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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

The Curiosity Gene

Ronald Linson’s “The Preservation of Death” appears in issue 724.

The initial discussion, “What Are You Doing?” appears in issue 725.

In the continuing discussion, Ron Linson, Ada Fetters and Don Webb consider major points concerning the origin and nature of language and curiosity as well as the role of ethics in innovation.

[Ronald Linson] I had a feeling there would be some discussion about the story, but I didn't expect it to be so heated. I hope there aren't any hard feelings among the editorial staff.

Necessity is the mother of invention but, sometimes, expediency and economics determine in what form that invention takes. For example, adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline (petrol) to prevent knocking in early internal combustion engines — we now know what a mistake that turned out to be.

I would sincerely hope that anyone who creates an immortality drug considers all these implications and more. I certainly don't want to spend what may very well be eternity blind, and certainly not without an option to end my life if things get especially tedious after a few millennia or so.

[Don Webb] Thank you, Ron. The discussion has been far from “heated”! On the contrary, our Review Editors have shed valuable light on different points of view.

Immortality has been a standard topic in literature since the epic of Gilgamesh. Today, innovators such as Ray Kurzweil speculate on achieving a technological “singularity.” It would presumably allow minds to be preserved in a kind of disembodied form.

Of course, the prospect of such a “singularity” raises questions, such as: Would we really want it, or do we only think we would? And what’s the fail-safe? If a mind were uploaded, to so to speak, to a machine, what if this mind decided it had all been a bad idea? Could it escape? If so, how? Would it even be allowed to? What are the ethics?

At its best, science fiction functions as prophetic literature. It foresees such problems.

[Ada Fetters] The entire human population probably didn’t suddenly start talking any more than big groups suddenly had blue eyes. Originally, we all had brown eyes. Blue eyes arose from genetic mutations in HERC2 and OCA2.

Genes spread because someone — many someones — wanted to mate with these new dangerous speakers and people with ghostly but pretty blue eyes. If they’d strangled the speakers instead, the genes might have cropped up again eventually, but they probably wouldn’t have spread the way they did.

FOXP2 is certainly instrumental in speech but Chomsky is probably wrong about one big mutation causing a language acquisition device. Many smaller mutations had to happen and spread over a very long period of time to produce speech.

[Don W.] Chomsky’s idea of human languages’ having a universal meta-grammar is a concept in linguistics only. I’m the one who’s speculating that genetics may ensure that human languages are all of a kind and that none is akin to or even resembles birdsong, for example.

The capacity for language of some sort was no sudden or recent mutation. The trait must go far back in evolutionary history, since so many species in the animal kingdom share it.

As for blue eyes, some speculate that the trait may have originated as recently as ten thousand years ago, probably as an adaptation to Europe’s having lower levels of sunlight than Africa. If so, why are blue eyes typically European? Why do the peoples of Siberia not have blue eyes? You’d think they’d need them.

Since blue eyes appear to have originated in the Neanderthals’ homeland, might the trait have appeared in the original inhabitants and spread because later immigrants intermarried with them?

[Ada F.] Humans’ reaching for new ways to express ourselves, for new landscapes, new technologies, and across monumental barriers looks to be genetic in the first place.

Svante Pääbo, who sequenced the Neanderthal genome and compared it to ours, wondered “What made it possible for us to build up these enormous societies, and spread around the globe, and develop the technology that I think no one can doubt is unique to humans. There has to be a genetic basis for that, and it is hiding somewhere in these lists.”

He wondered all the more since humans have made all these dangerous technological advances in a far, far shorter amount of time than our cousins the Neanderthals rose and fell as a species. Here’s the source.

We cross barriers into the unknown, which Neanderthals didn’t do. They didn’t cross water if they didn’t see land on the other side. Also, they never advanced beyond short spears in all the time they were around, yet we humans can blow ourselves to smithereens with nuclear missiles.

So the question, “What are you doing?” might well be answered by the nanoscientist with a bright, mad look and a leap into the dangerous unknown that, at bottom, might be just as genetic as speech.

[Don W.] Neanderthals were closely related to us, but as a subspecies or as a different species? It depends on how narrowly one defines “species.” To a non-specialist onlooker, the anthropologists’ debate looks for all the world like hair-splitting.

Neanderthals lived in a land and climate dominated by the Ice Age. We know next to nothing of their culture. Technologically, they invented what they needed to survive in harsh conditions for far longer than our species or family has existed, and we’ve had it much easier, at least so far.

All men by nature desire to know. — Aristotle, Metaphysics

Well, okay, Aristotle, but my question is: Who wants to know what? For example: I would like to know how to deal with “solipsistic introjection,” namely people who make up their own reality and reject everything and everybody else as “fake.” Besides, don’t all organisms — including humanity — want to know at least about their own environments?

And why do we “desire to know”? Does humanity have a gene that compels us “to boldly go where no man has gone before”? That’s a disturbingly deterministic notion. If curiosity can be reduced to genetics, can everyone then be reduced to a predetermined mechanism? If so, the consequences can be very bad indeed.

Rather, might curiosity be an “emergent property” of language? In any event, the value of curiosity is judged by its results. What discoveries and inventions does history celebrate? Simple answer: the ones that are useful.

How about the wheel? Fantastically useful, right? Not for the Maya. It was good only for children’s toys in the jungles of Central America.

Was Columbus a Romantic hero, sailing off into the Unknown to see what he could see? No, he had a motive any European monarch could understand: commerecial profit, and finding a new way to get at it.

What about humans in space? A glorious adventure? “Space Colonies: The Dark Side” explains why I take a dim view of it.

[Ada F.] That said, I wouldn’t want to stay alive if I developed Alzheimer’s disease or another lingering, painful condition. That would be terrible.

I’d like a choice about it and will make my own whether or not anyone else thinks they can allow it.

But I don’t want someone else’s moral decision affecting that one way or the other.

[Don W.] There we come full circle, and you, Ron and I are in substantial agreement. The ultimate question in choosing between death and immortality, as in Ron’s story, is: Whose life is it, anyway? Yours or someone else’s? What are the ethics?

In Ron’s story, will the scientist’s research do more good than harm? The scientist himself says it won’t. Science — be it medicine or any other — reveals only part of reality. Without ethics, it’s a body without a soul.

Responses welcome!

date Copyright August 14, 2017 by Bewildering Stories

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