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Wednesday, March 16

Examples Of Transhumanism In Popular Culture

 When confronted with the idea of Transhumanism (the idea that human beings ought to embrace the advancement of the abilities of the species beyond our traditional limitations often through the application of science and technology), the average person is likely to zone out. With words such as nanotechnology, cybernetics, and panspermia bandied back and forth in such discussions, it is easy to conclude that one will never be able to understand what some of the most formidable intellects of the era are talking about, much less be able to provide a critique or refutation of proposals being considered in the most influential of cultural institutions such as academia, the media, bureaucracy, and even increasingly the churches.

The average person is not, however, without resources in terms of equipping themselves with at least a rudimentary understanding of the agendas being put forward and the philosophies being advocated. Surprisingly, acquiring this information costs little more than a subscription to your local cable provider or Netflix membership. That resource is none other than popular science fiction television and movies.

Perhaps the most renowned example of Transhumanism in the popular science fiction of the past two decades (so much so that two of the episodes in which they have appeared have been voted as favorites among fans) are the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager. The Borg were first introduced in the episode “Q Who?“ when an entity known as “Q”, claiming to be omnipotent, flung the starship Enterprise half way across the galaxy in the attempt to persuade Captain Picard that Q could be an indispensable member of the crew.

The Borg would receive their most definitive treatment in the two-parter “The Best Of Both Worlds”. From these episodes and all the interpretative modifications that would follow, the Borg would go on to rank among the most intriguing of Star Trek species.

One of the aspects of the series that has enabled Star Trek to maintain a degree of popularity over the decades has been the detailed alien cultures that have been developed to serve as antagonists or as narrative devices through which to explore a variety of issues. For the most part, these have projected human characteristics against a larger cosmic backdrop. For example, the Klingons exemplified a culture obsessed with honor and military glory, the Bajorans the struggle the deeply religious face when confronted with a rapidly secularizing culture, and the Vulcans what can happen when logic is emphasized at the expense of emotion. However, as an adversary, the Borg --- despite a basically humanoid appearance --- were about as alien as you could get.

What set the Borg apart from most other species in speculative fiction was not their biology per say but rather their mode of being or consciousness. For though a viewer might be startled by the appearance of a Klingon or a Ferengi, what one would be seeing though perhaps slightly different in terms of values and appearance is still a fellow creature that perceives the universe independently within his own mental framework and is concerned to a lesser or greater extent about his own continued existence. What made the Borg provocatively unsettling as a science fiction adversary was the concept of the collective.

For years, analysts mired in conventional thinking assured that Communism was dead and would never again threaten the free people of the world. The Borg presented a scenario whereby this ideology could resurrect itself as a threat from a Transhumanist perspective.

As with the Secular Humanism and the New Age (or Cosmic Humanism as it was termed by William Nobel in his monumental opus of worldview analysis Understanding The Times), Transhumanism diverges into two extremist streams. Neither of these are ultimately beneficial to humanity if the purpose of this technology is to enhance the species beyond its inherent specifications. There is a totalitarian Transhumanist strain and an anarchistic Transhumanist strain.

The Borg represent the totalitarian strain of Transhumanism. It is quite obvious that the name "Borg" is derived from the word "cyborg", which has come to categorize an entity whose physical components are as much robotic and mechanical as they are biological and organic. However, the greatest atrocity committed by the Borg is not so much that they impose these cybernetic enhancements against the will of those forced to undergo these procedures. It is that the Borg obliterate or at least sublimate the sense of individuality altogether.

Through the systems of censors and processors placed within the bodies of those taken in by or assimilated by the Borg, the individual is incorporated into the Borg group consciousness known as the "collective". Thus in a number of encounters with the Borg decisions by the species were not made by a singular leader or council of individuals but instead by the group as a whole. The primary reason for abducting Captain Picard and turning him into Locutus, apart from gaining intelligence on Federation strategy and tactics, was to have a singular voice to represent the Borg to "archaic cultures which are authority driven".

Some Transhumanists might view this as a great leap forward in terms of expanding political awareness that would allow all members of a group to participate in arriving at a decision approaching consensus rather than one arrived at by a singular leader that might not take varying perspectives into account. However, what some Transhumanists might consider the ultimate communitarian democracy comes at what those echoing Lt. Worf's retort of "I like my species the way it is" consider too high of a price.

