Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for May, 2009

Equalizer or Terminator?

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

This post first appeared in George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments, where I’m his guest this month.

Years ago, I saw a short in an animation festival. It showed earth inhabited by men who happily bopped each other and propagated by laying eggs. A starship crash interrupted the idyll. Presaging Battlestar Galactica, the newcomers proved miraculously interfertile with the men who handed them the job of propagation along with all other disagreeable chores. Things went swimmingly, at least for the men, until a rescue ship arrived. After the women left, the men were once again free to pursue manly things – until they realized they had forgotten how to lay eggs.

The short was a wry, science-fictional version of the animal wife tale. But it’s interesting that we can program starships to ricochet from planet to planet and routinely use in vitro fertilization – yet if women want direct genetic descendants, they still have no alternative to pregnancy unless they are rich enough to hire a surrogate, an option burdened with ethical baggage.

Of course, a womb is much more than a warm sac of nutrients. The endocrine inputs alone would tax a medium-size factory, leaving aside those from the immune system. The complexities of its function have made an artificial womb remain a distant glimpse and attempts with mammalian embryos still fail at early stages. Yet cultural politics have been as decisive in this delay as biological challenges: think of the lightning speed with which Japanese officials approved Vi*agra versus their decades-long ban on oral contraceptives and you get the picture. And the upheaval brought about by contraception will be a mild breeze compared to the hurricane that will be unleashed if we ever succeed in creating an artificial uterus. Its repercussions may equal (and possibly reverse) those that accompanied the invention of agriculture.

Prior to agriculture, gatherer-hunters lived semi-nomadic lives in small groups of relatively flat hierarchies. Family configurations were fluid and quasi-egalitarian and children were few, spaced far apart and collectively raised. This persisted when the nomads first settled. The earliest agricultural communities show little social stratification: there are no ostentatious palaces or tombs. But with the ability to hoard food reserves, dynamics changed – and so did the status of women, now burdened with multiple children and deprived of mobility and the gathering skills and knowledge of their foremothers. Wombs became commodities and have remained so, with minor fluctuations, ever since.

If we succeed in creating functioning artificial wombs, they will remain luxury options (like surrogate motherhood) until/unless they become relatively cheap. At that point, it’s virtually certain that they’ll be heavily used for reasons outlined in many analyses elsewhere – primarily the sparing of both mother and child from the health problems associated with pregnancy and birth (1, 2). And if they’re used, they will have a predictable outcome: all parents will become fathers, biologically, psychologically and, possibly, culturally.

Women will be able to have as many children as men, even multiplets without the severe problems of extreme prematurity now inherent in such a choice. Additionally, women will not undergo the hormonal changes of pregnancy, which means they will be as much (or as little) emotionally invested in their offspring as men. And of course cheap working artificial wombs will also mean that women will become biologically redundant.

Having equally invested parents is standard in other species whose offspring have long periods of helplessness – birds are an obvious “nuclear” example, social insects an “extended” one. Adoptions in humans show that biological connections are not a prerequisite in forming kinship bonds, although adopted and step-children are often treated less well than biological ones.

If we go the friendly route, ending pregnancy may finally usher in true equality between the genders since women will no longer be penalized physically, psychologically, financially and socially for having children: many problems, from autism to bed wetting, will cease being automatically the mother’s responsibility or fault. Such a change may perhaps allow us to play with alternative family arrangements, from Ursula Le Guin’s Ki’O sedoretu to Poul Anderson’s Rogaviki polyandry.

If we go the other route, women could become extinct as soon as a decade after artificial wombs become widely available, except as trophies or zoo specimens. Those who think this is unlikely need only to be reminded that there are now regions of China and India where the ratio of boys to girls is two to one, courtesy of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. People may bemoan a potential world without women, but such pious thoughts didn’t stop us from extinguishing countless other species. Personally, I think that never getting born is preferable to a devalued life.

