Children of Prometheus: The Accelerating Pace of Human Evolution
Perseus Books, 1998
Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness
Critical Art Ensemble
Metal and Flesh: The Evolution of Man: Technology Takes Over
MIT Press, 2001
Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future
St. Martin’s, 2002
Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to Come
Henry Holt & Co., 2001
The cover of Christopher Wills’ Children of Prometheus: The Accelerating Pace of Human Evolution includes a familiar image. A procession of naked ape-men grow progressively taller and less hairy, until we get to anatomically modern homo sapiens. The graphic is so familiar from advertising and cartoons that it doesn’t matter that it isn’t accurate. Several of these species aren’t our ancestors, and some have had their heights altered to give the impression of smooth, continual progress. Such a series implies that something different must come next: the punchline to the joke, the next stage in human evolution. In this case, it’s a shirtless white guy in tight silver and blue pants, bent forward in the posture of a sprinting runner. He’s a little bit blurry, to convey speed: the accelerating pace of human evolution.
For millennia, human beings have been imagining other kinds of humans, usually of a more perfect type. These days our visions of what comes next are just as likely to be informed by Frankenstein as by the lost perfection of Adam. Ideas of posthumanity are bound up with the past century’s ugly history of eugenics and "racial cleansing". The genetically engineered future of Brave New World, the culturally engineered future of 1984, Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood cyborgs, and the emergent global brain of Gaia/cyberspace theorists are the framing devices for current projections. Biologist Wills is one of many who speculate on the next stage in human evolution in recent books, along with geologist Peter Ward, French-Canadian professor Ollivier Dyens, the shadowy Critical Art Ensemble, and the twenty-six science fiction writers collected in editor Gardner Dozois’ latest anthology.
The stories we tell about where we’re going are intimately related to the stories we tell about how we got where we are. Does evolution involve periods of stability punctuated by catastrophic change, or is it a gradual process of improvement? Is evolution guided by the survival of the best adapted, or by blind chance? One of the major ideas driving modern eugenic theory is the notion that we coddle ourselves so much that we’ve either stopped evolving as a species or are actually de-evolving. Christopher Wills argues that natural selection has not only been operating over the last 10,000 years, but that it’s now working faster than ever. Wills devotes much of his book to documenting the sometimes subtle ways natural selection continues to operate. Not surprisingly, Tibetans are better adapted to high altitude life than even Peruvians, who have been living on "the edge of space" for thousands of years less. Our "evolutionary arms race" with disease-causing microbes continues to create genetic change both for "us" and for "them". But the most important factor for Wills is the increasing diversity and intermingling in the gene pool.
Wills emphasizes gradual changes in gene frequencies, not the catastrophes that many evolutionary theorists see as the driving force of species change. Although he thoroughly documents the role of environments in shaping human beings, attacking the idea of genes for intelligence, criminality, or divorce, because of the importance of the "gene pool" in his reasoning, genetic determinism occasionally creeps back in. Even without apocalypse, natural selection requires an inequitable distribution of death. When reporting the results of a long-term study of the British civil service, showing that the lower a bureaucrat’s social rank, the sooner he would die, Wills suggests that selection is operating on some genetic ability to handle information and stress. There is no evidence, however, that just because socioeconomic factors kill low ranking male bureaucrats sooner, these men reproduce less. There is also no reason to believe that social rank has any correlation with our DNA.
DNA has become our Bible, our Zen koan and our I Ching all wrapped up in one mystical code that supposedly reveals paternity, meaning, and destiny. Wills’ obsession with the gene pool seems almost quaint in the age of genetic engineering, cloning of the narcissistic wealthy, and various technological enhancements. Wills thinks the fact that we’re going ahead with genetic engineering before we really know what we’re doing may be a force in human evolution in a less predictable way. The risk-takers who try to modify themselves and their children may die early deaths. What will be selected are genes for caution.
When he gets to the business of speculating about the future, Wills’ ideas are standard science fiction fare. Humans who colonize outer space will become different species through isolation. Back on Earth, those of us who can tolerate the high levels of toxicity we’ve created will thrive. People who respond well to the drugs that we demand for efficient social functioning (Ritalin for the kids and Prozac for the grown-ups) will multiply. Life-spans will get longer, and diversity will increase.
In Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness the Critical Art Ensemble present a less optimistic picture. They argue that eugenic thinking never went away, it just morphed into less visible forms. Eugenics is now marketed as a democratic process. The baby industry is all about free choice in the marketplace, the right to have healthy and appealing children. What parent wouldn’t want to assure their child a beneficial set of genes? But for CAE these choices won’t increase our well-being, freedom, or pleasure. The designing of babies will be a process of normalizing them to function better in the economy. The most likely version of posthumanity is a more homogenous, efficient, and controllable population.