This communal solidarity is achieved through a fanatic technological suppression of the self. This is done to such an extent that drones disconnected from the group consciousness fall into a disoriented state quite similar to a form of drug withdrawal, continuing to use the pronoun "we" when talking about the individual self and expressing a sense of loss bordering on grief at no longer being able to hear in their minds the voices of fellow Borg. The Star Trek: Voyager character Seven of Nine even continued to prefer that particular numerical designation rather than reclaim her human name and at times considered abandoning her reclaimed individuality in order to rejoin the Borg group mind.

A person's sense of self is not the only thing threatened by the use of Transhumanist technology for the purposes of seamlessly incorporating the singular person into the larger social organism whether they want to be or not. By minimizing the distinctiveness of each individual within the context of the larger group, even if one claims to be elevating the status of everyone by ensuring that each voice plays a part in determining the overall consensus, this notion of the ultimate communal entity having the only real value minimizes the worth of any of its singular components to the point of fostering a mentality of easy bio-disposability.

When a Borg falls in battle, the body is not respectively retrieved even when comrades are nearby. Rather, data components are extracted from the corpse with the remains at best reclamated for what it can “give back to the community”.

One often finds this kind of bait and switch in certain brands of pantheism. One might have the guru or, even in certain instances now, powerful cultural institutions such as academia or the media whispering in your ear that you as part of the universe are a part of God. Such voices then turn around and craft intricate policy proposals as to why the elderly should be rationed medical care or that Genghis Khan ought to be considered some kind of ecological visionary for having slaughtered millions of people.

As with other faiths and creeds, Transhumanism can be viewed as having a number of denominations. Those bending their knees to the Borg as the patron saint of the Church of Our Beloved Central Processor believe that merging man or metal (or at least high grade plastics) ought to be the path pursued to take the species to the level beyond the merely human. The second path in pursuit of this goal believes it will be best achieved no so much by incorporating or grafting inorganic components onto human beings but rather by directly tinkering with the genetic blueprint already there to advance the capabilities of individuals to levels beyond that of baseline humans. This would be accomplished in part by adding genes from other species into the code for human beings.

This brand of Transhumanism, where the subject itself is enhanced instead of relying on external technology, is likely the version of the perspective the average American is most familiar with. It, after all, forms the backbone of many classic superhero comic books, movies, and television series. The disturbing thing of it is is that there are now scientists and policymakers that want to take these stories from the realm of the imagination and make them a concrete reality even though the tales themselves often warn of undesirable consequences no matter how enjoyable it might be to swing from the New York skyline or to smooch a sopping wet redhead while dangling upside down from a fire escape.

In most heroic graphic literature narratives, powers and abilities are imbued upon the protagonist through accidental circumstances. Foremost among this variety of costumed adventurers rank Spider-Man (bitten originally by a radioactive spider but interestingly in the movie series by a hybrid arachnid engineered through genetic experimentation) and the Fantastic Four (who acquired their abilities as a result of bombardment by cosmic rays while blasting off into outer space). However, the implications of having these enhanced abilities from the moment of conception either as a result of conscientious deliberability or as a result of the fortuity of insemination have also been explored.

The series Dark Angel chronicled the adventures of a young woman who had been genetically engineered --- largely through an infusion of feline DNA --- to give her enhanced reflexes and senses. In similar stories from previous decades, these procedures were often undertaken for the benefit of the individual such as the Six Million Dollar Man (which these days would have gotten astronaut Steve Austin mediocre medical care for that paltry sum) and the Bionic Woman. Neither of these would have survived without extensive technological intervention.

In the case of incidents like these, it is likely those involved would provide some degree of consent to have their physiologies altered so drastically. Dark Angel warned, however, that there could be organizations and institutions possessing this technology using it not so much for the benefit of those it is applied to but rather for the sake of an elite and whatever agenda such conspiratorial entities might be pursuing. For example, Dark Angel, a young woman named Max, was engineered to be a solider and indoctrinated to be such from the earliest days of her childhood in a facility that subjected her and her “siblings” to tortuous physical and psychological testing reminiscent of the tactics used by the Red Chinese shown in news footage around the time of the Beijing Olympiad of how that regime trains its adolescent athletes.

Another interesting aspect of the series is that, unlike Star Trek which takes place in a milieu centuries apart from our own, Dark Angel is set in a world likely to come about in a few short years. In the series, the United States has fallen victim to an electromagnetic pulse attack that cripples much of the nation’s electronic infrastructure. The government agency behind the project is known as “Manticore”, which according to Wikipedia is a creature from Persian mythology composed of parts from various animals such as the body of a lion, a tail of scorpion, and the head of a human (making its description similar to the locust monstrosities mentioned in Revelation 9 that plague those that do not have the name of God sealed on their foreheads). In the second season, it was revealed that Manticore was just the tip of the iceberg and something of a front for a secret society involved in genetic experimentation and selective human breeding spanning back centuries.

