Zoltan Istvan, presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party, believes in anti-doughnut legislation and immortality
Most mornings, after drinking three cups of coffee and going for a run, Zoltan Istvan, the presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, eats a slice of toast with an “artificial egg” made from peas and beans, pops a Nootroo Gold Standard pill for cognitive enhancement, and starts another day in what he sincerely hopes will be an eternal life. Istvan, a former journalist, embarked on a mission to live forever after a brush with death in 2011: While reporting a story in Vietnam, he nearly stepped on a landmine. This year, Istvan spent months driving a bus shaped like a giant coffin across the United States. Labeled the “Immortality Bus,” it was an effective publicity stunt: Istvan’s “anti-death” presidential campaign brought unprecedented mainstream media attention to the transhumanist movement.
Also known as Humanity Plus, or H+, the broad aim of Transhumanism is to enhance the human condition with science and technology. (This emphasis on an idealized human race has a dark side: The transhumanist movement occasionally attracts neo-fascists. The term “transhumanism” was coined in 1957 by Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and eugenicist.) Comprised of some 25,000 people, including tech and media billionaires like Peter Thiel and Dmitry Istkov, the transhumanist movement’s ultimate goal is to “cure death.” While the quest for immortality is about as old as human awareness of death, transhumanists claim we’re closer than ever: Many believe they'll achieve a “posthuman” state by 2045. In the meantime, while they await the singularity and life extension technologies—like mind-to-computer uploading, cybernetics, and nanomedicine—serious transhumanists spend every waking minute trying not to screw up their chances of living forever.
This quest for immortality begins each morning with breakfast—even wannabe cyborgs have to eat breakfast. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s leading futurist, for example, spends “a few thousand dollars a day” on a life-extensionist diet. His typical 700-calorie morning meal consists of berries, dark chocolate infused with espresso, smoked salmon and mackerel, vanilla soy milk, porridge, green tea, and a portion of his daily intake of 100 pills and supplements.
There’s no one-size-fits-all transhumanist breakfast, but most eternal-life seekers take a preoccupation with nutrition to a rigid extreme. “The bottom line about transhumanist eating is, the less you eat, the better,” Istvan says on the phone. “You’re better off being borderline starving to live longer.” He quotes Michael Pollan’s manifesto from In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Most typical American breakfast foods—but especially stuff like doughnuts, cronuts, chicken and waffles, Sausage McGriddles, IHOP’s Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity Pancakes, etc.—belong to what some transhumanists call a “deathist” lifestyle. Anyone who believes in the inevitability of death and accepts it, however reluctantly, is a “deathist.” Steve Jobs, in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford, summed up “deathist ideology:” “Death is the destination we all share, no one has ever escaped it,” he said. “And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life.” Mainstream breakfast culture implies as much: You’re going to die someday, so why not have pancakes? In the transhumanist worldview, though, starting your day with pancakes is not just unhealthy—even Paula Deen knows that—but symptomatic of an insidious, self-defeating belief in the inevitability of death. (It’s enough to make a “deathist” eater want an extra bloody mary and three cigarettes with those pancakes.)
What would the American breakfast industry look like under a transhumanist regime? As president, Istvan might push for a doughnut tax. “We need guidelines saying doughnuts and things like that are bad,” Istvan says, echoing some current public health advocates. “Humans can’t control their appetites. We need legislation that would discourage people from [unhealthy] eating. I wouldn’t mind creating new taxes for fast foods. They’re just as much of a killer as cigarettes.”
Anti-doughnut laws would be a provisional measure, though, until we all “become machines.” In Istvan’s transhumanist dream world, breakfast wouldn’t exist at all. “I advocate for getting rid of food entirely,” he says. “I love eating and drinking—that’s why I own a vineyard, Zolisa, in Argentina—but from a transhumanist perspective, it’s a terrible system. Same thing with pooping: Total waste of time, totally nonfunctional. There’s no question we’re gonna get rid of our organs within the next [few centuries]. These things are going the way of the dinos.” For a more efficient system, Istvan predicts, “Biohackers will learn to splice DNA into cells to photosynthesize our energy—that’s the future of the human being, if we remain biological.”
On the Immortality Bus, Istvan implanted a computer chip in his hand. (You can watch the process here.) But until he completes his cyborg transformation, he’s sticking to a morning regimen of drinking two to three cups of coffee—“I’m desperately addicted,” he says—and a “policy of eating brunch every day. Not breakfast.” This brunch usually consists of “whole wheat toast with quality cheese, maybe one hard boiled egg or a fake egg, sometimes a real high-end cereal with berries on top, or a lox bagel with capers,” he says. He’s a stickler for varying his diet daily and eating “only organic foods,” although he’s “not so worried about GMOs.”
Like many life extensionists, Istvan takes nootropics—supplements or drugs designed to enhance cognitive functioning. His brand of choice is Nootroo, concocted from patented cognitive enhancers with sci-fi-esque names, like “Noopept” and “a caffeine pterostilbene cocrystal” called PURENERGY. Like all dietary supplements, Nootroo is unregulated by the FDA. “I feel like they work,” Istvan says. “It’s almost impossible to know these things, but I continually take them.”
Other transhumanists, like Ben Goertzel, a roboticist and chief scientist at the robotics firm Hanson Robotics, forego breakfast altogether. “I've been practicing a form of intermittent fasting involving eating nothing between dinner and lunch,” Goertzel says, “except for sometimes a glass of grapefruit juice or vegetable juice in the morning.” Skipping breakfast has become something of a fad diet in recent years, but evidence for its benefits versus its risks is inconclusive. “I try to eat a healthy diet that will maximize my chances of ‘living long enough to live forever,’” Goertzel says, quoting Ray Kurzweil’s Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. “This consists of mostly Paleo stuff, though when I'm out to eat in a tasty restaurant with friends or colleagues, I'll break the Paleo rule from time to time.” He goes easy on supplements, just taking fish oil and ginseng. “Also, a few grams of LSD after dinner generally helps me sleep better,” he says. “Just kidding.”
To mainstream omnivores, the transhumanist approach to food sounds nutty. Who would want to live forever under such Spartan rules? But the life extensionist diet isn’t just a fringy, self-contained phenomenon. It overlaps with recent mainstream food trends: the local food and farm-to-table movement, the organic food movement, the Paleo movement, veganism. Like these more widespread trends, transhumanists’ stringent eating is reactionary—an extremist, culty response to the 21st century’s “toxic food environments.” These habits are a way of mitigating the fear that, as Istvan puts it, “Even if you get the best food, you’re gonna get cancer from it.” Transhumanists’ breakfast rituals kick off days spent framing an overwhelming fear of death in positive terms, as a desire to extend life.
Sometimes even immortality-seekers succumb to temptation. For all his body-as-temple preaching, Zoltan Istvan smokes pot “at least twice a week” and is “pretty religious about drinking a glass of scotch at night.” Alcohol and pot, he says, offer an “important psychological, spiritual break” from his dogged mission of trying to live forever. Occasionally, he breaks his breakfast rules, too. “I was in Europe last week and I did have a little doughnut ball,” Istvan confesses. “It was my first doughnut ball in two or three years.”