Boston, Islam and the Real Scientific Solution

Arab Astronomers

The tragic bombing on April 15 by the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlane and Dzhohkar collided and amplified contemporary debates- deep and ongoing disputes on subjects as diverse as the role of religion and especially Islam in inspiring political violence, and the role and use of surveillance technology to keep the public safe. It is important that we get a grip on these issues and find a way forward that reflects the reality of the situation rather than misplaced fear and hope for the danger is that the lessons we take to be the meaning of the Boston bombing will be precisely opposite to those we should on more clear headed reflection actually draw. A path that might lead us, as it has in the recent past, to make egregious mistakes that both fail to properly understand and therefore address the challenges at issue while putting our freedom at risk in the name of security. What follows then is an attempt at clear headedness.

The Boston bombing admittedly inspired by a violent version of political Islam seemed almost to fall like clockwork into a recent liberal pushback against perceived Islamophobia by the group of thinkers known as the New Atheists. In late March of this year, less than a month before the bombing, Nathan Lean at Salon published his essay Dawkins, Hitchens Harris: New Atheists Flirt With Islamophobia   which documented a series of inflammatory statements about Islam by the New Atheists including the recent statement of Richard Dawkins that “Islam was the greatest source of evil in the world today” or an older quote by Sam Harris that: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thorough going cult of death.” For someone, such as myself who does indeed find many of the statements about Islam made by the New Atheists to be, if not overtly racists, then at least so devoid of religious literacy and above all historical and political self-reflection that they seem about as accurate as pre-modern traveler’s tales about the kingdom of the cyclops, or the lands at the antipodes of the earth where people have feet atop their heads, the bombings could not have come at a worse cultural juncture.

If liberals such as Lean had hoped to dissuade the New Atheists from making derogatory comments about Muslims at the very least before they made an effort to actually understand the beliefs of the people they were talking about, so that Dawkins when asked after admitting he had never read the Koran responded in his ever so culturally sensitive way: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism ” the fact that the murders in Boston ended up being two Muslim brothers from Chechnya would appear to give the New Atheists all the evidence they need.  The argument for a more tolerant discourse has lost all traction.

It wasn’t only this aspect of the “God debate” with which the Boston bombing intersected. There is also the on going argument for and against the deployment of widespread surveillance technology especially CCTV. The fact that the killers were caught on tape there for all the world to see seems to give weight to those arguing that whatever the concerns of civil libertarians the widespread use of CCTV is something that would far outweigh its costs. A mere three days after the bombing Slate ran an article by Farhad Manjoo We Need More Cameras and We Need Them Now.  The title kinda says it all but here’s a quote:

Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations. Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice. They’re cheap, less intrusive than many physical security systems, and—as will hopefully be the case with the Boston bombing—they can be extremely effective at solving crimes.

Manjoo does not think the use of ubiquitous surveillance would be limited to deterring crime or terrorism or solving such acts once they occur, but that they might eventually give us a version of precrime that seems like something right out of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report:

The next step in surveillance technology involves artificial intelligence. Several companies are working on software that monitors security-camera images in an effort to spot criminal activity before it happens.

London is the queen of such surveillance technology, but in the US it is New York that has most strongly devoted itself to this technological path of preventing terrorism spending upwards of 40 million dollars to develop its Domain Awareness System in partnership with Microsoft. New York has done this despite the concerns of those whom Mayor Bloomberg calls “special interests”, that is those who are concerned that ubiquitous surveillance represents a grave threat to our right to privacy.

Combining the recent disputes surrounding the New Atheists treatment of Islam and the apparent success of surveillance technology in solving the Boston bombing along with the hope that technology could prevent such events from occurring in the future might give one a particular reading of contemporary events that might go something as follows. The early 21st century is an age of renewed religious fanaticism centered on the rejection of modernity in general and the findings of science in particular. With Islam being only the most representative of the desire to overturn modern society through the use of violence. The best defense of modern societies in such circumstances is to turn to the very features that have made their societies modern in the first place, that is science and technology. Science and technology not only promise us a form of deterrence against acts of violence by religiously inspired fanatics they should allow us to prevent such acts from occurring at all if, that is, they are applied with full force.

This might be one set of lessons to draw from the Boston bombings, but would it be the right one? Let’s take the issue of surveillance technology first. The objection to surveillance technology notably CCTV was brilliantly laid out by the science-fiction writer and commentator Cory Doctorow in an article for The Guardian back in 2011.

Something like CCTV works on the assumption that people are acting rationally and therefore can be deterred. No one could argue that Tamerlane and his brother were acting rationally. Their goal seemed to be to kill as many people as possible before they were caught, but they certainly knew they would be caught. The deterrence factor of CCTV and related technologies comes into play even less when suicide bombers are concerned. According to Doctorow we seem to be hoping that we can use surveillance technology as a stand in for the social contact that should bind all of us together.

But the idea that we can all be made to behave if only we are watched closely enough all the time is bunkum. We behave ourselves because of our social contract, the collection of written and unwritten rules that bind us together by instilling us with internal surveillance in the form of conscience and aspiration. CCTVs everywhere are an invitation to walk away from the contract and our duty to one another, to become the lawlessness the CCTV is meant to prevent.

This is precisely the lesson we can draw from the foiled train bombing plot in Canada that occurred at almost at the same moment bombs were going off in Boston. While the American city was reeling, Canada was making arrests of Muslim terrorists who were plotting to bomb trains headed for the US. An act that would have been far more deadly than the Boston attacks. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police was tipped off to this planned attack by members of the Muslim community in Canada a fact that highlights the difference in the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities in Canada and the US. As reported in the Chicago Tribune:

Christian Leuprecht, an expert in terrorism at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said the tip-off reflected extensive efforts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to improve ties with Muslims.

‘One of the key things, and what makes us very different from the United States, is that the RCMP has always very explicitly separated building relationships with local communities from the intelligence gathering side of the house,’ he told Reuters.

