PART THREE: JETHRO SHRUGGED.
In 1957, a book was published that took the murder-mystery concept in a new direction. Rather than having a plot concerning the death of a human body and whodunnit, the story was instead about the death of the human spirit and what caused its demise. It was set in a dystopian America, where who you know has become the dominant means of achieving fame and fortune. People get ahead by inheriting titles, exploiting family loyalty and, above all, by having the right connections in government. Meanwhile the real contributor’s to the country’s wealth- the industrialists, entrepreneurs, artists and other people of talent who provide goods and services for the economy- find their ability to profit compromised in a couple of ways: By a mixed economy that is moving toward dictatorship via legislation supposedly passed in the public interest (but which does more to serve government agencies and the cronies that surround them) and by the influence of a mysterious figure. Wherever he goes, the brightest and best individuals vanish, industries collapse, and communities decay.
But this mystery man is no villain, but rather a champion of individualism. His philosophy of life is guided by the following core principles: That the only viable method for understanding reality is reason; that the individual should take personal responsibility for happiness and success; and that the economic system under which such principles flourish best is one where we deal with one another through voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. The man’s philosophy is encapsulated in the following oath, which is taken by all those committed to the same ideals as he: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
This man realises that the depression afflicting America is due to state intervention in society that is allowing the nonproductive to cream off some of the wealth earned by others. At the same time, there is a growing resentment directed at the great producers, who find themselves demonised for their accomplishments. A parasite class has arisen who steal wealth from others through government spending, planning, regulation and redistribution.
In order to put an end to this parasite class, the hero of individualism persuades people of talent to go on strike. They quit society and go live in a secret location where they can live free from state interference and according to the principles of laissez faire capitalism. Unable to produce value for themselves and only able to survive by imposing the ‘moral right’ to seize the wealth of others, the parasite class are powerless to prevent the collapse of the country’s infrastructure. As the lights go out over New York, the people of talent get ready to return and rebuild society around the principles of reason and personal responsibility.
COMPARISONS WITH ATLAS SHRUGGED
That novel was ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and it has to be said that ‘Transhumanist Wager’ shares quite a lot in common with Ayn Rand’s magnum opus. In both stories we have government passing legislation that prevents champions of industry from achieving as much success as their talent is due. In Atlas Shrugged we have the ‘anti-dog-eat-dog rule’ and the ‘equalization of opportunity bill’ which, respectively, prevent competition between railroads and limit the number of businesses and individual can own. In ‘Transhumanist Wager’ we have the ‘national future security agency’ and the ‘war on transhumanism’, both supposedly intended to provide governmental oversight of potentially dangerous technologies, but which actually serve the interests of a decadent class who lack the talent to become self-made people.
In both Atlas and Wager, the story’s principal champion takes personal responsibility for ending state interference. John Galt (the hero of Atlas Shrugged) tells government henchmen, “get the hell out of my way!”. Jethro likewise says, “let the scientists do their research and let the entrepreneurs legally fund it. If you just get out of the way, transhumanism will work in everyone’s interests”. Both novels rail against a philosophical system that encourages irrationalism. In Ayn Rand’s novel, the character Floyd Ferris says, “people don’t want to think…so they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking”. Jethro says of the Chair of philosophy’s book, (it is) “contradictory pluralism designed to encourage readers to forgo reason or perhaps to despise reason altogether”. In both novels, the most talented and productive people quit society and go live and work in a remote location where they are liberated from state interference. Both John Galt and Jethro Knights take over the media in order to expose the self-serving propaganda of the government and its cronies, and the value systems they have created to serve their interests at the expense of the most worthy. Both men explain their plans for an alternative way of life. In both stories, the heroes intend to begin the rebuilding of civilization in New York.
Oh, and the phrase ‘A is A’ appears in both novels.
The characters in Transhumanist Wager strike me as being very ‘Randian’. Jethro has similar qualities to Dagney Taggart. She possessed an indomitable spirit, a focused, analytical mind, and an absolute commitment toward personal responsibility. These are traits that could also be applied to Jethro. Dagney’s brother, James, is weak and almost entirely dependent on public opinion for his every decision. He is very much like Gregory Michelson. Both men’s only real skill lies in influence peddling, existing off of the greatness achieved by others.