Like Wills, CAE is concerned with our current practice of medicating children into submission. These practices serve as a model for where genetic engineering is headed. For CAE, our education system primarily teaches obedience, repetitive labor, and the ability to tolerate boredom; children who can’t function within it must be considered defective. CAE see evolution itself as an insidious myth system. The dubious morality of natural selection and selfish genes makes acquiring technology and having babies aspects of winning the game of evolution. Evolutionary mythology is used to justify the death of those populations "less evolved" than the information bureaucrats needed to manage the global economy. Those without cell phones and lap top computers are simply less fit. Like our designer babies, these products have been marketed to us as increasing our freedom, knowledge, and convenience. CAE point out that these devices have actually just turned humans into information cyborgs. 24 hours a day, wherever we go, we can do our jobs. People have been transformed into mobile work stations.
CAE is unimpressed by the promises of Virtual Reality. They see the fantasies of impending escape from our physical bodies as distraction from more sinister processes: the complete mapping of physical space, including our bodies. Along with such mapping comes the increased ability for surveillance and control.
Ollivier Dyens’ Metal and Flesh is remarkably free of such paranoid concerns. No dour Marxist critique here; Dyens is a cheerleader for a more severe dissolution into "intelligent matter". While each of these books has a subtitle designed to titillate the consumer with the prospects of posthuman development, Dyens even has a further colon within his subtitle. The Evolution of Man: Technology Takes Over. The subtitle tells you everything you need to know. Dyens is so dazzled by the idea of the blurred boundaries between life and non-life, organic and inorganic, man and machine, that he must re-state the fact of it over and over again. "We are no longer merely entangled with machines, no longer simply soldered to their existence; we literally coevolve with them. We must now perceive of technology and human beings as one entity. We are machines and the machine is within us. The machine breathes."
There’s a lot of lyricism and abstraction here that serve to mystify technology. "A clone is made of intelligent matter, for it is an idea made flesh. A clone is also flesh made into an idea." If you thought a clone was simply a genetic copy, the biological equivalent of an identical twin, it might not have seemed so grandiose. The famous sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton, because of her "impressive mammaries". Perhaps this is the idea that was made into flesh.
Occasionally Dyens settles down into a wonderfully concrete sentence: "Pamela Anderson, for instance, is no longer a human being." More often, however, he just dresses up fairly standard observations with the vocabulary of postmodernism. Dyens is at his best when dealing with the texts of other writers: Wells, Kafka, Orwell, and the cyberpunks. Dyens sees Wells’ Dr. Moreau as a "cultural body fundamentalist", like the Nazis, and sees Hitler’s genius as his success at shocking the collective imagination. The power of Nazi imagery—the uniforms and the masses of suffering bodies—has kept their ideology circulating through history. Dyens’ emotional response to the horrific world of 1984 is the first real indication that a human being is writing this book, as opposed to a cyborg programmed to combine the vocabularies and styles of his influences, theorists Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
"We live in a world of mostly inhuman memories. If there is a memory of the world today, it is a memory of machines. Our existence, in its most intimately human structure, now belongs to machines. Without them, I do not exist, for without them, I, personally, have no memories. Machines create my past. Machines create my melancholy." Like Baudrillard, Dyens is aiming for the poetry of the outrageous statement. But he lacks Baudrillard’s dark sense of humor and Haraway’s concrete analyses of power relations. What makes the ridiculous vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari worth wading through is not just that they know it’s ridiculous, but that they use it to map paths of freedom and justice for our organic/inorganic, living/nonliving, multiplied and fragmented selves.
It is a problem then, when these theorists are used to grace technology with an aura of hipness. The cyberpunks assure us that technology can be pirated and transformed for purposes other than social control. But cyberpunk’s subversive aesthetic was quickly co-opted by corporations to market technology as inherently revolutionary. Metal and Flesh is the academic equivalent of Wired magazine, promoting technology as both avant garde and inevitable, a little bit scary, but worth the risks. No clunky, old-fashioned graphic of human evolution graces the cover here. Instead we have an almost holographic image of metallic looking DNA and bar codes of digital information. If you want an attractive book that serves as a signifier of postmodernity itself, arrange this one on your shelf next to Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars. If you want critical analysis, look to Flesh Machine. But if you want an abundance of interesting speculation, look to the writers of science fiction.
Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future includes twenty-six stories, a few of them dating back to the fifties and sixties. The progression of these stories allows us a provisional sense of the evolution of ideas about posthumanity. As Gardner Dozois notes in his foreword, these writers influence each other, and a consensus forms about the possible shapes of posthuman futures. The most common are relative immortality, new species adapted to the lower gravity of outer space, combinations of humanity and artificial intelligence, vast intertwined networks of personalities, and marriages involving more than two beings.
The earliest stories feel the most unreal; future scenarios often date poorly. What makes sci-fi feel plausible are not just the extrapolations of current technologies, but extrapolations of current cultural obsessions. All but two of these writers are men, and their specific class and gender fantasies sometimes get projected onto the future. Occasionally, however, these fantasies actually make the stories seem more realistic. If we do succeed in engineering the first generation of posthumans, we will surely create them in the image of our own dominant pathologies.
