laboring in the common task, a work by all and for all. Moreover, even were it possible for the rationalist Enlightenment utopia to be realized, it would suffer from the grave flaw that it was based on self-interest rather than love and kinship, that its focus was on maximizing material well-being rather than spiritual needs, and of course, that its inhabitants would all be mortal.

Solving The General Problem

Appropriately, given Fedorov's view that "the age of disputation" (89) was at an end, and philosophy and science could no longer justify themselves on the grounds that knowledge was an end in itself, he went beyond the general principles of his idea, to an outline of how the common task of mastering and transforming nature, and turning humanity into "a union of immortal beings," might actually be realized. The first step toward the realization of this project was the cooperation of the world's nations in controlling the weather, both to prevent droughts and destructive storms, and to extract energy directly from atmospheric currents. He saw a practical beginning for it in experiments to induce rain with explosives in the 1890s then being conducted in the United States.

Nonetheless, truly complete control over the weather would require going beyond the Earth to organize the solar system as a "controlled economic entity" (102). (In fact, he proposed constructing a planetary sunshade through the use of magnetic fields to control the movement of meteoroids (95).) No less important, in space lay "the solution of the economic problem posed by Malthus and, more generally, of a moral human existence" (97). Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was a political economist best known for his classic 1798 treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that population growth tends to outrun the growth of food supplies, bringing checks to population into play.

Taking a purely materialistic view of the mind-body problem, which he somewhat facetiously describes as consciousness relating to the body "like bile to the liver" (99), meant that if you "reassemble the machine ... consciousness will return to it" (99). Though he was careful not to exclude other hypotheses (192), he believed that the means of such "reassembly" would be the "gathering of the scattered dust and its reconstitution into bodies, using radiation or outlines left by the waves caused by the vibration of molecules" (142). Since those vibrations travel into space, the extension of human control into space was again critical to recovering all the scattered particles.

Furthermore, since the Earth could not accommodate all who had ever lived, room would be found for the resurrected in space, the "celestial worlds ... the future home of the ancestors" (96). Indeed at one point he went so far as to say that the "exploration of outer space is only the preparation for these future dwelling places" (96). In fact, the bodies of both living and resurrected human beings would be modified for the journey. Man, Fedorov wrote, will "recreate himself from primordial substances, atoms and molecules" so that he can "live in any environment, take on any form"—"heavenly space and heavenly bodies" (138) "attainable only to the resurrected and the resurrecting" (96).

Together weather control, the control of the Earth's movement in space, and the colonization of space "form one general problem ... the return to life of our ancestors" (98). This would culminate in the "knowledge and ever-expanding government of all the worlds ... and the ultimate spiritualization of the universe" (115) as worlds "deprived of reason" (215) were peopled by the carriers of nature's consciousness, saving them "from downfall and destruction" (215) and restoring the world as it was before the Fall (128).

Reception and Legacy

 [ Public Domain img: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Pasternak_fedorov.jpg ] Such ideas, profoundly radical today but not totally outside a twenty-first century frame of reference, could only have been all the more shocking in his day given its comparative unfamiliarity, and that may suggest that his vision was relegated to the margins. However, this was not the case. In the assessment of philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev, there may have been no thinker more characteristically Russian than Fedorov. In his 1915 essay ‘The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection: The Philosophy of the Common Task of N. Fedorov’ (which can be found online at http://www.berdyaev.com/berdiaev/berd_lib/1915_186.html) Berdyayev wrote that Fedorov embodied

the Russian searching for a common task, the task of salvation. The Russian soul cannot joyfully create culture; it is anxious for the world and for all mankind, it thirsts to save all ... the thirst for the salvation of mankind and the Kingdom of God here, on earth—all this was expressed by Fedorov with an extraordinary intensity, without any sense of strain or quibbling.

Consequently, while he had only a small following in his lifetime, they were members of an extremely elite circle, "the greatest of Russian people" as Berdyayev puts it—including the writers Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, two of the greatest figures in Russian literature; and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, perhaps the pivotal figure in Russian philosophy in the late nineteenth century. (Solovyev would say in one of his letters that he accepted Fedorov's project "unconditionally and without argument" and call Fedorov his "teacher and spiritual father" (230), though differences would later crop up between them.)

They also included Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, widely hailed as the father of space flight, who became personally acquainted with Fedorov at the age of sixteen. While the impact of Fedorov on Tsiolkovsky's thoughts on space flight is somewhat controversial, as Professor George Young, author of Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, told me "most commentators in Russia have agreed that ... Fedorov had much to do with Tsiolkovsky's development in that direction."

