Childhood’s End, a 1953 novel by Arthur C. Clarke, is about human transformation. What may not be obvious is that the novel contains not one but two different transformations with two different causative agents. The first transformation is societal and caused by external and technological agents. It leads to utopia on Earth with some downsides. The second transformation is an evolutionary change driven by the internal dynamics of human biology. Its result is the extinction of Homo sapiens.
The novel raises questions about the malleability of the human species and our eventual fate.
Note: The SyFy channel has made a three part mini-series of the novel that will begin to show on December 14th. What follows will discuss the plot of the novel in broad outline while omitting many details.
The novel opens with alien space craft arriving and parking over major cities of Earth. The crafts are piloted by the Overlords who do not make themselves visible to humans for many decades. They soon announce their intention to bring an end to war but promise to intervene in human affairs otherwise as little as possible. An era of peace and prosperity ensues and Earth enters a Utopian Gold Age.
Here are some selected quotes from how Clarke describes the time:
With the energies of mankind directed into constructive channels, the face of the world had been remade. It was, almost literally, a new world. The cities that had been good enough for earlier generations had been rebuilt – or deserted and left as museum specimens when they had ceased to serve any useful purpose. Many cities had already been abandoned in this manner, for the whole pattern of industry and commerce had changed completely. Production had become largely automatic: the robot factories poured forth consumer goods in such unending streams that all the ordinary necessities of life were virtually free.
It was One World. The old names of the old countries were still used but they were no more than convenient postal divisions.
Crime had practically vanished. It had become both unnecessary and impossible. When no one lacks anything there is no point in stealing.
Crimes of passion, though not quite extinct, were almost unheard of.
One of the most noticeable changes had been a slowing down of the mad tempo that had so characterized the twentieth century. Life was more leisurely than it had been for generations.
The human condition has changed dramatically through the social engineering efforts of the Overlords and the resulting prosperity arising from the creation of abundance with technology. This technocratic, Utopian vision of Clarke was common among science fiction writers of that era. The belief that science and technology could bring about societal perfection is based on the idea that human nature and society would bend itself to science. It may in the long run. However, even Clarke must have recognized the naivete of technocracy in its rawest form and added the outside element of the Overlords to make the idea more plausible.
Today, even with current technology, we probably have achieved the control over Nature and the abundance required for the Utopian vision of Clarke. Barring the collapse of technological civilization altogether, from either an internal dysfunction or an external, natural catastrophe, such as an asteroid strike, human wealth and capability will only increase. We may only be a few decades from the potential elimination of the need for manual work, control over human genetics, conquest of most of the remaining diseases that have not been remedied with modern medicine, and the possibility of a practical utopia. With the Internet and instantaneous ability to transmit sight and sound anywhere in the world, we are rapidly developing a universal, planetary culture.
What we are losing with this trend is a diminution of human diversity and possibly an eventual loss of creativity. We could become stagnate and lose the ability to innovate. Although these are certainly possibilities, I doubt these would be realized to an extreme degree. People can maintain cultural uniqueness while still participating in a wider universal culture. Although my egalitarian impulses hold the hope that curiosity and creativity could be a trait of all, the reality is that most innovations come from a small number of humans. Many people will never have the inclination under any circumstances. My hunch would be that some humans, the ones that would under almost any circumstance, will continue to create and innovate. Progress and change will not stop.
The fly in the ointment of this utopia is that pesky human nature and our social institutions.