Unfortunately, because the themes of Transhumanist Wager are so similar to those extolled by Rand, we find the same flaws. These are: A tendency toward cultishness and an over-exaggeration of individualism. The curious tale of what resulted from Ayn Rand’s philosophy is worth considering, as it sheds light on what might also result from Jethro’s.
Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was published at a very opportune moment- a couple of years prior to the 1960s. That decade was one of anti-establishment thinking and find-yourself individualism. Since Rand’s novel was based on a philosophy of individualism, the power of the ideas explored in her novel became extremely influential. But to her most devoted followers, Rand’s ideas were not just influential, they were inerrant. As Nathanial Branden recalled in his Memoirs ‘Judgement Day’, “there were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed”. These premises included:
“Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on Earth.
“No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns
“No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue”.
In ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’, Michael Shermer pointed out that assertions such as those share characteristics with cults. Among other things, a cult is characterised by:
“Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong.
Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader’s beliefs and pronouncements of all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.
Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects.
Absolute morality: Belief that the leader has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike”.
It seems paradoxical that Ayn Rand’s philosophy would attract a cult following. A cult, after all, is an organization that thrives on group thinking and intolerance of dissent. And Objectivism is the philosophy of individualism, the core principle being the assertion that one should never let any authority dictate truth. But there was always a cultic flaw embedded within Objectivist philosophy, because it believed absolute knowledge and final truth are attainable through reason. As Shermer explained:
“For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered by the (Objectivist’s version of) reason to be True, the discussion is at an end. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed”.
We find similar assertions of absolute truth and final knowledge throughout ‘Transhumanist Wager’. Jethro Knights boldly declares:
“These truths are innate and infallible”.
Elsewhere we find:
“Give every sane and rational person a big red button to push to achieve instant omnipotence, and all of them would quickly jam their fingers down on it. The logic and reality of this was impossible to deny”. And:
“The undeniable logic and value of the offer will overturn your fears, reservations and biases”.
Anyone who says that they have discovered truths that are ‘infallible’ and logic that is ‘undeniable’ is, of course, asserting that they cannot be wrong. Now, sometimes, logic is impossible to deny. This is the case with mathematical theorems. With mathematical theorems, one begins with a set of axioms or statements that are self-evidently true, and from there you construct a step-by step logical argument that reaches a conclusion. Provided your axioms are correct and your logic is sound, your conclusion will be undeniable.
Mathematical theorems are not like scientific theories. A scientific theory is only ever provisionally true and may be partially or wholly refuted in the future. But once a mathematical theorem is proved, it remains true for all time. Because of this eternal quality, mathematics feels somehow independent of human thought; eternal truths that are discovered rather than invented.
SUCH A THING AS FINAL MORAL TRUTH?
Objectivists claim the same thing is true of Morality. Morals exist independent of human thought and therefore absolutes of right and wrong are ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. Subjectivists, on the other hand, insist there is no such thing as moral knowledge.
One such subjectivist was David Hume. In 1740, he wrote a book called ‘A Treatise Of Human Nature’ in which he asked what a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ actually means. Although such a statement appears grammatically similar to ‘the sky is blue’, Hume argued that there was a good reason to regard the two statements as being different. We can see that the sky is blue, but while we can see a victim’s blood or hear his cries, we cannot actually see the ‘wrongness’ of murder. Hume therefore concluded that ‘murder is wrong’ cannot be an empirical statement, and that when someone says ‘murder is wrong’ all we can be certain of from such a statement is the state of mind of one individual (‘murder is wrong’ means ‘I disapprove of murder’). Moral beliefs, according to Hume, are not logical or empirical but rather psychological.
Why did Hume think that moral truths could not be deduced from logic and reason? Because the one big rule of deductive logic is that you are not allowed to ‘magic’ extra information from an argument’s premise into a conclusion. Hume argued that there is an ‘is-ought’ gap between factual statements and moral ones. So, when people come up with an argument like “this man intends to murder that man; society is against murder; therefore, he ought not to commit murder”, the argument is invalid because it jumps to conclusions. You cannot prove moral positions just by piling up facts.
