"Who the heck is Fedorov and who are the 'Russian cosmists'?", I'll bet you're saying.
Well, to be woefully succinct and therefore inaccurate about it, the "Russian cosmists" were intellectuals that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, who viewed technology as being a means to "live out" and achieve in culture and society certain doctrines of Russian Orthodoxy. One of them, Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov, a widely-read man usually regarded as being the "founder" of the movement, believed that technology would supply the means to resurrect one's ancestors, and more importantly, that it was a moral imperative to use such means to do so. It was, if you will, the ultimate in "realized eschatologies," the fusion of technology and not just "faith," but central conceptual tenets of Russian Orthodox doctrine.
If that sounds silly and wildly impossible even in our inhuman "transhumanist" age, think again, for this article - which was shared this past week by many regular readers here - indicates that part of the Fedorovian vision may be coming to fruition:
The essence of the achievement is here:
Recreating a deceased person or animal’s DNA has required that DNA be extracted from the remains of the individual, but a new study has shown that may not be the only way. The DNA of a man who died nearly 200 years ago has been recreated from his living descendants rather than his physical remains — something that has never been done before.
deCODE Genetics a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland, achieved this feat by taking DNA samples from 182 Icelandic descendants of Hans Jonatan, a man who is quite an icon in Iceland, most well known for having freed himself from slavery in a heroic series of seemingly impossible events.
It was the unique circumstances of Hans Jonatan’s life that made it possible for his DNA to be recreated after his death. For one, Jonatan was the first Icelandic inhabitant with African heritage. Iceland also boasts an extensive and highly detailed collection of genealogical records. The combination of Jonatan’s unique heritage and the country’s record-keeping for inhabitants’ family trees made this remarkable recreation possible.
Any way one slices it, this "reverse engineering" of someone's genome from their existing descendants is quite an achievement, even if, as in this case, Mr. Jonatan's unique heritage and the context of his descendants in Iceland made it relatively easy to do. One can indulge in some high octane speculation here, and envision this as but a "first step" in the ability to recreate almost anyone's DNA, from almost any set of circumstances, say - for example - in the case of someone who left no descendants but who had lots of family. With enough computing power and knowledge of a few other parameters, one might envision the development of such "genomic reconstitution technologies" (as I'm going to call both the technology and the field) from things like pictures or paintings, and so on. All of this in aid of answering the question "what type of genome would produce this look or that individual"?
There was, of course, a flaw in Fedorov's reasoning, and I'm sure you see it: the reconstitution of an individual's specific genome does not itself argue that that individual person has been reconstituted. If I may so put it, the matrix for the epiphany or manifestation of that person has been reconstituted, but not the person himself. The question of whether the person would or could do so remains open from a philosophical point of view. But it's an important one. Ira Levin, in his classic science fiction novel The Boys from Brazil - made into the famous movie with Gregory Peck playing a very brilliant but very deranged Dr. Mengele - had Mengele not only preserving Hitler's DNA and eventually reproducing lots of little cloned "Adolfs," but taking extreme care to recreate the social and family context that led to the creation of the personality: drunken and abusive father, doting and protective mother, and so on. Even then, let it be noted, one "cloned Adolf" is confronted by Mengele (and a very fictionalized Simon Wiesenthal played by Sir Lawrence Olivier), and the "cloned Adolf" turns on his creator, and ends up shaking hands with Wiesenthal.
Of course, all this raises the question of why would anyone want to do this at all?
Permit me to crawl way out on to the end of the twig of speculation today in attempting to answer that question: I suspect - strongly - that such enterprises are for the people engaging in them a kind of spiritual goal, one might perhaps qualify it as even a kind of spiritual lust. There are those for whom the accomplishment would be to prove that science can do what religion can't (or at least, does in a different way). These types of people don't bother me so much, for in the end, scientism of this sort is rather childish and silly, even though all too prevalent. But I suspect there are also those with deeper agendas, like Levin's Dr. Mengele, for whom the technology is a means to an end, the end being the invocation and "resurrection" of revered "hero figures," the "ancient and mighty men of renown". It will all be sold in the usual, deceitfully innocent and charming way, as a means, for example, of "real education" with personal encounters. Add in the "psychological experts" to "recreate the personality," mix, stir, bake for 90 minutes, and voila, one has "resurrected" an individual.
See you on the flip side...
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