He Who Hesitates

As I believe you know, for me comic book superheroes and their adventures have taken the place of the gods and scriptures of religion. That is not my only canon, for let me never leave out Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft from my personal pantheon. All these fire and inspire my imagination, valorize the world I live in. It is a world of gods and monsters, and anyone who dwells in it must learn to distinguish the gods from the monsters.

The Bible, too, is never far from my mind. I think of a passage from the Moses epic that has rightly served the dramatic, homiletical needs of preachers for centuries. It is the story of Kadesh-Barnea, the town marking the threshold of the Promised Land. Moses had sent out a reconnaissance team led by Joshua and Caleb to spy out the land with a view toward conquest. Joshua and Caleb, on their return, agreed that the prospect was daunting, but especially with the help of God, they ought to be able to take the Canaanites in battle. The rest of the spies, however, were of a more pessimistic turn of mind. They reported on the heavy armor and the great stature and might of the Canaanite warriors, who seemed so gigantic that the Israelites forever after imagined them to be the descendant of primordial Titans, the Nephilim. A future haunted by such mighty man-monsters, supermen, did not look particularly bright. Why pick a fight with them? Best to let well enough alone and find some other, easier future than the Land of Promise.

The decision was not Moses’ to make, unless he wanted to enter Canaan by himself. It was up to the people, and they were a skittish lot. Sure, they had seen the miraculous deliverance of their God in the past. Remember how he had dealt with Yul Brynner and his hosts? But that was in the past. Who knew if their luck would hold? So at Kadesh Barnea the people turned back. Later they would come to regret it, as they wandered helplessly through the monotonous wilderness for forty years. But the decision was never available to them again. They could only look back at the lost prospect of promise with bittersweet longing and think of what might have been. In Tillich’s terms, they had faced a crucial moment, a kairos, a strategic moment of opportunity, a pivot point in destiny that rarely lingers or presents itself a second time, and they failed. They allowed it to pass. It was a tragedy.

Just to keep the scorecard straight, let me note that the whole thing is unhistorical. There never was an exodus of the twelve tribes from Egypt, nor a grand genocidal conquest of Canaan. It is all part of the fanciful Heilsgeschichte of an ancient people. The point of such a sacred saga has never been to tell us what happened in the past but rather to tell us what is happening right now, or may be, in our own day, if we can only discern the signs of the present time.

And comic books may do the same. In 1963 Stan Lee created the X-Men to put a new spin on the current Marvel version of the super-hero. Just about all Stan’s creations owed their powers to the beneficial influence of atomic radiation! The Fantastic Four were transformed by Cosmic rays in outer space. Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk when bombarded by Gamma rays. Matt Murdock lost his sight when run over by a truck, but it was carrying radioactive material, and the result was to heighten all his remaining senses to a fantastic degree. And you know about Spider-Man: bitten by a radiation-poisoned spider in a science lab, Peter Parker took on the proportionate strength and agility of a spider.

But the X-Men were different. They were children of people who had been exposed to radiation with no immediate effects. Their offspring inherited their powers via classical genetic mutation. As they reached puberty their extraordinary powers began to manifest, to the fear and horror of those around them. Professor Charles Xavier recruited them and trained them to use their powers in service to the very humanity that scorned and feared them. He trained them, as it were, for the role of Bodhisattvas, who did not scorn their inferiors, mere Homo Sapiens, but bent down from a superior height to lift them up.

But this was not the only approach the mutants took. Xavier’s counterpart, Magneto, had lost his parents to Auschwitz. He knew what humanity was capable of, especially when faced with a gifted group it envied. Jews had become pariahs and scapegoats, and now mutants, Homo Superior, faced the same prospect. But whereas Professor X, Charles Xavier, strove to demonstrate that mutants could be the protectors of the human race, Magneto decided that Homo Sapiens’s time in the sun was over. Ironically, he formed a Brotherhood of Mutants with a super-race ideology not unrelated to that of the very Nazis whose cruelties soured him on humanity to begin with! But he saw no inconsistency. The trouble with the Nazis was only that they were wrong: they weren’t the super-race. But that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be one, and that when it arose, it shouldn’t rule.

Those of us who embrace the prophet-cry of Nietzsche are used to being blamed for Nazism. Though I consider myself a Nietzschean, and no mere atheist, I do not slavishly accept every idea that floated through Nietzsche’s skull. I have in mind, for instance, his view of women. But what about the doctrine of the Superman, that a new ideal of humanity is on its way, once we sweep the rotting corpse of God out of his path? One might expect I would want to distance myself from a doctrine tarnished by Hitler’s misappropriation of it. But no. If I were a theist, I wouldn’t, as some have suggested, observe a moratorium on the use of the word “God” because of the way it has been used as an excuse for evil. No, I would, like Martin Buber, insist on using the word and being aggressive in making clear what I did and did not mean. Of course, I’m not a theist, so that’s not my fight. But I will defend the doctrine of the Superman.

