Consider what God has done. Who can straighten what he has made crooked? – Ecclesiastes 7:13
I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother Nature wants us to – Willard Gaylin
As this is a blog article and not a deeply-researched paper on the subject matter, we will superficially claim that the aforementioned quotes easily sum up the debate on the use of science to alter our evolution. In popular science fiction, if there is an evolution to our species, it is often achieved via the use of revolutionary genetic engineering techniques or biotechnologies. There are indeed some stories who argue that evolution will remain a natural process, one of selection: the Killzone franchise, the EVE Online game universe, H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, to quote a few. Here humans cease to be humans when the conditions in which they live change so dramatically, that evolution changes them into something more or less human to be able to survive.
Yet the overwhelming majority of “human evolutions” in science fiction is artificial. Whether it is achieved to artificial selection, genetics or bio-engineering, transhumanism is always the answer to the question of how to better our condition. Does, however, science fiction portray these artificial changes as positive or negative?
Will we end up damaging our species by tampering with the natural process of evolution, or IS the tampering with our evolution “the next step“? Are sentient species somehow “programmed” to actively evolve themselves after a certain point in their development as a species, and is nature only going to help so much along the way?
Here we describe three different degrees of evolution, which we will call “the Good in Us”, “the Best of Us” and “Beyond Us”, because adding fancy names to theories always makes it a little bit better.
The Good in Us
..is a common low-science fiction theme, and something we are partially experiencing ourselves in the real world. The idea behind it is the elimination of human flaws from our genetic code. This does not involve a cybernetic prosthesis, or even things that would make us inarguably better than a normal human. The Good in Us treats only with the practice of bringing out, as the doctor in Andrew Niccol’s GATTACA says, “the best possible version of us“. This sounds like a good idea to most, but is also achieved through Eugenics, a practice of artificial genetic selection aimed at favouring some genes over others and eliminating certain unwanted traits. This has been tried before in the past, and is now widely considered… a bad idea (other than being illegal almost everywhere). Yet we are lately witnessing an increase in genetic screenings at birth. And why not? If we could make sure our babies were born bereft of genetic defects, if we could be sure that the little things that bothered previous generations (myopia, premature baldness, albinism to name a few), would we? Wouldn’t we? And who is to determine which traits are to be eliminated, and which are not? Will it ever be “ok” to choose one’s child hair colour? Will it one day be illegal for parents to have a daughter with freckles? Where do we draw the line?
If the natural evolution process is very slow, Eugenics would speed this up significantly. Say, a few generations.
Such a speedy process, added to the fact that an early genetic engineering would probably be very expensive, would inevitably lead to caste system. Imagine if the possibility to have stronger, more intelligent and more beautiful children was monetised. In less than a century, there would be a richer, stronger caste of people better in every way than the poorer middle or lower class. A social order cemented in our DNA. A Marxist’s worst nightmare. Similarly, the possibility of “bettering” oneself could even be kept in the hands of the powerful, who would then have the ability to decide who could “ascend” and who could not, transforming this in a political weapon.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World portrays a similar world. Castes are created by the world government according to their role in society. Upper classes are genetically modified to be more attractive, athletic and intelligent, while the lower classes are “bred” for hard work, and made submissive towards their superiors. The order is therefore set in stone, and can be challenged only by a failure in the system itself.
In Niccol’s GATTACA instead, eugenics is monetised, and even if the costs of making a child “perfect” are not prohibitive for the majority, “love sons” or “invalids” as they are called in the film, children born naturally, become quickly an inferior class that is denied employment (aside from, say, very low-income jobs) and social services. Their imperfection causes society to deny them a normal life. A pariah caste is again created, yet by mistake. It is hinted that they will one day disappear as genetic engineering methods become cheaper and cheaper, yet it is also clear that in this situation, wealthier people could still ensure better genetic profiles to their offspring.
The Best of Us
The second (and intermediate) degree of human evolution is less common in popular science fiction. It still does not portray humans as modified to become super-humans (or post-humans), being able to do things a normal human being could not. It involves however the removal of a human trait that normal eugenics does not interfere with: ageing, therefore death.
And this is the only reason why this is a different degree from the former. One could divide the degrees of artificial human evolution in “best possible human” and “post-human”, this is true. But there is in our view a significant difference between making human beings as perfect as they can and making them perfect forever. The social implications are wildly different, and much deeper in the case of immortality. Mind you that we’re not discussing the impossibility of being killed, rather the absence of the inevitability of death. Ones could still be killed, but wouldn’t go their merry way otherwise. Now, isn’t this wonderful? Immortality, the value of life would become exponentially greater, and violence would become so costly that few would risk it. But at what cost?
