Gilgamesh & Frankenstein: How we are Trading in Futures against the laws of evolution

I have been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind for a while now. By the end of the book, Harari talks about the next logical step in human evolution, and paints a picture that is bleak by most common pools of wisdom, yet liberating for a select few.

Let me take a step back. The culture of humanity, and its numerous renditions are an outcome of millennia of evolution and scientific development. Evolution and natural selection ensured that a common band of apes– at the middle of the food chain at best & living in a corner of Africa– slowly proliferated the entire world and became its unchallenged master. Human wisdom grew with evolution. Scientific revolution, primarily post the Industrial Revolution has brought man rapidly to the cusp of being god. We are now cloning sheep, growing ears on mice and genetically engineering microbes for better medicine and crops. We are engineering biology for the first time in our existence. Does that make us gods? In the definition of most civilizations, a resounding yes. Not the supreme God yet, but a god nonetheless.

Being a god can be scary. As masters of the modern world, our existence and actions are not doing much good to the world we live in. More pollution is killing the environment. Animals don’t love us for sure, nor do plants with their dwindling habitat. Even more power can get super scary.

While we are now on the cusp of something unreal, human imagination has been thinking of possibilities since time immemorial. Mythology seems to know everything. Gilgamesh is a mythical ruler of Egypt, who doesn’t like that worms take over the dead body of his best friend. So he vows to defeat death himself. He traverses oceans, worlds, fights demons, meets Utnapishtim the only survivor of the cosmic flood. Yet he achieves nothing. He returns with the wisdom that while creating living beings, God set aside death as the eventual conclusion. No one could defeat Death!

Indian mythology recounts the story of king Trishanku, who wanted to ascend to the heavens in his mortal body. When his royal priest Sage Vashishtha refused to do this, he approached the sage’s great rival Vishwamitra. Vishwamitra, agreed to make the unnatural activity happen. The cosmos and gods were scared, they kicked Trishanku from the heavens and he started falling. This angered Vishwamitra who started pushing him back up. After much coaxing wisdom returned to Vishwamitra, and he suspended his ghastly act, leaving Trishanku upside down in the southern sky. All the ancient civilizations had the ultimate understanding- death is inevitable.

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. – Woody Allen

Is this the ultimate truth, or is it a defeatist attitude? The best minds of the past deliberated in philosophy and considered it as the ultimate truth. The best minds of today dabble with scientific research and claim it to be the latter. They, and by extension the entire human race believes it can find cures to all problems including death. While it doesn’t have the courage yet to openly call it out such, it takes the guise of finding cures to Cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer, removing bad genes and what not. There’s even a proposed project to revive the Neanderthals! If we can create the species whose extinction we probably rode to colonise the entire globe, what is going to stop us from building enhanced versions of ourselves?

Whether the enhancement is in the form of genetically enhanced or with the aid of external tools- it’s enhancement nonetheless. Will the entire population be able to imbibe or afford this enhancement? Will it not create a new class divide? Will it not create a new Frankenstein?

Even modern popular culture has been struggling to predict what the new world order would be if enhanced humans were to be in our midst, forget aliens. All of a sudden the clash between ‘privileged’ or not mutants in X-men flashes before our eyes. For every benevolent hero Cyborg, there’s the opposite number Cyborg Superman. All of a sudden, us as the dominant species are no more masters of the universe. Yet, it’s not someone from another galaxy, but our own enhanced progeny. Who knows what their thought process would be! We may become the species to be kept in a zoo for edutainment!

Is this picture too gloomy? Probably yes. Is this how it’s supposed to happen? We have no idea. In fact, it may be the true dawn we have been waiting for. But the scary probabilities outweigh the benign and hopeful ones in my imagination. The only trouble is, if things pan out well, only the elite will benefit. If they don’t turn out well, all will succumb. It’s not a level playing field, for it’s beyond natural evolution..

Yet, I am excited that some of us will never die. May be they will be self-aware and benevolent enough to work for the eventual betterment of the nature all around, including humanity as we know it.

 

Note: Featured image sourced from the movie I, Frankenstein, for representation purposes only.

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