Flesh, Blood, and Silicon (Part Two of Two)

Current predictions include a hybrid man. No, he would not merely be the ultimate product of bionic engineering, an activity with which we are familiar. Rather, he would be a cog in the wheel of intelligent design (with a small i). Bionic engineering, the prophets claim, is a precursor to a giant self-generated evolutionary step for humankind: Flesh, Blood, and Silicon. He may still have red blood flowing through his arteries, if blood vessels are still part of his body, but a more apt term for his form might be, a Silicon Blooded Man. But, there’s no telling what color his blood (if any) might be when enriched with silicon. For that matter, I hesitate to imagine what his genitalia (if any) might be like.

My seemingly dismissive attitude about an SBM has a serious side to it—deadly serious. Long before the contemplation of an evolutionary replacement for our species, there were—and there still are—three major perceptions of humanity’s future evolution.

The first of these perceptions is deterministic. Since determinists consider—or logically should consider—discussion itself as predetermined, there is nothing to say about that perception. Dead End.

The second perception is based on a dim view of humanity qua humanity (see my article, Only Human, August 21, 2011). It seems that the proliferation of articles about SBMs in science magazines have more to do with the desire for doing away with Red Blooded Man than they have to do with the next step in human evolution. This perception raises two rhetorical questions: a) Why wait for natural evolution when we can engineer ourselves into something else by our own design, and b) Wouldn’t a deliberate human intervention to our species’ evolution be nothing other than the process of evolution itself.

The third perception is Creative Evolution.* That doesn’t include tampering with our biological form. It also doesn’t include tinkering with our neurological faculties. And, it doesn’t include rushing evolution. An historic event in the world of opera provides us with a perfect example of the major flaw in artificially pushing evolution.

The Golden Age of operatic composition occurred in the 19th century (and the early part of the 20th century, which gave us the masterpieces of Giacomo Puccini, Richard Strauss, and a very few other composers). In the United States, operas were prominently performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera House beginning in the late 19th century. When “the old met” (as it came to be called) was to be demolished in the mid 1960s, plans were made to build a new opera house uptown within the Lincoln Center complex. Architecturally, the Met is the centerpiece of the complex. Historically, the opening of a new theater is always a highly anticipated event. A prominent composer, Benjamin Britten, had been commissioned to write a new opera for the grand opening of the new house in 1966. The major stipulation in the commission was that the opera must not sound like 19th century opera, the ground zero of opera!

Having heard of that deadly stipulation, I didn’t need a stroke of genius to realize that the new opera (Anthony and Cleopatra) would fail. It did. On its opening night, I happened to attend an event located in another building at Lincoln Center. It was a beautiful night. The center’s square was packed with a celebratory crowd, its mood electric with excitement. When the event I attended was over, the 20th century opera had not yet ended. The outdoor crowd was still there, eagerly waiting to greet the soon-to-exit opera audience. I left the square as quickly as I could.

Why can’t opera breathe if it is taken out of the 19th century? If you know (and therefore love) opera, the answer to that question is obvious. If you don’t know opera or even find it irritating, an analogy to a sport, say…baseball…says it all: Eliminating the essence of 19th century opera is like eliminating bases from baseball and still expect the game to be baseball.

As extremely distant as that analogy may seem when applied to the definition of human evolution, I maintain that hybrid humans would be less than human if well-oiled men and women suddenly replaced red-blooded ones.

On September 4, 2011, I posted an article, The Human Factor, in which I list a few examples of art that demonstrate its complexity. The Human Factor and Only Human are companion pieces to this article, which addresses the threat of not too distant SBMs. The threat is not what ‘manmade humans’ may be, but rather what they may no longer be.

There has been a parade of virtually limitless life forms, tagged by epochs, eras, and periods, and defined in biological terms such as shape, size, number, genus, and subspecies. Rocks and bones keep records of recycled life forms from era to era, epoch to epoch, and period to period. Dinosaurs become birds. Fish grow wings. Wings disappear.

Until about two million years ago, all species and subspecies originated and peaked with only two possible futures: biological adjustment or extinction. Millions of life forms no longer reside here, millions of others still do. Their variety is virtually infinite, whether occasioned by Darwinian or Lamarckian evolution. A common thread among them for individual survival is instinct.

After eons of instinctual evolution, there suddenly burst into life a dynamic species. Whatever it is in that fledgling species that sparked its life form to include Rationality, Ethics, Art, and all that they encompass, including the significant individuality of its members, it is as though a fifth universal force had emerged. Rationality gives us science. Ethics gives us enhanced behavior. Art gives us inspired perspectives of life.

As I stated in Bets, Anyone?, December 7, 2011, the electromagnetic force probably has much to do with that stupendous burst since it is the only one of the four universal forces that is intimately associated with human creativity.

I know I’m crossing the line of credibility when I express my speculation about the nature of electromagnetism.  My speculation about that force here is only a passing thought generated by a basically ominous sense of loss. Generally, I avoid speculations that, by definition, can never be proved. (See Et tu, Brian, June 5, 2011 for specifics about speculation.)

I’ve made an exception here only because of my concern about the rapid decline of global rationality, ethics, and art. Rationality is at a dangerous ebb. Ethics is almost a quaint word now. And art?—well, you know what I think about computer-generated ‘music.’

And just what is it that disturbs me about potential SBMs?

Well, whatever it was that made us unique about two million years ago came to life through our biological structure as it is now. It would be profoundly tragic, perhaps irreversible, if our finest attributes were snuffed out by a specious desire to become something else.

I have always valued productive innovation, but have rejected innovation that diminishes something it intends to advance. New is not necessarily better. Different should be at least equal to its predecessors.

The notion of the eventual merging of humankind and machines for some sort of superior creature is as vacuous as eliminating the essence of what defines opera, baseball, ice cream, and any other uniquely human creation. Judging by the dehumanization already encroaching humans, I am distrustful of the siliconization of flesh and blood. Silicon may tip that delicate genomic balance that made it possible for humans to break the primordial  barrier of a purely instinctive life force. After eons of fundamentally static, cookie-cutter species, humankind is the first, and possibly is to be the only species to take life to another dimension.

Is this my anthropological point of view speaking? You bet it is!

* In the context of this article, the concept of Creative Evolution is predominantly that of the role played by art in the ancillary process of human evolution. In my article titled, Bets, Anyone?, December 7, 2011, I briefly describe the critical difference between the Darwinian and Lamarckian theories of evolution., the former being deterministic, the later, creative. 

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