 A world covered in surveillance technology based on artificial intelligence that can “read the minds” of would be terrorists is one solution to the threat of terrorism, but the seemingly low tech approach of the RCMP is something far different and at least for the moment far more effective. In fact, when we look under the hood of what the Canadians are doing we find something much more high tech than any application of AI based sensors on the horizon.

We tend to confuse advanced technology with bells and whistles and therefore miss the fact that a solution that we don’t need to plug in or program can be just as if not more complex than anything we are currently capable of building. The religious figures who turned the Canadian plotters into the authorities were far more advanced than any “camera” we can currently construct. They were able to gauge the threat of the plotters through the use of networks of trust and communication using the most advanced machine at our disposal- the human brain. They were also able to largely avoid what will likely be the bane of first generation of the AI based surveillance technologies hoped for by Manjoo- that is false alarms. Human based threat assessment is far more targeted than the types of ubiquitous surveillance offered by our silicon friends. We only need to pay attention to those who appear threatening rather than watch everybody and separate out potential bad actors through brute force calculation.

The after effects of the Boston bombings is likely to make companies that sell surveillance technologies very rich as American cities pour billions into covering themselves with a net of “smart” cameras in the name of safety. The high profile role of such cameras in apprehending the suspects will likely result in an erosion of the kinds of civil libertarian viewpoints held by those such as Doctorow. Yet, in an age of limited resources, are these the kinds of investments cities should be making?

The Boston bombing capped off a series of massacres in Colorado and Newtown all of which might have been prevented by a greater investment in mental health services. It may seem counter intuitive to suggest that many of those drawn to terrorist activities are suffering from mental health conditions but that is what some recent research suggests.

We need better ways to identify and help persons who have fallen into some very dark places, and whereas the atomistic nature of much of American social life might not give us inroads to provide these services for many, the very connectedness of immigrant Muslim communities should allow mental health issues to be more quickly identified and addressed.  A good example of a seemingly anti-modern community that has embraced mental health services are my neighbors the Amish where problems are perhaps more quickly identified and dealt with than in my own modern community where social ties are much more diffuse. The problem of underinvestment in mental health combined with an over reliance on security technologies isn’t one confined to the US alone. Around the same time Russia was touting its superior intelligence gathering capabilities when it came to potential Chechiyan terrorist including the Tsarnaev family, an ill cared for mental health facility in Moscow burned to the ground killing 38 of its trapped residents.

Lastly, there is the issue of the New Atheists’ accusations against Islam- that it is particularly anti-modern, anti-scientific and violent. As we should well know, any belief system can be used to inspire violence especially when that violence is presented in terms of self-defense.  Yet, Islam today does seem to be a greater vector of violence than other anti-modern creeds. We need to understand why this is the case.

People who would claim that there is something anti-scientific about Islam would do well to acquaint themselves with a little history. There is a sense that the scientific revolution in the West would have been impossible without the contribution of Islamic civilization a case made brilliantly in not at least two recent books Jonathan Lyons’ House  of Wisdom  and John Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp.  

It isn’t merely that Islamic civilization preserved the science of the ancient Greeks during the European dark ages, but that it built upon their discoveries and managed to synthesize technology and knowledge from previously disconnected civilizations from China (paper) to India (the number zero). While Western Europeans still thought diseases were caused by demons, Muslims were inventing what was the most effective medical science until the modern age. They gave us brand new forms of knowledge such as algebra, taught us how to count using our current system of arabic numerals, and the mapped the night sky giving us the names of our stars. They showed us how to create accurate maps, taught us how to tell time and measure distance, and gave us the most advanced form that most amazing of instruments, a pre-modern form of pocket computer- the astrolabe. Seeing is believing and those who doubt just how incredible the astrolabe was should checkout Tom Wujec’s great presentation on the astrolabe at TED.

Compared to the Christian West which was often busy with brutalities such as genocidal campaigns against religious dissidents, inquisitions, or the persecution, forced conversion, or expulsion of Muslims and Jews, the Islamic world was generally extremely tolerant of religious minorities to the extent that both Christian and Jewish communities thrived there.

Part of the reason Islamic civilization, which was so ahead of the West in terms of science and technology in the 1300s ,would fall so far behind was a question of geography. It wasn’t merely that the West was able to rip from the more advanced Muslims the navigational technology that would lead to the windfall of discovering the New World, it was that the way science and technology eventually developed through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries demanded strong states which Islamic civilizations on account of geography and a tradition of weak states- in Muslim societies it was a diffuse network of religious jurists rather than a centralized Church in league with the state that controlled religion and a highly internationalized network of traders rather than a tight corporate-state alliance that dominated the economy. Modernity in its pre-21st century manifestation required strong states to put down communication and    transportation networks and to initiate and support high impact policies such as economic standardization and universal education.

Yet, technology appears to have changed this reliance on the state and brought back into play the kinds of diffuse international networks which Islamic societies continue to be extremely good at. As opposed to earlier state-centric infrastructure cell phone networks can be put up almost overnight. The global nature of trade puts a premium on international connections which the communications revolution has put at the hands of everybody. The rapid decline in the cost of creating media and the bewildering ease with which this media can be distributed globally has overturned the prior centralized and highly localized nature in which communication used to operate.

Islam’s diffuse geography and deeply ingrained assumptions regarding power left it vulnerable to both its own pitifully weak states and incursions from outside powers who had followed a more centralized developmental path.  Many of these conflicts are now playing themselves out and the legacies of Western incursions unraveling so that largely Muslim states that were created out of thin air by imperialist powers such as Iraq and Syria- are imploding. Sadly, states where a largely secular elite was able to suppress traditional publics with the help of Western aid – most ominously Egypt- are slipping towards fundamentalism. We have helped create an equation where religious fundamentalism is confused with freedom.

Given the nature of modern international communications and ease of travel we are now in a situation where an alienated Muslim such as Tamerlane is not only plugged into a worldwide anti-modern discourse, he is able to “shop around” for conflicts in which to insert himself. His unhinged mother had apparently suggested he go to Palestine in search of jihad he reportedly traveled to far away Dagestan to make contact with like minded lost souls.

