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  

Defining Home

One would be hard-pressed to find two thinkers as distinct as Jane Jacobs and Jaron Lanier. Jacobs, who passed away in 2006, was a thinker concerned with the concrete reality of real-world communities, and most especially, how to preserve them. Lanier is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, having coined the phrase, with deep ties to the culture of Silicon Valley. This is why I found it so surprising upon reading relatively recent books from both of these authors that they provided an almost synergistic perspective in which each author appeared to inform the work of the other resulting in a more comprehensive whole.

I’ll start with Jane Jacob’s. The purpose of her last and by far most pessimistic book Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, was to identify what she saw as some major dystopian trends in the West that if not checked might result in the appearance of a new dark age. Jacob’s gives what is perhaps one of the best descriptions of what a dark age is that I have ever seen; A state of “mass amnesia” in which not only have certain aspects of a culture been lost, but the fact that these aspects have been lost is forgotten as well.

In Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs identifies five dystopian trends which she thinks are leading us down the path of a new dark age: the decline of communities and the family, the decline of higher education, the decline of science, the failure of government, and the decay of culture. One of the things that make Jacobs so interesting is that she defies ideological stereotypes. Looking at the world from a perspective of the community allows her to cast her net much wider in the search for explanations than what emerges from “think tanks” of both the right and the left. Want a reason for the decline of the family? How about consumerism, the need for two incomes, and the automobile, rather than the right’s claim of declining moral standards. Want a reason for the failure of government?
What about the loss of taxing authority by local governments to the national government, and the innate inability of national bureaucracies to craft effective policies based on local conditions, rather than, as some on the left would have it, the need for a more expansive federal government.

Jacob’s unique perspective gained her prescience.  Over three years before the housing bubble burst and felled the US economy she was able to see the train wreck coming. (DA P.32). This perspective grows out of her disdain for ideology, which is one of her main targets in Dark Age Ahead. Something like ideology can be seen in what Jacobs understands to be the decline of science. Openness to  feedback from the real- world is the cornerstone of true science, but, in what Jacob’s sees as a far too often occurrence scientists, especially social scientists,  ignore such feedback because it fails to conform to the reigning paradigm. Another danger is when fields of knowledge without an empirical base at all successfully pass themselves off as “science”.

But where the negative effect of ideology is most apparent is at the level of national government where the “prefabricated answers” ideology provides become one-size-fits-all “solutions” that are likely to fail, firstly, because profound local differences are ignored, and secondly, because national imperatives and policies emerge from bureaucratic or corporate interests that promote or mandate solutions to broad problems that end up embedding their own ideology and agenda, rather than actually addressing the problem at hand.

Sometimes we are not even aware that policies from distant interests are being thrusts upon us. Often what are in fact politically crafted policies reflecting some interest have the appearance of having arisen organically as the product of consumer choice. Jacobs illustrates this by showing how the automobile centric culture of the US was largely the creation of the automobile industry, which pushed for the deconstruction of much of the public transportation system American cities. Of course, the federal government played a huge role in the expansion of the automobile as well, but it did not do so in order to address the question of what would be the best transportation system to adopt, but as a means of fostering national security, and less well known, to promote the end of national full-employment, largely blind to whatever negative consequences might emerge from such a policy.

Jacobs ideas regarding feedback- whether as the basis of real science, or as the foundation of effective government policies- have some echoes, I think, of the conservative economist Friedrich Hayek. Both Hayek and Jacobs favored feedback systems such as the market, in Hayek’s case, or, for Jacobs the community (which includes the economy but is also broader) over the theories of and policies crafted by and imposed by distant experts.

A major distinction, I think, is that whereas Jacob looked to provide boundaries to effective systems of feedback- her home city of Toronto was one such feedback system rather than the economy of all of Canada, North America, or the world- Hayek, emerging from the philosophy of classical liberalism focused his attention sharply on economics, rather than broadening his view to include things such as the education system, institutions of culture and the arts, or local customs. Jacob saw many markets limited in geographic scope, Hayek saw the MARKET a system potentially global in scale, that is given the adoption of free- trade, would constitute a real, as opposed to a politically distorted, feedback system which could cover the whole earth. Jacobs is also much more attuned to areas that appear on the surface to be driven by market mechanisms- such the idea that consumer choice led to the widespread adoption of the automobile in the US- that on closer inspection are shown to be driven by influence upon or decisions taken by national economic and political elites.

Anyone deeply familiar with either Hayek or Jacobs who could help me clarify my thoughts here would be greatly appreciated, but now back to Lanier.

Just as Jacobs sees a naturally emergent complexity to human environments such as cities, a complexity that makes any de-contextualized form of social engineering likely to end in failure, Lanier, in his 2009 manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, applies an almost identical idea to the human person, and challenges the idea that any kind of engineered “human-like” artificial intelligence will manage to make machines like people. Instead, Lanier claims, by trying to make machines like people we will make people more like machines.

Lanier is not claiming that there is a sort of “ghost in the machine” that makes human beings distinct. His argument is instead evolutionary:

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very  large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.( 157)

Both human communities and individuals, these authors seem to be suggesting, are the products of a deep and largely non-replicable processes. Imagine what it would truly mean to replicate, as software, the city of Rome. It is easy enough to imagine that we could reproduce within amazing levels of detail the architecture and landscape of the city, but how on earth would we replicate the all the genealogical legacies that go into a city: its history, culture, language- not to mention the individuals who are the carriers of such legacies?The layers that have gone into making Rome what it is stretch deep back into human, biological, and physical time: beginning with the Big Bang, the formation of the Milky Way, our sun, the earth, life on earth from the eons up until human history, prehistoric settlements, the story of the Roman Republic and Empire, the Catholic Church, Renaissance city states, national unification, Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship down to our own day. Or, to quote Lanier: “What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion”.  (134)

Lanier thinks the fact that everything is represented in bits has lead to the confusion that everything is bits. The result of this type of idolatry is for representation and reality to begin to part company a delusion which he thinks explains the onset of the economic crisis in 2008.( It’s easy to see why he might think this when the crisis was engendered by financial frankensteins such as Credit Default Swaps which displaced traditional mortgages where the borrowers credit was a reality lenders were forced to confront when granting a loan.)