The English philosopher A. J Ayer went a step further than Hume. In ‘Language, Truth and Logic’, he claimed that a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ isn’t even somebody reporting their feelings but merely expressing them. This is sometimes called the ‘Hurrah-Boo Theory’, because for Ayer when somebody makes a statement like “we are a warriorlike system of thought and moral action designed to find the best in ourselves”, they are merely saying ‘transhumanism hurrah!’ or some such primitive emotional noise. Ayer insisted there is no such thing as moral certainty, and therefore there can be no moral experts who can tell everybody what is right and wrong.
THE POSTMODERN CONDITION
But perhaps the main source of doubt in the power of reason to reveal final truth is the postmodern condition. According to Dave Robinson (writing in ‘Introducing Philosophy’) postmodern philosophy is best thought of as haunted by three big ifs:
“If human thoughts can no longer be guaranteed as “ours”;
If the language we think with cannot meaningfully refer to the world outside itself;
If the meaning of autonomous, linguistic signs are constantly shifting;
then it’s very bad news for philosophy”.
What does all that mean? The first ‘if’ hearkens back to Gramsci and the concept of hegemony, whereby the ruling elite set the attitudes, values and perceptions through which society understands and relates to the world. Similarly, Nietzsche considered ‘knowledge’ to be simply that which the strongest imposes on everybody else. In both cases we see that thoughts are not really ‘ours’ and an emphasis on how political ‘personal morality’ really is.
The other ifs are all concerned with language, or rather, the meaning of language. Philosophy is the search for truth, which can be defined as ‘whatever is actually the case’. This begs the question, “how do we discover what is actually the case?”. One way might be through revelation, in which God simply tells us what is actually the case. Medieval philosophers were scholastics, seeking truth through a system of theological and philosophical teaching based on the authority of the church fathers and of Aristotle and his commentators. After the Enlightenment, Reason became the main focus, as philosophers shifted focus away from God to analyzing ideas in the mind.
The postmodern condition really began when thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger began to analyze the language in which thinking is expressed. The question they wanted to answer was, “if meaning comes from language, where does language come from?”. The seeds of postmodern skepticism have always been present within Western philosophy, ever since Cratylus who considered the meaning of words to be unstable and who refused to speak as a consequence. But contemporary postmodern theory has its origins in a school of linguistics known as Structuralism, the chief founder of which was a Swiss philosopher of linguistics called Ferdinand de Saussure.
Saussure viewed the meaning of language as the function of a system. By looking for the underlying rules and conventions that enable language to operate, structuralists strove to isolate a coherent object of linguistics where language as a system could be studied separately from its actual manifestations in speech or writing. This, they hoped, would enable them to find the infrastructure of language common to all speakers on an unconscious level.
Saussure considered the entire set of linguistic meanings as being generated from a small set of possible sounds. He called these ‘phonemes’, which are defined as the smallest unit in the sound system that can indicate contrasts in meaning. The word ‘DOG’ has three phonemes, /d/, /o/, /g/, which differ slightly from DIG, LOG, DOT, etc. Each generate other meanings which, when combined grammatically and syntactically, produce ‘discourse’, the code of language in which thoughts are expressed.
Now, why should the concept (or, as structuralists would call it, the Signified) dog be referred to by that particular Signifier (ie the word ‘dog’)? Obviously, the choice of sound is not imposed on us by meaning itself. The animal ‘dog’ does not determine the sound dog. After all, it is called different things in different languages (‘Chien’ in French and ‘Perro’ in Spanish, for example). Rather, the association of sound and what it represents is the outcome of what Wittgenstein called ‘Language Games’- in other words collective learning. Therefore, meaning is the product of a system that is itself meaningless.
Saussure’s structuralism made it possible to study not just linguistics but culture itself as a system of signs. This gave rise to semiology, which studied the various systems of cultural conventions which enable human actions to signify meanings. Regardless of how ‘natural’ such signs may appear to their users, the meaning of any object or action is always founded on shared conventions.
