The Shattered Self; the End of Natural Evolution
by Pierre Baldi. MIT Press. 245 p. 2002..$25
Baldi, Professor of Information and Computer Science and of Biological
Chemistry and Director of the Institute for Genomics and Informatics
and the University of California, is a big gun, and he conducts
in this book a bold thought experiment "above all, about
who we are". After taking the reader on a macabre tour of
the possibilities of information technology and genetic engineering,
he arrives at some disturbing -- no dangerous-- conclusions.
" I agree that we should be careful. But preserving our humanity is
not a good reason... The irony and paradox is that by necessity,
natural evolution had to operate in an artificial world, the tip of an iceberg
computers, human cloning, or Internet. Our brain has evolved in
this information poor environment for millions of years, with little
of the rest of the iceberg -- which is now rapidly becoming apparent,
with its endless possibilities for information storage and transmission,
and virtual continuum of genomes and phenotypes." --THE
With this Declaration of Artifice Baldi delivers a blank check to
those able and driven by whatever whim (not least of which being
fortune and fashion) to meddle with anything and everything, Baldi’s
mathematical utilitarianism notwithstanding. Now, reconciling the
self with the rest of existence is important and among the central
themes attended by religion and philosophy.
In My Tuesdays With Maurie , Maurie offers the metaphor "We
are not the wave, we are the ocean." Well,
of course we are both. Each wave and life is a unique event in time.
But the message (and realization) of being part of some greater whole
often gives meaning, and through the ages has delivered countless
individuals at least a modicum of comfort while struggling with the
fear of their own death.
Tragically, Baldi’s version of the non-self has the opposite
effect. Bereft of meaning, truly lifeless, it does not liberate,
it smothers. The resulting message of this book, couched as "rational" thought,
is less about the ambiguous self, symbolized by those warm-blooded
twins, entangled on the book’s cover, and more about the cold,
black nothing above which these souls dangle. Baldi may think his
vision is about the "reality" of life, a dawning even.
But denatured, fundamentally purposeless, this vision is dead, an
usher into the abyss.
C.S. Lewis foresaw this half a century ago:
But why should the species be preserved? One of the questions before
them [the Conditioners] is whether this feeling for posterity (they
know well how it is produced) shall be continued or not. However
far back they go back or down, they can find no ground to stand on...Man’s
final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man. Once our souls,
that is our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred
will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves
and puppets of that to which we have given our souls..."
C.S. Lewis. The Abolition of Man
Its leaves not green, but dingy and dull black;
slender limbs, but hunched with knots and gnarls;
no hanging fruit,
and poisonous thorns...
Here the disgusting Harpies build their
nests who chased the
the Strophades with sad announcement of the harm
They have broad wings, a human face
and neck, claws on the foot and feathers on the paunch.
They cry their wailing from those alien trees...
When the ferocious soul that plucks itself
from its own body leaves it and departs,
judge Minos sends it to this seventh shelf,
Into the woods it falls,
no chosen place...
Here we will drag our bodies through the
dust, and on this sad wood’s branches they will hang,
each by the thorn of its assaulting soul...
Gather them at the foot
of this sad bush.
My city changed its patron from the god
of war to John the Baptist, on its coins--
So Mars' art will ever
make her grieve.
And had there been no fragments of him
leftin stone upon the bridge over the Arno,
Those citizens who built
her base anew
upon the ashes that Attila left
would have found all their labor
was in vain.
I have made a gallows of my house
-- Dante, Inferno. Canto 13 The Suicides.
Translated by Anthony Esolen
A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterdays life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind it cries Mary...
Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past?
And with this crutch, its old age,
and its wisdom
It whispers no, this will be the last
And the wind cries mary
-- Jimmy Hendrix - The Wind Cries Mary
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