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Mad Scientists, Then and Now


People are too big. If we want to save the planet, we must shrink ourselves.
That’s the message of a recent Atlantic article entitled “How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.” The piece reports on a proposal — to be published soon in an environmental ethics journal — to meet the challenge of climate change (if such it be), not by transforming the earth and its climate, as some have suggested, but rather by reengineering human beings themselves.
In a nutshell, the reasoning in this essay goes like this:

  • Climate change is a calamity to be avoided at all costs.
  • There are only two ways to avoid it: reducing humanity’s carbon footprint or introducing compensatory changes into the earth’s climate system (geoengineering).
  • Geoengineering is too difficult and too dangerous.
  • Therefore, we must reduce our carbon footprint.
  • There are essentially two ways of reducing our carbon footprint: change our lifestyle or change our physical characteristics (bioengineering).
  • For psychological and political reasons, changing our lifestyle is too difficult, and so unlikely to happen.
  • Therefore, we must change ourselves (engage in bioengineering).

The article also discusses various types of possible bioengineering interventions:

  • Aversive therapy to instill disgust for meat-eating.
  • Oxytocin injections to make everyone more docile and “compassionate” (i.e., in agreement with the authors’ political opinions).
  • Biological (genetic and hormonal) manipulation to decrease the physical size of human beings.

I will concentrate on that last suggestion here.
The conclusion of the essay is this:
In order to reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet, we must reduce our physical size.
Now, the first question that’s bound to occur to any sane reader upon hearing this proposal is whether it’s intended seriously. Surely, this must be satire! Perhaps the authors are Exxon-paid infiltrators, bent on making climate-change alarmists look ridiculous. But no, the authors are perfectly serious.
The lead author is S. Matthew Liao, a professor in the Center for Bioethics and the Philosophy Department at New York University. The other authors are with the University of Oxford. To figure out what’s going on here, let’s look at a few passages from the interview with Professor Liao contained in the Atlantic piece:

Well one of the things that we noticed is that human ecological footprints are partly correlated with size. Each kilogram of body mass requires a certain amount of food and nutrients and so, other things being equal, the larger person is the more food and energy they are going to soak up over the course of a lifetime. There are also other, less obvious ways in which larger people consume more energy than smaller people — for example a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person, more fabric is needed to clothe larger people, and heavier people wear out shoes, carpets and furniture at a quicker rate than lighter people, and so on.
And so size reduction could be one way to reduce a person’s ecological footprint. For instance if you reduce the average U.S. height by just 15cm, you could reduce body mass by 21% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15% to 18%, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs.

How, according to Professor Liao, might the goal of shrinking humanity be accomplished?

There are a couple of ways, actually. You might try to do it through a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which is already used in IVF settings in fertility clinics today. In this scenario you’d be looking to select which embryos to implant based on height.
Another way to affect height is to use a hormone treatment to trigger the closing of the epiphyseal plate earlier than normal — this sometimes happens by accident in vitamin overdose cases. In fact hormone treatments are already used for height reduction in overly tall children. A final way you could do this is by way of gene imprinting, by influencing the competition between maternal and paternal genes, where there is a height disparity between the mother and father. You could have drugs that reduce or increase the expression of paternal or maternal genes in order to affect birth height.