So, for structuralists, the world was organised into interlocking systems with their own ‘grammars’ open to analysis. This idea was overthrown in the late 1960s when thinkers like Roland Barthes and especially Jacques Derrida began pushing Saussure’s insight into the arbitrary nature of signs to an extreme. Barthes in 1967 declared “the author is dead”. What he meant was, regardless of the author’s intentions, readers create their own meanings. This makes texts ever-shifting, unstable and open to question. Barthes declared “we must now face the possibility of inverting Saussure’s declaration: Linguistics is not a part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part. It is semiology which is part of linguistics”. In somewhat similar notion to Baudrillard’s ‘art totally penetrating reality’, Barthes was saying that semiological analysis collapses back into language. This raises serious doubts about the relationship of language to reality, because it means there is no such thing as an ideally objective ‘meta’ language which can be constructed to discover the truth. As Derrida put it, we are trapped within language. We use it to think and communicate with, but there is no objective way of knowing what its relationship is to any reality ‘outside’ of it.
THE TYRANNY OF REASON
That is the essential lesson of postmodernism: That you cannot stand outside of language in order to understand it. According to Derrida, once structuralists started thinking about how every system has a structure, they could begin to see their systems as constructs rather than absolute truth. This line of thinking opposed what Derrida called ‘Logocentrism’. Postmodern thinkers like he and Jean-Francois Lyotard saw Reason not as a transcendent reality but rather a human, linguistic construct. A blindness to the reality that our beliefs are merely selective linguistic constructs was, they argued, why too many philosophers held an absolute faith in reason and its ability to reveal eternal and universal truth. That is not to say they absolutely rejected reason, only its dogmatic representation of itself as a timeless certainty. Derrida in particular was highly critical of the Western tradition of rationalist thought, saying “the certainty of reason is a tyranny which can only be sustained by the evils of repressing that which is uncertain, that doesn’t fit in, that is different”. In other words, a dogmatic belief in reason can lead to dangerous political certainties which insist on the exclusion of ‘the other’.
Another key postmodern thinker- Michael Foucalt- studied knowledge as systems of thought. He rejected a linear view of history, arguing instead for a multiple, overlapping and interactive series of legitimate versus excluded histories. He uncovered the underlayers of what is kept suppressed and hidden in and throughout history. “By claiming the territories of reason and what is permissible as thought and behaviour”, he said, “the powerful are able to convince everyone that what is ‘local’ and ‘regional’ is in fact universal and so unquestionable. Those who dissent are then categorised as mad or irrational and can be dealt with accordingly”.
So, when it comes to morality, the view from postmodernism is that it is strictly a human invention, and as such is subject to all kinds of social constructs and cultural influences. We can of course create hierarchies of what we like or dislike, approve or disapprove, and we can make judgements based on such standards. But we are always dealing with human constructions which are provisional and relative. There is no absolutely right model of human morality any more than there is an absolutely right kind of human music. It is worth remembering that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, as doing so can lead to greater tolerance for other belief systems. After all, as Michael Shermer said, “as soon as one group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance”.
Indeed, the actions undertaken by orders of Jethro Knights show a great deal of intolerance, perhaps for reasons Shermer referred to in the above quote. But before we talk about that, I want to look at the story’s ideas about evolution and how they tie in to its hyper-individualism.
Toward the end of the story, Jethro addresses the world and provides the following explanation for Transhumania’s victory:
“The reason why transhumanists became far stronger than you is not in our numbers, our might, or our courage. It’s in our understanding of how the philosophy of evolution takes place. Our interpretation of values taught us that evolution and its ascent of technology do not operate off democratic principles, but off principles of might, principles of survival…Throughout history, it’s the reason the strong became stronger and the weak became weaker, until the weak were no more, and the strong had to compete against each other- leaving, again, one group stronger than the other. This remarkable cycle perpetuates the efficient technique of evolution”.
According to this point of view, only the mighty are worthy of life and therefore the more aggressively competitive the world can be made, the more we rid ourselves of compassionate support, social welfare and charity, the more we will steer the course of the future along its correct path. Earlier in the story, Jethro writes:
“I am not fundamentally at one with the Earth, its people, or its multitudes of life; I do not view myself as a beholden spawn or child of the universe. I am alone and distinct”.
