Monday, May 25, 2015

Our Cerebral Future

“Where are we going? Life, the timeless, mysterious gift, is still evolving. What wonders, or terrors, does evolution hold in store for us in the next ten thousand years? In a million? In six million?”
The Outer Limits, (From “The Sixth Finger”, October, 1963)

A couple of recent posts have focused on early science fiction about genetic engineering.  In Anthony N. Rud’s Ooze (1923), a microbiologist finds a way to remove the chromosomal limitations on the size and lifespan of the common amoeba, with disastrous results.  (See Clues at the Scene of the Slime.)  In Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Proteus Island (1936), a scientist alters the flora and fauna of a remote island by blending the genes of its inhabitants and causing ecological chaos.  (See Darwinian Disasters).

It is interesting to note that these stories about genetics and evolution are roughly coterminous with the Scopes Trial of 1925, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, or more formally, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes.  Scopes was a substitute high school teacher who was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution in a state funded school.  Scopes was found guilty and fined the monetary equivalent of about $1000.00, though the verdict was overturned on a technicality. 

Nevertheless, the trial was a media event that dramatized the still ongoing—and mostly unnecessary—conflict between science and religion.  The theory of evolution was perceived as a threat to the authority of Biblical accounts of humanity’s origins.  Though it seems incredible to us now, Christian fundamentalists were able to use this legal battle to significantly limit the teaching of evolution in American public schools for decades.

For people who like to argue, the debate between Biblical authority vs. the theory of evolution, or more broadly between religion and science, is a never ending source of inspiration and passion.  If the religionists would focus their attention on the question of “why” and the scientists on the question of “how”, both camps could be kept reasonably separated and avoid unpleasantness.

Edmond Hamilton, co-founder of the genre of “space opera”, took a different angle on the subject of genetic manipulation and evolution in his The Man Who Evolved (1931).  Two old college friends are invited to the home of their professor, Dr. John Pollard, who has fashioned a device that concentrates cosmic rays.  Believing that cosmic rays are responsible for driving evolution on earth (by causing genetic mutations), Pollard wants to make himself an N of 1 study of the impact of cosmic rays on human biological advancement.  He wants to know what humans will look like millions of years from now, and needs the narrator and his friend to operate the machinery.

As in many of Hamilton’s science fiction stories, complex and powerful technology, even alien technology, is relatively easy to learn and operate:

“The cylinder is now gathering cosmic rays from an immense area of space,” he said, “and those concentrated rays are falling through that disk into the cube’s interior.  To cut off the rays it is necessary only to open this switch.”

Against their protests, Pollard manages to persuade the two younger men to operate the device and expose him to the cosmic rays in a series of applications.  With each dose the effects are remarkable and instantaneous.  Pollard initially becomes a superhuman, god-like creature, still recognizably a man. But subsequent applications depict a clear trend:  Pollard’s cranium expands and he becomes ever more brain-like in appearance and power as the rest of his body dwindles in size and importance.  Dr. Pollard’s advanced form, and the contraption which brought him to this state, is depicted on the cover of the magazine in which the story appeared:

However, the final application of the cosmic rays produces an ironic and appalling result.  Older science fiction fans may recall an episode of the original Outer Limits, (“The Sixth Finger”), which aired in October of 1963.  A scientist, remorseful for his role in developing nuclear weapons, develops a machine that can accelerate human evolution. He uses it on a local miner played by David McCallum, advancing the man through a million years of human development and vastly increasing his mental and psychokinetic powers.   The story is similar in many respects to Hamilton’s and also ends tragically.

Interestingly, in light of the Scopes trial mentioned above, the television censor for the 1963 broadcast objected to the episode’s implied support for evolution, and had an explanatory speech given by the scientist deleted from the original script.  One of the minor characters in the show is the scientist’s trained chimpanzee, called “Darwin”—he gets few lines.

It is a familiar assumption, at least in early science fiction, that human advancement is equated with increased intelligence, metaphorically expressed as a large cranium, even an exposed brain—as if the business of evolution was to develop ever more powerful intellects.  One can see this trope also in the depiction of advanced extraterrestrial races, which almost always have enlarged heads or perhaps are remotely controlled by an enormous inert brain.  In the classically awful film The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), the highly evolved aliens are brains.  (See also Donald Wandrei’s The Red Brain, discussed in 1. When Brains Are All You Have Left.) 

Conceivably, evolution might have other plans, if it has any plans at all.  Evolution may over time emphasize other attributes, depending on prevailing environmental conditions:  sheer proliferation, or preservation against climate change, or imperviousness to environmental toxins.  Intelligence may be overvalued, even a liability.  There are thousands of relatively brainless organisms whose mindboggling numbers and adaptation over eons make them far more successful than we have been so far.   

The Man Who Evolved was originally published in the April 1931 issue of Wonder Stories.  Hamilton’s story appeared alongside one of Clark Ashton Smith’s attempts at science fiction, his novelette An Adventure in Futility, a title that seems in some ways prophetic about his efforts in that genre.  Also represented was work by one of the most successful of the shudder pulp writers, Arthur Leo Zagat’s The Emperor of the Stars, a short story he co-wrote with Nat Schrachner.

The version of The Man Who Evolved that I have is in a wonderful “autobiographical” anthology from 1974, Isaac Asimov’s Before the Golden Age, which features a representative sampling of science fiction from the 1930s.  Asimov reports that Edmond Hamilton’s science fiction was an early favorite and an inspiration for his own contributions to the field.


As of this date, The R’lyeh Tribune is two years old!  Iä! Iä!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.