Professor Liao goes on to discuss ways to chemically induce climate skeptics to accept his proposals. Back in the day, this was known as “brainwashing.” Nowadays, it is apparently “helping the unenlightened to do the right thing.”
When obviously intelligent people advance patently absurd — even wicked — ideas, the reason is usually not hard to identify. It is fanaticism: being in the grip of an ideology. In this case, not one but two ideologies are at work: environmentalism and transhumanism.
“Environmentalism” is the doctrine that the natural world is morally superior to human beings. Thus we have no right to adapt the earth to human needs. Rather, it is our duty to adapt humanity to the “needs” of the earth.
“Transhumanism” is the idea that human nature is in no way essential or normative, and therefore that it may be reengineered at will in conformity with whatever ideology you like, such as environmentalism. It carries the connotation that human nature is inherently deficient, and that “progress” consists in going beyond human nature. Obviously, these doctrines are part and parcel of the general scientism and moral nihilism of the age.
Beyond this, I would just point out that the two ideas are in considerable tension with each other. Environmentalism is a species of Romanticism. It is fundamentally sentimental. Transhumanism is a form of Prometheanism, and is essentially power-crazed and cynical. The two doctrines together are simply incoherent: How can “nature” be the ultimate value and yet human nature have no essential or normative features? Are human beings not a part of nature?
But enough of that. More notable is the way things have changed in our society, such that mad lucubrations like Professor Liao’s — which once were entertained mainly for their value in generating a frisson — have today become mainstream, respectable, and deadly serious.
After all, few of Liao’s ideas are new. The notion of shrinking human beings for the sake of an ideology formed the basis of the plot of an old Hollywood horror film called The Devil Doll (Tod Browning, 1936). In this entertaining flick, a mad scientist and his wife have developed a technique for shrinking people to one-sixth their normal size. The scientist’s noble motivation is to alleviate world hunger. But an evil partner soon takes over and uses the shrunken people (who lack free will due to their tiny brains) to commit murder and mayhem.
It’s all a lot of fun. Lionel Barrymore, playing the evil partner, even appears in drag as an old-lady “doll” maker. Needless to say, the scientist, the wife, and the partner all get their comeuppance. The characters in The Devil Doll are little-known examples of what used to be a vivid fixture in the imagination of the reading, theater-going, and film-going public — the mad scientist.
The mad scientist as a trope of European literature has many sources, but a particularly important one is of course the Faust legend, and Goethe’s magisterial treatment of the theme in particular, in his play Faust, the first part of which was originally published in 1808.
Faust, as you know, is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for forbidden knowledge, thus establishing the theme of the price to be paid for scientific knowledge that transgresses moral boundaries. For an early film treatment, see the splendid 1926 silent, Faust, by F. W. Murnau.
However, a more immediate prototype of the modern mad scientist is undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818 and retold in countless stage and film versions. The best-known — and also the best — of these is surely James Whale’s classic 1931 film, Frankenstein. In this tale — which is too famous to require commentary — Dr. Frankenstein discovers “the secret of life” and creates in his laboratory a hideous being, which proceeds to run amok.
Many other mad scientists appear throughout 19th-century literature. For example, E.T.A Hoffmann’s story, “The Sandman” (1816), includes an alchemist, Coppelius, and a physicist, Spalanzani, who conspire to create a lifelike automaton, which they call “Olympia” and pass off as Spalanzani’s daughter. This story forms the basis for the first act of Jacques Offenbach’s delightful 1881 opera, Les contes d’Hoffmann. Don’t miss the marvelous 1951 film version, The Tales of Hoffmann, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Nathaniel Hawthorne followed suit in 1843 with his short story, “The Birth-Mark,” in which a scientist becomes obsessed with “curing” a small birthmark on his beautiful wife’s face. This he succeeds in doing. However, as the birthmark fades from the young woman’s cheek, so does her life force. In the end, she dies — all unblemished. This story is almost made-to-order for modern debates about “perfecting” human nature.
Another winner in the mad-scientist sweepstakes was Robert Louis Stevenson, whose novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was published in 1886. As everyone knows, Dr. Jekyll pursues a potion that will help men to restrain their base urges, but only succeeds in turning himself into the wicked Mr. Hyde whose base urges are entirely unrestrained. The story has been filmed many times, including the classic 1931 version, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Rouben Mamoulian. An intriguing variation on the same theme involving a brain transplant operation gone awry is the 1940 horror classic, Black Friday, by Curt Siodmak.
Finally — to wind up this brief survey of mad scientists in literature and film — we come to the inventor of perhaps the most horrible and haunting mad scientists of all time: H.G. Wells. His greatest creation is The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), in which Wells foresaw many of the moral quandaries we grapple with today. Dr. Moreau works at transforming animals into human beings, after a fashion, using advanced surgical techniques (albeit without anesthesia) in a laboratory known to his experimental subjects — beasts given the gift of speech — as the “House of Pain.” You might say he is the founder of the transhumanist movement. Transhumanists everywhere should get together and erect a statue in his honor.
