John D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a transhumanist classic

This review first appeared on Transhumanity in 2002. Transhumanity was the late lamented magazine of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+). I was editor of Transhumanity at the time.

“The World, the Flesh, and the Devil” (WFD), a transhumanist classic, is available online at the URL given below [2]. I have known this for some time but until now I had never taken the time to read the book in full. What stimulated me to do so was realizing that it is quoted as a seminal reference in two books that I am reading again: Olaf Stapledon’s “Star Maker” (a SF classic), and Frank Tipler’s “The Physics of Immortality”. Both these authors state that WFD marked the beginning of the line of thought that culminated in their own work. WFD is subtitled “An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul”: our rational soul can progress toward a better future by overcoming limitations associated with the physical world, human physiology (the Flesh), and human psychology (the Devil).

WFD was written in 1929, after the establishment of the great conceptual revolutions of modern science – evolution theory, general relativity and quantum physics – but much before the takeoff of derived technologies. In particular, modern developments in bio and information technologies could not be conceived in detail at the time. John Desmond Bernal (JDB) was a physicist who made important contributions to the fields of crystallography and molecular physics. Thus, he was well equipped to imagine future scientific and technical developments. Another key to understand JDB’s thinking is the fact that he was a Marxist of the “old school” [1] . I believe we all know the type: uncompromising thinkers with a deep faith in dialectical materialism as the foundation of philosophy, Marxist theory as the pillar of economy and politics, and science and technology as the means to ensure steady and unlimited progress to humanity.

In passing, I regret the unfortunate circumstance that part of the left is now embracing Luddite and anti-progress views: the history of leftist thought, as exemplified by JDB’s work, is deeply rooted in rational and scientific thinking and holds science and applied technology as crucial elements of society’s development. Modern thinkers on the political left, notably Noam Chomsky and Alan Sokal, are also dismayed by the tendency of the contemporary left to abandon science and even rationalism, which have long been the tools by which the poor and disenfranchised have advanced materially and intellectually. In JDB’s words: “The relevance of Marxism in the development of science is both theoretical and practical. It removes science from its imagined position of complete detachment and shows it as part, a critically important part, of economic and social development… But for Marxism understanding is inseparable from action, and the appreciation of the social position of science leads at once in a socialist country, such as the U.S.S.R., to the organic connection of scientific research with the development of socialized industry and human culture…” [3]. Well, this was 1937.

In the words of Dr. Helena Sheenan: “He ranged widely in his intellectual interests and activities, also doing pioneering work in social studies of science or “science of science”. He was by all accounts a dazzling thinker and talker. His contemporaries called him “Sage”, as he was considered to be uncommonly wise. He was a marxist in philosophy and a communist in politics. He led a complicated life, sitting on hundreds of committees and playing a leading role in many scientific and political organisations. He also led a somewhat unconventional domestic life of a notoriously non-monogamous nature” [5]. More detailed information is available in Sheenan’s book “Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History” (Humanities Press International 1985 and 1993).

JDB was well aware of options, based on future technologies, to redesign humans: “man himself must actively interfere in his own making and interfere in a highly unnatural manner” [2]. In “Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science” [3] he also writes: “The practical scientists of today are learning to manipulate life as a whole and in parts very much as their predecessors of a hundred years ago were manipulating chemical substances. Life has ceased to be a mystery and has become a utility”. Rather than developments similar to modern biotechnology and genetic engineering, he had in mind options based on biomechanical and bioelectrical engineering, easier to conceive on the basis of the knowledge available at his times. His enhanced human is basically a biological brain in a vat, with modified nervous system ends interfacing to external sensors and actuators, including of course an independent locomotion system. At the same time he fully understands that the ability to interface the brain to external hardware implies the ability to establish links between two or more brains. High throughput communications between brains will lead inevitably to blurring the boundaries between the individual minds and to the emergency of group minds. This is JDB’s solution to the problem of mortality: in a group mind, as individual units die they are replaced by other units, in such a way as to preserve the individuality and the memories of the mind.

He believes that the exploration and colonization of outer space will inevitably happen, with the help of advanced future material sciences and technologies (in our modern words, nanotechnology): “The stage should soon be reached when materials can be produced which are not merely modifications of what nature has given us in the way of stones, metals, woods and fibers, but are made to specifications of a molecular architecture. Already we know all the varieties of atoms; we are beginning to know the forces that bind them together; soon we shall be doing this in a way to suit our own purposes.” [2]. He sees artificial worlds, populated by enhanced humans, fill the solar system and then, propelled by solar sails, move on to colonize the sidereal universe. Space is a natural habitat for enhanced humans who do not need many elements of the body plan and metabolism developed by natural evolution to face the conditions of the Earth’s environment. To replace these, future space-dwelling humans will need other sense organs, for example sensible to exotic electromagnetic frequencies, and a modified mental architecture more suited to their new environment and sensory system.

JDB sees human re-engineering and space colonization as complementary parts of the human adventure. Both endeavors are opposed by deep mental resistance (the Devil) built in most people. JDB recognizes that many readers could find his radical ideas on colonizing the cosmic space and re-engineering the human body plan difficult to accept, preferring instead “an idyllic, Melanesian existence of eating, drinking, friendliness, love-making, dancing and singing” [2] . To counter this reaction he relies on the young (at his times) science of Psychology for raising the rational mind to power against more primitive parts of the psyche: “It is this alternative that makes the mechanical, biological progress that I have outlined not only possible but almost necessary, for a sound intellectual humanity… will need a real externalization in the transforming the universe and itself” [2]. A possibility that JDB sees as very real is a splitting of the future humanity in two camps, one remaining on Earth in its natural state, the other moving to space to gain ever growing power, knowledge and experience, and changing itself in more and more radical ways: “becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light. That may be an end or a beginning, but from here it is out of sight” [2].

References

[1] Bernal archive @marxixts.org, http://marxists.org/archive/bernal/index.htm

[2] The World, the Flesh & the Devil – An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, http://marxists.org/archive/bernal/works/1920s/soul/index.htm

[3] Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science, http://marxists.org/archive/bernal/works/1930s/dsams.htm

[4] Biography of John Desmond Bernal, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jbernal.htm

[5] Article on Bernal’s life and work, http://www.comms.dcu.ie/sheehanh/bernal.h