HE WHO MURDERS, WINS
If we combine this attitude with Jethro’s belief that ‘an omnipotender doesn’t fall in love’, we end up with a vision of reality that is hyper-individualistic as well as hyper-competitive. It is every man for himself, and we must all battle one another for the spoils. So long as you come out on top, anything goes. Even murder. One of the story’s heroes- the Russian Frederich Vilimech- amasses a 20 billion dollar fortune through a combination of shrewd and shady business negotiations. Early on, this involves approaching “a Soviet army general” offering “to partner with the man and make a run on a huge swathe of bankrupt government oil companies”. Later, thanks to investment decisions undertaken by Vilimich, the company “has become a dominant player in the worldwide energy field”. Not long afterwards, and very conveniently for Vilimich, “the general mysteriously died, and little proof of any ownership of the company except to Vilimich remained”.
The story does not explicitly say Vilimich was responsible, only that “nothing was ever proven”. Nevertheless, given how the story establishes Vilimich as a man with a titanic temper (“his voice was permanently hoarse, the result of yelling at nearly everyone”) as well as somebody who will do anything to get ahead (we are told about his “hardball tactics of amassing his fortune at the disregard of the environment and the tens of thousands of workers he employed”) I think we are supposed to infer that Vilimich achieved his great fortune, in part, by getting away with murder.
Actually, this is another case of a parallel between Transhumanist Wager and Atlas Shrugged, for in Rand’s story we also have a character who gets away with murder during his journey from rags to riches:
“It was said that in the wilderness of the middle west, (Nathanial Taggart) murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted against him…Nat Taggart was indicted for murder, but the charge could never be proved”.
Both stories seem to present a twisted morality in which guilt is determined not by breaking laws, but rather by how poor you are and how charitable your requests. Billionaire oligarchs that treat their employees like scum and kill their partners so as to grab an even larger fortune for themselves are doing nothing wrong. Impoverished folks looking for some social welfare are criminals.
But maybe Jethro Knights is merely being brutally honest? Maybe empathy, charity, social support and cooperation are all just collectivist lies which do nothing but suppress the abilities of the singularly talented? Actually, no. Jethro Knights is not being honest. He is presenting a distorted view of evolution and also individualism. Evolution is famously summarised as ‘survival of the fittest’. To many, such a phrase should be taken to mean that nature favours the strong, and that only when the weak are being eliminated are things going according to nature’s plan. Social security is therefore an evil, upsetting the righteous path of evolution.
THE TRUTH ABOUT EVOLUTIONARY FITNESS
Actually, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ should not be taken to mean fit in any athletic sense- at least not necessarily. Rather, it means fit as in ‘how well you fit your environment’. Quite often, being adapted to your environment does necessitate fitness in the athletic sense of the word. Nature documentaries tend to focus on those kinds of struggles, perhaps because they are easiest to convey, visually. We all understand, when watching prey running as fast as it can with some predator in hot pursuit, how this competition of speed, strength and agility results in either the predator catching its prey (and removing it from the genepool) or failing to do so, going without a meal, and perhaps dying of starvation (which removes the predator from the genepool).
But it is not always the case that bigger, faster, stronger wins the evolutionary race. Attributes can weaken, as well as be enhanced, if the environment favours that trend. For example, if some birds were to fly to a remote island that lacked predators and had easily accessible food sources, over time their wings may evolve to be less capable of flight, until their descendents have become flightless birds with mere vestiges of wings. It costs energy to achieve flight and, as the mechanisms of natural selection work to reduce needless expenditures of energy, if the environment favours it, abilities can diminish, and the weaker can be favoured over the strong.
In the case of humans, we cannot just assume that of course bigger, faster, stronger triumphs over the weak. Instead we have to look at the environmental niche that the human species occupies and consider what it selects for.
If alien explorers were to find our solar system, it is all but certain that the first signs of life they would notice would be human technology. They would see the lights of cities illuminating the landmasses of a blue planet. They would discover all the satellites in orbit. Equipped with suitable instruments, they could pick up TV and radio broadcasts long before they came within Earth’s orbit. Perhaps this would prompt them to classify humans as a tool-making animal?
When it comes to learning about our distant ancestors, we are much like the aliens, trying to learn about a different species of which we know next to nothing. Just as we leave evidence of our existence in the form of technologies, so too did our ancestors. And, like the aliens, we classified our ancestors as “a tool-making species”.
The human species is, of course, superbly adapted for toolmaking. We come equipped with dextrous hands, large brains which enable us to, for example, master such variables in chipping a stone with another stone such as how much force to use, what angle to strike at, and where to strike. We have language, which enables us to communicate knowledge and pass on skills.