Our only hope here is that these conflicts in the Muslim world will play themselves out as quickly and as peacefully as possible, and that Islam, which is in many ways poised to thrive in the new condition of globalization will remember its own globalists traditions. Not just their tradition as international traders- think of how successful diaspora peoples such as the Chinese and the Jewish people have been- but their tradition of philosophic and scientific brilliance as well. The internet allows easy access to jihadi discourses by troubled Muslims, but it also increasingly offers things such as Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCS that might, in the same way Islamic civilization did for the West, bring the lessons of modernity and science deep into the Islamic world even into areas such as Afghanistan that now suffer under the isolating curse of geography.

International communication, over the long term, might be a way to bring Enlightenment norms regarding rational debate and toleration not so much to the Muslim world as back to it. Characteristics which it in some ways passed to the West in the first place, providing a forerunner of what a global civilization tolerant of differences and committed to combining the best from all the world’s cultures might look like.

Visions of Immortality and the Death of the Eternal City

Vangough Flowers in a blue  vase

It was a time when the greatest power the world had yet known suffered an attack on its primary city which seemed to signal the coming of an age of unstoppable decline.The once seemingly unopposable power no longer possessed control over its borders,it was threatened by upheaval in North Africa,  unable to bring to heel the stubborn Iranians, or stem its relative decline. It was suffering under the impact of climate change, its politics infected with systemic corruption, its economy buckling under the weight of prolonged crisis.

Blame was sought. Conservatives claimed the problem lie with the abandonment of traditional religion, the rise of groups they termed “atheists” especially those who preached the possibility of personal immortality. One of these “atheists” came to the defense of the immortalist movement arguing not so much that the new beliefs were not responsible for the great tribulations in the political world, but that such tribulations themselves were irrelevant. What counted was the prospect of individual immortality and  the cosmic view- the perspective that held only that which moved humanity along to its ultimate destiny in the universe was of true importance. In the end it would be his movement that survived after the greatest of empires collapsed into the dust of scattered ruins….

Readers may be suspicious that I am engaged in a sleight of hand with such an introduction, and I indeed am; however much the description above resembles the United States of the early 21st century, I am in fact describing the Roman Empire of the 400s C.E. The immortalists here are not contemporary transhumanists or singularitarians but early Christians whom many pagans considered not just dangerously innovative, but also, because they did not believe in the pagan gods, were actually labeled atheists- which is where we get the term. The person who came to the defense of the immortalists and who laid out the argument that it was this personal immortality and the cosmic view of history that went with it that counted rather than the human drama of politics history and culture was not Ray Kurzweil or any other figure of the singularitarian or transhumanist movements,  but Augustine who did so in his work The City of God.

Now, a book with such a title not to mention one written in the 400s might not seem like it would be relevant to any secular 21st century person contemplating our changing relationship with death and time, but let me try to show you why such a conclusion would be false. When Augustine wrote The City of God he was essentially arguing for a new version of immortality. For however much we might tend to think the dream of immortality was invented to assuage human fears of personal death the ancient pagans (and the Jews for that matter) had a pretty dark version of it. Or, as Achilles said to Odysseus:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

For the pagans, the only good form of immortality was that brought by fame here on earth. Indeed, in later pagan versions of paradise which more resembled the Christian notion “heaven” was reserved for the big-wigs. The only way to this divinity was to do something godlike on earth in the service of one’s city or the empire. Augustine signaled a change in all that.

Christianity not only upended the pagan idea of immortality granting it to everybody- slaves no less than kings, but, according to Augustine,  rendered the whole public world the pagans had found so important  irrelevant. What counted was the fact of our immortality and the big picture- the fate that God had in store for the universe, the narrative that got us to this end. The greatest of empires could rise and fall what they will, but they were nothing next to the eternity of our soul our God and his creation. Rome had been called the eternal city- but it was more mortal than the soul of its most powerless and insignificant citizen.

Of course, from a secular perspective the immortality that Augustine promised was all in his head. If anything, it served as the foundation not for immortal human beings nor for a narrative of meaning that stretched from the beginning to the the end of time- but for a very long lived institution- the Catholic Church- that has managed to survive for two millennia, much longer indeed than all the empires and states that have come and gone in this period, and who knows, if it gets its act together may even survive for another thousand years.

All of this might seem far removed from contemporary concerns until one realizes the extent to which we ourselves are and will be confronting a revolutionary change in our relationship to both death and time akin to and of a more real and lasting impact than the one Augustine wrestled with. No matter what way one cuts it our relationship to death has changed and is likely to continue to change. The reason for this is that we are now living so long, and suspect we might be able to live much longer. A person in the United States in 1913 could be expected to live just shy of the ripe old age of 53. The same person in 2013 is expected to live within a hair’s breath of 79. In this as in other departments the US has a ways to go. The people of Monaco, the country with the highest life expectancy, live on average a decade longer.

How high can such longevity go? We have no idea. Some, most famously Aubrey de Gray, think there is no theoretical limit to how long a human being can live if we get the science right. We are likely some ways from this, but given the fact that such physical immortality, or something close to it, does not seem to violate any known laws of nature, then if there is not something blocking its appearance, say complexity, or more ominously, expense, we are likely to see something like the defeat of death if not in this century then in some further future that is not some inconceivable distance from us.

This might be a good time,then, to start asking questions about our relationship to death and time, and how both relate to the societies in which we live. Even if immortality remains forever outside our grasp by exploring the topic we might learn something important about death time and ourselves in the process. It was exactly these sorts of issues that Augustine was out to explore.

What Augustine argued in The City of God was that societies, in light of eternal life had nothing like the meaning we were accustomed to giving them. What counted was that one lead a Christian life (although as a believer in predestination Augustine really thought that God would make you do this if he wanted to). The kinds of things that counted in being a good pagan were from Augustine’s standpoint of eternity little but vanity. A wealthy pagan might devote money to his city, pay for a public festival, finance the construction of a theater or forum. Any pagan above the level of a slave would likely spend a good deal of time debating the decisions of his city, take concern in its present state and future prospects. As young men it would be the height of honor for a pagan to risk his life for his city. The pagan would do all these things in the hope that they might be remembered. In this memory and in the lives of his descendants lie the possibility of a  good version of immortality as opposed to the wallowing in the darkness of Hades after death. Augustine countered with a question that was just as much a charge: What is all this harking after being remembered compared to the actual immortality offered by Christ?

