Distraction Free Reading

Social Science, Socialist Scientists, and the Future of Utopias

As space colonization becomes a more serious project and an influential utopian imaginary, I am reminded of British scientist and communist JD Bernal’s 1929 warning about “human dimorphism”: Bernal wondered about a future in which “mechanizers” would live an enhanced, technoscientifically-evolved form of life, separated from the “humanizers,” the masses whose physical needs would be equally gratified thanks to scientific advancements—but who would prefer to exist in an atavistic human way, enjoying mundanities such as friendliness, poetry, dancing, drinking, singing, and art. His figure for that version of the good life seems to have been filched from whatever exposure he had to colonial anthropology—he calls it the “idyllic, Melanesian existence.” The mechanizers, on the other hand, would transform themselves biologically and psychologically, moving down a different evolutionary path towards a different destiny—a vision dear to present-day transhumanists, who from early on were among the strongest advocates of space colonization, and have been involved in various aspects of it, through NASA and DARPA as well as a number of smaller, more esoteric organizations. The word transhumanist was, in fact, coined by Bernal’s more famous acquaintance, Julian Huxley—Julian was Aldous’ socialist brother, who had his own visions of a quasi-eugenicist utopia.

Artists depiction of a space colony tube in the shape of a ring inside the tube are rivers, forests and mirrors.

Image: The assembly of the ‘Stanford Torus’ space colony design. By Don Davis for NASA.

There are alternative and instructive histories, as well as an important present, buried in these entanglements with utopia, science, and the left. It seems worthwhile to reconsider some of the visions and insights embedded in that history and, possibly, to find a lens that might point a way out of the directionless quagmire we find ourselves in as we try to think beyond the black box of market capitalism. I wonder whether, in our over-determined rejection of utopianism, we have not also thrown out something valuable, or maybe simply useful. In putting forward a “recombinant tale of social and scientific consciousness” (a phrase I steal from Debbora Battaglia), I am especially interested in utopianism and forms of teleology [rationalization based on end-goals], because telos seems to matter, somehow, and I am interested in finding out not so much why it matters, but how it matters in thinking politically and morally.

Abandoning Utopia

That history of teleology perhaps starts back with the Marquis de Condorcet, coming up through the early 20th century with Western scientists like JD Bernal as well as Soviet thinkers such as Alexander Bogdanov and Nikolai Fedorov, and, having been largely abandoned through the second half of the 20th century, gets picked up happily from the side of the neoliberal highway by transhumanists in the 21st century. I am also interested in these lines of history because there is a surge in attraction to many of these older writers, an attraction which comes in part from the pull of their teleological undertow—or at least their engagement with larger questions about purpose and the place of humans in the cosmos, which seem especially relevant in the anthropocene. It is just such a teleological vision that transhumanists—contra both the left and science—have unabashedly picked up in developing a vision of a not-so-disenchanted cosmic future; I see it also being taken up by an assortment of other thinkers too (take Isabelle Stengers’ work, for example). Perhaps we have been scared off utopianism, teleologies and questions of purpose for too long now.

The discrediting of utopianism through the 20th century has had much to do with the discrediting of teleologies—both social and scientific. The well-worn story here is the former, the one about the failure of social or historical teleologies, which came to hold sway with critiques of colonial Western notions of progress and superiority and the miseries of state-led communist projects. By the 50s, most liberals and leftists vilified theories of history and teleological social dreaming (i.e., utopias), marking them as dangerous—pace Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper. Other world events didn’t help utopian visions: the communalist experiments of the 60s drained out into consumerism and/or the spirituality of new age and self-help movements, the Iranian revolution morphed from a leftist to a theocratic movement and the Berlin Wall fell, leaving the world open to a directionless, Hobbesian-Scorcesian capitalism: homo wall street, homini lupus. Margaret Thatcher’s proud statement that “there is no alternative” echoed through the West, and Francis Fukuyuma would write, with more melancholy than triumphalism, about the End of History.