Why did we evolve such tool-making abilities to begin with? Some scientists believe it came about because the environment our ancestors lived in favoured social intelligence. Of course, the social lives of our ancestors were not preserved like their stone tools. We are talking about creatures that lived millions of years before the invention of writing. But we can be reasonably sure that our ancestors were social by studying those animals alive today who are our closest evolutionary cousins- primates.
Monkeys and apes are particularly social animals. They spend their lives in bands and have a keen sense of the shifting reality of their social world. The psychologist Robin Dunbar has compared the size of the brain- particularly the neocortex- of primates. He found that the size of the primate’s brain is tightly correlated with the average size of the group in which it lives. Larger groups demand larger brains. The obvious conclusion is that larger groups place a bigger demand on social intelligence. It requires keeping track of more relatives and acquaintances, of what alliances have been made and what grudges or held.
Some primates have such a keen social intelligence, they are able to deceive their fellow primates. The most deceptive and crafty nonhuman primates are our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. Primatologist Andrew Whitten said, “it’s as if the apes have been reading Machiavelli. They’re very concerned to climb up the social hierarchy, and make the right alliances to enable them to do that. But at the same time if the occasion is right, just as Machiavelli would have advised, they’ll deceive those friends and ditch them”.
Chimplike society sounds rather like Jethro’s vision of how human society should function. “Should anything- and I mean anything- become not useful for us, we will quit that thing”.
However, we are not talking about a human society, but rather a hominid society with a chimplike hierarchy. Both Whitten and Dunbar have argued that, as our hominid ancestors moved out onto the African savannah, they began coming in regular contact with big, dangerous predators. This required them to form larger bands than their tree-dwelling ancestors had needed to form. That encouraged the evolution of more social intelligence, until our ancestors had such a keen social intelligence they could form theories of mind- that is, infer from body language and other outward signs what somebody is thinking, and reflect on the past actions of oneself and others.
Theory of mind enables social animals to do a better job of making alliances, deceiving one another, and keeping track of the shifting reality of their social hierarchy. Eventually, this feedback loop of ever-increasing social intelligence lead to a transformation of hominid society. It became too hard for a dominant male to enforce a hierarchy in his band. His subordinates had become too clever, each individual using his or her theory of mind to guard against cheats who tried to dominate the group. And so, hominid society shifted away from a chimplike hierarchy to an egalitarian structure.
Whitten has argued that it was only when our ancestors began living in egalitarian societies that our ancestors could take full advantage of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It meant that men could work together in hunts, and women could organise expeditions to gather useful stuff, without being paralysed by suspicion. A society based on egalitarian principles is one where knowledge and skills are more likely to be shared, rather than jealousy hoarded, which is very useful for the evolution of complex forms of cooperation and technologies.
None of this is to say that the human race lives in a state of perfect harmony and equality. It would be absurd to suggest such a thing, as a glance at all the conflicts and Machiavellian shenanigans still going on would refute such idealistic claims. It is merely pointing out that the environmental niche in which humans continue to evolve is no longer a chimplike hierarchy, where brute strength sees you rise to the top, but rather one where a keen social intelligence and ability to cooperate are the keys to success. The proof is in the vast and complex networks of societies our species has formed, from local organisations such as friendships, tribes and clubs, to global networks such as multinational corporations.
COLLABORATION IS ESSENTIAL FOR INVENTION
If you stop to consider our great achievements, it becomes obvious that, working as individuals, we can achieve very little. In ‘Transhumanist Wager’, Knights reflects angrily on how he is surrounded by people who never had an original idea. But the fact is that nobody has ever had an original idea in the sense of some revelation that appears fully formed independent of humanity’s pre-existing body of knowledge. Instead, invention (whether it be physical in the sense of tools and machinery, or mental in the sense of hypotheses and theories) is always a process of combinatorial evolution.
James Burke described combinatorial evolution when he said, “at no time did an invention come out of thin air into somebody’s head. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way”. In other words, the act of invention is never solitary but always collaborative, as it relies on pre-existing tools, technologies and bodies of knowledge. These are the building blocks from which new inventions are made. An inventor or discoverer of knowledge never works alone but instead as part of a huge network stretching all the way back to the dim and distant past when our hominid ancestors first started making tools and communicating ideas to each other.
