Zoltan vs. Zerzan Debate — Photo by Kourosh Afrashteh of Project Prometheus
Last Saturday night at Stanford University, I had the honor of publicly debating the world’s leading anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan. As a transhumanist, I differ from Zerzan on just about every topic. According to Wikipedia, anarcho-primitivism “advocates for a return to a non-’civilized’ way of life through deindustrialization.” Transhumanism advocates for the continued use of science and technology to improve and change the human species. Simply put, Zerzan encourages everyone to give up civilization and go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And I encourage everyone to do more to speed up technological and scientific progress. It was a meeting of polar opposite views. The debate headline was: Zoltan vs. Zerzan.
Hosted by the Stanford Transhumanist Association in the university’s Geology Corner Auditorium, the debate was deliberately formal. John and I each took three 5-10 minute turns at a podium. Additionally, a 20 minute Q & A followed the debate. Unfortunately, the main video camera recording the event failed. Luckily, a second recording exists from laptops that captured the entire debate, but the quality is mediocre at best. Additionally, the footage misses the most exciting parts of the event, such as loud anti-civilization hecklers or the anarchist-dominated 140-person audience. The vibe in the auditorium was quite tense, and some transhumanists were worried about safety issues because no university security was present. In the very back stood people who some suggested were black bloc participants: individuals who dress in black, wear face-concealing masks and gear, and cause civil unrest. Many of them came to meet John Zerzan, who is well known as a past confidant of the Unabomber and has also had associations with many anarchist-type groups.
All this made for an exciting event. Below I share just a small portion of some of the most interesting statements made in the debate. Some of the sentences are verbatim, and others are paraphrased for easier reading.
Zoltan Istvan and John Zerzan during Q & A — Photo by Stanford Transhumanist Association
Zoltan Istvan: Imagine what the world would look like if we gave up some of the technologies we have, if we gave up progress, if we essentially gave up civilization. The world would be very difficult, at least for all of us in the modern world today. John Zerzan and a lot of anarcho-primitivists are asking us to give up the modern world that we have evolved through, that we have adapted to, that we have created.
John Zerzan: I consider transhumanism an unhealthy fantasy. Primitive lifestyles–a time before domestication–didn’t destroy the natural world, didn’t objectify women, didn’t have armies and temples and war, didn’t have everyone working their ass off, like we have now.
Zoltan Istvan: I’m going to begin with a story, perhaps one of the luckiest things I’ve done in my life. I was the first foreigner to visit basically an untouched primitive tribe in the island nation of Vanuatu in 1995. I returned and filmed the tribe six years later for the National Geographic Channel. The problem there is that almost half the people born in the village don’t survive to adulthood. What anarcho-primitivists are forgetting, that while primitive lifestyles might be more natural and harmonious with nature, people like that don’t have the medicines, technology, and science to stop basic diseases and early death. The village lived in a constant state of mourning due to the frequent deaths of its people.