Anti-utopian history seemed so entrenched, on such a deep structural level, that through the recurring collapses, eternal protests, long wars, corporate calamities, and anthropocenic imaginaries of the turn of the century, it had become easier to imagine the end of the world than the possibility of a better one, as a number of people came to observe.

In the sciences, the discrediting of a transcendent teleology may have started with the secular elimination of god as explanatory force in the 17th century, but the idea of human-directed progress took over nicely, at least for a while. Only in the 19th century did the optimistic armor of progress begin to show some end-time cracks. The concept of entropy (or the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) came to prevail, both as social anxiety and scientific law—and though entropy could be said to have a telos, it would have to be one that slouched rather more apocalyptic than utopian or progressive. Teleology gets further banished from the halls of science after Darwin. But as philosophers of science like Spyridon Koutroufinis have claimed, this in itself does not do away with teleology within science altogether; questions of direction and purpose continue to inform crucial discussions, especially in biology, though often by way of their negation. Cleaving strictly to the agreed-upon view, that the universe had laws and regularities but no greater purpose towards which it moved, required, and continues to require, the repression of much intuition on part of scientists, and of general ideas regarding progress. Indeed, that repression, as Weber advocated in his famous essay Science as a Vocation, is de rigeur for scientists working in a disenchanted age. Their duty is not to give in to the temptations of metaphysics, and keep working with their nose to the grindstone even if the direction and purpose of either the universe or their own work is not clear at all. Nevertheless, it is hard for me to imagine most scientific work without at least a Pinker-ish sense of progress underlying it—indeed, this may be just why Pinkerism is popular with and necessary for the sciences. It may not exactly re-enchant the world, but it does lend it a rosier and more directional progression.

Photograph of an old book. There is an illustration of men on the left side and the title page on the right.

Image: “L’An Deux Mille Quatre Cent Quarante Vol.II” by Louis-Sebastien Mercier. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

In many ways, the concept and history of progress, as others have pointed out, are inseparable from utopianism, but also from science. Science and technological prediction were already part of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, published in 1627, with its vision of an advanced state in which humans live longer and can use efficient tools to procure their needs. Similarly, Mercier’s L’An 2400, published in 1771, envisions the world as it might appear centuries later. But Bacon’s is a lost city and Mercier’s a future city found or imagined; neither comes with a theory of history or stages of progress. It’s probably with Turgot’s 1750 Universal History and Condorcet’s 1792 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, written at the end of his life while in hiding, that we get the first systematic displays of progressivism. Condorcet consciously produced his stages of progress by stating that an examination of the past allows the formulation of laws based on which we can infer—and plan for—a future. Thus, he outlines ten epochs of mankind, ending with a future one he calls Epoch of the Future Progress of Mankind, during which, thanks to the growth of scientific knowledge, inequality would end and human moral progress would start on its final path. It may be no coincidence, either, that his is the first utopian vision to not mention god at all. Condorcet’s influence on modernity and notions of progress as a whole cannot be underestimated. One might mention Hegel and then Marx as obvious descendants. Saint-Simon and then his student Comte followed Condorcet closely and it was out of this attempt at imagining a perfect human society of the future—the “New Social System”—that in fact Comte created his philosophy of mankind and society and termed it “sociology.” Thus, one might also cite utopias as among the conditions of possibility of the social sciences. What’s more, Condorcet is adopted as an ancestor of sorts by transhumanist thinkers such as Nick Bostrom and James Hughes and by the World Transhumanist Association, which cites Condorcet on its website (he has been called a “proto-transhumanist”).

Teleology and the Past’s Post-Human Future

What lent teleology its sheen of optimism through the enlightenment were developments in scientific knowledge and practice. Progress towards the betterment of human life would come about through the Trinity of S’s: Science, Society and the State. In the future, each of these domains, or units, would be optimally arranged to create the ideal secular-scientific flourishing of human existence as a whole.