THE MYTH OF THE LONE INVENTOR
For some reason, we seem to like to think it is individuals rather than organisations and collectives that are the creative force behind invention. For example, people will tell you that the electric car sold by Tesla was invented by Elon Musk, as if he and he alone created it and all those designers and engineers and other specialists employed at Tesla motors had nothing to do with it. But this is to give Elon Musk all the credit for something only a company- an organisation of many skilled individuals working together- could possibly have researched and developed.
It is possible to prove that no individual can ever be said to be responsible for such a complex piece of machinery by issuing a seemingly far challenge: Can you make a pencil from scratch? Of course, anyone can snap a twig off a tree, scratch symbols in the dirt and call that a pencil. But what I mean is, can you make a pencil like you find in shops? If you had some graphite, wood, rubber, and metal, would you know how to assemble all those component pieces into a pencil with a graphite tip at one end and an eraser held in place by a metal band at the other? Actually, no, you cannot have the component pieces ready to hand, for that would mean somebody else supplied them and we are asking if you can make a pencil from scratch. So, do you know where rubber comes from and what methods turn it into those little erasers? Do you know where to get graphite from and how to mine it? What tools are you going to use, ready-made ones? That’s cheating. You must first construct all the equipment you need from scratch (and, yes, the tools you use for the job have to be made from scratch as well).
By now it should be obvious that, however humble it may seem, a pencil contains such a vast body of knowledge in its construction that building one from scratch is impossible for any individual. That being the case, think of how even more absurd it is to attribute the invention of something is complex as an electric car to a single person.
EVEN EINSTEIN HAD HELP
Now, you might concede that no modern physical invention really owes its existence to an individual, but maybe some genius can have an original idea? We can refute this by considering what is considered to be the most famous equation ever written, contained within what many regard to be one of the most original ideas anyone ever had. I am talking about E=MC^2 which is part of Einstein’s relativity theories. How did Einstein come up with that equation? Did it pop into his head from nowhere?
Of course, the answer is no. Einstein did not invent that equation all by himself, but instead relied on the work of others. The ‘E’ stands for ‘energy’. Michael Faraday was one of the people who created an overarching notion of energy, into which such diverse events as the crackling of static electricity and gusts of wind could fit. He contributed to the insight that there is a fixed amount of energy in the universe and although it can manifest itself in many ways, the total amount of energy in the universe always remains the same.
The ‘M’ stands for ‘mass’. Men like Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier showed how all the mass in the universe- all the seemingly diverse bits of stuff- are really parts of a single connected whole. Just as there is a fixed amount of energy in the universe, so too is there a fixed amount of mass.
‘C’ stands for ‘celeritas’ or the speed of light. It was once believed that there was no such thing as ‘the speed of light’; that it travelled distances in an instant making its speed unmeasurable. But then a Danish astronomer called Ole Roemer overturned that idea when he solved a puzzle involving Jupiter’s satellite Io. Io takes 42 and a half hours to orbit Jupiter, but observations showed that this was not always the case. Sometimes, the satellite emerged from behind its parent planet a little later than scheduled, and sometimes its appearance was slightly earlier than expected. Newtonian mechanics insisted that this should not be happening. Io should orbits Jupiter with clockwork-like regularity.
Roemer solved this mystery with a bold leap of imagination. Just suppose, contrary to what all experiments had shown, that light did not travel instantaneously but rather at a finite speed. In that case, during winter when the Earth’s orbit takes it furthest away from Jupiter, light reflected off Io would take a little longer to reach observers. By going through years of observations, Roemer was able to come up with an estimate for how many extra minutes light took to cross the expanse of space when Earth and Jupiter are furthest apart compared to when they are closest together, and thus an estimate for the speed of light. The figure he came up with was pretty close to the current estimate of 670 million miles per.
