Man Into Superman


MAN INTO SUPERMAN, by R. C. W. Ettinger, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1972, $8.95.

Ettinger's first widely read work, THE PROSPECT OF IMMORTALITY, was published in 1964; it was a harbinger of a prolific decade of non-fiction writing about the potential human beings have to live for as long as they please. The many books that followed IMMORTALITY were based on the same idea: that senile debility is itself a disease; that as a disease it is curable; and that once cured, man may choose to extend his life indefinitely.

In considering this provocative thesis, I have discovered a widely held and obviously deep-seated antagonism to the proposition of human immortality. At one end of this spectrum of skepticism is the conservative who fears all progress; he is petrified at the possibility that he will have to live another lifetime with himself in what he sees as a malevolent universe; he is intimidated by the prospect of such a personal and individualistic challenge. At the more intellectual end of the spectrum are those who see any concentration on death per se as abnormal (viewing discussions of immortality in this category); these persons seem to define death as inevitable and insist that people concentrate upon living while they can, and not waste time contemplating changes in the immutable laws of nature. Thus, Rene Dubos, in THE ENVIRONMENTAL HANDBOOK, states that "the biological and mental nature of man is essentially unchangeable".

These two positions may be classified as "anxious" and "apathetic". The "anxious" I leave the reader to ponder. To the "apathetic" I give the benefit of the doubt and warn: don't confuse science with philosophy. Dr. Leonard Peikoff has said that philosophy is the love of life, that philosophical systems are correctly concerned with living, not dying, and that no significant philosophical system has ever dealt with death as an overriding factor. As a conceptual exercise of the greatest magnitude, philosophy is independent of time as a measure of duration (not, however, of time as an existant). Ethics, for example, should be applicable for a person with a lifetime of one year, 100 years, or googol years. Philosophy does not properly concern itself with science in the latter's more limited role as lexicographer. Philosophy will not predict the four-minute mile or the laser. There is nothing in a philosophy of reason which says man cannot live for 100,000 years; only that man cannot live forever; since there are no infinites in a finite universe.

ADAPTATIONS DISCUSSED MAN INTO SUPERMAN, as a sequel to IMMORTALITY, concentrates less on genetic engineering and cryonics, and proceeds to a discussion of the psychological and philosophical adaptations which must accompany the transition to strange bodily arrangements and ultra-long lifetimes. SUPERMAN delves deeply into the reasons people hesitate to "play god" with their bodies. Without naming it as such, Ettinger attacks vigorously the anti-capitalistic mentality in our present culture. Further, he emphasizes the need and importance of clear language and semantics, as does Thomas Szasz's THE SECOND SIN.

Ettinger also picks up some of the more esoteric improvements possible for the homo sapiens chassis. There is more emphasis in SUPERMAN on prosthesis and cyborg-type modifications vs. the more revolutionary developments inherent in cloning and other in vitro experimentation. Witness that the Indians of Tiera del Fuego sleep nude in a climate worse than Chicago's; that bears hibernate; that camels can go weeks without water and make up for it in a half hour of drinking; that dogs have been adapted to breathe oxygen directly from water (like fish); that bats have their own radar; that cat brains have been frozen and revived; that lions rut all day and roar their pleasure and approval; that birds do fly. Man, claims the author, can have as many of these attributes as he dare dream of. They will be his due as superman.

REASON readers will note with interest Ettinger's references to "the illusions of altruists," to Heinlein as "the best of living science fiction writers," to "the totalitarian state; Nazi Germany and Marxist Russia and China," to the merits of being "selfish", the "morality of self-interest," and "self-esteem."

Unfortunately Ettinger stumbles on the soul-body dichotomy. Like so many science fiction and non-fiction writers of the twentieth century, he accepts the notion that mind is, or can be, independent of matter (this is called dualism). His approach to metaphysics leads to the belief that the brain's personality, an individual's identity, can be stored electronically or transferred out of its corporeal frame: the "ghost in the machine" syndrome. Thus, Ettinger says, "We may imagine our transfigured selves as beings of 'pure mind,' gliding swift and ethereal through the reaches of the cosmos."

In a chapter on expanding man's awareness, SUPERMAN will ruffle some feathers with its praise of A. E. van Vogt, who "wrote THE WORLD OF NULL-A under the influence of Korzybski's GENERAL SEMATICS SEMINAR; null-A stands for non-Aristotelian, the idea being that human minds are inferior because they are enslaved to Aristotelian or single-valued logic, whereas the real world is many valued and there are many alternatives besides 'A' or 'not A' in a given proposition."

"ORIGINAL SIN" Ettinger also flirts with the dogma of "original sin," or as he would state it, "Man's instincts, emotions and motivation are not only accidental but mutually inconsistent…racial psychosis, a kind of built-in schizophrenia." He testifies that these problems are reasons enough for man to tamper with his given physiology, to engineer himself into sanity.

Ettinger errs too in his choice of "pragmatism" over "principle" as a rule for human action. He seems to tie "principle" inextricably to loyalty to the cause or to the group. He says, "The idealist (the man of principle) is about to become extinct, I believe, because the lies he lives by are no longer useful." Ettinger's idealist is akin to Hoffer's THE TRUE BELIEVER. But his premises in this argument are unclear.

Despite its flaws, SUPERMAN is a noteworthy book. If a civilization is to be judged by its aspirations, I find none more praiseworthy than the quest for immortality. Let's face it, growing old is not fun; being old is not beautiful. Professor Ettinger was one of the first to bring the layman's attention to the incredible possibilities at his doorstep; I join him for his call for more effort, more R&D toward homo superior. And despite its shortcomings, I found MAN INTO SUPERMAN stimulating and filled with a pro-life, pro-human spirit. The book is roughly analogous to a Koestlerian journal: filled with fascinating ideas, some nonsense, some brilliant. It is hard to forsake a man or a book dedicated to meliorism with a motto of Never Say Die!

Winston L. Duke received his M.B.A. from Harvard University and has a B.S. in physics and an M.S. in nuclear engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. He wrote the highly acclaimed lead article on genetic engineering, "The New Biology," in REASON's August 1972 issue.