An all-male culture need not resemble a prison or an army barracks. Nevertheless, I suspect that such a society will have either slavery or indentured service even if it has advanced technology, as humans seem unable to avoid rank demarcations (although their natural ranking system is not the fixed rigid pyramid of canine packs). Their romantic Others may be transgendered men, or Wraeththu-like bishonen boys in a revival of the erastes/eromenos scheme of Periclean Athens. But like the men in the cartoon short I described earlier, even with artificial wombs these guys will eventually bump into another wall: ovarian stocks.

Like wombs, ova are not passive nurturing chambers. For one, they select which sperm to let in when the hordes come knocking. Additionally, beyond transmitting half the nuclear and all the mitochondrial genes, eggs also contain organized spacetime gradients that direct correct formation and epigenetic imprinting of the embryo. Re-creating this kind of organized cytoplasm makes an artificial womb seem simple by comparison and if there are any trophy women left at that point their fate may be grim.

Wanting to hear another person’s views on this matter, I asked my partner, without any preamble or explanation, “What do you think will happen to women if we create working artificial wombs?” And he, proving yet again how much he deserves the title of snacho, replied without missing a beat, “Nothing. Women are the reason men want to get out of bed in the morning.” I couldn’t help smiling… and I reflected that, as long as even tiny pockets of such people continue to exist, we may get to travel to the stars, after all.

If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)

This post first appeared in George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments, where I’m his guest this month.

Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.

But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.

And I finally realized why I balk at cyberpunk and transhumanism like an unruly horse. Both are deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. After all, many transhumanists use the repulsive (and misleading) term “meat cage” to describe the human body, which they deem a stumbling block, an obstacle in the way of the mind.

This is hoary dualism disguised as futuristic thinking, augmented by healthy doses of queasiness and power fantasies. Ascetics of other eras tried to diminish the body by fasting, flagellating, abstaining from all physical gratification from washing to sex. Techno-monks want to discard it altogether. The goal is a disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream. If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic, hairless and poreless, though it still retains the hyper-gendered configurations possible only in cartoons.

Is abandonment of the body such a bad thing? As anyone who lost a limb or went through a major illness can attest, it’s a marvelous instrument whose astonishing abilities become obvious only when it malfunctions. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fragile and humans have lost patience with its shortcomings as technology has overtaken nature. Transhumanists extol such prospects as anti-aging medicine; advanced prosthetics; radical cosmetic surgery, including sex changes; nootropic drugs; and carbon-silicon interfaces, from cyborgs to immersive VR.

I don’t know many women who, given the choice, would opt to retain menstruation, pregnancy or menopause (though few would admit it openly). And few people, no matter how stoic, can face the depradations of chronic disease or age with equanimity. The neo-Rupturists who prophesy the coming of the Singularity can hardly wait to exchange their bodies with versions that will never experience memory lapses or fail to achieve erections at will.

I’m no Luddite, bio or otherwise. I am glad that technology has enabled us to lead lives that are comfortable, leisured and long enough that we can explore the upper echelons of the hierarchy of needs. However, we demean the body at our peril. It’s not the passive container of our mind; it is its major shaper and inseparable partner. If we discard our bodies we run the danger of losing context to our lasting detriment – as we have already done by successive compartmentalizations and sunderings.

Humans are inherently social animals that developed in response to feedback loops between the environment and their own evolving form. Like all lifeforms, we’re jury-rigged. Furthermore, humans are mediocre across the entire spectrum of physical prowess, from range of vision to maximum running speed. Yet this mediocrity probably enabled us to occupy many environmental niches successfully before technology allowed us to impose our wishes on our environment. Optimizing in any direction may push us into dead-end corners, something that has happened to many species we engineered extensively.

This also holds true for our brains. It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligence. A lot of learning is mediated through the body, from using a screwdriver properly to gauging complex social interactions. Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory. There is a real reason for apprenticeships, despite their feudal overtones: people who use Photoshop, CAD and laboratory kits without prior “traditional” training frequently make significant errors and often cannot critically evaluate their results. Furthermore, without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination or madness, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain.

