Western culture has long had a secular belief, bordering on religious faith, in the emancipatory power of technology. Starting in the 19th century, technological utopians imagined ways in which tools and systems—some existing, some imagined—might perfect society and alter the speed at which it changed. This breed of optimism persisted, even expanded, as it basked in the white heat of new technologies during the Cold War. Computers, space flight, improved medical treatments, and “better living through chemistry” all held out a metal-gloved hand of hope.

With these new technologies came a reimagined version of perfecting the person via technology. Here, however, the unit of progress wasn’t society or the nation-state. Instead, it shifted to the sphere of the individual—the “transhuman.” Short for “transitional human,” the word was first suggested in 1927 by Julian Huxley, the British evolutionary biologist whose brother Aldous authored Brave New World. Huxley considered what would happen when humanity decided to “transcend itself…realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” By embracing the “zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities,” Huxley said humanity would finally “be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”[1] An essential idea for those intrigued with transhumanism was that new and future technologies might enable individuals to acquire new capabilities, augment their physical and mental powers, and thereby transcend biological limitations.[2]

 

An essential idea for those intrigued with transhumanism was that new and future technologies might enable individuals to acquire new capabilities, augment their physical and mental powers, and thereby transcend biological limitations.

 

In the 1970s, Timothy Leary—former Harvard professor, LSD advocate, proto-New Age guru, and prison escapee—emerged as the spokesperson for one of the oddest blossoms to flower on the transhumanist branch. Leary, of course, had long professed a belief that chemicals could be tools for cognitive enhancement. Leary thought it was no coincidence that scientists had discovered the knowledge to build nuclear weapons and LSD’s psychedelic properties within the same decade. One path led to annihilation; the other opened doors to revelation, transcendence, and self-improvement. “I look around us,” he told an audience in 1966, “and I see metal—all living things and all my cells hate metal—and I see the pollution of the air and the poisoning of the rivers and the concrete over the earth, and I have to say ‘Baby, it’s time to mutate.’”[3]

Leary’s program of using chemicals to alter and enhance people’s mental capacities would itself mark him as a progenitor of today’s transhumanist movement. But, while he was incarcerated in California’s Folsom Prison, radical new ideas about space settlements and technologically-enabled life extension began to circulate throughout the American news media and popular culture. After California governor Jerry Brown paroled him in April 1976, Leary added these new ingredients to his evolving recipe for mutation.

Ever adept at coining a catchy phrase, Leary cheerily christened his new plan SMI2LE: “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension.” In books, lectures, radio shows, and even comic books, Leary and a few close associates promoted SMI2LE to a small community of devotees. The well-publicized placement of Leary’s ashes into orbit after his death in 1996 symbolized Leary’s longstanding interest in space, immortality, and (to be fair) publicity.

Despite simplistic characterizations by observers like Theodore Rozak, the broadly defined intersection of social movements and demographics called the “counterculture” displayed a complex relationship with science and technology. Leary’s SMI2LE reflected an optimistic view toward science and technology that was certainly out of touch with the era’s prevailing but not all-consuming technological pessimism. On one hand, Leary borrowed eagerly from serious research and speculation done by credentialed people on topics such as space habitation and biomedicine. At the same time, the ideas that Leary bundled together into SMI2LE suggested possibilities for personal improvement and expression, reflecting the larger zeitgeist with its ideals grounded in self-help movements, est workshops, and New Age seminars.

Leary formulated SMI2LE around a raft of new and emerging technologies. For example, “intelligence increase”—what Leary defined as the “purposeful use of psychoactive drugs for reprogramming the brain”—was something he had studied and promoted for years.[4] This work, he said, had sparked the “inner consciousness movement” of the 1960s and marked the start of humanity’s expansion into space and, eventually, toward self-directed evolution.