In his late utopian tract, New World Order (1940), HG Wells called that Trinity of S’s “the triangle of collectivisation, law and knowledge,” which, he added, “should embody the common purpose of all mankind,” thereby adding a teleological undercurrent to the project. Our common purpose! HG Wells, who studied zoology, was an ardent Utopian and socialist till the end. He was also close friends with JD Bernal and Julian Huxley, both socialist scientists. Bernal—who has been called one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century in the pages of Nature—was a physicist who worked on x-ray crystallography (a way of determining atomic positions within crystals through beam diffraction), especially as applied to biology (organic matter, after all, produces crystals too). Bernal was also a communist and a futurist, joining the communist party with his wife in 1923. A committed atheist early in life, he published The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929), secularizing the three enemies of the Christian soul (i.e., humanity would have to master inorganic matter, the vicissitudes of the body, and the pull of destructive internal desires). If it doesn’t exactly present us with a utopia per se, the book is at least a futuristic tract with solid utopian impulses, on Bernal’s own admission. Most people cite it for its impressive predictive performance: imagining space colonies, bionic implants and cognitive enhancements. But what drives him is not technofetishism; there is another animating concern at the heart of the predictions. He comes to ask where it is all headed, or rather, “What is the effective purpose of the human race as it now is?” He takes seriously the thought that the path of contemporary science may be not part of the true “line of evolution” but just a kind of “pathology” and that it may come to be that what we as humans really need is simply the satisfaction of physical desires, “leading an idyllic, Melanesian existence of eating, drinking, friendliness, love-making, dancing and singing.” If that is the case, science will be led naturally back to the true evolutionary path of providing everyone with shelter and food and comfort and nothing more; thus “the golden age may settle permanently on the world.” However, he suspects that humans are made of and for higher things. His foil is Bertrand Russell’s pessimistic projection of science being defeated by the indolent masses in search of metaphysical hope or comfort, and besides, all that is futile anyway, given that everything shall crumble with the heat death of the universe. Bernal thinks that “a sound intellectual humanity” inevitably tends towards “a real externalization,” and that its destiny from the get-go has been in “transforming the universe and itself.” In the future, as humans work to enhance themselves and all the matter around them, humanity and the universe will merge, with much of that likely taking place as humans get off the planet. Scarier prospects might follow, such as the emergence of “a dimorphism in humanity in which the conflict between the humanizers and the mechanizers will be solved not by the victory of one or the other but by the splitting of the human race.” However, he suggests that the likely-truer nature of evolution is the rise of the post-human: “Normal man is an evolutionary dead end; mechanical man, apparently a break in organic evolution, is actually more in the true tradition of a further evolution.” Bernal, too, is adopted as an ancestor in genealogies of transhumanism.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil was based on the work of another British socialist scientist and utopian, JBS Haldane, a geneticist who delivered a lecture entitled “Daedalus, or Science and the Future” six years earlier at the Heretics Society; its content was inspired by HG Wells’ early book of predictions, Anticipations (1902). After scientific and technobiological predictions, foreseeing the advent of cloning, Haldane writes that science “is the answer of the few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory… gifts which it will grant only in exchange for peace, security and stagnation.” He predicts that though it might take thousands of years (“negligible” to a student of geology), humans will produce “human organization on a planetary scale,” a kind of Kantian governance whose weak model was the League of Nations. Science is also seen as “man’s gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul.” Science is the conquest of the world, the flesh and the devil. But Haldane is no simple-minded futurist: “The future will be no primrose path.” Science is power and that has the tendency to “magnify injustices.” It may take many wars before humanity finds a way to “adjust its morality to its powers.” Science is an important aspect of an inevitable progressive unfolding—viewed in deeper time, hiccups and set backs are seen as temporary in the bigger picture. His vision of the scientist, a little like Weber’s disenchanted man of science, is a “lonely” Daedalus “conscious of his ghastly mission, and proud of it,” working away knowing that even as the work of science may lead to perversion today, morality will inevitably catch up and what will remain is such work as eliminating disease and enhancing capacities. A socialist since WWI, Haldane became a supporter of the Communist Party in the 30s, travelled to Spain several times in support of the Republican cause, lectured in Leningrad, became involved with Soviet science, and in the 50s went into self exile in India where he obtained citizenship, encouraged and trained Indian scientists and argued vociferously against capitalism and American domination whilst also admiring the Jeffersonian spirit of rebellion against state domination. He also merged his Marxism with Hinduism to which he converted late in life.