Another feedback loop is provided by the cortical emotions, which enable us to make decisions. Two prominent side effects of many nootropic drugs are flattening of the emotions and suppression of creativity. Far from fine-tuning perception, the drugs act as blunting hammers. Finally, if we evade our bodies by uploading into a silicon frame (biologically impossible, but let’s grant it as a hypothesis), we may lose the capacity for empathy, as shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.

I do believe that our bodies can be improved. Nor does everything have to remain as it is now. I wouldn’t mind having wings that could truly lift me; even less would I mind living without fear of cancer or diabetes. Yet I’m fairly certain that we have to stick with carbon if we want seamless form and function. When I hear talk of “upgrading” to silicon or to ether, I get a strong whiff of cubicleers imagining themselves as Iron Man or Neo. Being alone inside a room used to be a punishment. Being imprisoned inside one’s head is a recipe for insanity. Without our bodies, we bid fair to become not exalted intellects but mad(wo)men in the attic.

Images: Top, still from Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell.  Bottom, Jump by Sergey Kravtsov.

Set Transporter Coordinates to…

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Centauri Dreams, where my friend Paul Gilster is graciously hosting my more extended take on the new Star Trek film.  I think that the mixed reactions are universal among those who loved the original Star Trek’s optimism and civility.   Here is the closing paragraph of my extended essay, to whet your appetites:


ST|| is an odd-numbered film in the series, so I’ll give it a long space tether. However, if Uhura degenerates into the Angel in the House or if the certain-to-come sequels become more generic, I will put ST|| permanently in the same category as Star Wars. Those who have read my essay on Star Wars know how dire a fate this is. And though my wrath may not equal that of Khan, if enough of my ilk get disaffected we may abandon all the old lumbering dinosaurs and manage to relaunch the real McCoy — the Firefly-class starship Serenity, with its true love of endless skies and its persistent aim to misbehave.

“… ‘Tis Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World…”

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Ulysses, Alfred Tennyson

I just saw the Star Trek film.  Not surprisingly, it received an avalanche of good reviews (I recommend Stephanie Zacharek’s in Salon).  Though it’s far from perfect, it captures and renews the essence of its source without servility or campiness.  It’s an alternative universe fanfiction, in the best sense.  I considered Jackson’s Lord of the Rings an unexpected gift, and didn’t think I’d receive another of this kind.  Star Trek doesn’t pass the Bechdel test but, as I fervently hoped, Uhura does much more than answer phones… and much better than smooch Kirk.


This is the first time that I find myself looking forward to more of a remake.  It’s fitting and deeply, viscerally satisfying that the show which made SF mainstream and which has always stood out because of its idealism and optimism bids fair to become a potent myth for yet another generation.

Forever Young

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

Eleven years ago, Random House published my book To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek.  With the occasion of the premiere of the Star Trek reboot film and with my mind still bruised from the turgid awfulness of Battlestar Galactica, I decided to post the epilogue of my book, very lightly updated — as an antidote to blasé pseudo-sophistication and a reminder that Prometheus is humanity’s best embodiment.  My major hope for the new film is that Uhura does more than answer phones and/or smooch Kirk.


Coda:  The Infinite Frontier

A younger science than physics, biology is more linear and less exotic than its older sibling.  Whereas physics is (mostly) elegant and symmetric, biology is lunging and ungainly, bound to the material and macroscopic.  Its predictions are more specific, its theories less sweeping.  And yet, in the end, the exploration of life is the frontier that matters the most.  Life gives meaning to all elegant theories and contraptions, life is where the worlds of cosmology and ethics intersect.

Our exploration of Star Trek biology has taken us through wide and distant fields — from the underpinnings of life to the purposeful chaos of our brains; from the precise minuets of our genes to the tangled webs of our societies.