There are lengths in the period of longevity far in advance of what human beings now possess where the kinds of tensions between the social and pagan idea of immortality and the individual Christian idea of eternal life that Augustine explored do not yet come into full force. I think Vernor Vinge is onto something (@36 min) when he suggests that extending the human lifespan into the range of multiple centuries would be extremely beneficial for both the individual and society. Longevity on the order of 500 years would likely anchor human beings more firmly in time. In terms of the past such a lifespan would give us a degree of wisdom we sorely lack, allowing us to avoid almost inevitably repeating the mistakes of a prior age once those with personal experience of such mistakes or tragedies are no longer around to offer warnings or even who we could ask- as was the case with our recent financial crisis once most of those who had lived through the Great Depression as adults had passed.

500 years of life would also likely orient us more strongly towards the future. We could not only engage in very long term projects of all sorts that are impossible today given our currently limited number of years, we would actually be invested in making sure our societies weren’t making egregious mistakes- such as changing the climate- whose full effects wouldn’t be felt until centuries in the future. These longer-term horizons, at least when compared to what we have now, would cease being abstractions because it would no longer be our great grandchildren that lived there but us.

The kinds of short-termism that now so distort the politics of the United States might be less likely in a world where longevity was on the order of several centuries. Say what one might about the Founding Fathers, but they certainly took the long-term future of the United States into account and more importantly established the types of lasting institutions that would make that future a good one. Adams and Jefferson created our oldest and perhaps most venerable cultural institution- The Library of Congress. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Later American political figures, such as Lincoln, not only did the difficult work of keeping the young nation intact, but developed brillant institutions such as Land-Grant Colleges to allow learning and technological know-how to penetrate the countryside. In addition to all this, the United States invented the idea of national parks, the hope being to preserve for centuries or even millennia the natural legacy of North America.

Where did we get this long term perspective and where did it go? Perhaps it was the afterglow of the Enlightenment’s resurrection of pagan civic virtues. We certainly seem no longer capable of taking such a long view- the light has gone out. Politicians today seem unable to craft policy that will deal with issues beyond the next election cycle let alone respond to issues or foster public investments that will play out or come to fruition in the days of their grandchildren. Individuals seem to have lost some of the ability to think beyond their personal life span, so perhaps, just perhaps, the solution is to increase the lifespan of individuals themselves.

Thinking about time, especially long stretches of time, and how it runs into the annihilation of death, seems to inevitably lead to reflections about human society and the relationship of the young with the old. Freud might have been right when he reduced the human condition to sex and death for something in the desire to leave a future legacy inspired by death does seem to resemble sex- or rather procreation- allowing us to pass along imperfect “copies” of ourselves even if, when it comes to culture, these copies are very much removed from us indeed.

This bridging of the past and the future might even be the ultimate description of what societies and institutions are for. That is, both emerge from our confrontation with time and are attempts to win this conflict by passing information, or better, knowledge, from the past into the future in a similar way to how this is accomplished biologically in the passing on of genes through procreation. The common conception that innovation most likely emerges from youth, if it is true, might be as much a reflection of the fact that the young have quite simply not been here long enough to receive this full transmission and are on that account the most common imperfect “copies” of the ideas of their elders. Again, like sex, the transmission of information from the old to the new generation allows novel combinations and even mutations which if viable are themselves passed along.

It’s at least an interesting question to ask what might happen to societies and institutions that act as our answer to the problem of death if human beings lived for what amounted to forever? The conclusion Augustine ultimately reached is once you eliminate death you eliminate the importance of the social and political worlds. Granting the individual eternity means everything that now grips our attention become little but fleeting Mayflies in the wind. We might actually experience a foretaste of this, some say we are right now, even before extreme periods of longevity are achieved if predictions of an ever accelerating change in our future bear fruit. Combined with vastly increased longevity accelerating change means the individual becomes the only point in history that actually stands still. Whole technological regimes, cultures, even civilizations rise and fall under the impact of technological change while only the individual- in terms of a continuous perspective since birth or construction- remains. This would entail a reversal of all of human history to this point where it has been the institutions that survive for long periods of time while the individuals within them come and go. We therefore can’t be sure what many of the things we take as mere background to our lives today- our country, culture, idea of history, in such circumstances even look like.

What might this new relationship between death and technological and social change  do to the art and the humanities, or “post-humanities”?  The most hopeful prediction regarding this I have heard is again Vinge, though I can not find the clip. Vinge discussed the possibility of extended projects that are largely impossible given today’s average longevity. Artists and writers probably have an intuitive sense for what he means, but here are some examples- though they are mine not his. In a world of vastly increased longevity a painter could do a flower study of every flower on earth or portraits of an entire people. A historian could write a detailed history of a particular city from the palaeolithic through the present in pain staking detail, a novelist could really create a whole alternative imagined world filled with made up versions of memoirs, religious texts, philosophical works and the like. Projects such as these are impossible given our limited time here and on account of the fact that there are many more things to care about in life besides these creations.

Therefore, vastly increased longevity might mean that our greatest period of cultural creation- the world’s greatest paintings, novels, historical works and much else besides will be found in the human future rather than its past. Increased longevity would also hopefully open up scientific and technological projects that were centuries rather than decades in the making such as the recovery of lost species and ecosystems or the move beyond the earth. One is left wondering, however, the extent to which such long term focus will be preserved in light of an accelerating speed of change.

