Posted: Wed, April 10, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension
by Franco Cortese
In this third part of his 1920s futurist text The World, The Flesh and The Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, J.D Bernal antecedes later notions of gradual “cyborgification” towards the aim of immortality, and even mind-uploading proper, showing him to be one of the first Techno-Immortalists. Such concepts were not to be described with such depth and breadth again until nearly the close of the 20th Century.
III. The Flesh
In the alteration of himself man has a great deal further to go than in the alteration of his inorganic environment. He has been doing the latter more or less unconsciously and empirically for several thousand years, ever since he cased being parasitic on his environment like any other animal, and consciously and intelligently for at least hundreds of years; whereas he has not been able to change himself at all and has had only fifty years or so to begin to understand how he works. Of course, this is not strictly true: man has altered himself in the evolutionary process, he has lost a good deal of hair, his wisdom teeth are failing to pierce, and his nasal passages are becoming more and more degenerate. But the processes of natural evolution are so much slower than the development of man’s control over environment that we might, in such a developing world, still consider man’s body as constant and unchanging. If it is not to be so then man himself must actively interfere in his own making and interfere in a highly unnatural manner. The eugenists and apostles of healthy life, may, in a very considerable course of time, realize the full potentialities of the species: we may count on beautiful, healthy and long-lived men and women, but they do not touch the alteration of the species. To do this we must alter either the germ plasm or the living structure of the body, or both together. The first method - the favorite of Mr. J. B. S. Haldane - has so far received the most attention. With it we might achieve such a variation as we have empirically produced in dogs and goldfish, or perhaps even manage to produce new species with special potentialities. But the method is bound to be slow and finally limited by the possibilities of flesh and blood. The germ plasm is a very inaccessible unit, before we can deal with it adequately we must isolate it, and to do this already involves us in surgery. It is quite conceivable that the mechanism of evolution, as we know it up to the present, may well be superseded at this point. Biologists are apt, even if they are not vitalists, to consider it as almost divine; but after all it is only nature’s way of achieving a shifting equilibrium with an environment; and if we can find a more direct way by the use of intelligence, that way is bound to supersede the unconscious mechanism of growth and reproduction.
In a sense we have already started using the direct method; when the ape-ancestor first used a stone he was modifying his bodily structure by the inclusion of a foreign substance. This inclusion was temporary, but with the adoption of clothes there began a series of permanent additions to the body, affecting nearly all its functions and even, as with spectacles, its sense organs. In the modern world, the variety of objects which really form part of an effective human body is very great. Yet they all (if we except such rarities as artificial larynges) still have the quality of being outside the cell layers of the human body. The decisive step will come when we extend the foreign body into the actual structure of living matter. Parallel with this development is the alteration of the body by tampering with its chemical reactions - again a very old-established but rather sporadic process resorted to to cure illness or procure intoxication. But with the development of surgery on the one hand and physiological chemistry on the other, the possibility of radical alteration of the body appears for the first time. Here we may proceed, not by allowing evolution to work the changes, but by copying and short-circuiting its methods.
The changes that evolution produces apart from mere growth in size, or diversity of form without change of function, are in the nature of perversions: a part of the fish’s gut becomes a swimming bladder, the swimming bladder becomes a lung; a salivary gland and an extra eye are charged with the function of producing hormones. Under the pressure of environment or whatever else is the cause of evolution, nature takes hold of what already had existed for some now superseded activity, and with a minimum of alteration gives it a new function. There is nothing essentially mysterious in the process: it is both the easiest and the only possible way of achieving the change. Starting de novo to deal with a new situation is not within the power of natural, unintelligent processes; they can only modify in a limited way already existing structures by altering their chemical environment. Men may well copy the process, in so far as original structures are used as the basis for new ones, simply because it is the most economical method, but they are not bound to the very limited range of methods of change which nature adopts.
Now modern mechanical and modern chemical discoveries have rendered both the skeletal and metabolic functions of the body to a large extent useless. In teleological biochemistry one might say that an animal moves his limbs in order to get his food, and uses his body organs in order to turn that food into blood to keep his body alive and active. Now if man is only an animal this is all very satisfactory, but viewed from the standpoint of the mental activity by which he increasingly lives, it is a highly inefficient way of keeping his mind working. In a civilized worker the limbs are mere parasites, demanding nine-tenths of the energy of the food and even a kind of blackmail in the exercise they need to prevent disease, while the bodily organs wear themselves out in supplying their requirements. On the other hand, the increasing complexity of man’s existence, particularly the mental capacity required to deal with its mechanical and physical complications, gives rise to the need for a much more complex sensory and motor organization, and even more fundamentally for a better organized cerebral mechanism. Sooner or later the useless parts of the body must be given more modern functions or dispensed with altogether, and in their place we must incorporate in the effective body the mechanisms of the new functions. Surgery and biochemistry are sciences still too young to predict exactly how this will happen. The account I am about to give must be taken rather as a fable.