Charlie Chaplin in his famous speech in the Great Dictator says “so long as men die, liberty will never perish”. Similarly to the first degree of evolution, changes in our nature will likely be in the hands of the powerful, the filthy rich, or both. Is there any concrete evidence to think that the gift of immortality would be given to the masses rather than kept for an elite? And even if it was given to everyone, would it not in some way still work to the benefit of the ruling class? What would there be to stop a dictator from ruling virtually forever?
In science fiction a notable example of this is another Andrew Niccols movie, In Time. In this story, humans are genetically engineered to stop ageing at the age of twenty-five, and possess digital clocks on their forearms, with one year of time in them. When the clock reaches zero, the person dies. Time in the clock can however be sold, bought, given and even stolen. Salaries are paid in time, and so is food, transportation, clothes. Time is the only currency. The rich have therefore unlimited amounts of time, making them virtually immortal (one of the characters in the movie has over a million years), while the lower, poorer classes struggle to make it to the end of the week. In every sense possible. Inequality is again rampant. For the example of how the gift of immortality would simply be kept for the rich, think of Neil Blomkamp’s more recent Elysium, where superior medical technology able to cure every illness and fix every damage is not even available to poor Earthlings.
Think also of Miguel Sapochnik’s Repo Men, in his own little sense. Immortality might not be completely achieved, but the vast majority of the things that can kill you can be fixed with cybernetic implants. Implants that are so expensive, most citizens have to pay them in monthly installments, leading to most of them being unable to keep up with the payments. As the company in Repo Men has the legal right to reclaim the cybernetic organs/prosthetics when payments aren’t received in time, one can safely assume that only the rich and the powerful can benefit in the long run of such cybernetics, again creating an upper class with longer and better lifespans than Average Joe’s.
Which brings us to our third and last degree of human evolution in science fiction:
Beyond Us is pure post-humanism. Cybernetic or genetic improvements are so advanced that whoever can afford them is not only the best he can be, he is better than he could otherwise be. This already sounds more exciting, which is why this degree is perhaps the most popular in science fiction. It is also the most far-fetched, yet probably less than we would like to think. Nowadays cybernetic prosthesis exist, and lately we heard the news of a revolutionary surgery procedure that could give us 3x 20/20 vision at any age. Sure it’s a long shot from what science fiction offers us, but it’s a start.
Other than giving us super-human abilities (having an arm made out of steel would undoubtedly make us stronger, for example), cybernetic implants and genetic engineering in post-human degree evolution settings also tend to follow fashion. This happens a great deal in Cyberpunk settings, where people might “modify” themselves for purely aesthetic reasons, or for reasons different from health-related or practical performance-related problems.
Enter the philosophical question. What makes us human? And at what point did we implant so much cybernetics, or did we modify our genetic code so much that we are no longer humans, but are now something else? Could someone with more cybernetics in him than meat be still considered a human being?
This opens up a variety of scenarios portrayed by famous science-fiction titles, ranging from quasi-religious will to augment oneself to reach perceived perfection, to the discrimination of the augmented or the non-augmented, depending on the rules of society. As shown in Eidos Interactive’s Deus Ex videogames, the rejection of transhumanist values (in their own form of Neo-Luddism, fighting against technology itself) can cause outrage in society and even split society in half (see also Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates). Similarly, since the production of cybernetic implants is controlled by corporations, there is a significant risk in having one o more (but generally few in number) corporations controlling the supply of the very thing that separates normal humans from post-humans.
At one point, if ever, would we stop calling ourselves humans, and what would happen when a large portion of the population started considering themselves “superior” to the others?
If we are to consider popular science fiction only as a mild projection of our hopes and fears towards our own evolution, it is easy to recognise in the aforementioned examples a recurring trend. Most, if not all of these scenarios tend to be dystopic, and protagonists of these stories are either members of the unprivileged class trying to ascend, or members of the elite actively fighting the system in place.
These artificial evolutions are overwhelmingly portrayed as being negative, and scenarios theorised tend to end with the protagonist somehow succeeding in breaking down the unfair system consequent to this evolution and bringing back the natural course of evolution.
But is the undeniable pessimism of popular media based on actual possibilities? Is artificial evolution doomed to have devastating effects on our society as a whole, or can human beings cope with these problems and ascend as a species, becoming something new and something better? This is still up for debate.