The specter that haunts genetic manipulation is the genetic ideal, a perfect model obtained through the elimination of all negative traits.
´—Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion
Genetics is the foster child of eugenics a quasi-science and mythology of constructing the perfect species through technological progress and the perfection of human nature. The word “eugenics” was coined in 1883 by the English scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton, who pioneered the mathematical treatment of heredity, took the word from a Greek root meaning “good in birth” or “noble in heredity.” He intended it to denote the “science” of improving human stock by giving “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”1 This notion is steeped in the hierarchical fantasy of our Puritan ancestors dreams of human perfection – a notion as old as Plato.
In our Western heritage the notion of perfectibility whose origins lay in the cults of perfectionism of the Pythagorean world became in Plato part of the discursive and textural outlay of our cultural memory. Plato distinguishes between technical perfection and the perfection of human nature. In the Republic he proposed a new class of beings to rule and govern the polis. The “philosopher-kings,” as he calls them, are not perfect because they rule perfectly; they are perfect because they have seen “the form of the good” and rule in accordance with it. As John Passinore in his classic Perfectibility of Man comments, “in the end, the whole structure of Plato’s republic rests on there being a variety of perfection over and above technical perfection-a perfection which consists in, or arises out of, man’s relationship to the ideal.”‘ Passmore goes on to point out that other Western thinkers including Luther, Calvin, and Duns Scotus follow Plato in talking about technical perfection in terms of one’s vocation or calling. But the perfecting of oneself in the performance of the role in life to which one is called is not sufficient by itself to ensure one’s perfection as a human being.2
The tangled skein of the ethical and political notions of the Good filtered into our myriad cultural, social, political, religious, and ethical notions in both Eastern and Western traditions are part of an political and religious world that spawned our liberal and conservative traditions. Systems of thought and behavior under various guises since the dawn of history that have sought the utopian ideal of the Good Life. And this distinction between technological perfection (read: progress), and its human form as the perfectibility of human nature, and of the elimination of the negativity of the natural in man, has haunted western thought throughout its history. I’ll not address other cultures, but one could follow this notion of perfectionism into Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, and a variety of other socio-cultural heritages.3 Without going into the historical or philosophical history on the long road to its modern and genetic inheritors I’ll only add that at the heart of it is the ethical and utopian drive to attain the Good Life. I’ll not delve into this history which has already been traced in several excellent studies. One such is the work of Thomas Hurka Perfectionism which follows this notion through Western philosophy and its socio-cultural variants, and describes it this way:
This theory [of the Good Life] appears in the work of many great moralists. Aristotle and Aquinas think it is human nature to be rational, and that a good human exercises rationality to a high degree. Marx views humans as both productive, because we transform nature through our labour, and social, because we do so co-operatively. The best life, he concludes, develops both capacities maximally, as will happen under communism. For Idealists such as Hegel and Bradley, humans are but one manifestation of Absolute Spirit, and their best activities most fully realize identity with Spirit, as social life does in one realm, and art, religion, and philosophy do in another. Even Nietzsche reasons this way, saying that humans essentially exercise a will to power and are most admirable when their wills are most powerful. These are just some adherents of the theory; others are Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Green, and Bosanquet.4
One could see the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries through the lens of race, gender, and class divisions, and a whole gamut of intricate studies on specific forms of dominator, androcratic, and prot0-fascists and fascist forms within liberal and illiberal politics based on of the Good Life, Progress, and Perfectionism. The essay form is not the place to bring all those threads together, only to mention a book treatment or even a full cycle of books would be needed to uncover layer by layer the intricate web of relations that have produced our current malaise in politics and socio-cultural strangeness. What’s more interesting to me is how the distinction between “technical perfection,” and the Platonic notion of the perfection of human nature in our time fused, the barriers and horizon that circumscribed these two forms suddenly invaded each other and became the nexus of our computational and functional age of the Good as Artificial Life.
As an aside my whole existence is an ethical enactment of an aggressive nihilism that wavers between a full-tilt Nietzscheanism of the Dionysian variety, and a more materialist and less vitalist mode of being within a Bataillean-Deleuzian-Landian rhizomatic base materialist world of Occulture. Not being a philosopher or anti-philosopher, but an excess that is unbound from such reductionary ploys, I’ve opted for untruth rather than truth, and non-knowledge rather than knowledge. Like a chameleon whose masks and colors turn with the terrain, disguised as this or that according to the defensive measures of our kind, I’ve allowed the world to discover in my work its own delusioniary or illusive habitation. Yet, in my ongoing project – the one that like the Melvillean Bartleby says: “I prefer not to.” I’ve not published my own stance except as sparks on the winds of time.