A strange thing is happening in that while the productive lifespan of an individual artist is increasing- so much for The Who’s “hope I die before I get old”–  the amount of time it takes an artist to create any particular work is, through technological advancement, likely decreasing. This should lead to more artistic productivity, but one is left to ponder what any work of art would mean if the dreams of accelerating technological change come true at precisely the same time that human longevity is vastly increased? Here is what I mean: when one tries to imagine a world where human beings live for lengths of time that are orders of magnitude longer than those today and where technological change proves to be in a persistently accelerating state what you get is a world that is so completely transformed within the course of a generation that it bears as much resemblance to the generation before it as we do to the ancient Greeks. What does art mean in such a context where the world it addresses no longer exists not long after it has been made?

This same condition of fleetingness applies to every other aspect of life as well from the societies we live in down to the relationships with those we love.  It was Augustine’s genius to realize that if one looks at life from the perspective of individual eternity it is not the case that everything else becomes immortal as well, but that the mortality of everything we are not becomes highlighted.

This need not spell the end of all those things we currently take as the vastly important long lasting background of our mortal lives, but it will likely change their character. To use a personal story, cultural and political creations and commitments in the future might still be meaningful in the sense that my Nana’s flower garden is meaningful. My Nana just turned 91 and still manages to plant and care for her flowers that bloom in spring only to disappear until brought back by her gentle and wise hands at the season’s return. Perhaps the longer we live the more the world around us will get its meaning not through its durability but as a fleeting beauty brought forth because we cared enough to stop for a moment to orchestrate and hold still, if even for merely a brief instant, time’s relentless flow.


Return to the Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr Moreau

Sometimes a science-fiction novel achieves the impossible, and actually succeeds in reaching out and grasping the future, anticipating its concerns, grappling with its possibilities, wrestling with its ethical dilemmas. H.G. Wells’ short 1886 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is like that. The work achieved the feat of actually being relevant to our own time at the very least because the scientific capabilities Well’s imagined in the novel have really only begun to be possible today, and will be only more so going forward. The ethical territory he identified with his strange little book ones we are likely to be increasingly called upon to chart our own course through.

The novel starts with a shipwreck. Edward Prendick, an Englishman who we later learn studied under the Darwinian, Thomas Huxley, is saved at sea by a man named Montgomery. This Montgomery along with his beast like servant, M’ling, is a passenger aboard a ship shepherding a cargo of exotic animals including a puma to an isolated island. Prendick is a man whose only type of luck seems to be bad, and he manages to anger the captain of the ship and is left to his fate on the island with Montgomery a man in the service of a mad scientific genius- Dr Moreau.

Prendick soon discovers that his new island home is a house of horrors. Moreau is a “vivisectionist” meaning he conducts experiments on live animals and does so without any compunction as to the pain these animals experience. The natural sounds of the island are drowned out by cries of suffering Prendrick hears from the puma being surgically transformed into a “man” at the hands of Moreau. This is the goal of Moreau who has been chased out of civilization for pursuing his mission, to use the skills of vivisection and hypnosis to turn his poor animals into something like human beings giving them not only a humanoid forms but human abilities such as speech.

The list of the “beast folk” transformed in such a way include not only M’ling and the puma but other creatures trapped in the space between human beings and their original animal selves or are a blend of purely animal forms. There is the Leopard-Man, and the Ape-Man, the satanic looking Satyr-Man a humanoid formed from a goat. There is smallish Sloth-Man who resembles a flayed child. Two characters, the Sayer of the Law and the Fox-Bear-Witch, revere and parrot the “Law” of their creator Moreau which amount to commandments to act like human beings or not act like animals: “Not to go on all Fours”, “Not to suck up Drink”, “Not to claw Bark of Trees” “Not to chase other Men” (81)

There is also the chimera of the Hyena-Swine the only animal that seems able to deliberately flaunt the commandments of Moreau and which becomes the enemy of Prendick after the death of the mad scientist at the hands of his last creation- the puma man. Montgomery, giving into his own animal instincts dies shortly after his master’s demise in the midst of a mad alcoholic revelry with the Beast Men.

Prendrick escapes the island before the Hyena-Swine and his allies are able to kill him by setting sail on a life raft which comes near shore on which the dead bodies of the captain who had abandoned him on the island and his shipmate are found. Eventually the scarred castaway makes his way back to England where his experience has seemed to shatter his connection with his fellow human beings who now appear to Prendick as little more than Beast Men in disguise.

Why did Wells write this strange story? In part, the story grew out of an emerging consciousness of cruelty to animals and calls for animal rights. As mentioned, Moreau is an expert in the practice of  “vivisection”  an old term that means simply animal experimentation whether the animals are anesthetized or not. He thinks the whole question of the pain experienced by his animals to be a useless hindrance to the pursuit of knowledge which he needed to overcome to free him for his scientific quest. “The colorless light of these intellectual desires” from the fetters of empathy.  The animals he experiments upon become no longer “a fellow creature, but a problem”. Free to pursue his science on his island he is “never troubled by matters of ethics”, and notes that the study of nature can only lead to one becoming “as remorseless as Nature” itself. (104)

It is often thought that the idea of animal rights emerged first in the 1970s with the publication of the philosopher, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Yet the roots of the movement can be traced back nearly a century earlier and emerged in response to the practice of  vivisection. Within two years of Wells’ story the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection would be founded- a society which has advocated the end of animal experimentation ever since. In the years immediately following the publication of The Island of Dr. Moreau protests would begin erupting around experiments on live animals, especially dogs.

It is almost as if the moment the idea of common kinship between humans and animals entered the public mind with the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species in 1859 the idea of treating animals “humanely” gathered moral force.  Yet, however humane and humanistic a figure Darwin himself was, and in terms of both there is no doubt, his ideas also left room for darker interpretations. The ethical questions opened up by Darwin was whether the fact that humankind shared common kinship with other animals meant that animals should be treated more like human beings, or whether such common kinship offered justification for treating fellow human beings as we always had treated animals? The Origins of Species opened up all sorts of these anxieties surrounding the narrowness of the gap between human beings and animals. It became hard to see which way humanity was going.