A disturbing film was made of this book in 1932. Directed by Earle C. Kenton, Island of Lost Souls is a marvel of atmosphere and the chilling intimation of evil, seen and unseen. The great Charles Laughton, at his most repulsively sinister, plays Moreau. You cannot help cheering at the end when the chimeras who are Moreau’s creations break free and apply the knives to his own flesh in the House of Pain. Wells’s redressing of the moral balance in this way also inspired French filmmaker Georges Franju with the idea for the ending of his elegant 1960 horror classic, Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face), in which the mad scientist is devoured by the dogs he has been experimenting on.
Much less grim, but equally gripping, is Wells’s 1897 novel, The Invisible Man, about a scientist who succumbs to the temptation of power upon creating a potion to render himself invisible. In essence a modern retelling of the myth of Gyges’s ring from the second book of Plato’s Republic, The Invisible Man was brilliantly realized on the screen by James Whale in 1933.
One might go on almost forever — such was the former popularity of the mad-scientist theme in popular culture. However, let me conclude with a performance so indelible that it cannot be omitted here: that of Peter Lorre in the role of Dr. Gogol in Karl Freund’s 1935 reworking of the silent expressionist classic, Orlacs H�nde (The Hands of Orlac) (Robert Wiene, 1924).
Freund’s film is retitled Mad Love, and concerns a doctor who becomes obsessed with an actress. Her husband is injured in a railway accident, losing his hands. Dr. Gogol replaces the husband’s hands with those of a murderer who has just been executed. All sorts of complications ensue, but never has a mad scientist behaved more despicably — or at least less chivalrously — than Peter Lorre’s Gogol.
Now — in case it is not already obvious — let me stress that all of these novels, stories, and movies have a very interesting feature in common:
They all end with the moral order restored through the death of the mad scientist and the destruction of his unholy creations.
It is this feature that is often lacking in contemporary movies that flirt with the mad-scientist genre. For example, in what is surely the greatest science-fiction film of all time — a veritable tour de force of cinematic imagination wedded to technical genius — the Promethean attitude is the true hero of the film. I am talking about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
While the revolt of the omniscient computer HAL might be advanced as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, taken as a whole the film must be seen as a glorification of transhumanism. At the end of the day, the alienated and affectless human beings who populate the film are scarcely distinguishable from the gadgets that surround them. But in any case in Kubrick’s eyes, they — that is, we human beings — are a bunch of poor specimens destined for rapid replacement by a better race. That’s the symbolic meaning of the “star child” — the gigantic floating fetus — at the end of the film, as well as the take-home message of Childhood’s End, the 1953 novel by Arthur C. Clarke on which the film is based.
In brief, 2001 channels Kubrick’s misanthropy, cynicism, and moral nihilism, painting a picture of humanity as a feeble and faintly contemptible link in a chain from the monkey hurling a stick into the air to our utopian future. It is a true transhumanist manifesto — one that has set the pace for science-fiction films ever since.2
To be sure, there have been exceptions to Kubrick-style Prometheanism. For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s great 1972 film Solaris is a kind of anti-2001. And — on an aesthetically more-modest scale — films like Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), and Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) all clearly intend to raise moral questions in the viewer’s mind.
But none of these films takes a clear moral stand against the mad scientist in the way that the classic Hollywood films did. At most, they generate in the viewer a feeling of discomfort. Above all, they trade on a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time, when human beings were capable of taking morality seriously. But they all seem to exist in a post-moral universe in which transhumanism is — even if deplored — nevertheless perceived as inevitable.
Today’s mass-audience blockbusters — the Avatars (James Cameron, 2009) and the Inceptions (Christopher Nolan, 2010) — for the most part take Prometheanism and indeed transhumanism for granted. Their moral concerns, such as they are, lie entirely elsewhere, with the predictable liberal pieties of the day. The gee-whiz factor trumps all moral and even aesthetic considerations.
In short, the mad scientist has disappeared from our contemporary mental landscape. The reason is not far to seek: We have lost our sense of the sacred, and with it our belief in transgression, sin, guilt, and atonement. That is why we can no longer recognize insane hubris when we see it in art — or in scholarship.
(1) S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache, “Human Engineering and Climate Change,” Ethics, Policy, and the Environment, forthcoming.
(2) In the wake of World War II scientists became secular saints, and horror films for the most part suppressed their traditional mad-scientist element. To the extent that the theme has continued to be plumbed, it has been within the context of the science-fiction genre, not horror.
Cross-posted at The Best Schools; image credit: Ted Chiang’s “Alchemist’s Gate”/Wikicommons.


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