Resurrecting Other Ancestors

[Image removed by source.] Image: Bogdanov and Lenin playing chess. Image by Youry A. Zhelyabuzhsky. Public domain.

By now it should come as no surprise to hear me say that Daedalus and Haldane, too, are claimed as part of the transhumanist ancestry. As transhumanists claim this genealogy, however, they mainly leave out the socialist/communist ideas and convictions that drove these predecessors. Conversely, the left rarely looks back anymore to claim these scientists. A rare exception here is McKenzie Wark, who has tried in his new book Molecular Red (2015) to resurrect the ideas of Russian physician and revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov. There has also been recent engagement from a number of artists and writers with another Russian utopian thinker, Nikolai Fedorov. Admired by Tolstoy as well as a host of revolutionaries and writers, Fedorov put his faith in reason and science, but was also a religious man, taken by the question of purpose—the title of his book, after all, was What was Man Created For? The Philosophy of the Common Task (1990). Fedorov’s radical view of progress also required the unity of humanity and the universe through the human transformation of matter—to control not only “celestial bodies” but the very “composition of matter.” For one, this would transform “the blind force which brings hunger, disease and death” into a “life-giving force.” More importantly, it would transform “chaos” into “cosmos”—that is, an indifferent and meaningless arrangement of matter into a meaningful one. Ultimately, this also means that humanity must defeat death, which is tantamount to meaninglessness. Indeed, science must be directed at “resurrection,” for not until all the dead are brought back to life will the purpose of human activity and the cosmos coincide in a fully meaningful way. This may sound outlandish, but there is at least one reputable physicist at Tulane, Frank Tipler, who argues in his book The Physics of Immortality (1994) that resurrection will take place as the universe collapses, a singularity event which will produce infinite energy and computational power that would simulate the history of the entire universe. But I read Fedorov’s cosmism as a trenchant critique of the kind of progress that leaves dead bodies in its wake and does not care about the true sense of “fellowship.” The dead who have gone before us cannot be treated merely as sacrificial bodies in the production of a future utopia that does not, ultimately, involve them. A good life cannot exist unless it exists for all humans, regardless of their position in space and time. As physical immortality is a great part of the transhumanist vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Fedorov, too, has found a following amongst transhumanists: Ben Goertzel’s A Cosmist Manifesto (2010) is one example; there is also a recent transhumanist “church” whose “prophet” is Fedorov and whose name is The Church of Perpetual Life.

Engaging these alternative histories seems useful, in part, for reasons proposed by Wark: a forward-looking left must move forward with science and recuperate its alternative possibilities rather than retreat into escapist utopias or relativist futility. More than that, and pointing in the other direction, science in today’s world might re-engage its socialist past and turn it into a much more radical and moral present, loosened from the interests of the market and the state. Scientists of the world unite! Although I might not fully share the same vision as libertarian transhumanists or some MIT physicists, it might be helpful to consider telos, ideas about a conscious universe, and questions of cosmic purpose, as these seem somehow to matter beyond empty transcendental metaphysics, sci-fi fantasy or formal speculative physics; they matter in imagining, thinking about and motivating a future we hope also to shape.

Abou Farman is an assistant professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research. His research interests include religion & secularism, science & technology, death & dying, American culture, and aesthetics & expressive culture.

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