The Island of Dr. Moreau gives us a first hand experience of this vertigo. Prendick initially thinks Moreau is transforming human beings into animals, and only finds out later that he is engaged in a form of uplift. Moreau wants to find out how difficult it would be to turn an animal into something like a human being- if the gap can be bridged on the upside. However, the Beast Men that Moreau creates inevitably end up slipping back to their animal natures- the downside pressures are very strong and this suggests to Prendick that humankind itself is on a razors edge between civilization and the eruption of animal instincts.

This idea of the de-generative potential evolution was one of the most deadly memes to have ever emerged from Western civilization. It should come as no surprise that Adolf Hitler was born three years after the publication of The Island of Dr. Moreau and ideas about the de-generation of the “race” would become the putrid intellectual mother’s milk on which Hitler was raised. The anxiety that humanity might evolve “backward”, which came with a whole host of racially charged assumptions, would be found in the eugenics movements and anti-immigrant sentiments in both Great Britain and the United States in the early 20th century following the publication of Well’s novel. It was the Nazis, of course, who took this idea of de-generative evolution to its logical extreme using this fear as justification for mass genocide.

It’s not that no one in the early 20th century held the idea that course of evolution might be progressive at least once one stepped aside from evolution controlled by nature and introduced human agency. Leon Trotsky famously made predictions about the Russian Revolution that sound downright transhumanist such as:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

Yet, around the same time Trotsky was predicting the arrival of the New Soviet Man, the well respected Soviet scientist, Il’ya Ivanov tried to move the arrow backward. Ivanov almost succeeded in an attempt to see if African women, who were not to be informed of the nature of the experiment, could be inseminated with the sperm of chimps. The idea that Stalin had hatched this plan to create a race of ape-men super soldiers is a myth  often played up by modern religious opponents of Darwin’s ideas regarding human evolution. But, what it does show that Well’s Dr. Moreau was no mere anti-scientific fantasy but a legitimate fear regarding the consequences of Darwin’s discovery- that the boundary between human beings and animals was the thinnest of ice and that we were standing on it.

Yet the real importance of the questions raised by The Island of Dr. Moreau would have to wait over a century, until our own day to truly come to the fore. This is because the type of sovereignty over animals in terms of their composition and behavior really wasn’t possible until we actually not only understood the directions that guided the development and composition of life, something we didn’t understand until the discovery of the hereditary role of DNA in 1952, but how to actually manipulate this genetic code, something we have only begun to master in our own day.

Another element of the true import of the questions Well’s posed would have to wait unit recently when we developed the capacity to manipulate the neural processes of animals.  As mentioned, in the novel Moreau uses hypnotism to get his animals to do what he wants. We surely find this idea silly, conjuring up images of barnyard beasts staring mindlessly at swinging pendulums. Yet meaning of the term hypnotism in The Island of Dr. Moreau would be better expressed with our modern term “programming”. This was what the 19th century mistakenly thought it had stumbled across when it invented the pseudo-science of hypnotism- a way to circumvent the conscious mind and tap into a hidden unconscious in such a way as to provide instructions for how the hypnotized should act. This too is something we have only been able to achieve now that microelectronics have shrunk to a small enough size that they and their programs can be implanted into animals without killing them.

Emily Anthes balanced and excellent book Frankenstein’s Cat gives us an idea of what both this genetic manipulation and programming of animals through bio-electronics looks like. According to Anthes, the ability to turn genes on and off has given us an enormous ability to play with the developmental trajectory of animals such as that poor scientific workhorse- the lab mouse. We can make mice that suffer human like male pattern baldness, can only make left turns, or grow tusks. In the less funny department we can make mice riddled with skin tumors or that suffer any number of other human diseases merely by “knocking out” one of their genes. (FC 3-4).

As Anthes lays out, our increasing control over the genetic code of all life gives us power over animals (not to mention the other kingdoms of living things) that is trivial, profound, and sometimes disturbing. We can insert genes from one species into another that could never under natural circumstances mix- so that fish with coral genes inserted can be made to glow under certain wavelengths of light, and we can do the same with the button noses of cats or even ourselves if we wanted to be a hit at raves. We can manipulate the genes of dairy animals so that they produce life saving pharmaceuticals in their milk or harvest spider’s silk from udders. We have inserted human growth hormone into pigs to make them leaner- an experiment that resulted in devastating diseases for the pigs concerned and a large dose of yuck factor.

Anthes also shows us how we are attempting to combine the features of our silicon based servants with those of animals, by creating creatures such as remote controlled rats through the insertion of microelectronics. The new field of optogenetics gives us amazing control over the actions of animals using light to turn neurons on and off. Something that one of the founders of the science, Karl Deisseroth. thinks is raising a whole host of ethical and philosophical questions we need to deal with now as it becomes possible to use optogenetics with humans.  These cyborg experiments have even gone D.I.Y. The company Backyard Brains sells a kit called Robo Roach that allows amature neuro-scientists to turn a humble roach into their own personal insect cyborg.

The primary motivation for Well’s Dr. Moreau was the discovery of knowledge whatever its cost. It’s hard to see his attempt to turn animals into something with human characteristics as of any real benefit to the animals themselves given the pain they had to suffer to get there. Moreau is certainly not interested in any benefit his research might bring to human beings either. Our own Dr. Moreaus- and certainly many of the poor creatures who are subject to our experiments would see the matter that way- are indeed driven by not just human welfare, but as Anthes is at pains to point out animal welfare as well. If we played our genetic knowledge cards right the kinds of powers we are gaining might allow us to save our beloved pets from painful and debilitating diseases, lessen the pain of animals we use for consumption or sport, revive extinct species or shield at least some species from the Sixth Great Extinction which human beings have unleashed. On the latter issue, there is always a danger that we will see these gene manipulating powers as an easy alternative to the really hard choices we have to make regarding the biosphere, but at the very least our mastery of genetics and related areas such as cloning should allow us to mitigate at least some of the damage we are doing.

Anthes wants to steer us away from moral absolutes regarding biological technologies. Remote controlled rats would probably not be a good idea either for the rats or other people were they sold as “toys” for my 12 year old nephew. The humane use of such cyborgs creations to find earthquake victims, even if disturbing on its face, is another matter entirely.

