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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. For example:

" 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 with no computers, human cloning, or Internet. Our brain has evolved in this information poor environment for millions of years, with little knowledge 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 SHATTERED SELF

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

Poem Passages

Its leaves not green, but dingy and dull black;
no slender limbs, but hunched with knots and gnarls;
no hanging fruit, but sticks and poisonous thorns...
Here the disgusting Harpies build their
nests who chased the Trojans from
the Strophades with sad announcement of the harm to come.
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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