Reed Richards and the Future Foundation: Transhumanism in Popular Culture (Part 1)

Reed Richards in front of the Council of Reeds (Fantastic Four #570)

Hello once again from your friendly neighbour, the ComicBook Imperative Guy. My new post is one of the reasons why I wanted to create this blog. This was the first connection between comicbooks and philosophy that I was passionate about. As I point out in the title of this entry, this is only the first part of the connections of Transhumanism with popular culture that I want to explore. It is certainly going to be a reoccurring theme in this blog.

Everything started with a course on Bioethics. The wondrous world of Bioethics has been really appealing to me since the very first moment (as is every connection of philosophy and science) because it reminded me of the adventurous worlds that I explored in comicbooks. This was the first time that philosophy excited not just the adult university student in me that was working on his field of study, but also the little kid with the vivid imagination. The field of Bioethics offered me a world where philosophy, science, biotechnology and comicbooks were interconnected in ways that I could not have imagined possible. As I continued studying the different aspects of Bioethics, I came across the movement of Transhumanism. Transhumanism became an integral part of my academic career, but I always wanted to connect its core ideas with their representations in popular culture.

What is the Transhumanist movement? Transhumanism is a philosophical, scientific and cultural movement that embraces the new and speculative biotechnologies in order to set the human kind free of its biological chains, put us in charge of our evolution towards a trans- and post- human life. The apologists of the Transhumanist movement pose certain questions: Wouldn’t life be better if we live longer and healthier lives? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to remember every single thing that we have read or experienced? Wouldn’t everything be better if we enhance our abilities or even create new ones? Wouldn’t it be phenomenal for us to be able to control our emotions and reject every single emotion that makes us unhappy? All these questions make us think of an imaginary state of bliss for the human kind. A world of fantastic men and women who can do anything. They can experience life in ways that we cannot even imagine with our limited point of view. Human kind will not be chained to its Homo sapiens state. but it will be able to control evolution towards transhuman and posthuman modes of being. Essentially, the transhuman will be the intermediate state between Homo sapiens and the shrouded in mystery posthuman.

The Transhumanist movement of course does not have just one aspect and the different philosophers, scientists and politicians have created their own versions of it. The Trashunmanistic prospect of being, though, sounds more like a biotechnological utopia rather than a potential future state of mankind. I think it is interesting though to examine the relationship between the basis of the Transhumanist movement and its representation in popular culture. Specifically, Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) from the Fantastic Four and the Future Foundation storyline of Jonathan Hickman.

Mr. Fantastic during his speech at the 2010 Singularity Conference (Fantastic Four #579)

Jonathan Hickman’s run of the Fantastic Four has been my favourite storyline of Marvel’s original superhero team. Even though Hickman’s run is mostly based on Franklin Richards’ (Reed and Sue’s son) journey, one of the secondary stories is Reed’s deeply rooted desire of finding the solution for everything. Finding the solution for every single problem. Reed’s desire is connected to his traumatic relationship with his father which is an overreaching arc of Hickman’s run. One of the basic forces behind the emotional journey in Hickman’s run is the exploration of the father-son relationship. Reed feels compelled to put his brilliant mind at work because he promised his father that he would be better at it. He would work harder. He would make the world a better place.

His first attempt to fulfill his promise to his father was to create a machine that would provide to him the necessary answers towards solving humanity’s problems. The most important question asked to this machine by Richards was who else made the same choice with him? Who else tried to solve every single problem for humanity’s sake?  This led Richards to a multiversal council of Reeds. A council that would roam the Marvel multiverse in order to eradicate every villain that spread chaos and that would actively work on solving every problem (for example hunger) and that would shape humanity’s future. Mr. Fantastic’s exploration of the limits of his ego, intelligence and narcissism was cut short because of an attack of the mad Celestials (for more information on the actual story, please read the whole story, here).

