I have had this feeling the energy we are up agains is very much like the Minotaur. I thought of it and the maze being like Wall Street (Bloomberg Mithraic) but Haldane’s allusions to bio-technologists is interesting, too.
"And the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane (Daedalus) imagined a future where deliberately modified algae fed the world and had turned the oceans purple, yet the colour had come to seem ‘so
natural’. page 6
“Part of Gilman’s argument for trusting evolution was that doing so had clearly worked for plant and animal breeders who had ‘already done wonders’ in creating new organisms. Their principles could just as easily be applied to humans; ‘we must provide right conditions’, she asserted, then ‘that great pushing life-force of Evolution [will do] the rest’. Plant and animal breeding as a model for improving the whole of nature, including humans, was a recurring theme in Gilman’s work, and one of her inspirations was the work of Luther Burbank.”
"The same process has been applied to the Herlanders themselves; instincts of which the Herlanders approved had been encouraged while antisocial impulses had been weeded out. As the men discover (to varying degrees of consternation), the instinct of ‘sex-feeling’ had atrophied from disuse in Herland; even the most fundamental of human instincts could be modified as readily as the cat’s meow. The abolition of the sex instinct had allowed the Herlanders to escape the Malthusian trap; they had learned to control their parthenogenetic reproduction through sheer willpower, ensuring that their population stayed at a level their country could support. "
“Almost every writer who described Burbank emphasized his ability to control and manipulate plants – that, after all, was the most arresting fact about him. The Scientific American, for example, claimed that he had proved that ‘plants could be made to respond to a dominant will’; every aspect of the plant ‘might be controlled or altered’ to produce new types, ‘never dreamed of or imagined’. Yet, however wonderful and natural it seemed, Burbank’s ability to transcend nature invariably hinted at a kind of assault. For example, when he described how he redeemed a plant ‘from among a race of vile, neglected orphan weeds’, he acknowledged that a plant might need ‘the overpowering shock of re-creation’, and ‘must irrevocably break with the past’. His method was to cross a plant with as many others as possible, so as to ‘break up its life tendencies’. Harwood noted the unpleasant consequences of these shocks and breaks: In the breaking-up it may produce a whole series of monstrosities, the most strange and grotesque plants that ever took root in the soil of the earth. Some of these plants are hideous, and all such are put to death. If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, Serviss flattered Harwood mightily when he acknowledged that Burbank’s experiments sometimes created ‘strange monstrous forms’, so ‘useless’, ‘repellent’ and ‘horrible even, that instantly he destroys them as things unfit to live’. The faint hint of anxiety conveyed by the reference to Burbank’s plants as ‘queer’ or ‘freaks’ seems a little stronger here, which may explain why Serviss tried to absolve Burbank of blame: the monsters emerged, he explained, ‘from the deep of the past’ and ‘nature’s past, like that of a human life, is not made up entirely of beautiful and desirable elements’. It was nature, not Burbank, who was to blame: ‘She has had her tragedies and her sins’.”
“The image of Burbank as a kind of mother was used by Serviss in a newspaper article about Burbank: in creating a red Californian poppy, Burbank had given the flower ‘the chance that nature denied it’, because – he explained – ‘nature usually frowns upon departure from her customary lines. She stamps out independence’ and ‘has little mercy for the nonconformist among her children’. Burbank had stepped in when mother nature failed, but the implicit feminizing of Burbank added to the discomfort when his work was described in faintly violent terms; for example, another writer explained that Burbank tried to direct each plant’s evolution and to govern any ‘outlaw tendencies’ that appeared. However, ‘the blood of atavism’ would sometimes reassert itself once the plant’s ‘persistent type is ruptured’. Such ‘outlaw’ plants were dealt with harshly. ‘Of the mass which give no definite or hopeful perturbations, there is a massacre’; they were burnt in large numbers. Harwood, too, stressed the violent way in which Burbank treated his failures: ‘the rejected plants, shrubs or trees are gathered in large bonfires and burned … In a single year as many as fourteen of these huge bonfires have been lighted … consuming hundreds of thousands of plants’.”
