July 23, 2023

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Philosophical Themes in the 'Homo Superior' Trope in Science Fiction

I am currently preparing a course on Philosophy and Science Fiction for the fall, focusing on the theme of personhood. It has been 8 years since I last taught a course on this topic, so I am re-designing it more or less from scratch, and I recently asked on social media for suggestions of scifi works to include. I'll be doing some more of that and posting the reading list and additional suggested reading here over the rest of the summer. This post, however, is about some neat stuff that I probably won't manage to squeeze onto my syllabus (this time).

Twitter user @Moonwood570 recommended Olaf Stapledon's 1936 novel Odd John, the work which first coined the term 'homo superior' for soon-to-emerge superior post-humans. This trope appears very frequently in my favorite scifi writer, Theodore Sturgeon, and there are clear continuities to be seen from Stapledon through Sturgeon to many later scifi works, most notably X-Men (which also sometimes uses Stapledon's term). Here, I just want to outline three philosophical themes that tend to run through homo superior fiction.

1. The Emergence of Homo Superior

The earliest homo superior fiction, such as Stapledon's novel and various works by Sturgeon (e.g., "Maturity" [1947]; More Than Human [1953]; "When You're Smiling" [1955]), tends to regard homo superior as an inevitable next step in human evolution, and it's often portrayed this way in X-Men as well. This is suggestive of a teleological conception of evolution, likely influenced by philosophers such as Hegel and Whitehead. (The scientific theory of evolution, properly understood, does not say that better organisms will arise over time.) Plots often include efforts to hasten this inevitable emergence, which can have strong and disturbing eugenic overtones. The horrifying nature of this aspect of the homo superior trope, often downplayed in earlier works, is brought out in Octavia Butler's Patternist Series (1976-1984), in which a superhuman race is eventually produced through the activities of a single immortal superman who, over the course of many centuries, breeds humans like cattle.

More recent versions of the trope, such as Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (1993; recommended by @NickStuart123) often employ genetic engineering or other forms of biotechnology (e.g., neural implants).

Thus, the treatment in various works of the emergence of homo superior raises questions about natural teleology (whether it exists, whether it is tied in any way to value, etc.), questions about the ability of humans to control natural processes like evolution (and the desirability of doing so), and the core question of transhumanism: whether we ought to make an intentional effort to transcend our humanity.

2. The 'Superiority' Homo Superior

A second cluster of issues that occurs in much of Sturgeon's work on this subject (especially his most famous novel, More Than Human) concerns the sense in which homo superior is really superior. The theme here actually reaches back to H. G. Wells' The Country of the Blind (short story 1904; novella 1939) and forward to issues in philosophy of disability.

In Wells's story, a sighted mountaineer survives a fall into an isolated valley where, for generations, the entire population has been congenitally blind. The mountaineer assumes that (as the proverb says) he will soon be king, but all of his efforts to use his sight to his advantage fail. The society is designed for the blind and he has not learned how to live in it, so all of his attempts to prove his superiority are meant with ridicule, and ultimately with doubts about his sanity.

Of course, Wells's protagonist really does have a sensory ability his hosts lack. Sturgeon's work often inverts this idea from Wells: homo superior's superhuman abilities may not be recognized, and may not confer the expected advantages, as long as homo superior lives in a society built for ordinary humans. Indeed, ordinary humans may regard homo superior as disabled. (The homo superior of More Than Human is in fact a 'gestalt organism' composed of several humans who had been regarded as disabled by ordinary human society.) This is foreshadowed a bit, but not developed in the same detail, by Stapledon.

This raises questions about the sense, if any, in which homo superior is really superior. Is there any notion of superiority independent of a particular social and ecological context? Will homo superior actually turn out to be 'fitter' in the evolutionary sense, or will the human fear and hatred of difference prevent homo superior's survival? Should humans wish for these kinds of supposedly 'superior' traits (superintelligence, telepathy, or whatever) to survive and eventually predominate?

These, again, are questions that carry forward into X-Men, for instance. It is plausible that the influence of this scifi trope has contributed to creating the kind of cultural environment where Greta Thunberg can call Asperger's a 'superpower'. Is the difference between a disability and a superpower merely contextual?

3. The Ethics of Homo Superior

In most homo superior fiction, when the homo superior realizes his superiority, the homo superior determines that the moral codes developed by ordinary humans are not applicable. Here, homo superior clearly appears like Nietzsche's Ubermensch. The question then arises, whether there is any moral code at all that applies to homo superior and, if so, whether this code requires that any consideration be given to ordinary humans. This is a central question in Stapledon's Odd John, in almost all of Sturgeon's homo superior stories, and likewise in X-Men, and Kress's Beggars in Spain.

It is also a key theme in most homo superior fiction, reaching all the way back to Stapledon, that humanity would respond to homo superior (if discovered) with fear and hatred. Hence, the question arises, whether it is possible for homo superior and ordinary humans, eventually, to live together in peace and belong to a shared moral community. This again continues into X-Men and Beggars in Spain.

These themes are addressed powerfully as well in N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy. It might be questioned whether Jemisin's trilogy is really a contribution to homo superior fiction, for reasons closely connected with the issues discussed in the last section. Jemisin's 'orogenes' do have powers (most notably the ability to redirect the course of earthquakes) lacked by the 'stills', but the orogenes consider themselves to be (merely) human, while (most) stills consider orogense to be subhuman. Part of the reason here is (picking up another theme from X-Men) that these kinds of powers can be more of a curse than a blessing if one can't control them, and one can't learn to control them (or, relatedly, develop conventions governing their appropriate use) without a community of people who have these or similar powers. Thus, the central problem is to control the orogenes' powers, and this seems to be the reason for the violent oppression of orogenes. Hence, although the orogenes are not regarded by most characters in the trilogy as superior to stills, it is clearly drawing on the homo superior trope.

Sturgeon, X-Men, and Kress clearly all want us to take away the moral that a truly superior individual would have some kind of care or respect for ordinary humans. This seems not to be the case in Odd John. Further, Doro in Butler's Patternist novels never gets beyond his egoism, and Jemisin is more inclined to leave things hanging. Jemisin is also interesting in that her orogenes are trying to live as well as they can (morally) in conditions of severe oppression, and avoid becoming the monsters the stills make them out to be. This is rather different than the more abstract ways the question is often framed in much other homo superior fiction.

This element of homo superior fiction raises questions about our relation to non-human animals. It is often imagined that homo superior is related to use in something like the way we relate to (e.g.) dogs or cows. Indeed, the narrator of Odd John is affectionately addressed as 'Fido' by the superhumans and at the end of the novel is described by one of them as 'domestic', and therefore less problematic than other homo sapiens. The question of whether homo superior could rightly treat us the way we treat dogs or cows may sharpen our intuitions about animal ethics. Additionally, the unlimited faith the narrator of Odd John has in the superiority of John and his compatriots—assuming always that no matter how morally shocking their behavior, they must know best what is right for them to do, which is not what would be right for us to do—has interesting connections with some discussions about the problem of evil in philosophy of religion.

Other science fiction also deals with these themes using superior aliens, artificial intelligences, etc. The classic work in this category is Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" (1950), which became an iconic 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone). Other notable contributions include or Asimov's "The Evitable Conflict" (the last story of I, Robot [1950]), the Twilight Zone episode, "People are Alike All Over" (1960), Planet of the Apes (1968), and more recently Cixin Liu's Devourer (translated in The Wantering Earth [2021]).

Posted by Kenny at July 23, 2023 12:39 PM
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