Take, as a starting point, the perfect man such as the doctors, the eugenists and the public health officers between them hope to make of humanity: a man living perhaps an average of a hundred and twenty years but still mortal, and increasingly feeling the burden of this mortality. Already Shaw in his mystical fashion cries out for life to give us hundreds of years to experience, learn and understand; but without the vitalist’s faith in the efficacy of human will we shall have to resort to some artifice in order to achieve this purpose. Sooner or later some eminent physiologist will have his neck broken in a super-civilized accident or find his body cells worn beyond capacity for repair. He will then be forced to decide whether to abandon his body or his life. After all it is brain that counts, and to have a brain suffused by fresh and correctly prescribed blood is to be alive - to think. The experiment is not impossible; it has already been performed on a dog and that is three-quarters of the way towards achieving it with a human subject. But only a Brahmin philosopher would care to exist as an isolated brain, perpetually centered on its own meditations. Permanently to break off all communications with the world is as good as to be dead. However, the channels of communication are ready to hand. Already we know the essential electrical nature of nerve impulses; it is a matter of delicate surgery to attach nerves permanently to apparatus which will either send messages to the nerves or receive them. And the brain thus connected up continues an existence, purely mental and with very different delights from those of the body, but even now perhaps preferable to complete extinction. The example may have been too far-fetched; perhaps the same result may be achieved much more gradually by use of the many superfluous nerves with which our body is endowed for various auxiliary and motor services. We badly need a small sense organ for detecting wireless frequencies, eyes for infra-red, ultra-violet and X-rays, ears for supersonics, detectors of high and low temperatures, of electrical potential and current, and chemical organs of many kinds. We may perhaps be able to train a great number of hot and cold and pain receiving nerves to take over these functions; on the motor side we shall soon be, if we are not already, obliged to control mechanisms for which two hands and feet are an entirely inadequate number; and, apart from that, the direction of mechanism by pure volition would enormously simplify its operation. Where the motor mechanism is not primarily electrical, it might be simpler and more effective to use nerve-muscle preparations instead of direct nerve connections. Even the pain nerves may be pressed into service to report any failure in the associated mechanism. A mechanical stage, utilizing some or all of these alterations of the bodily form might, if the initial experiments were successful in the sense of leading to a tolerable existence, become the regular culmination to ordinary life. Whether this should ever be so for the whole of the population we will discuss later, but for the moment we may attempt to picture what would at this period be the course of existence for a transformable human being.
Starting, as Mr. J. B. S. Haldane so convincingly predicts, in an ectogenetic factory, man will have anything from sixty to a hundred and twenty years of larval, unspecialized existence - surely enough to satisfy the advocates of a natural life. In this stage he need not be cursed by the age of science and mechanism, but can occupy his time (without the conscience of wasting it) in dancing, poetry and love-making, and perhaps incidentally take part in the reproductive activity. Then he will leave the body whose potentialities he should have sufficiently explored.
The next stage might be compared to that of a chrysalis, a complicated and rather unpleasant process of transforming the already existing organs and grafting on all the new sensory and motor mechanisms. There would follow a period of re-education in which he would grow to understand the functioning of his new sensory organs and practise the manipulation of his new motor mechanism. Finally, he would emerge as a completely effective, mentally-directed mechanism, and set about the tasks appropriate to his new capacities. But this is by no means the end of his development, although it marks his last great metamorphosis. Apart from such mental development as his increased faculties will demand from him, he will be physically plastic in a way quite transcending the capacities of untransformed humanity. Should he need a new sense organ or have a new mechanism to operate, he will have undifferentiated nerve connections to attach to them, and will be able to extend indefinitely his possible sensations and actions by using successively different end-organs.
The carrying out of these complicated surgical and physiological operations would be in the hands of a medical profession which would be bound to come rapidly under the control of transformed men. The operations themselves would probably be conducted by mechanisms controlled by the transformed heads of the profession, though in the earlier and experimental stages, of course, it would still be done by human surgeons and physiologists.