The series, however, was not without a ray of hope. It was likely one of the first to feature as one of its protagonists a citizen journalist or blogger using what were at that time technologies just beginning to be used in the capacity of alternative media.

One the fictional milieus that has explored the notion of enhanced human beings to the greatest degree has been that of the X-Men. A part of the Marvel Comics “multiverse” including characters of other enhanced ability such as Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men also stand apart from their other superhero counterparts in terms of how most of these characters acquired their underlying augmented aptitudes.

In interviews regarding how he came up with the origins of the X-Men, their creator Stan Lee decided that they were simply born that way as genetic mutants so he would not have to come up with any more elaborate accidents. Though he might have done this for the sake of literary expediency, it also provides insight for the average person perhaps not scientifically or esoterically inclined into yet another school of thought as to how enhanced human beings might come into existence.

In the cases of both the Borg and Dark Angel, people transcending the limitations of the species are brought about through directed, deliberate intervention. However, with the X-Men, these abilities and differences come naturally usually at the onset of puberty or even from birth if the character in question possesses an appearance markedly different from template human beings. Thus, the X-Men and those like them, in the context of the Marvel narrative universe are seen as numbering among the next stage of human evolution and are given the scientific designation of “Homo Superior”. This would not be all that different than those that think so-called “Indigo Children” represent a leap forward beyond that of their parents.

As intriguing as the perspective is that mankind might not have to intervene in order to bring about our next biological paradigm but rather that it will come about at an unexpected moment like Goldsmidt’s Hopeful Monster hypothesis or at a time when the cosmos itself either deems it consciously or through a confluence of fortuitous happenstance, the greatest contribution made by the X-Men in considering the issues of human enhancement is in the comics' exploration of how these advances would complicate sociology and politics. Often, comics follow a traditional hero versus villain narrative. X-Men, in part, contributed to expanding the perception of those archetypal categories.

Inspired by the social upheaval of the 1960's and long identified with by the most enthusiastic of comic readers who often find peer acceptance elusive, the X-Men have often been depicted as a band of outcasts or even outlaws. Typically in the Marvel universe, mutants born with their powers are viewed with suspicion and are not to be trusted because of the drastic differences setting them apart from the remainder of the population. And though such an attitude might strike the reader as prejudiced as evidenced by the numerous mutant characters mistreated throughout these stories, such suspicions are not without warrant.

From that brief description, those unfamiliar with the X-Men might assume that the bitterest foes of the X-Men would be antimutant human beings. If anything, the X-Men are caught in the middle and just as likely to take on foes of enhanced abilities much like their own. For example, Magneto is a survivor of the Holocaust who, in the attempt to prevent enduring such a tragedy a second time, has at times adopted a militant mutant-supremacism not all that distinguishable from the Nazism that reeked so much havoc in his own young life. Then there is Mr. Sinister, obsessed with genetic experimentation unbridled by any ethical boundaries whatsoever. Finally, there is Apocalypse, who has essentially lived through all of human history from ancient times, seeing himself as sitting above both human and mutant kinds doing with each as he pleases.

As a highly imaginative comic franchise, the X-Men provide a number of points for Christians to ponder. Professor Charles Xavier and his Institute for the Gifted (of which the X-Men exist as its covert elite arm) endeavor to foster acceptance and peace between mutants and humanity, which the X-Men view mutantkind as a part of rather than as a distinct species. The perspective that mutants and human beings are essentially the same is also shared by the mutant-hunting artificial intelligences known as the Sentinels which turn on their human creators at some point in the future when their dispassionate robotic logic concludes that the enhanced and the unenhanced are at the deepest levels one-in-the-same.

Thus, if humanity is successful at some point in the future at enhancing the species at such a foundational level, the church is going to have to grapple with just how much of the genetic code can be tampered with before it is no longer human. This would be of particular relevance in reference to those that have undergone such procedures who may still identify as being human, those who repent in their hearts for having undergone these transformations, and most importantly those who may have been born through no fault or choosing of their own to altered human parents and who may sincerely want to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Even those that have enjoyed speculative fiction their entire lives are going to be shocked the first time they see someone looking like the male lead from Beauty and the Beast walking through the narthex.

Since the primary emphasis of most popular speculative fiction is the action and adventure, sometimes the why and for what purpose often gets glossed over by the captivating pyrotechnics and spellbinding special effects. Often, it was assumed, hinted at, or alluded to that those altering the human species were doing so solely in the name of materialistic purposes. However, a number of popular television programs have suggested that radical intervention into what it means to be human might be undertaken in the attempt to bring those undergoing the process closer to what such individuals perceive or understand to be God.