Through CoEvolution Quarterly, a new magazine published by counterculture icon Stewart Brand, Leary learned about Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill’s “great space colony revelation” and he concluded that “the next step in human evolution was up.”[5] Space migration, especially O’Neill’s vision for the humanization of space, became a major new ingredient Leary adopted as he conceived SMI2LE. Whether he truly believed, as he claimed, in the inevitability of space migration or was just riding the coattails of O’Neill’s considerable publicity is hard to tell. In any case, Leary, channeling C.P. Snow, saw space colonies as a bridge across “the gap between the hardware/scientific and the humanistic/artistic.”[6]

Leary was certainly thinking about space migration while he languished in California’s penal system. The 1973 arrival of comet Kohoutek, which some hippie cultists saw as a harbinger of doom, inspired Leary to write a short tract called Starseed that he “transmitted” from the “black hole” of Folsom Prison.[7] Like astrologers of the Middle Ages, Leary claimed Kohoutek meant a “higher Intelligence has already established itself on earth, writ its testament within our cells, decipherable by our nervous system. That it’s about time to mutate.”

Unfortunately, Kohoutek failed to be as prominent in the night sky as scientists had predicted. As the hype over the comet faded in early 1974, Leary exchanged letters with planetary astronomer Carl Sagan who had seen a copy of Starseed. The two bantered back and forth about some of Leary’s conjectures about mutation and self-directed evolution—what Leary called the “transgalactic gardening club” in reference to how breeders had consciously improved plants like corn and roses.[8] Sagan even proposed that he and Leary meet and suggested a rendezvous in San Francisco during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There, Sagan planned to debunk Immanuel Velikovsky’s questionable theories of cosmic catastrophe. Sagan and Leary’s mutual interest illuminates how technoscience in the 1970s was fertile meeting ground of mainstream and alternative, the fringe and the famous.

Leary provided more details about SMI2LE in two books, both published in 1977: Neuropolitics and Exo-Psychology.[9] Mixing philosophical musings with fiction and satire, Neuropolitics provided an unruly articulation of Leary’s ever-evolving message. Although Leary’s book is silent when it comes to eugenics, he depicted SMI2LE as a way for humans to improve themselves via “neurogenetic evolution pre-programmed by DNA.”[10] He listed recent advances in genetic engineering as proof that humans would someday soon consciously control their own evolution towards a “quantum model of consciousness.” Scientific and technological advances were “making space migration a practical alternative to our polluted and overcrowded planet,” said the introduction to Neuropolitics, “at a time when NASA is making Star Trek’s Enterprise science faction.”

Leary incorporated another fringy ingredient besides space settlements and drug-enhanced mental capacity as he formulated SMI2LE. Just as Leary tapped enthusiasm that O’Neill’s ideas generated, he also noticed a growing interest, especially in California, for technologically-enabled ideas for life extension. For some, this meant enhancing longevity via techniques such as a lower caloric intake.[11] Others preferred the more direct approach of cryonics—the preservation of one’s body or brain at liquid nitrogen temperatures in the hope that future medical advances might be able to bring about revival. Whatever the path, Leary and other enthusiasts on the technological borderlands saw death, like space, as yet another physical and spiritual frontier to be overcome.

From his own home, tucked away in one of Los Angeles County’s steep shaded canyons, “where the migrants and the mutants, and the future people come from, the end point of terrestrial migration,” Leary spread his SMI2LE throughout the late 1970s.[12] His ideas were later picked up and mutated further a decade later. In the fall of 1988, a new fanzine began to circulate around California’s techno-hipsters. Put out by two philosophy graduate students at the University of Southern California—Max T. O’Connor and Tom W. Bell or, as they called themselves, “Max More” and “Tom Morrow”—Extropy was pitched as the “Vaccine for Future Shock.” O’Connor and Bell defined “extropy” as the optimistic opposite of entropy which meant increasing “order, usable energy, and information.” Their magazine covered the technological topics that “promise to radically transform virtually every aspect of our existence.” A more elaborate and politically informed version of Leary’s SMI2LE, Extropy included “artificial intelligence…intelligence-increase technologies, life extension, cryonics and biostasis, nanotechnology…space colonization, economics and politics (especially libertarian)…[and the] intelligent use of psychochemicals.”[13]

 

Given the era’s bleak economic times, predictions of environmental collapse, and ever-present threat of nuclear war, perhaps Leary’s advocacy of life extension and space migration was a logical conclusion to people’s anxiety about self-preservation.