It is much more difficult to form a picture of the final state, partly because this final state would be so fluid and so liable to improve, and partly because there would be no reason whatever why all people should transform in the same way. Probably a great number of typical forms would be developed, each specialized in certain directions. If we confine ourselves to what might be called the first stage of mechanized humanity and to a person mechanized for scientific rather than æsthetic purposes - for to predict even the shapes that men would adopt if they would make of themselves a harmony of form and sensation must be beyond imagination - then the description might run roughly as follows.
Instead of the present body structure we should have the whole framework of some very rigid material, probably not metal but one of the new fibrous substances. In shape it might well be rather a short cylinder. Inside the cylinder, and supported very carefully to prevent shock, is the brain with its nerve connections, immersed in a liquid of the nature of cerebro-spinal fluid, kept circulating over it at a uniform temperature. The brain and nerve cells are kept supplied with fresh oxygenated blood and drained of de-oxygenated blood through their arteries and veins which connect outside the cylinder to the artificial heart-lung digestive system - an elaborate, automatic contrivance. This might in large part be made from living organs, although these would have to be carefully arranged so that no failure on their part would endanger the blood supply to the brain (only a fraction of the body’s present requirements) and so that they could be inter-changed and repaired without disturbing its functions. The brain thus guaranteed continuous awareness, is connected in the anterior of the case with its immediate sense organs, the eye and the ear - which will probably retain this connection for a long time. The eyes will look into a kind of optical box which will enable them alternatively to look into periscopes projecting from the case, telescopes, microscopes and a whole range of televisual apparatus. The ear would have the corresponding microphone attachments and would still be the chief organ for wireless reception. Smell and taste organs, on the other hand, would be prolonged into connections outside the case and would be changed into chemical tasting organs, achieving a more conscious and less purely emotional role than they have at present. It may perhaps be impossible to do this owing to the particularly close relation between the brain and olfactory organs, in which case the chemical sense would have to be indirect. The remaining sensory nerves, those of touch, temperature, muscular position and visceral functioning, would go to the corresponding part of the exterior machinery or to the blood supplying organs. Attached to the brain cylinder would be its immediate motor organs, corresponding to but much more complex than, our mouth, tongue and hands. This appendage system would probably be built up like that of a crustacean which uses the same general type for antenna, jaw and limb; and they would range from delicate micro-manipulators to lever capable of exerting considerable forces, all controlled by the appropriate motor nerves. Closely associated with the brain-case would also be sound, color and wireless producing organs. In addition to these there would be certain organs of a type we do not possess at present - the self-repairing organs - which under the control of the brain would be able to manipulate the other organs, particularly the visceral blood supply organs, and to keep them in effective working order. Serious derangements, such as those involving loss of consciousness would still, of course, call for outside assistance, but with proper care these would be in the nature of rare accidents.
The remaining organs would have a more temporary connection with the brain-case. There would be locomotor apparatus of different kinds, which could be used alternatively for slow movement, equivalent to walking, for rapid transit and for flight. On the whole, however, the locomotor organs would not be much used because the extension of the sense organs would tend to take their place. Most of these would be mere mechanisms quite apart from the body; there would be the sending parts of the television apparatus, tele-acoustic and tele-chemical organs, and tele-sensory organs of the nature of touch for determining all forms of textures. Besides these there would be various tele-motor organs for manipulating materials at great distances from the controlling mind. These extended organs would only belong in a loose sense to any particular person, or rather, they would belong only temporarily to the person who was using them and could equivalently be operated by other people. This capacity for indefinite extension might in the end lead to the relative fixity of the different brains; and this would, in itself, be an advantage from the point of view of security and uniformity of conditions, only some of the more active considering it necessary to be on the spot to observe and do things.
The new man must appear to those who have not contemplated him before as a strange, monstrous and inhuman creature, but he is only the logical outcome of the type of humanity that exists at present. It may be argued that this tampering with bodily mechanisms is as unnecessary as it is difficult, that all the increase of control needed may be obtained by extremely responsive mechanisms outside the unaltered human body. But though it is possible that in the early stages a surgically transformed man would be at a disadvantage in capacity of performance to a normal, healthy man, he would still be better off than a dead man. Although it is possible that man has far to go before his inherent physiological and psychological make-up becomes the limiting factor to his development, this must happen sooner or later, and it is then that the mechanized man will begin to show a definite advantage. Normal man is an evolutionary dead end; mechanical man, apparently a break in organic evolution, is actually more in the true tradition of a further evolution.