At one point in The Island of Dr. Moreau Well’s mad scientist explains himself to Pendrick with the chilling words:

I wanted- it was the only thing I wanted- to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape. (104)


Again, the achievement of such plasticity as Dr. Moreau longed for had to wait until the mastery of genetics and in addition to Anthes’ Frankenstein’s Cat this newfound technological power is explored in yet another excellent recent book this time by the geneticist George Church. In Regenesis Church walks us through the revolution in molecular biology and especially the emerging field of synthetic biology. The potential implied in our ability to re-engineer life at the genetic level or to create almost from scratch and design life on the genetic plane are quite simply astounding.

According to Church, we could redesign the true overlords of nature- bacteria- to do an incredible number of things including creating our fuel, growing our homes, and dealing with major challenges such as climate change. We could use synthetic bacteria to create our drugs and chemicals and put them to work as true nanotech assemblers.We could design “immortal” human organs and restore the natural environment to its state before the impact of our dominant and destructive species including resurrecting species that have gone extinct using reverse engineering.

Some of Church’s ideas might be scientifically sound, but nonetheless appear fanciful, including his idea for creating a species of “mirror” humans whose cellular handedness is reversed. Human beings with reversed cellular handedness would be essentially immune forever from the scourge of viruses because these diseases rely on shared handedness to highjack human cells. Aside from the logistics, part of the problem is that a human being possessing the old handedness would be unable to have children with a person possessing the new version. Imagine that version of Romeo and Juliet!

Church’s projections and proposals are all pretty astounding and none to me at least raise overly red flags in an ethical sense except for one in which he goes all Dr. Moreau on us.  Church proposes that we resurrect Neanderthals:

If society becomes comfortable with human cloning and sees value in human diversity, then the whole Neanderthal creature itself could be cloned by a surrogate mother chimp- or by an extremely adventurous female human. (10)

The immediate problem I see here is not so much that the Neanderthal is brought back into existence as that Church proposes the mother of this “creature” (why does he use this word and not the more morally accurate term- person?) should be a chimp.  Nothing against chimpanzees, but Neanderthals are better thought of as an extinct variant of ourselves rather than as a different species, the clearest evidence of which is that homo sapiens and Neanderthals could produce viable and fertile offspring, and we still carry the genes from such interbreeding. Neanderthals are close enough to us- they buried their dead surrounded by flowers after all- that they should be considered kin, and were such a project ever to take place they should be carried by a human being and raised as one of us with all of our rights and possibilities.

Attempting to bring back other hominids such as Homo Habilis or Australopithecus would raise similar Moreau type questions and might be more in line with Church’s suggestion regarding the resurrection of Neanderthals. Earlier hominids are distinct enough from modern humans that their full integration into human society would be unlikely. The question then becomes what type of world are we bringing these beings into because it is certainly not our own?

One of the ethical realities that The Island of Dr. Moreau is excellent at revealing is the idea of how the attempts to change animals into something more like ourselves might create creatures that are themselves shipwrecked, forever cut off from both the life of their own species and also the human world where we have attempted to bring them. Like modern humans, earlier hominids seem to have been extremely gregarious and dependent upon rich social worlds. Unless we could bring a whole society of them into existence at a clip we might be in danger of creating extremely lonely and isolated individuals who would be unable to find a natural and happy place in the world.

Reverse engineering the early hominids by manipulating the genomes of all the higher primates, including our own, might be the shortest path to the uplift of animals such as the chimpanzee a project suggested by George Dvorsky of the IEET in his interview with Anthes in Frankenstein’s Cat. The hope, it seems, is to give to other animals the possibilities implicit in humanity and provide us with a companion at something closer to our level of sentience.  Yet the danger here, to my lights, is that we might create creatures that are essentially homeless- caught between human understanding of what they could or “should” be and the desire to actualize their own non-human nature which is the result of millions of years of evolution.

This threat of homelessness applies even in cases where the species in question has the clear potential to integrate into human society. What would it feel like to be the first Neanderthal in 10,000 years? Would one feel a sense of pride in one’s Neanderthal heritage or like a circus freak constantly subject since childhood to the prying eyes of a curious public? Would there be a sense of interminable pressure to act “Neanderthal like” or constant questions by ignorant Lamarckians as to the nature of a lost Neanderthal society one knows nothing about?  Would there be pressure to mate with only other Neanderthals?  Harping on about the need for a “royal wedding” of “caveman” and “cavewoman”? What if one was only attracted to the kinds of humans seen in Playboy? Would it be scandalous for a human being to date a Neanderthal, or could the latter even find a legitimate human mate and not just weird people with a caveman fetish? In other words, how do we avoid this very practical and ethical problem of homelessness?

On the surface these questions may appear trivial given the existential importance of what creating such species would symbolize, but they are after all, the types of questions that would need to be addressed if we are thinking about giving these beings the possibility for a rich and happy life as themselves and not just answering to our own philosophic and scientific desires. We can only proceed morally if we begin to grapple with some of these issues and here we’ll need the talents of not just scientists and philosophers, but novelists as well. We need to imagine what it will feel like to live in the kinds of worlds and as the beings we are creating.  A job that as Bruce Sperling has pointed out is the very purpose of science-fiction novelists in the first-place. We will need more of our own versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau.


H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr.  Moreau, Lancer Books, 1968 First published 1886.
Emily Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to biotech’s brave new beasts, Scientific American Books, 2013
George Church and Ed Regis, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, Basic Books, 2012  

The Lost Art of Architectonic


One of the things that most strikes me when thinking on the subject of our contemporary discourse regarding the future is just how seldom those engaged in the discussion aim at giving us a vision of society as a whole. There are books that dig deep but remain narrow  such as Eric Topol’s: The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, and George Church’s recent Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Many of these books are excellent, but one walks away from reading them with a good idea of where a particular field or part of our lives might be headed rather than society as a whole.