As the anthology moves through time, the future is less likely to be imagined as homogenous, and the major players less likely to be globally evolved citizens living in harmony. Not everyone gets to evolve equally. In Nobody’s Home by Joanna Russ, combinations of environmental and genetic modification have created a witty and promiscuous population, in contrast to a few frumpy holdovers of traditional humanity who don’t get the jokes. Gene Wolfe’s The Hero as Werwolf presents a different version of diverging evolutionary paths. Just as domesticating wolves has created the less intelligent dog, so too has our effective domestication of ourselves corresponded with a decrease in our own brain size. Wolfe plays on the idea that further domestication will make posthumans less clever and more manageable. Human relics live at the edge of society, feeding on the newly non-violent and sheep-like posthumans. The long term prognosis for the humans, however, isn’t good, as we can see by looking at the relative odds of survival for sheep and wolves in our own time.
Cyberpunk godfather Bruce Sterling’s Spook involves a conflict between the forces of economic order and a not exactly benign organization of rebels. The corporations and their intelligence agencies are willing to sacrifice human welfare for profits and social order. The rebels have resurrected a more "humanist" Mayan theology that involves the spectacle of mass human sacrifice as a means to control overpopulation. A similar conflict evolves in Understand by Ted Chiang. Experimental hormone therapy makes an accident victim smarter and smarter, until social interaction with normal humans becomes meaningless. He escapes from the CIA, learns to manipulate markets, and plots his further personal evolution. But there’s another superman out there. One of the two is concerned only with aesthetics, with his own knowledge, enlightenment and freedom. The other is concerned with justice: a pragmatic approach to saving the human species from its misery and impending extinction. The pleasures of dialogue are less compelling than their mutually exclusive goals, and battle ensues.
In many of these futures, evolutionary advances have their downside. Careerists are turned into semi-autistic cyborgs, completely dependent on information, as in the predictions of CAE. The increasing rate of obsolescence can haunt even posthumans. Unable to compete, beings with outdated modifications emigrate to outlying areas of the solar system. Even with immortality, relationships are still temporary and the defeat of death doesn’t necessarily alter the quality of human longing. In one story, relative immortality leads to the development of suicide cults nostalgic for disease and mortality. In another, even a Large Array of Personalities can be so heartbroken as to devote its existence to searching for the remaining particles of an obliterated lover in hopes of resurrecting it.
The most moving story in the collection is David Marusek’s The Wedding Album. Virtual personalities are split off from real people and maintained as sort-of-living reminders of the past. Marusek tells the story from the vantage point of one such "sim" who is created on Anne’s wedding day. She is occasionally returned to consciousness, creating continual disorientation and loss, as she witnesses the disintegration of the marriage, the original Anne’s insanity and suicide, the evolution of ever-more advanced sims, a revolution against the technology that created her, and the transformation of her original husband into an unrecognizable form.
A similar sense of loss permeates Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to Come by geologist Peter Ward. He is concerned with the evolution of all the species on the planet. Mass extinctions have always been followed by increases in certain kinds of diversity, but Ward doesn’t see that pattern developing after the current die-off. In the past, new species arose to fill the abandoned niches of those wiped out by rapid climate changes or meteors. The problem is that the cause of the current wave of extinctions—us— probably isn’t so temporary.
Ward seriously doubts that we ourselves will go extinct. Therefore, we’ll continue to dominate the globe, and the only other species that will survive are those which get along well with us. Our crops, our pets, and the weedy species like dandelions, rats, and roaches, which have learned to live off our garbage. The most unique aspect of Future Evolution is the wonderful illustrations by Alexis Rockman which envision these future species. They include cows and tomatoes even squarer than the boxy ones we’ve already engineered, and a fabulous diversity of new kinds of pigs, rats, snakes, and crows.
Ward’s speculations about future human evolution include speciation on other worlds, our merging with machines, eusociality, in which we become the ant-like members of a hive consciousness, and global intelligence. Ward is neither critic nor cheerleader, but melancholy reporter. While Dyens is excited that the development of an "immune system" for the Internet may be the first step in its development of a sense of self, and CAE sees the Web as simply a new way to divide haves from have-nots, Ward is even more pessimistic than CAE. In his final meditation on the inevitability of our sun expanding 500 million to a billion years from now, he doesn’t even imagine that we’ll have figured out how to escape our doomed planet. As the other species die off, we merely burrow underground to escape the heat and wait for our inevitable doom.
Perhaps there is something inherently wrong with the human situation. Perhaps our level of suffering is neither acceptable or necessary. Speculation about how we might be altered, then, becomes most interesting in terms of how plausible, complicated, and relevant it is to what is already happening now. Will evolution be driven by the megalomania of individuals enhancing their "selves" into more and more advanced organisms in an arms race of posthuman development? Pamela Anderson vs. Michael Jackson? Or will the forces of collectivity and utilitarianism shape a homogenous and obedient population in the service of survival? Either position taken to its extreme is hideous. Stories about the future help create the future by shaping ideas about what is possible. But none of them are inevitable and none of them are true.