We’re all on some sort of journey, aren’t we? Check back here
periodically to find out more about G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s journeys
through the literary world and through life.
October is monster month! TVs are streaming monster movies like The Fly and The Mummy, and little costumed monsters will soon run amok looking for tasty treats. It’s a great month to read some classic monster literature, like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Or the one I read recently: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Shelley’s novel was written in the early 1800’s, and although it feels dated in many ways, it’s still a thought-provoking read. For example, one of the questions the author raises is the validity of ambition at the expense of happiness, domestic relationships, and the health of civilizations. (She blames ambition for slavery in ancient Greece, the decline of the Roman Republic, and the colonization of the Americas.) Through the dying words of Dr. Frankenstein, who by the end of the story becomes deeply remorseful about his experiment-gone-bad, Shelley writes that it’s better to “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.” Obviously this wouldn’t sit well with a lot of people today, but it’s an interesting thought…
Even more powerful are the questions she poses surrounding the work Dr. Frankenstein did in the name of science. Initially, he considers his goal lofty and the collateral cost of his work valid:
One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation…[and] lay the foundations of future success.
As his inner journey progresses, however, he begins to understand the flaws in his hubris and the horrible consequences thereof. But Shelley doesn’t stop there. She also powerfully depicts the monster as an innocent who did not ask to be created and who only becomes violent after repeated rejection by the people he encounters.
I am malicious because I am miserable….Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?…You hate me, but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself.
I couldn’t help but think about contemporary bioengineering as I read her tale–and the many social, political, and ethical questions that arise (or should arise) as a result of current scientific endeavors.
So what is happening?
Lots of stuff. In his Ted talk, Paul Root Wolpe, the chief bioethicist at NASA, analyzes a variety of new forays in the field and asserts that we’re entering a new wave of evolution. We are no longer altering and designing the physiological forms of Planet Earth’s animal species through old-fashioned selective breeding, for example. Instead, we’re genetically manipulating animals to achieve whatever goals we set forth, like glow-in-the dark-monkeys and mice with human-like ears on their backs, and we have the ability to genetically manipulate human beings as well. We have also discovered how to generate the artificial cell, which he calls the “first creature in the history of the world that had a computer as its parent.”
Also, this past summer, the National Institutes of Health lifted a ban on federal funding for chimera research. What’s a chimera? Think back to the Greek mythology that put you to sleep in high school. (Bet you didn’t know how important it would become.) The Greeks’ chimera was part lion, part goat, and part snake. So now, when we’re talking about chimera research, we’re talking about mixing human cells with animal cells. Whoa. That raises lots and lots of questions–like how exactly are we going to define what it means to be human anymore? Insoo Hyun, professor of philosophy and bioethics of Case Western Reserve University, worries that this is “flirting with an area of human dignity.” Yeah, I think I see what he means.
Perhaps even more surprising–and frightening–is the idea that the human race as we know it could soon be coming to an end. Yes, I did say that. At least that’s what Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari believes. (By the way, he’s the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind–a book highly recommended by both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.) In a recent NPR interview, Harari said that homo sapiens will likely disappear within the next few generations–and not because of a nuclear apocalypse or environmental catastrophe. “When people talk about merging with computers to create cyborgs, it’s not some prophecy about the year 2200. It’s happening right now.”
Seriously? It sounds as though we’re not that far off from Westworld after all.
While the evolution of human and other species through scientific manipulation has been contemplated in film and literature for decades, we’re not talking science fiction anymore. I guess it makes sense; if we’re constantly upgrading our phones and computers, why shouldn’t we upgrade ourselves? Thanks to genetic engineering, physiotechnology, xenotransplantation, cyborg engineering, and other fields with long fancy names, we have the potential to do even more than we currently are. And just as your laptop is basically obsolete before Amazon delivers it to your front door, the pace of our humanity-focused technological advancements is also escalating exponentially. If theorists like Harari are correct, humankind could be speeding toward singularity, that point at which the world as we know it ceases to exist.
Yikes! What does this mean?
The first question that comes to my mind is what impact chimera, cyborg, and other experimentation will have on the humans that undergo these procedures. I realize we’re already transplanting some organs from animals or using bionic prosthetics, but we’re all still 100% human DNA. The question I wonder about is what happens when our basic makeup is altered. How will it feel to be a modified human in the future? What will the emotional and spiritual impact be? Will those who are modified feel outcast, as Frankenstein did?
Other questions worth pondering:
Who should have authority over what is deemed to be socially/politically/ethically correct?
Will we need to redefine what it means to be human? If so, who will be in charge of this process?
What are the legal and social implications for a human being with some element of nonhuman or inorganic components?
What are the pertinent animal welfare considerations? Is it okay to genetically or robotically alter animals for personal preference? In the name of science? To preclude a species from becoming entirely extinct?
When is it appropriate to create/manipulate genetics for commercial or military purposes?
Are we at risk for creating unequal classes in society as some humans are “upgraded” and others aren’t?
Will our descendants look at us the same way we look at Neanderthals?
And finally, as Harari asks, what do we, as a species, want to become? And who gets to decide that?
When I think of future possibilities–to the extent I can even begin to wrap my mind around them–I find it exciting, but I also sometimes want to burrow under my blanket and resist the temptation to peek at what’s coming. And yet, as a member of what’s still known as the human race, I have a responsibility to understand what realistically looms on the horizon. We all do, because once we get there–wherever there is–we probably won’t be able to turn back.
For more information, check out these websites:
And here’s some not-so-light reading:
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari
The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil
And now, back to the monsters!