Richards, coming close to his death by the attack of the Celestials and having to face a life without his family and friends, had he chosen the life on the council of Reeds, tried to find a different way of solving every single problem. Reed Richards’ plans for the future are revealed in a fiery speech during the 2010 Singularity Conference in Golden, Colorado. He started by stating that his dream for that conference was not only to examine the problems they currently have to confront, but also to “aggressively look into the future… to envision the direction the humanity should be heading… and boldly steer us there”, (Fantastic Four #579). Reed’s expectations though were not met by his peers. Reed went on with his speech by rejecting every single contribution made by his peers (except the one made by Jennifer Walters or She-Hulk). He argued that all of them were uninspiring, conservative, that they held on to a anachronistic point of view, that they were politically charged instead of working in the name of science and working in the name of shaping the future. He discarded his peers and their contributions. He rejected all of them saying that they are too old to envision and work towards the realization of a new, man-made future.

Richards, on the other hand, is not going to let this opportunity to pass him by. In this pivotal point in human history he is determined to be one of the great explorers, he is determined to go down in history and not end up like all of them. Richards is sure that all of them have nothing to offer anymore to the scientific community and the world in general. He is about to embark a new journey of an ongoing education, a journey with a younger generation, a generation that is focused on asking questions and providing groundbreaking answers. Answers that are not intertwined with politics, skepticism over the scientific discoveries and I would add, philosophical thought. Reed Richards created the Future Foundation in order to solve every problem and shape the future of mankind. The creation of the Future Foundation is Richards’ second attempt to fulfill the promise he made to his father.

One of Hickman’s greatest achievements is the fact that he was able to create a very complex character for Reed. Richards is not just a superhero or a scientist. His complex personality is flooding every aspect of his existence in a defining way that affects the roles that he has taken up during his lifetime (a son, a scientist, a friend, a husband. a father). His vague question for a formula that would solve humanity’s problems, for me, show his inability to understand human nature at its core and the necessity of the existence of problems/evil. His techno-favourable  form of utilitarianism is projected through a quest for a materialistic happiness that can only be achieved with the help of technology. 

“The cost of solving everything is everything.” (Fantastic Four #572)

The core problem of Richards’ approach is the fact that he is not able to recognize the different layers of human existence. Even though the quest of happiness is a staple throughout human history, we have to understand that a materialistic approach cannot merely cover  the complexity of this issue. One of the decisive factors against that worldview is that it implies an intrinsic inequity between those who will be able to access these technologies and those who will not be able to do it. This is something that cannot be avoided and both Transhumanism and Reed seem to want to move past it without much discussion of the real repercussions of a fragmented society. Another issue that comes to mind with Reed’s decision to establish the Future Foundation is the fact that children will not be as alert to the issues emerging from the discussion of taking charge the human evolution. He swiftly judged his peers for lack of imagination, politics and overall conservatism, but he did not address any of the issues they raised. He simply disregarded them and decided to create the Future Foundation as an institute that would be focused on science in the name of science. We have to wonder, though, what is the meaning of science if it does not serve humanity? 

On another level, what Transhumanism and Reed Richards imply is that humanity can fulfill its potential by finding ways to conquer evolution, to shape the future as they desire, to stop every kind of bad emotion in the name of happiness. Transhumanism and Mr. Fantastic, even though they understand very well the complexities of science and technology, seem to fall short when it comes to mankind. It is throughout the constant change between good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant that we can find meaning in these states. Transhumanism and Reed Richards promise something they cannot deliver. Happiness is meaningful only when we follow the necessary journey towards achieving it. It is not a moment in the time and space continuum. True happiness cannot be achieved by technological and chemical configuration. It is an ongoing and never-ending process of working hard, riding the highs and surviving the lows. And in that sense, Transhumanism and Reed Richards do not really set mankind free from its current state, but they merely create new chains for it (the dependence on the different biotechnological applications that will provide the enhancements, the chemical implementation of happiness, so on and so forth).

Join in the debate!
The ComicBook Imperative Guy

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