Even in its late 70's incarnation, Battlestar Galactica possessed an openly spiritual bent, borrowing that inclination from Star Wars with its emphasis upon the Force rather than the galactic-pluralism of the original Star Trek, which emphasized tolerance between sentient species rather than the existence of an overarching metaphysical reality beyond a nebulous declaration of generalized principles. However, unlike Star Wars with its notion of a ethereal dualistic spiritualized energy field that "surrounds us, binds us" as Yoda intoned in “The Empire Strikes Back“, the original Galactica was far from shy in borrowing concepts nearly directly from Mormonism such as wandering tribes on an "exodus" to find the Promised Land of Earth, that the forefathers of humanity began on the planet Cobol (the homeworld of Mormonism's god being Colob), and the idea epitomized in the scene where the angel-like beings told Starbuck and Sheeba that as these entities are, humans would one day become.

The reimagination of Battlestar Galactica retained a spiritual tone, though it was taken in a slightly different direction. In the new version, the faith most often expressed among the majority of the population of the Twelve Colonies is a form of polytheism borrowed nearly word for word from Greco-Roman mythology. However, the most intriguing philosophical addition of the series was the exploration of Cylon religion.

A classic science fiction title inquired "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?". The producers of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica might not have answered that query directly, but they did suggest that Cylons spent considerably more time cogitating upon theology since their earlier days when they primarily resembled tea kettles with anger management issues and of whom the most articulate among their number was a lava lamp named "Lucifer" (who sounded disturbingly similar to Dr. Smith from "Lost In Space") than most of us realized. But whereas the Colonials were portrayed primarily as polytheistic in their religious orientation, the Cylons (especially those in the form of bioengineered clones that were virtually indistinguishable on the outside from human beings with the exception of the characteristic red light that pulsated up and down the spine when overcome by the throws of passion not unlike Chris Matthews leg during an Obama Speech) were radically monotheistic.

By the end of the series through a revelation of two beings conceptualized as angels for lack of a better term, it was made known that the entire epic was part of some divine plan where the band of humans from across the cosmos would come to earth and, as viewers learned from the Patrick Macnee voice over intro to the earliest episode of the original series “who would becomes the forefathers of the Egyptians, the Toltecs, and the Mayans”. However, apparently it was not enough to end the series on the note that humans walking the earth today are the descendants of the intermingling of the native hominid population found here on earth and that of a prior advent of a species virtually identical to our own. Rather, it was hinted at that the hybrid human/ Cylon child Hera was actually mitochondrial Eve from which every last person on the planet can trace their origin.

All quite fascinating, the reader might think, but what does any of this have to do with human enhancement. In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, rather than being an external menace alien to humanity in accordance with fears prevalent during the time of a more publicly acknowledged Cold War, it is emphasized in the new version that the Cylons were a human creation that turned against their masters. However, in the shortlived Galactica prequel titled Caprica in honor of the capitol world of the Twelve Colonies, we learn that the Cylons were not developed solely as a result of military or industrial interests. A spiritual component also contributed to this breakthrough in artificial intelligence that was initially thought to assist in helping at least a select few surpass the limitations of human existence.

Echoing shades of Greco-Roman times, the polytheist establishment of Caprica, if not outrightly persecuting followers of “the one true God” derided as Monotheists, looks askance at the adherents of this faith centered around the Colonial world of Gemenon. However, echoing concerns of our own day, such suspicions are not without warrant because within the Monotheistic movement is a faction known as the Soldiers Of The One that utilize violence to further the group's agenda.

At the beginning of the series, Monotheist Zoey Graystone, who thinks she is running away to Gemenon, is killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by her own boyfriend. However, that was not the last viewers would see of Zoey or at least what was portrayed as her semi-autonomous facsimile.

As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Zoey was something of a computer programming prodigy and was able to replicate an interactive avatar of herself in VWorld, a digital realm that combines the social aspects of the Internet with the tangible interactivity of the Holodeck from Star Trek. Eventually, Zoey's mentor, who turns out to be a member of the terrorist faction, finds out about the sentient avatar and believes it is the first step to achieving her goal of a state called "apotheosis".

