Paul Virilio: The Third Bomb – Eugenics/Genetics

 

Was reading several interviews by Paul Virilio today, and in one of them he is asked,

What do you think of Ray Kurzweil’s thesis about the singularity? He says that in 2050, humans will be more technical than organic.
The new age. It raises the question of the third bomb, as formulated by Einstein. He said that there were three bombs. The atomic bomb, the information bomb, and the demographic bomb. But I think that today, the third bomb will be genetic. Soon, the question of human selection will be raised. We risk the birth of real racism. There will be natural men, those born of blood and sperm—disgusting!—and the others, born by genetic engineering. (Virilio)

It sounds like a science-fiction movie. Gattaca, for instance.
Absolutely. The genetic bomb, if it explodes, will divide the human race in two. The natural pre-humans and the artificial but superior post-humans. Remember the replicants in that movie… (Virilio)

Blade Runner?
Yes. There’s that great scene: Harrison Ford is about to fall from the tower, and the replicant is holding him. Harrison thinks he’s going to let him go. And the replicant, he picks him up and drags him to safety. The dialogue that follows is monstrous, but marvelous at the same time. (Virilio)

Anyone who has followed the history of genetics as a science should by now know that it began in that nexus of racist corruption, eugenics. As Daniel J. Kevles will tell us in his superb history of Eugenics,  In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity:

The large majority of American colleges and universities— including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Berkeley— offered well-attended courses in eugenics, or genetics courses that incorporated eugenic material.  Geneticists warmed easily to their priestly role. The new industrial order had elevated practitioners of the physical sciences to positions of power and public service. Physicists and chemists found themselves in demand by innovative firms like Western Electric, Du Pont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey, which were opening research laboratories; and the requirements of public policy formation in such areas as food and drugs, communications, and aeronautics were bringing physical scientists into the orbit of government. Geneticists experienced no comparable demand.

As we discover in Lily E. Kay’s The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology the conjunction of cognitive and social goals had a strong historical connection to eugenics, to its promise and perils. By 1930 the Rockefeller Foundation had supported a number of eugenically directed projects. By the time of the inauguration ration of the “new science of man,” however, the goal of social control through selective breeding had suffered severe setbacks. As an intellectual program, eugenics guided by the crude principles of Charles B. Davenport had lost much of its force; and as a social movement it carried the stigma of racial prejudice and political propaganda. Eugenics as such became a scientific liability. The quest for rationalized human reproduction, however, never quite lost its intuitive appeal (even when it was later modified by the Nazi experience). For the architects and champions of a science-based technological utopianism, human engineering through controlled breeding remained a compelling social vision.2

As far back as 1950’s Linus Pauling received nearly $1 million in grants from the Ford Foundation for biochemical chemical studies of mental deficiency. As a member of the Hixon Fund committee at Caltech, his interest in the biological basis of human behavior dated back to the 1940s, but by the late 1950s these involvements had acquired a sharper focus through the concept of molecular disease and the cascade of discoveries related to the mechanisms of DNA replication, transcription, translation, and the genetic code. Like other leading practitioners of molecular biology at that time, Pauling’s intrigue with the triangle of heredity, intelligence, and social planning assumed more precise technocratic meanings.” (ibid.)

In it 1958 television broadcast entitled “The Next Hundred Years,” Pauling described his vision of scientific utopia. attained through detailed knowledge of the molecular structure of humans.” The study of sickle cell anemia, he stated, set a precedent for that kind of approach. Recounting the biochemical and genetic aspects of the discovery of that first molecular disease, “discovered in our laboratory,” Pauling postulated that there were “thousands, tens of thousands of molecular diseases.” Like other physiological abnormalities, Pauling believed that mental deficiencies were genetically determined molecular abnormalities. His vision of the nearing Golden Age was a move away from mere palliative action: biology turning molecular, medicine maturing into an exact science, and social planning becoming rational. Like some of his peers, Pauling saw the deterioration of the human race as the most compelling challenge for the new biology. “It will not he enough just to develop ways of treating the hereditary defects,” he said. “We shall have to find some way to purify the pool of human germ plasm so that there will not he so many seriously defective children horn. … We are going to have to institute birth control, population control.”” Pauling’s interventionist concepts of social control, which had previously resonated with those of the Rockefeller Foundation, now buttressed the Ford Foundation’s program he had helped shape. (Kay, KL 4461).

Although the name eugenics expunged during the 1950’s because of its associations and politics, its heritage lives on under the guise of biogenetics sciences and the human enhancement movement and would become one of the mainstays of our socio-cultural heritage. Ray Kurzweil in an essay “The new era of health and medicine as an information technology is broader than individual genes” remarks that there is the entire new field of synthetic biology which is based on synthetic genomes. A major enabling breakthrough was recently announced by Craig Venter’s company in which an organism with a synthetic genome (which previously existed only as a computer file) was created. This field is based on entire genomes not just individual genes and it is certainly part of the broad field of gene science and technology. The goal is to create organisms that can do useful work such as produce vaccines and other medicines, biofuels and other valuable industrial substances.