A much more fundamental break is implicit in the means of his development. If a method has been found of connecting a nerve ending in a brain directly with an electrical reactor, then the way is open for connecting it with a brain-cell of another person. Such a connection being, of course, essentially electrical, could be effected just as well through the ether as along wires. At first this would limit itself to the more perfect and economic transference of thought which would be necessary in the co-operative thinking of the future. But it cannot stop here. Connections between two or more minds would tend to become a more and more permanent condition until they functioned as a dual or multiple organism. The minds would always preserve a certain individuality, the network of cells inside a single brain being more dense than that existing between brains, each brain being chiefly occupied with its individual mental development and only communicating with the others for some common purpose. Once the more or less permanent compound brain came into existence two of the ineluctable limitations of present existence would be surmounted. In the first place death would take on a different and far less terrible aspect. Death would still exist for the mentally-directed mechanism we have just described; it would merely be postponed for three hundred or perhaps a thousand years, as long as the brain cells could be persuaded to live in the most favorable environment, but not forever. But the multiple individual would be, barring cataclysmic accidents, immortal, the older component as they died being replaced by newer ones without losing the continuity of the self, the memories and feelings of the older member transferring themselves almost completely to the common stock before its death. And if this seems only a way of cheating death, we must realize that the individual brain will feel itself part of the whole in a way that completely transcends the devotion of the most fanatical adherent of a religious sect. It is admittedly difficult to imagine this state of affairs effectively. It would be a state of ecstasy in the literal sense, and this is the second great alteration that the compound mind makes possible. Whatever the intensity of our feeling, however much we may strive to reach beyond ourselves or into another’s mind, we are always barred by the limitations of our individuality. Here at least those barriers would be down: feeling would truly communicate itself, memories would be held in common, and yet in all this, identity and continuity of individual development would not be lost. It is possible, even probably, that the different individuals of a compound mind would not all have similar functions or even be of the same rank of importance. Division of labor would soon set in: to some minds might be delegated the task of ensuring the proper functioning of the others, some might specialize in sense reception and so on. Thus would grow up a hierarchy of minds that would be more truly a complex than a compound mind.
The complex minds could, with their lease of life, extend their perceptions and understanding and their actions far beyond those of the individual. Time senses could be altered: the events that moved with the slowness of geological ages would be apprehended as movement, and at the same time the most rapid vibrations of the physical world could be separated. As we have seen, sense organs would tend to be less and less attached to bodies, and the host of subsidiary, purely mechanical agents and preceptors would be capable of penetrating those regions where organic bodies cannot enter or hope to survive. The interior of the earth and the stars, the inmost cells of living things themselves, would be open to consciousness through these angels, and through these angels also the motions of stars and living things could be directed.
This is perhaps far enough; beyond that the future must direct itself. Yet why should we stop until our imaginations are exhausted. Even beyond this there are foreseeable possibilities. Undoubtedly the nature of life processes themselves will be far more intensively studied. To make life itself will be only a preliminary stage, because in its simplest phases life can differ very little from the inorganic world. But the mere making of life would only be important if we intended to allow it to evolve of itself anew. This, as Mr. Whyte suggests in Archimedes, is necessarily a lengthy process, but there is no need to wait for it. Instead, artificial life would undoubtedly be used as ancillary to human activity and not allowed to evolve freely except for experimental purposes. Men will not be content to manufacture life: they will want to improve on it. For one material out of which nature has been forced to make life, man will have a thousand; living and organized material will be as much at the call of the mechanized or compound man as metals are to-day, and gradually this living material will come to substitute more and more for such inferior functions of the brain as memory, reflex actions, etc., in the compound man himself; for bodies at this time would be left far behind. The brain itself would become more and more separated into different groups of cells or individual cells with complicated connections, and probably occupying considerable space. This would mean loss of motility which would not be a disadvantage owing to the extension of the sense faculties. Every part would not be accessible for replacing or repairing and this would in itself ensure a practical eternity of existence, for even the replacement of a previously organic brain-cell by a synthetic apparatus would not destroy the continuity of consciousness.
The new life would be more plastic, more directly controllable and at the same time more variable and more permanent than that produced by the triumphant opportunism of nature. Bit by bit the heritage of the direct line of mankind - the heritage of the original life emerging on the face of the world - would dwindle, and in the end disappear effectively, being preserved perhaps as some curious relic, while the new life which conserves none of the substance and all of the spirit of the old would take its place and continue its development. Such a change would be as important as that in which life first appeared on the earth’s surface and might be as gradual and imperceptible. Finally, consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light. That may be an end or a beginning, but from here it is out of sight.