And it ought to be obvious that the coming of the X-Men is a mythical exploration of the coming of the Nietzschean Superman. It reflects with only slight distortion a very real choice we now face. As far as we know, there are no spontaneous or radiation-induced mutations such as the comics describe. So we don’t have to decide how we will react to them. But we do face the acquisition of a power undreamt of since Dr. Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus, uttered the declaration, “Now I know how it feels to be God!” We have mapped the human genome, and soon the power will be ours to tamper and tinker, to edit and revise the human structure, even the human nature!

But there are voices who cry out at this juncture, on the threshold of this Kadesh-Barnea, that we must not! They see lurking in the future a host of genetically-engineered Canaanite giants and Nephilim, so they do not view the future as a promised land at all. The miserable Jeremy Rifkin is among the chief of these. But he and his ilk are like the faithless, fearful multitude that advised the disastrous course of turning away from the future, of embracing the prospect, which is not a pro-spect at all, of circling and circling like a donkey tied to a post, treading a deepening groove.

I believe that the mapping of the human genome is a gauntlet cast down. Or to put it another way, it is the much-anticipated dropping of the other shoe. The first shoe was the moon-landing in 1969, a deed which I do not hesitate to call the greatest event in the history of the human race. As of that moment, the fears of Jehovah in the Tower of Babel became palpable: “Now nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them.” Amen to that! That was the first light of the dawning of the Superman. But the bright disk is beginning to clear the horizon with the mapping of the human genome. It is the fallen second shoe. And it is the cast gauntlet.

It is a challenge we must either accept or decline. And in so doing we will show our true colors. We will declare our membership in the cringing herd who seek security in numbers, failing to see that a sum of however many zeroes never exceeds zero. Or we will declare our allegiance to the Ubermensch. We will be taking the seal of that Coming One, even as those did who were immersed by John the Baptist: “One greater than I is coming, whose sandal-thong I am unworthy to stoop and fasten.” And that is the Superman.

It is not precisely that the result of genetic engineering will himself be the superman, don’t you see that? Nay, rather, it is we who will qualify for that honor if we will but recognize our destiny and seize it! The power of the gods is ours! Homo Superior is not the test tube baby so much as the one who creates him in the test tube!

In the great Star Trek episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” crewman Gary Mitchell gets exposed to a comet’s radiation and begins to mutate into a being with limitless mind-over-matter powers. In an unguarded moment he compares the crew with a bunch of insects. Kirk and Spock are persuaded that they must act swiftly to destroy him. It’s either Homo Sapiens or Homo Superior. Star Trek dealt with this theme again in “Space Seed,” where we learn that earth had a century or so before been swept by a war between battling genetic supermen. Khan Noonian Singh had been the greatest of these genetically enhanced beings, and again, mere humanity decided to act for self-preservation. They turned back the blitzkrieg of the “Young Supermen” and sent the remnant of them into space, where Kirk and crew were to discover them many years later. Once freed, the mutants gave the humans a run for their money. And again in the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan.

The conflict we see in all these TV shows and films provides a surprising analogy to the progress of science as Thomas S. Kuhn described it. He saw the evolution of science as a succession of competing paradigms, different theoretical models. Everyone believed, with Ptolemy, that the planets orbit the earth. But then an upstart like Copernicus comes along with a different blueprint: if you assume the planets, including ours, all orbit the sun, it makes a lot of things a lot easier to figure out! At first Copernicus’ paradigm faces a lot of opposition. But that’s good! It doesn’t mean his opponents are all stubborn mossbacks. No, the new paradigm needs to prove its superiority to the old precisely by running the gauntlet, winning the battle of argument and evidence. It would be risky, arbitrary, if scientists all just signed on from love at first sight!

As with Kuhn, so with Khan! Khan Noonian Singh ultimately fails to prove his superiority. Kirk says, “I’m laughing at the ‘superior intellect.’” And so whose is the superior intellect? Khan and Magneto fail to prove their point that they are Homo Superior simply because they cannot see a way superior to the race of trolls they seek to supplant. Suppose they can kill masses of people in new, more dramatic ways? Is this qualitative superiority, or only quantitative? Like giving a savage gunpowder? “If Cain be avenged sevenfold, surely Lamech will be avenged seventy-sevenfold.”

No, Professor X shows the way of Homo Superior precisely by his apprehension of the truth that “the greatest among you shall be your servant.” The Superman persuades, and so defeats his enemy, his rival, in the most genuine manner: by converting his enmity to friendship. Likewise, Kirk demonstrates that Homo Superior is the one with the resources to increase life for all, not death for all, to find a solution where none existed. In the species conflict typified by “Kirk vs. Khan”, it is important to see what is at stake. Is Khan, the genetically enhanced specimen, the Man of Tomorrow (one of Superman’s titles, by the way), the path down which our evolutionary future lies? Or is Khan merely like the Ice Age or the saber-tooth tiger: an obstacle against which Homo Sapiens will prove his evolutionary superiority by devising a way to beat it?

If we proceed with the wonders of genetic engineering, there is no guarantee there will not be Nephilim, giants, Evil Mutants to fight. The way forward has never been without unforeseen troubles, battles against adversaries, including our own blunders. And, just as surely, the way forward has never been found by surrender and turning aside, by fleeing from phantoms dimly glimpsed in the mirror of our own unworthiness.

Onward! To the Superman!

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
August 2007



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