Kurzweil and his team are seeking to reverse-engineer biology telling us we need to examine phenomena at different levels, especially looking at the role that proteins (which are coded for in the genome) play in biological processes. In understanding the brain, for example, there is indeed exponential progress being made in simulating neurons, neural clusters, and entire regions. This work includes understanding the “wiring” of the brain (which incidentally includes massive redundancy) and how the modules in the brain (which involve multiple neuron types) process information. Then we can link these processes to biochemical pathways, which ultimately links back to genetic information. (ibid.)

In fact Kurzweil and his team are treating our body and biochemical systems as informational systems: “If we consider the science and technology of genes and information processing in biology in its proper broad context, there are many exciting developments that have current or near term clinical implications, and enormous promise going forward.” (ibid.) Going on to say we “have a new technology that can turn genes off, and that has emerged since the completion of the human genome project”. And, “are also new methods of adding genes”. Use of stem-cells: ” the whole area of regenerative medicine from stem cells. Some of this is now being done from adult autologous stem cells”.  He sees a future where we’ll see nanobots, blood-cell-sized devices that can go inside the body and brain to perform therapeutic functions. But what happens when we have billions of nanobots inside the capillaries of our brains, non-invasively, widely distributed, expanding human intelligence, or providing full-immersion virtual reality?

All of this will be part of our Information Society: “…information technology is increasingly encompassing everything of value. It’s not just computers, it’s not just electronic gadgets. It now includes the field of biology. We’re beginning to understand how life processes, disease, aging, are manifested as information processes and gaining the tools to actually manipulate those processes. It’s true of all of our creations of intellectual and cultural endeavors, our music, movies are all facilitated by information technology, and are distributed, and represented as information.”

His technoutopian vision assays that by 2029, we will have completed reverse engineering of the brain, we will understand how human intelligence works, and that will give us new insight into ourselves. Non-biological intelligence will combine the suppleness and subtlety of our pattern-recognition capabilities with ways computers have already demonstrated their superiority. Every time you use Google you can see the power of non-biological intelligence. Machines can remember things very accurately. They can share their knowledge instantly. We can share our knowledge, too, but at the slow bandwidth of language.

In another interview Virilio would remind us of the difference between his vision and his friend Jean Baudrillard:

I disagree with my friend Baudrillard on the subject of simulation. To the word simulation, I prefer the one substitution. This is a real glass, this is no simulation. When I hold a virtual glass with a data glove, this is no simulation, but substitution. Here lies the big difference between Baudrillard and myself: I don’t believe in simulationism, I believe that the word is already old-fashioned. As I see it, new technologies are substituting a virtual reality for an actual reality. And this is more than a phase: it’s a definite change. We are entering a world where there won’t be one but two realities, just like we have two eyes or hear bass and treble tones, just like we now have stereoscopy and stereophony: there will be two realities: the actual, and the virtual. Thus there is no simulation, but substitution. Reality has become symmetrical. The splitting of reality in two parts is a considerable event which goes far beyond simulation.

Like Deleuze’s splitting of virtual/actual within a transcendental empiricism, Virilio sees this Infospheric vision arising and replacing the naturalist vision of the old Culture/Nature divide. Now comes the virtual human or dividual, next will come the elision of the body and the human altogether as the inhuman other is what we become. In that sense maybe he is correct, for the prophets of posthuman religion of transhumanism and technoutopian immortalizatists like Ray Kurzweil seek to substitute the human with the enhanced human, or the reprogramed and reengineered clone and cyborg of the coming Singularity. They no longer seek to simulate this process, but rather to enact it and substitute the present reality with its actual genetic split by way of a species transformation that seems to harken back to the Nietzschean  Übermensch:

We could have billions of nanobots inside the capillaries of our brains, non-invasively, widely distributed, expanding human intelligence, or providing full immersion virtual reality encompassing all of the senses from within the nervous system. Right now we have a hundred trillion connections. Although there’s a certain amount of plasticity, biological intelligence is essentially fixed. Non-biological intelligence is growing exponentially; the crossover point will be in the 2020s. When we get to the 2030s and 2040s, it will be the non-biological portion of our civilization that will be predominant. But it will still be an expression of human civilization. (Ray Kurzweil)

Is it too late to ask: Is this the future we want? And, Will we even be able to choose it? Or, Is it already being chosen for us by all those megamachinic corporations funding such entities as Google and Ray Kurzweil? Our children are already growing up in these artificial worlds connected to gadgets, connected 24/7 to the Cloud, to their friends, to the interface world of the virtual, where attention spans drip in speedlanes our forbears would have gone bonkos in… we’ve all become schizflows in a Real of flows without end, circuits of a strange realm of interconnected rhizomes that would’ve made Deleuze and Guattari wish they’d never studied such things as rhizomes. For better or worse we are past the stage of no return, lost in a cosmic pile-up vision of accelerated technocapitalist utopianism that seems to spin its ever-present adgrams in our algorithmic heads like dreams of a delusional consumer whose only link to a former reality is the tentative connection of his real neurobodily phase shift from life to death. A roller-coaster that is plunging into the void like a forgotten thought of paradise…


 

  1. Kevles, Daniel J. (2013-05-08). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Kindle Locations 4319-4325). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lily E. Kay. The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (Monographs on the History & Philosophy of Biology) (Kindle Locations 148-152). Kindle Edition.

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