by Jess Nevins
Transhumanism is a popular movement to convert ordinary humans into superhumans, using technology. For 20 years, transhumanism has been a favored topic of futurists, who see it as a possible salvation for humanity.
But we’ve already seen one attempt at transhumanism, and it failed – badly.
The Victorians and New Athleticism
The British took great pride in their imperial accomplishments, but considerably less so in those who were actually establishing, and holding on to, the Empire itself. In the late 18th century the British public was convinced that the British soldier was weak, inferior, and physically unsuitable for representing the Crown. After the end of the Napoleonic wars, British Army leadership decided that soldiers needed more than just formal drills and team sports to get British soldiers into shape. The British government decided to imitate the athletic and gymnastic movements of Western Europe, which emphasized repeated exercise on the forerunners of the modern balance beam, horizontal bar, parallel bar, and vaulting horse. But despite changes to the exercise regimens of the British public, military, and schoolboys, no progress was made, and by the Crimean War in the 1850s British soldiers were once again viewed as physically inferior.
In the aftermath of the Crimean War, two separate social movements arose. The first was “muscular Christianity,” whose proponents believed not only in mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body, but that it was a Christian’s duty to build and maintain a sound, healthy body. More broadly, Muscular Christianity was a rebuke to the notion that physical weakness and effeminacy were connected to spiritual strength.
The second social movement was the “New Athleticism,” which attempted to use sports to instill character, manliness, and modesty, create teamwork, and bridge class differences. New Athleticism spawned numerous organizations and social groups who propagandized for the virtues of cricket, football, and rugby, as well as more general exercise.
Both Muscular Christianity and New Athleticism were touted as the solution for what was seen as the “degenerate” state of the British working classes’ bodies. For many Britons, the body of the British soldier was the representation and even reification of racial fitness and idealized masculinity — and most British soldiers came from the working class. But many Britons during the 1860s and 1870s became convinced that the average British soldier was weaker than his predecessors. Fears that the empire was in decline were commonplace, increasing numbers of men were found to be physically invalid for military service, and it was commonly believed that the infant mortality rate was skyrocketing. Most Britons believed that the British race was decaying and in danger of becoming decadent. These ideas gained power in the 1880s and 1890s and became convictions deeply held by many in the thinking and policy-making classes.