Lanier also thinks it is far beyond our current capacity to replicate human intelligence in the form of software, and when it appears we have actually done so, what we have in fact achieved is a massive reduction in complexity which has likely stripped away the most human aspects of whatever quality or activity we are trying to replicate in machines. Take the case of chess where the psychological aspects of the game are stripped away to create chess playing machines and the game is reduced to the movement of pieces around a board. Of course, even in this case, it really isn’t the chess playing machine that has won but the human engineers and programmers behind it who have figured out how to make and program such a machine. Lanier doesn’t even think it is necessary to locate a human activity on a machine for that activity to be stripped of its human elements. He again uses the case of chess only this time chess played against a grandmaster not by a machine but by a crowd wherein individual choices are averaged out to choose the move of the crowd “player”. He wants us to ask whether the human layer of chess, the history of the players their psychological understanding of their opponent is still in evidence in the game-play of this “hive- mind”. He thinks not.

Like Jacobs and her example of the origins of the US transportation system in the machinations of the automotive industry and the influence of the American government to promote an economy built around the automobile for reasons that had nothing to do with transportation as such- namely national security and the desire for full-employment, Lanier sees the current state of computer technology and software as not a determined outcome, but as a conscious choice that has been imposed upon the broader society by technologist. What he sees as dangerous here is that any software architecture is built upon a certain number of assumptions that amount to a philosophy, something he calls “digital-lock-in”.That philosophy then becomes the technological world in which we live without ever having had any broader discussion in society around the question of if this is truly what we want.

Examples of such assumptions are the non-value of privacy, and the idea that everything is a vehicle for advertising. Lanier thinks the current treatment of content producers as providers of a shell for advertisement are driving artists to the wall. Fact is, we all eventually become stuck with these models once they become universal. We all end up using FaceBook and Google because we have to if we want to participate in the online world. But we should realize that the assumptions of these architectures was a choice, and did not have to be this way.

It is my hope that, in terms of the Internet, the market and innovation will likely provide solutions to these problems even the problem of how artist and writers are to find a viable means of living in conditions of ubiquitous copyable content. But the market is far from perfect, and as Jacob’s example of the development of the US transportation system shows, are far too often distorted by political manipulation.

A great example of this is both the monopolization of the world’s agriculture by a handful of mammoth agribusinesses, a phenomenon detailed by Giulio Caperchi, of the blog The Geneaology of Consent.  In his post , Food Sovereignty, Caperchi details how both the world food system is dominated by a small number of global firms and international organizations. He also introduces the novel concept of epistemological sovereignty “the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts”.  These are ideas that are desperately needed, for if Lanier is right, we are about to embark on an even more dangerous experiment by applying the assumptions of computer science to the natural world, and he cites an article by one of the patriarchs of 20th century physics- Freeman Dyson- to show us that this is so.

There must be something with me and Freeman Dyson, for this is the second time in a short period that I have run into the musings of the man, first in doing research for a post I wrote on the science-fiction novel Accelerando, and now here. In Our Biotech Future  Dyson lays out what he thinks will be the future of not just the biotech industry and biological sciences but the future of life itself.

Citing an article by Carl Woese on “the golden age” of life before species had evolved and gene transfer between organisms was essentially unbounded and occurred rapidly. Dyson writes:

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria and the first species of any kind reserving their intellectual property for their own private use.

And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

Dyson looks forward to an age when:

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Dyson, like Lanier and Jacobs praises complexity: he thinks swapping genes is akin to cultural evolution which is more complex than biological evolution ,and that the new biological science, unlike much of the physical sciences, will need to reflect this complexity. What he misses, what both Jacobs and Lanier understand ,is that the complexity of life does not emerge just from combination, but from memory, which acts as a constraint and limits choices. Rome is Rome, a person is a person, a species is a species because choices were made which have closed off alternatives.

Dyson is also looking at life through the eyes of the same reductionist science he thinks has reached its limits. I want to make a kitten that glows in the dark, so I insert a firefly gene etc. In doing this he is almost oblivious to the fact that in complex systems the consequences are often difficult to predict beforehand, and some could be incredibly dangerous both for natural animals and plants and the ecosystems they live in and for us human beings as well. Some of this danger will come from bio-terrorism- persons deliberately creating organisms to harm other people- and this would include any reinvigorated effort to develop such weapons on behalf of states as it would the evil intentions of any nihilistic group or individual. Still, a good deal of the danger from such a flippant attitude towards the re-engineering of life could arise more often from unintended consequences of our actions. One might counter that we have been doing this re-engineering at least since we domesticated plants and animals, and we have, though not on anything like the scale Dyson is proposing. It is also to forget that one of the unintended consequences of agriculture was to produce diseases that leap from domesticated animals to humans and resulted in the premature deaths of millions.

Applying the ideas of computer science to biology creates the assumption that life is software. This is an idea that is no doubt pregnant with discoveries that could improve the human condition, but in the end it is only an assumption- the map not the territory. Holding to it too closely results in us treating all of life as if it was our plaything, and aggressively rather than cautiously applying the paradigm until, like Jacob’s decaying cities or Lanier’s straight-jacket computer technologies, or Caperchi’s industrialized farming it becomes the reality we have trapped ourselves in without having ever had a conversation about whether we wanted to live there.