Even when authors try to extend the reach of speculation out more broadly they tend to approach things from certain lens that ends up constraining them. Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect tries to apply the idea of peer-networks to areas as diverse as politics, education, economics and the arts while Peter Diamandis, and Steven Kotler in Abundance appear to project the mindset and passions of Silicon Valley: exponential growth in computers, the D.I.Y movement, billionaire philanthropy, and the spread of the benefits of technology to the world’s poorest, into a future where human potential can finally be met.  However good these broader approaches are they seldom leave you with an idea of how all the necessary parts of the future societies they hint at and depict fit together let alone what it might be like to actually live within them.

What seems to be missing in many works on the future is the sense of a traveler’s perspective on worlds they depict. The interesting thing about being a traveler is that you both experience the society you are traveling in as an individual and are at the same time outside of it, able to take a bird’s eye view that allows you to see connections and get a sense for how the whole things fits together like an artful building designed by an architect.

We used to have a whole genre devoted to this architectonic way of looking at the future, the literature of utopia. Writing utopias may seem very different from envisioning positive versions of the future, but perhaps not as much as we might think. Like futurists, many utopian writers tried to extrapolate from technological trends. Way back in 1833, John Adolphus Etzler, wrote a utopia  The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, that bears remarkable similarity to the arguments of Diamandis and Kotler though the technology that was thought would finally end human want was nascent industrial era machines, and Etzler embedded his argument in a narrative that gave the reader an idea of what living in such a society should look like. More famous example of such extrapolations are Edward Bellamy’ s Looking Backward, 1887 or the incomparable H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, 1905.

One might object that futurism is a predictive endeavor whereas utopianism tries to prescribe what would be best and therefore what we should do. Again, I am not quite sure this distinction holds, for much of futurists writing is as much arguments about potential and are meant to coax us into some possible future, or as Diamandis and Kotler put it in Abundance: “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” (239). Utopianism is at least transparent in the fact that it is being prescriptive as opposed to futurism which often tries to come across as tomorrow’s news.

I am not quite sure who we could blame for this state of affairs, but surely Friedrich Engels of  the duo Marx and Engels would bear part of the responsibility. Back in 1880 Engels in his essay Socialism: Utopian and Scientific made the case that Marxism as opposed to the utopianism such found in figures such as Robert Owen was “scientific” in that it was based upon an understanding of the future as determined. Marxists in this view weren’t trying to influence the course of history they were just responding to and playing a role in underlying forces that would unfold to an inevitable conclusion anyway.  Whether he wanted to or not, Engels had removed human agency when it came to the issue of deciding what the human future would look like, or rather he drove such agency into the shadows, unacknowledged and occult.

One might ask, what about futurism that is focused not on good scenarios at least from the author’s point of view, but bad outcomes- predictions of disaster and explorations of risk? Even here, I think, futurists are trying to shape the future as much as predict it like a fortune teller. It’s a sadistic prophet indeed who merely tells you your society will be destroyed without giving you someway to avoid that fate. Futurism that focuses on negative futures are largely warnings that we need to take steps to prevent something terrible from happening or at the very least prepare.

We can find utopian literature in this world of negative futures too or at least the doppelganger of utopia- the realm of dystopia. Indeed, dystopian literature has provided us with some of the best early warning systems we have ever had such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We which warned us about Soviet totalitarianism, Jack London’s The Iron Heel which provided us with a premonition of fascism or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which has proved a better reflection of the future with its depiction of the dystopia of consumer society than George Orwell’s 1984.

The one place where compelling architectonic versions of the future continue to be found is in science-fiction. Writers of science-fiction continue to play this social role, and often do so with brilliance as this praise for Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312 attests. This teasing out and wrestling with both the positive and negative possible worlds we might arrive at given our current course or with some changes in our trajectory lend evidence to the observation that science-fiction whose surface often seems so silly is in fact the most socially and philosophically serious form of fiction we have.

Yet there are differences between science-fiction and utopian literature not the least of which is utopia’s demand to convey an architectonic vision of possible worlds. The desire in utopias to get every detail right down to how people dress and what they eat make utopian literature some of the worst we have because it takes away from the development of characters. In a utopia the normal way fiction is organized is inverted: the world portrayed is the real character whereas the protagonists and others are the mere backdrops  for this world.

Unlike much of science-fiction, the focus of utopia is more on social organization than science and technology  although even in one of the earliest and the most famous utopia- Plato’s Republic- science and technology play a role, just not in a form we would readily recognize. Plato based his work on some of the most advanced applied-sciences of his day: pedagogy, dialectical philosophy, geometry, musicology, medicine/athletics, and animal husbandry. Yet these sciences and technologies were not the driver of his utopia. They were the building blocks he used to create a certain form of social organization.

In the sense that they were often seen as proposing a blueprint for the human world utopian literature was often serious in a way science-fiction need not be. Etzler did not merely write a utopia he tried to build one in Venezuela based upon his ideas. Edward Bellamy is a mere footnote in American literature compared to the geniuses who shared the stage with him during his era: Herman Melville, Henry James or Mark Twain. Yet, Bellamy’s work was considered serious enough that it inspired clubs to debate his ideas regarding the future of industrialism all throughout the United States and  influenced real revolutionaries such as V.I. Lenin. Would any serious social thinker today dare to write a version of the future in the form of a utopia?

Perhaps what we need today is less a revival of utopia as a literary form- something it was never very good at- than a new way to imagine architectonic possible futures. Given the fact that we are a long way off from the day when a person like H.G. Wells could conjure up a vision of utopia sure in the belief that he had some working knowledge of everything under the sun this new form of utopia would need to be collaborative rather than springing from the mind of just one individual.

I can imagine gathering together a constellation of individuals from across different disciplines in a room: scientists, engineers, artists, fiction writers, philosophers, economists, social scientists etc and asking them to design together the “perfect” city. They would ask and answer questions such how their imagined city provides for its basic needs, how it is layed out, how it fits into the surrounding ecosystem, how its economy works,  how its educational system functions, its penal system. Above all it would attempt to create a society whose pieces fit together in an architectonic whole. Unlike past utopian literature, such exercises wouldn’t present themselves as somehow final and perfected, but merely provide us with glimpse of destinations to which we might go.