Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Artificially Enhanced Human Beings: That's So 20th Century

Many GEICO commercials play with a disconnect between the (once) popular notion that "cavemen" were "primitive" - and what we've been learning about people who lived before some maniac got the bright idea of planting seeds and waiting for them to grow.

For example, about 800,000 years ago people in one place, at least, lived in a place with a distinct kitchen. Granted, it didn't have a GE Energy Star Dishwasher: but the residence had areas for specific functions like food preparation.

The people who lived there most likely looked a bit like the fellow in that picture. We call folks like him Homo Erectus, and around 1,000,000 years ago our ancestors almost certainly looked a bit like that.

I'm not bothered by the idea - but then, I've seen old family photos. I look a bit like my ancestors: but not quite. For example, on the Campbell side, we lost the characteristic 'wry mouth' several generations back.

Change happens.

The more we learn about our distant ancestors, the more like us they seem - in my opinion. As I wrote in another blog, about that stone age kitchen:
"...But - human? Pretty much like me, basically? I don't see why I shouldn't think so. Their brains were between half and two thirds as massive as ours, on average, but that archeological dig shows that they may have thought more-or-less the same way we do.

That artist's impression doesn't look 'human?' I'm not so sure. You're not likely to see that expression in people's photos today, outside supermarket tabloids, but think of him saying something like, "you want three rocks? You carry one!"

Or, "whaddaya mean, they only come in green or gray?!"...
(Apathetic Lemming of the North)

Eugenics: It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time

For decades after World War II ended, the idea of replacing most of us with superior human beings was 'well known' to have been the work of those nasty German Nazis.

Since by then many people seemed to realize that they weren't on the 'preferred' list, improving the race wasn't a very popular concept. In fact, if you were around then, or your parents were, your skin may have crawled when you read "Nazis" and "improving the race."

It hasn't always been that way.

Right up until the national socialist party in Germany started 'improving' the human race - arguably, until places like Auschwitz and Dachau hit the news - applying modern science and Victorian ideals to weed out inferior classes and pep up the race seemed like a really good idea.

At least among well-bred, educated Englishmen and their cousins in America.

Science fiction written before WWII had quite a number of examples of what the new-and-improved human race would be like:
"...Over all, John comes across as a sort of socialist version of the Nietzschean ideal with a couple of the rougher edges rubbed off. In other words, human morality has no call on him, but he occasionally feels mild guilt. This is supposed to indicate his superior moral plane, but he comes across more as an odious, amoral little tick. Stapledon assumes that human superiority over lesser animals is quantitative rather than qualitative. In other words, we enjoy our position over the animals because we have more of some quantity called intelligence rather than some unique quality; be it sentience, self-awareness, or an immortal soul.

"Or to be blunt about it, morality is something shared between the strong and denied to the weak.

"Because of this, Stapledon's supermen are allowed to rob from, seduce, exploit, manipulate, dispossess, and even murder 'lesser' people when they get in the way of the supermen's plans due to the higher moral need to advance the interests of the master race. This sort of an argument has an unfortunate track record and Stapledon could just get away with this in the '30s. In less than ten years, however, a certain group of would-be supermen put such ideas into practice and the world is still trying to wash the taste out of its mouth...."
(Tales of Future Past > Future Man > "Odd John")

'It Can't Happen Here?' Don't be Too Sure

The word "eugenics" still hasn't quite regained the panache it had before the forties: but the idea is back. Phrases like "quality of life" are used: but the same old approach of eliminating the unfit is there. Except now it's for 'benevolent' reasons.

I don't think killing people who don't live up to some standard of physical perfection is a good idea. But then, I'm one of those defective products of conception that aren't living a quality lifestyle. Being used in a medical experiment didn't help - but that's another story. (A Catholic Citizen in America (February 3, 2009))

Defective or not, on the whole I prefer being alive to the alternative.

What's With All the Quotes?

I've started using David S. Zondy's Tales of Future Past website as a reference and resource. Partly because he's done a marvelous job of bringing together vintage science fiction virtual memorabilia and ideas. Partly because he seems to see the world in roughly the same way I do.

I don't want to shock anyone, but I think that the physical world is real, not an illusion; that God exists; that some things are moral and others aren't; and that people have souls. And I want to write speculative fiction?!

Back to Mr. Zondy and making supermen. He wrote an uncharacteristically serious few paragraphs about eugenics:
"...One of the obvious ways of producing your superman is one that was taken so seriously in the last century that it was actually tried. Ever since the basic ideas of Darwin and the mechanism of genetics were understood, the idea popped into the mind of Sir Francis Galton that what can be done to dogs and pigeons can be done to men, so if you want to create Homo Superior, why not simply breed human beings selectively?

"This wasn't just idle speculation, he was dead serious and many a philanthropist, scholar, scientist, businessman, and politician became determined advocates of improving the lot of the human race by making sure that the 'best' of the breed intermarried while the sick, feeble-minded, and generally undesirable were prevented from reproducing...."

