Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.Harkup, however, is a scientist.Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.
Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.
Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.It takes me several days to read books.What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human. And the monsters left behind endure.
Genealogy is one of those things that’s fascinating as long as it’s yours.It’s not hard to lose a few (or many) hours, trying to find ancestral connections.When someone you don’t know begins to tell you, however, about other people you’ve never heard of, your eyes begin to glaze over.My wife kindly gave me a gift of a local genealogy class that we attended the other day.Along with some dozen others we gathered to learn some tricks of the trade.The presenter began by having us introduce ourselves, “briefly.”It’s a dangerous move in a genealogical crowd.A few of our fellow students went into great detail about their ancestors, forgetting, for the moment, that we were there to learn how to do the research, not to find out about their families.It’s a natural enough mistake.
None of us ask to be born, and we spend our lives wondering why we are here.How did our parents meet?Where were they from?What did they do?And the generation before that?Some time ago I figured out that, due to the exponential nature of ancestors, that by the time you get back to just eight “greats” before for your grandparents, it took over a thousand people to make you.It boggles the mind.Suddenly it seems as if there would never be enough chance encounters or arranged marriages or tumbles in the hay for you to ever get here.So many ancestors!By the time I was in college I’d managed to trace it back to almost sixteen family names.I was able to break through a barrier on this just over a year ago when talking to some family members about a lost ancestor at the turn of the twentieth century.Genealogy is a search for meaning.
Both my wife and I share this interest.Of the dozen or so others at the session, four others were married couples.Almost all of us had done the voluntary DNA test to find our nations of origins—to confirm or deny family stories.And that’s what it’s really about: stories.Although we may be squeamish about some aspects, we want to know where we came from, the story of how we arrived here.As if there’s some cosmic clue in it that gives us information on why we’re here.It brought several of us out on a February afternoon.We didn’t know each other.If we traced back far enough, however, we would have found we were all related.We are all family.
I was a teenage Methodist.Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.
The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.Then it became codified in some sacred writings.
While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.At least in Christianity.In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.
“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.I found SID’s question intriguing.In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.
The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.The one who creates is God.Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.Who doesn’t want to know?
Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.SID is aware that he’s been simulated.Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.
The western philosophical tradition is built on the idea that permanence is reality.From the Greek philosophers on, the idea has been to identify the basic, unchanging building blocks of reality to get at what’s really real.The eastern philosophical system posits that change is reality.Permanence is illusion, and that which we think of as unchanging is a deceptive projection of our own minds.This dichotomy keeps coming back to me when things change and I keep waiting for them to go back to “the old way” or “the usual way.”Most recently, for example, the shift to or from (I can never remember which) Daylight Saving Time.This was followed closely by a mandated trip to San Diego, three time zones away, that lasted five days.While there I met with potential authors later into the evening than I generally stay up on eastern time.Now that I’m back home I keep waiting for things to go back to the way they were.
My response to all of this is to wonder if maybe I have the wrong philosophical disposition.Problem is, the entire western world is built on the proposition that permanence is reality.The things that worry us are, in eastern thinking, part of the constantly changing flux of reality.While away from the usual constant connectivity of life at home, bills still come electronically.Websites ask you for passwords that, like eastern thought, are constantly changing.I play along, even to the point of “buying” property so that it will always be mine.Right now lots of things are up in the air in the western world—the future of democracy itself is uncertain—and I keep waiting for things to get back to normal.
Part of the problem is that I keep too busy.It is easier for me to maintain this illusion if I slow down and have time to think it through.Things change too quickly for that, however.Using time as a pole star to navigate this constantly heaving sea, I’ve become a little confused about my longitude.I’m settling back into eastern time at the new hour they tell me that it is, but I feel as though I’ve left lots of things behind.I’ve had a little time off work over the holiday and there’s a tremendous amount of change awaiting me once I fire the laptop up again.I want to go back to where I was before I boarded that plane, back before I “gained” an hour.Back before I had to learn everything you need to know to “buy” a house.I look to the east and nod.
Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.So we devise tests for them.Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.Then it’s back to the lab.I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.
This makes me think of many forms of religion.We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.Doesn’t feel so good, does it?
Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.Some tote guns while others pack books.All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.Is this all a game?Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?
Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.(Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.
Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.
The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.