How much of the Star Trek biology is feasible?  I have to say that human immortality, psionic powers, the transporter and the universal translator are unlikely, if not impossible.  On the other hand, I do envision human genetic engineering and cloning, organ and limb regeneration, intelligent robots and immersive virtual reality — quite possibly in the near future.

Furthermore, the limitations I’ve discussed in this book only apply to earth biology.  Even within the confines of our own planet, isolated ecosystems have yielded extraordinary lifeforms — the marsupials of Australia; the flower-like tubeworms near the hot vents of the ocean depths; the bacteriophage particles which are uncannily similar to the planetary landers.  It is certain that when we finally go into space, whatever we meet will exceed our wildest imaginings.

Going beyond strictly scientific matters, I think that the accuracy of scientific details in Star Trek is almost irrelevant.  Of course, it puzzles me that a show which pays millions to principal actors and for special effects cannot hire a few grad students to vet their scripts for glaring factual errors (I bet they could even get them for free, they’d be that thrilled to participate). Nevertheless, much more vital is Star Trek’s stance toward science and the correctness of the scientific principles that it showcases.  On the latter two counts, the series has been spectacularly successful and damaging at the same time.

The most crucial positive elements of Star Trek are its overall favorable attitude towards science and its strong endorsement of the idea of exploration.  Equally important (despite frequent lapses) is the fact that the Enterprise is meant to be a large equivalent to Cousteau’s Calypso, not a space Stealth Bomber.  However, some negative elements are so strong that they almost short-circuit the bright promise of the show.

I cannot be too harsh on Star Trek, because it’s science fiction — and TV science fiction, at that.  Yet by choosing to highlight science, Star Trek has also taken on the responsibility of portraying scientific concepts and approaches accurately.  Each time Star Trek mangles an important scientific concept (such as evolution or black hole event horizons), it misleads a disproportionately large number of people.

The other trouble with Star Trek is its reluctance to showcase truly imaginative or controversial ideas and viewpoints.  Of course, the accepted wisdom of media executives who increasingly rely on repeating well-worn concepts is that controversial positions sink ratings.  So Star Trek often ignores the agonies and ecstasies of real science and the excitement of true or projected scientific discoveries, replacing them with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook more appropriate for series like The X-Files, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.  Exciting ideas (silicon lifeforms beyond robots, parallel universes) briefly appear on Star Trek, only to sink without a trace.  This almost pathological timidity of Star Trek, which enjoys the good fortune of a dedicated following and so could easily afford to cut loose, does not bode well for its descendants or its genre.


On the other hand, technobabble and all, Star Trek fulfills a very imporant role.  It shows and endorses the value of science and technology — the only popular TV series to do so, at a time when science has lost both appeal and prestige.  With the increasing depth of each scientific field, and the burgeoning of specialized jargon, it is distressingly easy for us scientists to isolate ourselves within our small niches and forget to share the wonders of our discoveries with our fellow passengers on the starship Earth.  Despite its errors, Star Trek’s greatest contribution is that it has made us dream of possibilities, and that it has made that dream accessible to people both inside and outside science.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus.  The sense of excitement and fulfillment that accompanies even the smallest scientific discovery is so great that it can only be communicated in embarrassingly emotional terms, even by Mr. Spock and Commander Data.  In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons, but stay at the starship chart tables and observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

Star Trek’s greatest legacy is the communication of the urge to explore, to comprehend, with its accompanying excitement and wonder.  Whatever else we find out there, beyond the shelter of our atmosphere, we may discover that thirst for knowledge may be the one characteristic common to any intelligent life we encounter in our travels.  It is with the hope of such an encounter that people throng around the transmissions from Voyager, Sojourner, CoRoT, Kepler.  And even now, contained in the sphere of expanding radio and television transmissions speeding away from Earth, Star Trek may be acting as our ambassador.