Is there anything more natural than birth? The birth of our planet. The birth of a human being. The cycle of birth, life, death forms the foundation of our being.
You might even say that God gave us a soul because the gift of immortality would be seen as overindulgence. Now science and technology are changing all that.
Throughout history, there has been a fascination to make a better human. To eliminate the fundamental flaw in the human lifecycle—to overcome ageing, the cruel deterioration of one’s faculties and, ultimately, death.
The ideal of replicating ourselves as something smarter, stronger, and impervious to the ravages of time is perhaps humanity’s greatest unfinished ambition. To elevate ourselves from mere mortals to God status.
From a science and technology perspective, this kind of pseudo-immortality is called “transhumanism”: the biotechnological enhancement of humans that virtually eliminates the terminal frailties of human biology.
Transhumanists envision that we will soon have implants to augment our senses and enhance our cognitive processes by bonding ourselves to brain interface memory chips and other human-enhancement technologies.
In short: the merging of man and machine is becoming a reality, perhaps within the next one or two decades.
The endgame is that science and technology will create humans with hugely enhanced intelligence, superhuman strength, speed and stamina, and significantly extended lifespans.
An odd endeavour when globally, the principal driver of environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change is exponential population growth.
A far cry from Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s inciteful warning in their book The Population Bomb (1968). In which they predicted a deteriorating natural environment, social upheaval, and mass starvation as a consequence of overpopulation — “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”
Of course, this hasn’t happened yet, although our planet shows signs of severe wear and tear, and starvation and malnutrition regularly occur on varying scales.
Conversely, the global fertility rate has halved since 1950 and continues to fall. Predictions suggest that the global population will peak at 10.9 billion by 2100 and go into reverse. By that time, however, things could have gone seriously awry.
The enigmatic Mary Shelley
Nonetheless, the quest for immortality is unwavering as it is timeless. Author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) set the cat among the pigeons with one of literature’s classic allegories, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1831).
Not only did Victor Frankenstein create artificial life that was void of a soul—a sacrilege of sorts in a time dominated by the Church — but one that would not experience death.
A dramatic leap from the wooden legs, false teeth, and average life expectancy of around 35 years in seventeenth-century England.
Shelley’s Frankenstein was originally published anonymously in 1818 following the French Revolution in 1789 and the end of the Enlightenment (1685-1815).
The famed German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his essay What Is Enlightenment? (1784), captured the zeitgeist of the period with the maxim “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason”.
In accord with this maxim, both Mary Shelley’s parents were Enlightenment philosophers, and both influenced her writing.
The tenets of the Enlightenment centred on egalitarianism — a social doctrine that emphasises equality among all society’s members — which inspired Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1787), to write Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), in which she argued that women were not naturally inferior to men.
Mary Wollstonecraft passed away soon after Mary Shelley’s birth. However, the spirit of her fight for equality is reflected in Frankenstein, which is, in essence, a metaphorical retort to the philosophical and political values that beset society’s progress and equality at the time.
Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin (1756–1836), was a political philosopher and writer. He is celebrated for his work Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
Godwin argued that government was a corrupting force in society that propagated dependency and ignorance but would gradually be rendered powerless once people became educated and human understanding expanded.
The substance of her father’s thesis parallels Mary Shelly’s own novel. Victor Frankenstein’s Monster was rejected by society and solely dependent on its creator, who likewise rejects him.
Governments foster dependency similarly by providing sustenance with one hand while oppressing with the other.
Shelley uses the themes of isolation and loneliness, rejection and oppression to mirror her society’s fears and bigotry. But which also reflect modern society: the hegemonic constructs of the privileged class define the constitution of humanity and reject self-determination by individuals. Indigenous communities and other minority groups can attest to this.
Shelley moreover instils her mother’s innate influence, “gender inequality” — one of society’s enduring prejudices — when Frankenstein reneges on his promise to create a female companion for the Monster, denying her the right to life. Even though he had mastered the science to do so.
A greater threat than climate change
Nick Bostrom is a theoretical physicist and philosopher at Oxford University. He believes sentient beings, the sort created via genetic engineering, molecular nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, pose a greater threat to humanity than climate change.
But like everything else, Bostrom’s endeavour to mitigate anthropocentric stupidity is drowned out by our overwhelming obsession with technology. I mean, we cannot seem to divert our attention from it, literally!
And we all have an opinion about Artificial Intelligence (AI): succinctly defined as the systematic separation of information and knowledge from the human body-brain to some other non-human form of embodiment.
And if knowledge is power, and we can assume that it is, it need only be instantiated in some other medium to exist, thereby excluding the need for a human presence.
