Incoming Transmission: Transhumanism and the Future of the Human Body (Part 8 – Rationality, Haldane, Transgression)
In 1923, biochemist J.B.S. Haldane delivered a famous speech entitled Daedalus: Science and the Future to the Cambridge Heretics Society. The speech is a watershed moment in the history of biology and biotechnology, predicting remarkably the degree to which science and technology would be enlisted in improving the human condition. In Daedalus, Haldane celebrates Darwinism and the forces of reason. His speech is in the spirit of H.G. Wells, who predicted “a coming rapture, when future generations would be an improved species”. The specter of eugenics clearly hangs over such ideas. It carries a sort of innocence that the experiments and general racial motives of the Holocaust would exorcise.
But there is the sense that Haldane has something far larger in mind than a Nazi-esque ubermensch, something reminiscent of the transformation that the human race undergoes in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In a portion of that book Clarke writes the thoughts of Jan, the last untransformed human being:
“So this, thought Jan, with a resignation that lay beyond all sadness, was the end of man. It was an end that no prophet had foreseen – an end that repudiated optimism and pessimism alike.
Yet it was fitting: it had the sublime inevitability of a great work of art. Jan had glimpsed the universe in all its immensity, and knew now that it was no place for man. He realized at last how vain, in the ultimate analysis, had been the dream that lured him to the stars.
For the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears.”
While Haldane advocates eugenics he does so under the guise of a rational humanism. Or perhaps it would be apt to call it a a precursor of rational trans-humanism. The speech strikes a modern day reader as uncanny: simultaneously strange and contemporary. But the radical faith, and that word is not used lightly, Haldane places in science demonstrates the extent to which he is truly a prophet of the science-as-salvation mentality that carries on into the present day (Alexander). Haldane writes “…I believe the centre of scientific interest lies in biology. A generation hence it may be elsewhere, and the views expressed in this paper will appear as modest, conservative and unimaginative as do many of those of Mr. Wells to-day”. Haldane’s analysis is colored by his reading of George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Specifically, he responds to the passage where Frazer concludes that religion is merely meant to help us come to terms with death. But “in the modern, post-Darwin age, what happened if you killed God? Where did that leave you? Staring at an empty hole in the ground? No.” (Alexander). Frazer claimed that the future is bound up with scientific discovery, writing: “In short, religion, regarded as an explanation of nature, is replaced by science”.
Haldane calls his speech Daedalus after the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus was the mythical builder of King Minos’ Labyrinth on Crete. He is most widely known for the story of his escape from imprisonment in King Minos’ palace. In order to escape he constructs wings for him and his son Icarus. As we know, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting his wings, and causing his death. But it is Daedalus ingenuity and desire to transgress that Haldane emphasizes in the speech. For instance, the lesser known myth about Daedalus is that he oversaw the procedure where King Minos’ wife Pasiphae mated with a bull.
Haldane discusses the notion of novel ideas (biological inventions) throughout the centuries naming three that occurred “before the dawn of history”: the domestication of animals, the domestication of plants and the production of alcohol. He then, curiously, names the shift that caused “the attention of a man as a lover upon woman’s face and breasts, and changed our idea of beauty from the steatapygous Hottentot to the modern European, from the Valus of Brassempouy to the Venus de Milo”. (by this he means the act of missionary or face-to-face style sex). Haldane also mentions bactericide and artificial conception.
The reason he mentions these inventions and shifts is to demonstrate that the inventor and his inventions are always Promethean. After all, great inventions are hailed as insults to the Gods. Prometheus, as described in the passage below, was not concerned with the Gods:
“Surely Zeus, the All Powerful, ruler of Olympus, would have compassion on Man? But Prometheus looked to Zeus in vain; compassion he had none. Then, in infinite pity, Prometheus bethought himself of a power belonging to the gods alone and unshared by any living creature on the earth. We shall give Fire to the Man whom we have made, ” he said to Epimethus. To Epimethus this seemed an impossibility, but to Prometheus nothing was impossible. He bided his time and, unseen by the gods, he made his way into Olympus, lighted a hollow torch with a spark from the chariot of the Sun and hastened back to earth with this royal gift to Man. Assuredly no other gift could have brought him more completely the empire that has since been his. No longer did he tremble and cower in the darkness of caves when Zeus hurled his lightnings across the sky. No more did he dread the animals that hunted him and drove him in terror before them. Armed with fire, the beasts became his vassals. With fire he forged weapons, defied the frost and cold, coined money, made implements for tillage, introduced the arts, and was able to destroy as well as to create.” (continuation of the Prometheus and Pandora story as told by Jean Lang in A Book of Myths, 1915)
Haldane reminds us that every biological invention is a perversion.
This includes an act that seems as natural as drinking a cow’s milk. How nauseating might the electrical milking of a cow have been to a culture yet unexposed to such a practice? Haldane’s intention is to remind us that our most ritualistic and regular acts began as perversions. This leads into his discussion and predictions for the future, predictions that have been surprisingly correct.
Haldane explains: “We can already alter animal species to an enormous extent, and it seems only a question of time before we shall be able to apply the same principles of our own.” Such a trend he believes will have an equal effect as the industrial revolution. He cites in his own time the role of the doctor overtaking that of the priest. Such a movement he believes parallels the manner that average age length had increased from childhood to 45. After all, he writes “Death has receded so far into the background of our normal thoughts that when we came into somewhat close contact with it during the war most of us failed to take it seriously.” Not only does he see the future holding the possibility of radical life extension but the possibility of “direct improvements on the human being”.