As with other terms in science fiction that sound like conceptual drivel to the unsuspecting ear, apotheosis is a notion increasingly bandied about in circles where philosophical and religious thought overlap with technological speculation. Like Sister Clarice (Zoey‘s mentor), proponents of apotheosis in Transhumanist circles hope to transcend the limitations of human temporal corporeality by essentially uploading the human mind or soul into some kind of computer or autonomous android by copying the memories stored in our brains as electrochemical impulses. While you would still technically die eventually as a biological organism, postmodernist thought has so unhinged itself from Biblical concepts of what constitutes life and existence that many would be hard-pressed to refute why an android with a sufficiently complex degree of computer processing power thinking it was you theoretically with all your memories shouldn't simply be considered an upgraded version of yourself.

The humans of the early 21st century look upon all the grandiose predictions made by science fiction authors and analytical futurists and see, for the most part, that at our most basic despite all the advances in technology and culture we are pretty much as we have always been throughout recorded history in terms of our fundamental nature and composition. Another subgenre of science fiction suggests that enhancement will not come about either through our own efforts nor spontaneously on its own. Rather, such stories speculate enhancement will come from efforts directed by intelligences from what would be considered beyond the earth.

Though by no means the only example as this general theme has just about become so clich├ęd that there is almost the danger of it no longer sparking the imagination the way it once did in terms of stimulating discussion as to both the origins and future of humanity, a prime example of this kind of series would be Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict. The opening narration of the series intoned, "Three years ago they came, forever altering the future of humanity."

Thus, Earth: Final Conflict dealt with mankind's first contact with extraterrestrials from beyond our world. And though the aliens possessed technology vastly superior to our own that they claimed that they wanted to share with us out of their own sense of altruism, it isn't long until it is realized, at first by a small cadre of resistance fighters, that the "Companions" (as these nonterrestrial entities are initially construed as) need us far more than we need them. However, Earth: Final Conflict was not so much the standard aliens trying to take over the earth epic as it was one about aliens coming to earth to manage and manipulate mankind as a pharmaceutical livestock crop.

Though technologically advanced, because of pursuing a gnostic evolutionary course eschewing the material body in favor of existence as beings composed more of energy than physical substance, the Taelons discover that they are no longer able to reproduce their species. Thus, one of the primary reasons for coming to Earth was to utilize the human species to overcome this quandary.

Part of the downfall of Earth: Final Conflict was the failure of producers to stick to innovative plot lines to their ultimate fruition. One introduced at the conclusion of its first season to cover over the departure of the program's lead male protagonist provided a scenario as to how beings from beyond the earth might be the ones responsible for bringing about the enhancement of the human species.

Around the time of the first season finale, it is revealed that the Taelons are not the only other sentient species besides mankind in the cosmos nor human beings the first manipulated for their purposes. Out of suspended animation comes a similar entity composed of an energy-based physiology but unlike the Taelons, this one --- known as a Kimera and considered to be an evolutionary predecessor or at least genetic contributor to the Taelons --- is in no need of interstellar Viagra.

By first mimicking the appearance of an unsuspecting male host, the alien is able to seduce a human woman and cause her to be found with child. And in order to provide a "totally plausible" explanation for the new male lead to assume his role, the child fully matures in a matter of fifteen to thirty sections upon being born.

For a few episodes at least before this conceptual element was downplayed before it was resurrected ironically as a way to write out this thespian as well when the production company decided to dump the American cast members in favor of an all Canadian ensemble, the nature of this character (Liam Kincaid) was examined. Apart from the energy bolts that could be discharged from his palms as a defensive mechanism, one intriguing concept was that the extraterrestrial component of his physiology was centered within a third helix to his DNA. As many will recall from encounters with their high school biology texts or A&E and the Discovery Channel before these networks developed obsessions with fishing trawlers, junk peddlers, and overlytattooed fugitive retrieval agents, DNA is renowned as a double-helixed molecule.

Some readers might dismiss this entire analysis that they have just read. Surely, they respond, one cannot portend from outlandish entertainments the paths science and technology will take in the years and decades to come. However, it must be remembered that twenty or so years ago it would have seemed ludicrous that most Americans would not have to be tethered to literal cables crisscrossing the country in order to access the nation's telecommunications system or that as they traveled about the highways they would no longer be shackled by the whims of local radio programming directors but could assert a degree of control over their own mobile entertainment decisions with entire collections of music at their very fingertips.

The inventors of these very devices, the cell phone and the MP3 player, acknowledge the inspiration derived in part from viewing similar gadgets on various episodes of Star Trek. Such a realization has to cause the reflective to pause when the machine being tampered with and manipulated in so much of speculative fiction these days is nothing less than the human body itself. For we are warned in Genesis 11:6, "And the Lord said, Behold the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."

by Frederick Meekins