And a “human presence” is destined for redundancy. As the final phase in AI’s evolution is to replicate, or displace, the consciousness of modern humans. An enterprise that will contribute nothing to the “enlightenment” of humanity.
One must therefore ask the question: what price are we willing to pay for perfection? Is this question significantly more complex than we can imagine? Bearing in mind that increased efficiencies in this sense is an infinite proposition, not unlike pi.
And in the context of capitalism, all humans are imperfect because of the cost of their labour and the maintenance of their physical and mental health.
How does Shelley figure in all this?
Shelley’s Frankenstein remains an indictment on modern society and its inability, or undesirability, to escape the ugliness of privilege and prejudice and survives as a counter to the Enlightenment philosophers who believed that scientific endeavour and economic progress would continually improve the human condition.
Enlightenment philosophers held that once the barriers to knowledge were eliminated, the conditions for perpetual peace and prosperity will have been established.
In short: they embraced the ideal that advancements in science and technology comprised the principal elements for the evolution of a better society.
Much the same as transhumanists. As Bostrom writes: “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold (sic) in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution.”
However, like the Enlightenment philosophers, transhumanists fail to acknowledge the double-edged sword of knowledge as both a promise of prosperity and an insidious threat.
That is, 400 years of history tells us that traditional religious beliefs and medieval philosophy might have failed, but the promise of science to solve the problem of human morality has also failed.
Shelley embodies this with Victor’s bloody-minded pursuit to create a monster that eventually transforms into the destroyer of his own life.
A female companion for Frankenstein’s Monster would have spelled the end of our species
We can place this in today’s context by referencing a 2017 journal article in Bioscience titled Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion by evolutionary biologists Nathaniel J. Dominy and Justin D. Yeakel.
Dominy and Yeakel conclude that Frankenstein’s reasoning for denying a female mate for his male monster can be justified empirically. They show that if such a union was successful, it would have led to the extinction of our own species through “competitive exclusion” — two species cannot coexist indefinitely if they compete for the exact same resources.
Even a slight advantage of one over the other will lead to the extinction of the inferior. Today, wealth might constitute that advantage. A human with enhanced intelligence, strength, stamina and an extended lifespan would constitute another.
More pointedly, with only the single-minded quest of science in mind, and disregard for its possible ruinous consequences, prioritising societal advancement engenders a “less moral and equal world”.
An imbalance occurs that favours the privileged who are insulated from the threats posed by technological and scientific progress but can use them to their utmost advantage.
To paraphrase Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh, from their 2019 book Innovation + Equality: the world today is more unequal than ever and more technologically advanced than ever. While the top one per cent increases its share of wealth, those with few skills and few assets languish at the bottom. For them, it can seem like the worst of times.
Technology: the universal panacea for everything?
The influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was not blindly anti-tech. His concern was society’s failure to recognise its danger as a “means to an end”, like creating an enhanced human with no expiry date.
The essence of which poses a moral question: what is perfection? And if the quest for longevity, or perhaps immortality, is achieved, who decides how long the human lifespan will be? And what will that do to an already overpopulated planet?
We might thus deem “perfection” as immoral. For instance, we can view Frankenstein’s Monster as a human chimera of sorts, although fashioned from a compilation of human body parts. Sure it’s perceived as a monster, but only from a human perspective.
Shelley uses the word “chimera” in her book, defining it as the “elixir of life” — as opposed to chemistry which promised much but delivered little.
And it’s this hodgepodge creation of a simulated human being — a chimera — that constitutes the elixir of life. Thus, if it’s immortality that we desire, the Monster embodies that kind of perfection, however immoral.
Perfection: immoral, even in the name of science?
With this in mind, in April of this year, scientists injected embryos from a macaque with human stem cells to study how the two cells developed together. Macaques are Old World monkeys that share a common ancestor with humans from about 25 million years ago.
For reasons of immorality, the cells were allowed to grow for 20 days before being terminated. But there is this unwavering desire to see what we can create by modifying the current human condition in the name of scientific progress.
Arguably, however, the human machine in the context of science and technology, whether artificial, robotic, or transhuman, was not meant to be perfect.
The backaches and absentmindedness are part of the bargain of reaching old age, relatively unscathed and with some semblance of our faculties in place, and finally exiting the field of life.
What’s more, our finite planet could not cope with humans of a limitless capacity. It’s under immense pressure as it is.
Despite knowing this, we are still unable to separate the ecological from the technological. We seem oblivious to their inseparability, which has led to the relentless degradation of the former.
Recognising this “inseparability” would enable us to reconcile our existence with the natural world and put aside our techno-centric fixations, even momentarily, and see humankind’s future possibilities, with all its imperfections, in a whole new light.
Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.