Not surprisingly, many of Fedorov's ideas would later become mainstream. In the case of Tsiolkovsky, it is arguable that they were promulgated, in a somewhat more developed form, by better-known followers; posthumously, however, Fedorov's ideas directly won a wide following in Russia. "Fedorovians" were a force in that country during the early twentieth century, prior to Stalin's repression of intellectual life, and it is arguable that they contributed in this way to the ferment that gave the world Sputnik not long after Stalin's death. The idea that human beings would need to look to space for additional resources and room to expand, at least in the long run, has since gained wide credence—even if it is less fashionable than it was thirty years ago—and may yet have a future.

In other cases there is no clear connection, but striking parallels. Before geopolitician Halford MacKinder popularized the idea, Fedorov noted that the advent of the railroad would bring continental states into their own, ending the "Columbian" era in which maritime states predominated (68-69)—for better or worse, one of the most influential ideas in international relations in the twentieth century, and still with us in the twenty-first.

While slower to catch on, the idea that human beings should manage their environment rather than exploit and exhaust it has since become the conventional wisdom, as is the idea that global cooperation will be required for the management of the planet's climate. While this has not yet gone so far as rainmaking, many countries do practice cloud-seeking on a more local scale, China being the largest practitioner. Moreover, Fedorov's call to abandon fossil fuels (in his day, principally coal mining) in favor of solar and wind energy production is increasingly the conventional wisdom, and there is currently serious discussion of directly tapping the jet stream. Fedorov's reading of the implications of a materialistic view of the mind-body problem is likewise espoused by many contemporary thinkers on life extension, like Ray Kurzweil, and his thoughts on body modification anticipated today's widespread discussions of genetic engineering, and the enhancement of the body through implants and prosthetics. His call to turn a universe entropically moving toward chaos into a cosmos (192) finds its echo in the work of futurists like Michael Zey, who cites Fedorov and his successors in his book The Future Factor: The Five Forces Transforming Our Lives and Shaping Human Destiny.

Of course, all of this raises the question of why Fedorov is not better known than he is, one of those thinkers everyone has heard of but "no one" actually reads—why indeed it is so difficult to find his writings at all. Part of it was his idiosyncratic career path. He published very little in his lifetime, and that anonymously, in provincial journals. (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solovyev were, like Tsiolkovsky, personal acquaintances.) This was partly because he recognized how radical his ideas would appear, and partly because he was an astute enough student of science to know how much more work he needed to do in order to properly ground his claims. The Philosophy of the Common Task was not a unified treatise but a collection of mostly unpublished material that was edited posthumously, ranging from fully developed essays and articles to notes and jottings—very much a work in progress.

Additionally, despite his radically technological vision, his ideas were frequently anti-modern. Contemporary scholars probably overstate their case when they argue that these would have prevented him from reaching a wider audience, since many very well-known Russian thinkers (like Dostoyevsky) expressed similar opinions, but they would have limited his appeal to progressives. His religiosity and disinterest in the social questions of his time (at least as they were usually construed) aside, he was hostile to urban, commercial, industrial life, which he denounced as a "cult of woman," an expression of misspent sexual energies. (Fedorov was hostile to sex even as a means of reproduction, frequently connecting it with death—the succession of generations destroying while creating, the new absorbing and eliminating the old, procreation an antithesis to resurrection.)

Many of his historical views, moreover, such as his attitudes toward the Germans or Turks and his monarchism, are reflective of nineteenth century Slavophile thinking, problematic for many in his own time and place, and only steadily more so, particularly for Western readers. Additionally, many of these views are not neatly separable from his larger speculations about history's trajectory (a line of philosophical inquiry that has also been less and less fashionable among Western philosophers). However, to linger on them would be to miss the point. Even where Fedorov is disagreeable, or offensive by contemporary standards, he anticipated too much and influenced too much to be taken lightly, a great deal of what he wrote about actually having come to pass.

Still more of it might do so if some of the most eminent futurists of our time are right. Even if they do not, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Fedorov's speculations about those matters rendered the world a very great service. As Professor George Young put it in his 1979 book Nikolai Fedorov: An Introduction, Fedorov's answer to that question of just what human beings should do with their expanding technological power "may not be the best one that will ever be proposed, but so far it seems the most thorough and deepest attempt at one." Ours may be an age weary of visions and suspicious of grand narratives, and Fedorov's may be as suspect as any other, but that question grows only the more pressing.



Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Competition Reviews News