"...Needless to say, Auschwitz and the Nuremburg trials put paid to the Eugenics movement and gave the world a very stern lesson of what happens when you stop seeing people as children of God and more as laboratory animals.

"What is even more frightening is that we have been so slow in learning our lesson and so quick to forget it. We've made great strides in medicine, particularly in genetic research, but in doing so we have reached the point where we are in danger of doing far more harm than good. If not to our bodies, then to our souls. Our society is tampering with things such as contraceptives, fertility drugs, genetic engineering, selective abortion, infant euthanasia, in vitro fertilisation, designer babies, and artificial insemination with so little real discussion of the ethics of what we're doing that we face a very real risk of one day turning 'round and discovering that we are not becoming genetic supermen, but moral monsters...."
(Tales of Future Past > Future Man > "Eugenics")

The Importance of [Not] Being Earnest

Stories where the author has a Point To Make and hits readers over the head with it are as likely to stir my stomach as my heart. Dreadfully earnest stories happen so often that Television Tropes & Idioms has a whole page about being "Anvilicious."

Not that I think there should be no message in a story. Even if it's as basic as 'don't mess with the big guy's wife until you're sure he's dead.' Homer's Odysseus / Ulysses wouldn't have had quite as exciting an ending, if the war hero hadn't cleaned house at the end in a style worthy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action heroes.

And, as another page in Television Tropes & Idioms puts it: "Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped." Think Aesop's Fables.

The trick, I think, is finding a balance. How? Having somebody else read the story isn't the daftest approach.

I may drop a few anvils as I go along: but I'll try to be careful about it. Apart from artistic and aesthetic considerations, I don't think it's generally the best way to make a point.

Mutants, Cyborgs and Meddling With God's Handiwork

I think Mr. Zondy is right on at least one point: particularly with the sort of power that people have these days, we should think about the ethics of what we do: not just whether or not we feel like doing it.

On the other hand, I don't have a problem with Man Tampering With Nature. In my view, that's what we do, just by being human. We've come a long way from weaving cloth and knapping hide scrapers: but we were messing with 'the natural order of things' long before we started selecting which seeds to use for the next crop.
Isn't It Different With People?
Even if I didn't feel like it, I'd have to be concerned with cruelty to animals. It's in the rules (A Catholic Citizen in America (August 17, 2009))

I'm even more concerned with cruelty to people. I don't think people should be bought, sold, or killed - even if it's for personal profit or convenience. And the way I view the world, the stakes go up when the person is helpless. But I'm getting off-topic.
What About Cyborgs: Those Inhuman Amalgams of Man and Machine?
Don't expect me to be too upset about mixing a human being's original equipment and artificial add-ons and replacements. I'm focusing on the monitor right now with clip-on lenses, My hands and wrists have been surgically altered, quite a few of my teeth have metal parts, I've got two metal hip sockets, and my belly's got plastic mesh in it. Even my brain's been altered, chemically, to clear up some glitches.

And I'm okay with that: I haven't messed with anything that was working smothly in the first place. What's been done to me since about age four has been better described as "repairing" than "tampering."

These models who get surgically altered to match some current fashion: that's dubious, in my view.

It's Just Starting to Get Interesting

I've read that Intel has announced a neural interface, due for release around 2020. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 2, 2009)) Some of the obvious applications for that sort of technology is people who've suffered brain injuries from stroke or accidents. That, I think, is a very promising development.

The technology will, of course, be misused. People misuse things sometimes. We've killed each other with rocks. My guess is that somebody's going to use those brain chips in ways that'll make what happened at Auschwitz look like a Sunday social. You think we've got problems with malware now?!

But that doesn't make rocks bad: or brain chips. We've cobbled together rules for how to use rocks, and I'm pretty sure we can do the same with brain chips.

We may not be quite the same as we were when we learned how to knap flint: But I don't think we've gotten any stupider.

If At First You Don't Succeed - - -

As a rule, I think persistence is a good idea. But like just about every other human characteristic, it can be misapplied.

The national socialist party's efforts to clean up their gene pool and make room for a master race had unpleasant consequences. I don't think anybody's going to try that approach again.

But the idea of 'perfecting' humanity is so appealing to many, I don't think it'll go away. I'm also pretty sure that someone's going to try again. And again, and again.

The more spectacular blowouts, like what happened in Germany around the 1940s, may put a moratorium on most efforts for a few decades. But too many people are too convinced that humanity would be so much better - if only 'improvements' were made - that I think we're likely going to see superman projects now and again for the foreseeable future.

Some of what I've read about - like making repairs at the genetic level to eradicate conditions like leukemia - seem to make sense. How they should be implemented: that's where things get interesting.

Meanwhile, superman factories and people who think they've evolved beyond good and evil will provide a writer of speculative fiction a warehouse of material.

Some of which I've already used:Vaguely-related posts:


  1. Love the 'dropping anvils' reference. And the picture. :P

    Oh, and one little typo: "altered, Quite a few"

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. Brigid,

    Thanks! That picture, by the way, is from the 'Tropes' website - with a link back to the page I found it on.

    And, thanks for spotting that typo. Capital observation, What?


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