 

In keeping with the spirit of the “Me Decade,” Leary’s SMI2LE was much more about improving, changing, and enhancing the individual. Just as dropping LSD wasn’t for everyone, Leary’s writings divided willing and enlightened “techno-creatures” from members of the “anti-change factions.”[14] And, given the era’s bleak economic times, predictions of environmental collapse, and ever-present threat of nuclear war, perhaps Leary’s advocacy of life extension and space migration was a logical conclusion to people’s anxiety about self-preservation. Leary certainly catered to the “emotionally expressive, hedonistic, and firmly this-worldly” Americans who made up what Tom Wolfe called the “Third Great Awakening.”[15] Like Woody Allen’s Zelig character, Leary promiscuously appeared on stage to embrace all sorts of radical technologies from psychopharmacology and space settlements to life extension, nanotechnology, and cyberspace.

Leary and those charmed by his SMI2LE are one bridge between the countercultural science of the 1970s and transhumanist concepts that emerged a decade later. In all of these scenarios, the future would differ sharply from the past as humans built and migrated to new worlds, mastered atomic-scale engineering, and overcame their own biological limits. Today, contemporary discourse about emerging technologies often is shaded by apocalyptic projections, secular in nature but eschatological nonetheless. It is a language of rupture and rapture where new technologies—synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, robotics, et al.—possess the potential to challenge the very nature of what it means to be human. Where he still here, Leary would be SMI2LE’ing.


Patrick McCray is a Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research delves broadly into the relationship between popular culture, technology and politics. He explores these themes on his blog, Leaping Robot. Readers can find out more on Timothy Leary, transhumanism, and the technological cultural fringe in McCray’s most recent book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2012). For more of Patrick’s work, follow him on Twitter: @LeapingRobot

 

[1] Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation. 1967 ed. (London: Harper & Brothers, 1927).

[2] An excellent overview of this is John M. Bozeman, “Technological Millenarianism in the United States,” in Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements,  edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer  (New York: Routledge, 1997), 139-58.

[3] “New York: Time to Mutate,” Time, 29 April 1966: 30-31.

[4] Timothy Leary, Flashbacks: An Autobiography (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1983), 372.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Elizabeth Robinson, “Movement into Space: A View from Two World, Pt. 2,” L5 News, January 1977, 3.

[7] Dr. Timothy Leary, Starseed (San Francisco: Level Press, 1973); available on-line at: http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/starseed/starseed.shtml. This essay was reprinted in Leary’s 1977 book Neuropolitics.

[8] This correspondence is presented at http://www.timothylearyarchives.org/carl-sagans-letters-to-timothy-leary-1974/.

[9] Timothy Leary with contributions from Robert Anton Wilson and George Koopman, Neuropolitics: The Sociobiology of Human Metamorphosis (Culver City, CA: Starseed/Peace Press, 1977); Timothy Leary, Exo-Psychology: A Manual on the Use of the Human Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers (Los Angeles: Starseed/Peace Press, 1977).

[10] Neuropolitics, 135.

[11] One outspoken proponent of this idea in the 1970s and 1980s was UCLA researcher Roy Walford; Walford later had a chance to put his ideas to the test when he was a member of the Biosphere II crew from 1991-1993. A look at earlier research is Hyung Wook Park, “Longevity, Aging, and Caloric Restriction: Clive Maine McCay and the Construction of a Multidisciplinary Research Program,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 2010 40, 1: 79-124.

[12] William Overend. “Timothy Leary: Messenger of Evolution.” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977

[13] Quotes from Extropy #1, Fall 1988.

[14] Neurocomics, 9.

[15] Tom Wolfe. “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” New York, 23 August 1976: 26-40; Quote from p. 3 of Steven Sutcliffe, Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices (New York City: Routledge Press, 2003); also, Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York City: Da Capo Press, 2001).

Image of Timothy Leary’s Neurocomics (1977) via imgur.

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