“Haldane argued that ‘a sentimental interest’ in Prometheus had distracted us from ‘the far more interesting figure of Daedalus’, who helped create the Minotaur, the monstrous hybrid of human and cow that symbolized the ability of humans to remake nature. Titling the book after the monster maker was a celebration of perversion (whereas, as we have seen, Burbank’s supporters generally sought to distance him from any hint of the monstrous or unnatural). Haldane was unafraid to link the mythical monster and the achievements of twentieth-century genetics, arguing that if only ‘the housing and feeding of the Minotaur [had] been less expensive’ Daedalus might ‘have anticipated Mendel’. (Though perhaps, he pondered, an annual sacrifice ‘of 50 youths and 50 virgins [was] excessive as an endowment for research’). The modern biologist was heir to Daedalus, able to pervert nature to serve human needs and so, despite being ‘a poor little scrubby underpaid man’ (a distinctly Wellsian figure), Haldane was convinced that ‘the biologist is the most romantic figure on earth at the present day’.”
“Daedalus forecast drugs that would modify human moods, artificial foods synthesized directly from inorganic chemicals, and coal and oil being replaced by renewable energy. However, it was the biological inventions that took centre stage in the ‘undergraduate essay’ portion of the book. An artificially modified alga had been invented that fixed nitrogen so efficiently that global food gluts resulted. When a strain escaped into the ocean, fish stocks increased so much that they became the world’s main source of protein, finally abolishing hunger. The artificiality of this future world is emphasized in various asides, such as noting that it was after the alga’s escape that ‘the sea assumed the intense purple colour which seems so natural to us, but which so distressed the more aesthetically minded of our great grand-parents [sic] who witnessed the change’ (anything, Haldane implies, can come to seem natural in time, from eating cheese to purple oceans).102 Haldane’s undergraduate narrator described another biological invention, a new lichen that stabilized the drifting sands of deserts, allowing them to support crops. This well-fed world with its newly created plants and cultivated deserts sounds distinctly Burbankian, and the ‘naturalness’ of purple seas, the products of laboratories working to feed the world, are the epitome of biotopia. Yet so is the distress of ‘the more aesthetically minded’ who witnessed its creation; one person’s biotopia is another’s ecocatastrophe – a world without swallows.”
“Indeed, Haldane does not endorse any fixed moral code at all, only the idea that as science changes – and particularly as it changes us – our moral codes will be forced to change too.”
“Experimental evolution – which initially grew out of de Vries’s mutation theory and Mendelism – offered the possibility of speeding up, improving and above all controlling the evolutionary process. Remaking nature meant, of course, that humans could no longer turn to it for guidance, but perhaps they would be able to finally root out that last trace of secularized original sin.”
“Daedalus was a sensation, selling fifteen thousand copies in its first year, and its success prompted other scientists to try their hand at prophecy. Just three years later, Haldane’s fellow Cambridge academic, John Desmond Bernal, produced The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Inquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, which was inspired by (and shared many themes with) Daedalus. Similar ideas emerged in Out of the Night, by the US geneticist Hermann J. Muller, which featured a prominent promotional blurb from Haldane, describing Muller as 'one of the world’s leading biologists’, and adding that ‘his proposals, whether or not they are desirable, are entirely practicable. If they are adopted, the results will be as important as those of the industrial revolution’.”
The secularized version of original sin that motivated various forms of the Malthusian fear reached a crescendo in the decades around the year 1900, as diffuse but pervasive fears of degeneration became increasingly widespread.125 The most common form was the fear that what Thomas Huxley had called ‘the cosmic process’ (natural selection) had been softened by the ‘ethical process’ of civilization, allowing the weaker members of society to survive and breed, indeed to breed more prolifically than their supposed betters, leading to a sharp (perhaps terminal) decline in human intelligence and morals. The most popular response to this fear was, of course, eugenics, the catch-all title for various schemes to selectively breed human beings that was typically divided into negative eugenics (reducing the reproduction of the unfit) and positive schemes to encourage the allegedly superior to breed faster. Eugenics and biotopianism were, to varying degrees, both indebted to recent biological science and their concerns and goals intersected in various ways."
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