In fiction as in life we live in a world that is incomplete and unknown, and we who know so much have discovered in the past centuries just how blind we are to most of the external and internal process of existence. We are a great mystery to ourselves and have awakened to the fact that the truths and beliefs by which the ancients lived were in themselves remarkable illusions that guided them by way of these deep seated notions of attaining the Good Life. We are the naked ape, unable to live and play in the natural world without tools or prosthesis (Stiegler) to protect us and comfort us against the catastrophic challenge of an unmerciful and impersonal universe. And in our corner of it on planet earth we’ve struggled against the very elements to build an illusionary defense system to secure our species as an ongoing project through time.
The notion of whether natural, artificial, or some interactive combination of the two provided the impetus of this distinction of which Plato was a definer of the separation of “technical perfection” and the perfection of human nature arose is part of an ongoing heated debate. Even the very notion of Nature has in our time been castigated as a politicized conception that has shaped our socio-cultural perspectives over the millennia. For better or worse or aggressive critique of Western Civilization and its cultural frames from Kant to the Post-moderns and beyond has destroyed these illusions, or – at least, uncovered their “human, all too human” untruth.
In many ways my ongoing project seeks to define, delimit, diagnose, and offer a cure to the degradation of the human species and its self-destruction in our time. To hone in on the specific forces, concepts, thought-forms, and drivers – whether of libidinal or unconscious production of those elements that have captured our lives and made of us beings whose mode has broken the old contract between the division of technical perfection and the perfection of human nature. For it is this breakdown in the distinction between the two that has in our time converged in the world of computational functionalism and its outgrowth in our search for immortality in machinic life.
Such a metaphysical vision is but one more conclusion to the utopian madness of our dystopian age. Driven to escape evil, we construct its prison for ourselves and begin to trap and capture ourselves within its meshes. Between such superfluous and narcissistic dreams as in Transhumanism, or the more scientific dream of automation, robotics, and AGI we see a false infinity brewing based on the age old notion of the Good. Once again we externalize our need to escape the natural order into an artificial paradise, a naked ape who found itself defenseless against the pressure of a catastrophic environment. Our immersive society is about to implode and allow a reversal of the actual/virtual divisions as well, allowing the virtual to invade the actual in a world where machinic life becomes the new ideology of an animistic society. All the talk of re-mythologizing our world is happening before our eyes in the convergence of the sciences and our cultural fantasia. We are constructing our own prison to escape reality for a realm of pure fantasy. The world is becoming a giant sand box, and MMO for the elite, and a crucible of pain and suffering for the excluded.
In a series of essays coming next I’ll deal with how notions of perfection, whether of technological progress or human nature have invaded and converged on both our biogenetic and Artificial Life and Intelligence programs with a fascist and exclusionary form of necromantic systems. In our search to overcome imperfection in ourselves and our technologies we’ve created a civilization based on the death-drives. Seeking to eliminate inefficiencies in ourselves and our machines we have opted for an optimization of everything through technics (art). Creating less diversity through the elimination of genetic defects we are spelling the doom of the human species and its diversity. While our perfection in the techno-commercial sphere of automation, robotics, and AGI is spelling the end of the human nature itself and the perfection of machinic life in its stead. Both paths converging on the Good Life and its perfection, a Utopian vision of Death-in-Life. A world totally secured and locked away from the impersonal and indifferent universe of elements that would end it. And, yet, this very temptation to exclude reality has in itself brought the Real into our prison through the back door: our inability to escape the Universe. We are locked in a duplicate order of fantasy, enclosed by the very forces we seek to escape. Death has no exit.
- Kevles, Daniel J.. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Kindle Locations 50-54). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Also:Francis Galton, Inquiries into the Human Faculty (Macmillan, 1883), pp. 24– 25.
- Harold Coward. The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies) (Kindle Locations 94-100). Kindle Edition.
- Already quoted above is Harold Coward. See: Joseph Chan Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times; Dzogchen Rinpoche’s The Great Perfection; etc. (I need to fill out a bibliography from my library collection!!!)
- Perfectionism. Thomas Hurka Oxford University Press (January 4, 1996)