21. A Sketch for a Socialist Transhumanism

By Sam Phoenix Clarke (@samjphoenix)

‘The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.’ [1]

The life of J. B. S. Haldane gives the impression of a man who made himself at home in his own eccentricities. Etonian, Oxonian, and a Black Watch artillery officer praised by Douglas Haig as the ‘bravest and dirtiest officer in my army’, [2] he would become a polymath, [3], geneticist and self-experimenter, [4] and an unflinching Marxist-Leninist. In Daedalus; or, Science and the Future (1924), Haldane champions the revolutionary potential of science’s transformation of nature and humanity.

Daedalus bewilders on first read, but isn’t just utopian speculation. Of his predictions, some are surreal: elections decided on slogans such as ‘Vote for Macpherson and a prehensile tail for your great-grandchildren’ [5] – some are prescient: in vitro fertilisation of humans and animals – and some are timid, outshone by modern science. 

Most interesting are those, like solar power making coal obsolete and energy abundant, that are now within our technological ability but go unrealised due to political choices. The enduring core of Daedalus is that while science can revolutionise social and economic relationships, it remains an open question as to whether this capacity will be applied to human welfare, or towards destruction, exploitation and the defence of hierarchy. Haldane is a theorist of human flourishing through science, but is under no illusion that this will happen without the social organisation and political structures needed to steer it. Without these, for Haldane, ‘man armed with science is a baby armed with a box of matches’. [6]

[1] J.B.S. Haldane, 1924 – Daedalus, or, Science and the Future. Accessible transcript at https://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm

[2] G. Cochran and H. Harpending, 2009 – J.B.S. Haldane – in The 10’000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20160609222810/http://the10000yearexplosion.com/jbs-haldanes/.

[3] Haldane was given by of his students the epithet of ‘The last man who might know all there was to be known’. [M.B. Adams, 2000 – Last Judgment: The Visionary Biology of J.B.S. Haldane p.459. Journal of the History of Biology 33, pp.457-491.]

[4] Cf. On Being a Guinea Pig in K. Dronamraju (2017) – Popularizing Science: The Life and Work of JBS Haldane. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Haldane’s habit of being his own guinea pig was parodied in Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay as the biologist Shearwater, ‘too absorbed in his experiments to notice his friends bedding his wife’. [D.J. Kevles, 1995 – In The Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity p.186. Berkeley and L.A.: University of California Press.]

[5] Haldane – Daedalus.

[6] Haldane – Daedalus.

Image Credit: J. B. S. Haldane, pictured in front of a propaganda poster for a Republican regiment in the Spanish Civil War, c. 1937. Made available by the Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa (Spain) through a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (CCO 1.0). Haldane opened one notable essay by declaring that ‘This paper requires a preliminary apology. It is written in Spain, and as the writer is taking a very minor part in the defence of Madrid he is unable to consult many works of reference. Readers to whom practice is as important as theory will excuse any inadequacy in citations.’ (J.B.S. Haldane, 1937 – A Dialectical Account of Evolution p.473. Science & Society, 1:4, pp.473-486.)

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