During a recent episode of the Joe Rogan podcast, its host expressed certain premises that, every now and then, came through at the speculative farther edges of his worldview. Of course, he did not intend them as definite truth claims, and I don’t intend the following as an attack; Rogan comes across as a thoroughly good guy riffing on ideas. But the ‘mythology’ he proposed is a recurring one (especially, in my experience, among Gen-Xers) and may be worth spending some time scrutinising.
Discussing the issue of (racial and gender) diversity, he commented that, while this is positive, ultimately, “we can’t have nice things,” because prejudiced people will always use ‘difference’—those things that separate us—to create conflict. Diversity, therefore, will always represent an excuse for some to attack others. If we are interested in fairness, then, we will ultimately have to break down differences.
The discussion that ensued envisioned the ideal of this “fairness”—the end-point of breaking down differences—as what we might describe as an archetype of the modern age and source of horror, as well as a messianic expectation: the grey alien. A raceless, genderless, technologically-adept entity, in which form future human beings would only be able to judge one another “by their thoughts.”
This is interesting for several reasons. To begin with, the starting point seems to be the liberal, atomized individual, an ideological construct that is, in turn, based on the idea that ‘freedom’ or ‘action’ is a function of pure subjectivity, so to speak. Theologically, this took off with the Reformation, wherein certain theologians formulated what would previously have been seen as an absurd contention: that God’s sovereignty or freedom has primacy over His other attributes, like love, mercy, or justice. Put differently, their claim was that God’s freedom cannot be constrained by these other attributes without such a constraint entailing that He is somehow not omnipotent. Of course, ‘freedom’ as conceptually separable from ‘love’ would have made as much sense to the classical tradition as talk of a ‘square circle.’
In any case, once this theological error was secularised by later thinkers, it led to the West’s bizarre notion that a person’s ability to act (their freedom to take this or that action) should not be conditioned by that person’s pre-existing essence (for there are no ‘essences’) or specific conditions (like being female, a fisherman’s daughter, good at maths, etc.).
Rogan also brought up how microplastics and certain chemicals are causing a decline in sperm counts and even reducing gender expression (there is evidence that the distance between anus and genitals in the human newborn is shrinking, which in some other mammals is a sign of infertility). I have written about the impact of microplastics (which have now even been detected in human blood and lungs) elsewhere, together with potential solutions. Conservatives, if that term means anything, should be championing the end of plastic waste and oceanic clean-up with indefatigable fervour.
But let’s consider the odd convergence between salvific predictions concerning space aliens (going back to the hippie era or beyond), modern discourse around gender, and plastic pollution. Said the podcast host:
For decades, people that have been abducted by aliens have said that aliens are performing experiments and making hybrids with human beings because their genetic material has run stale … because they’re reproducing through genetic manipulation rather than through sex … that might be where all biological creatures that develop technology [end up] … the more technology, the more plastic, the more plastic, the more the body becomes genderless.
The above passage gives us a telos, the dream of a coming omega-point, a historical determinism by which we may actually celebrate (or, at least, acquiesce to) plastic and chemical pollution, together with the ideological push towards a borderless world, gender self-definition, and extreme faith in technological innovation as a good in itself (or, again, at least as unavoidable). Rogan himself would not align with all of these ideas, of course, but they follow quite straightforwardly from the speculation I cited.
Modernity has long been marred by a fatalistic submission to historical dynamics and technological advancement, a kind of abnegation of human allegiance to a priori transcendental values, a giving up of the vision and will it would take to arrest the supposed momentum of history.
This short flight of sci-fi speculation is remarkably consistent, containing, as it does, the promise of extinction: Intelligent life develops technology; technology leads to unviable biology (infertility) and this requires that more primitive lifeforms be ‘mined’ for their genes, but insofar as these end up developing technology as well, no solution has been reached. The destiny of intelligent life is to develop a malevolent and vampiric, rather benevolent and shepherding, relationship with less advanced creatures (or with its own ancestors, as Rogan also mentions the theory that grey aliens are time-travelling future humans). It reminds us of those grotesque urban legends about wealthy persons receiving blood transfusions from the young in order to rejuvenate themselves.
It also presents us with a rather perfect symbolic counterpoint to everything we believe.
To those grounded in tradition, technology is understood as an aid to human flourishing and not, primarily, a means to making life more comfortable. If life is made more comfortable but basic human functions atrophy (and what is more basic than fertility?), then that technology and whatever comfort it affords must be summarily cast aside.
This principle should be maintained, apart from how specifically we decide to resolve dilemmas around whether, and how, to integrate different technical advancements (some of which Plato discusses in the Phaedrus, where Socrates recommends that even writing should be relegated to certain functions, lest people lose the ability to memorise). As Milbank and Pabst write in their brilliant The Politics of Virtue: “more advanced technology is not always the most appropriate or the most sophisticated, economic [or] sustainable.” Indeed, often “excessively extreme interventions tend to have uncontrollable and ecologically deleterious effects.”
The challenge posed to humanity by history and the vast cosmos, therefore, is not merely to discover and invent, but to conserve, which means learning to apply discoveries and inventions appropriately.
This last sentence could serve as our conclusion, but it is worth quoting more from the work just cited, whose authors helpfully remind us of the need to “encourage[e] the appropriate use of older and simpler technologies:”
The curative and creative use of the latest technologies can only be sustained if the older ones are not abandoned … the non-debilitating deployment of computers requires that, as far as possible, users imbibe some genetic sense of the automatic as having been gradually arrived at by a series of intentional and hands-on actions. They will be better used and understood if, for example, children have been introduced to the histories and concrete models of the abacus … the authentic usage of any mathesis should repeat the process of its generation.
Simpler technologies are not simply cruder than later ones, but, instead usually have a greater scope and indeterminate capacity by virtue of their simplicity … and by virtue of their relative lack of automation and coded memory … they remain crucial allies of human reason and creativity.
It is crucial that students of all ages still be taught to draw, to hand-write, to paint, to knit, to sew, to weave, to make pots, to dance, to ride horses, to row and sail boats and climb mountains.
In other words, things need to feel earned; we should understand how the things we use work; we should, as a rule, use simpler technologies that allow us more scope in how we apply them, and we shouldn’t use them when we don’t need to (memorise most phone numbers, solve every-day math problems in your head, etc.). Today, this must entail an educational curriculum and labour laws that drastically reduce the odious sedentary screen staring of so much contemporary work and study.
The healthy human form and mind, then, should be regarded as the standard from which to determine what practices and innovations we integrate, and which we do not. We may read the following injunction in the Quran’s Surah ar-Rum (30:30):
So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.
The Arabic word “fitrah” describes primordial human nature. Not all translations render these verses in the same way, but those that contain the phrase “no changes should there be in …” as distinct from “there is no change in…” admit that we can change human nature in some proximate sense (human nature is ultimately one way, but we are able to deform it). This should cause us to contemplate the extent of the perils to which we might expose ourselves by drawing outside the lines of our own humanity.
Against the transhumanist prophecy of plastic genderlessness, then, let us recover our own ideal future humanity, populated by the same righteous exemplars as the best episodes of our past: for ideals cannot be a function of the mere passing of time, but must stem from moral and aesthetic canons at the origin and the heart of what it means to be human today, as surely as yesterday and tomorrow.