The ^2 stands for ‘squared’, or the speed of light multiplied by itself. According to Newton, when analysing how objects make contact, the central factor to look for is simply the product of their mass times their velocity or their MV^1. On the other hand, Gottfried Leibniz, the important factor to focus on was MV^2. This disagreement was settled by experiments conducted by a Dutch researcher called William ‘sGravesande. He dropped weights into soft clay, and discovered that if the weight is sent down twice as fast as before, it will push four times as far into the clay. Send it down three times as fast and it sinks nine times further into the clay. Since two squared is four and three squared is nine, that proves Leibniz was right. We can describe the results of this experiment with an equation pretty similar to Einstein’s: E=MV^2.
So, it was already known that energy can only be transformed, never created or destroyed. It was also known that the same was true for mass. It was known that multiplying an object’s mass by the square of its velocity tells you how much energy it has. It was known that the speed of light is like the ultimate speed limit of the universe. That means that if you raise velocity as high as it can possibly go, to 670 million miles per hour, that will tell you the ultimate energy an object will contain when you look at its mass times the speed of light, squared.
What all these prior scientific discoveries are, then, are puzzle pieces which, when properly assembled, tell us the following fact: Mass is a concentrated form of energy. If you want to know how much energy is contained within any given mass, you need a conversion factor, just as to go from centigrade to fahrenheit you multiply the centigrade figure by 9/5 and then add 32. In the case of converting mass into energy, the conversion factor is the speed of light squared.
Remember what James Burke said? “You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way”? That is what Einstein did. And although I may have implied that it was individuals like Faraday and Roemer who discovered facts about the universe that Einstein later assembled into a theory of mass and its conversion into energy, the truth is that they too relied on previous work. There really is no statement more erroneous than ‘this is my idea’, for no idea ever sprang forth independent of the body of knowledge accumulated by humanity. The most anyone can claim is to be part of that vast network, borrowing ideas from it and contributing possibly useful combinations of pre-existing ideas.
While it is a fact that individuals can accomplish nothing by themselves, for some reason we like to perpetuate the fantasy that it was individuals who were responsible for everything. I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is because human beings evolved to live among and identify with other human beings, and it just makes more sense to us to personify an organisation and embody its collective achievements in one person. This could be an actual person. Richard Branson, for example. Or it could be an imaginary corporate mascot like Ronald McDonald. We project the collective achievements of the organisation onto these individuals.
Arguably, there is nothing wrong with singling out certain individuals for their contribution to collective knowledge. But there is always a danger of pushing credit for individual contributions too far. A fine example is to be found in Atlas Shrugged. Rand tells us, “Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who came from nowhere and built a railroad across a continent”. Note that she does not say he lead an organisation that built a transcontinental railway, she says he did it himself. Himself!
Transhumanist Wager also contains absurdly individualistic claims. Knights reckons himself to be “self-sufficient, not needing anyone or anything else”. Such a statement shows a profound ignorance of the interdependent relationship every seemingly individual thing has with everything else. Can Jethro really claim not to be dependent on photosynthesising organisms producing oxygen as a bi-product; not to rely on systems both natural and man-made that provide drinkable water? To be fair, I should point out that the error of Knight’s supposition is pointed out by another character. Dr Langmore, who tells the story’s protagonist, “you must learn to be a team leader- and then the leader of that team… you won’t succeed alone. The nature of accomplishing your goal requires others”.
THE CULTISH POTENTIAL
Nevertheless, Jethro’s philosophy and the nation of Transhumania, built on those principles, remains in danger of becoming a cult of personality, as did Rand’s objectivism. In both Ayn Rand’s and Jethro Knights’ philosophy, we find certain truths and the end result of inquiry have become more important than the search for truth and the process of inquiry, resulting in supposed absolutes of right and wrong.
The punishment for disagreeing with (the objectivists’ version of) truth was excommunication from the group. This is a typical cult tactic for, as Michael Shermer pointed out, “those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished”. Unsurprisingly, given how alike Transhumanist Wager is to Ayn Rand’s objectivist novel, not conforming to Jethro’s vision of how things should be is also excommunication. “If you didn’t like it, or didn’t agree with it, then you didn’t belong on Transhumania”. But whereas the reality of the Ayn Rand cult was that it was a fairly small collective, in the story Transhumania goes on to conquer the world, and Jethro’s philosophy is imposed on everybody.
Interestingly, this is not the only story that depicts the rise of a transhuman nation. We shall compare and contrast the visions of a transhuman nation in Istvan’s story with that other tale in the next installment.