While we are creating all the wealth required for utopia, the wealth is not distributed widely and rationally enough for us to achieve it. Capitalism, the engine that has generated this abundance, has also generated an inequality in its distribution. Defenders of it might rightly point out that many of us are still better off with more wealth, even with disparity in its distribution, than we would be with less wealth under some other system. Still this system has not yet succeeded in spreading wealth on a worldwide basis sufficiently to provide even the basic necessities for life to all people. Even in many industrialized societies (especially the U.S.), there is enough disparity that those on the bottom barely partake of the abundance and opportunities of the economy. The question whether this system must eventually be modified or replaced will become more acute as automation and machines begin to take over more and more jobs. While governments do redistribute wealth, the main mechanism for redistribution is labor. In the industrialized world, we have maintained a reasonable distribution by creating new jobs as automation has replaced old ones. There is nothing that requires this to continue. Even if we optimistically assume that new technology will create new types of labor, nothing requires the new labor be done by humans. Once the capacity for automation reaches the point that more new labor is done by machines than humans, we will be at a tipping point where something must change. Human beings will be almost redundant in the economy so we cannot expect the wealth to be distributed by labor.
To quote Stephen Hawking:
If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
If we muddle through the economic issues, would we still would be faced with flawed humans? In our present time we find it difficult to imagine a human utopia. Even if granted it, we would find ways to destroy it. Ignorant beliefs, jealousies, aggression, boredom, and our own fundamental unhappiness would bring it down. Recent human history has been more or less a chronicle of atrocities, violence, and greed. I write this the day after more than a hundred people in Paris were killed by gunmen. Would the gunmen be always with us even if we solved all the problems of material existence? It certainly seems that is the case with Homo sapiens as our species is now. Could we evolve into something else? Or, is perhaps Homo sapiens by itself much more malleable than it seems?
After five decades the Overlords reveal themselves to be large, demon-like creatures. With years of living with their presence, humans are for the most part unfazed by their appearance though some begin to believe that human innovation and culture are being stifled by the Overlords. A group of humans found a colony called New Athens that is dedicated to preserving and recovering human culture.
Within a decade the second transformation begins. Children begin to manifest psychic and telekinetic powers. These powers are not directly caused by the Overlords but are the development of nascent capabilities in the human evolutionary line triggered and enhanced by scientific research into the paranormal. We learn the Overlords were sent to Earth to guide this evolution and to ensure that humans would not bring harm to other species in the Universe through the misapplication of these powers. The Overlords are not the ultimate masters. They are controlled by the Overmind. The children of Earth begin to disconnect from humanity. They join together in a sort of Hive Mind and eventually merge with the Overmind as Earth dissolves. Homo sapiens is extinct.
Clarke apparently had a strong belief in ESP and psychic phenomena when he wrote this novel. He later recanted this belief and became a skeptic. We can only speculate how the second transformation would have played out if written from his later skeptical perspective. Perhaps the book could not have been written at all.
The second transformation in the novel involves a rapid evolution of a new consciousness. While we may rightly be skeptical (and I am) about the possibility of psychic abilities such as those shown in movies like Children of the Damned or Carrie, we cannot rule out that we could evolve new mental capacities – either vastly enhanced intelligence or perhaps even more subtle powers such as those suggested by the experiments of Michael Persinger. This could occur through natural evolution but more likely might be produced by direct genetic manipulation or a feedback between genetics, epigenetics, and symbiotic interfaces to external technologies.
Human beings, however, are capable of great changes in social organization and behavior as we are already without enhancement. Human nature is not fixed. Human nature is what comes from the society we create. An abundant society with a different social structure, one of equality and nurture, could by itself produce dramatic changes in individual behavior.
Bonobos and chimpanzees split from a common ancestor about 2 million years so they are genetically very close. Yet their societies are organized quite differently. Bonobos evolved south of the Zaire River; chimpanzees to the north. A lengthy drought in southern Zaire wiped out the preferred food plants of gorillas and they disappeared. In this environment, the chimpanzees could exploit the fiber foods without competing with the gorillas. Chimpanzees north of the river still had to compete with gorillas. Chimpanzees in the south could create larger, more stable parties, and form strong social bonds, particularly among the females. They became bonobos. Bonobos are female dominant with little aggression. Chimpanzees in the north forced to compete more strongly for survival are male dominant with intense aggression between groups.
To produce a new species of human wouldn’t take 2 million years if it were speeded up by direct human intervention. But human beings already possess a great more flexibility in behavior and social organization than chimpanzees. We could effect a rapid transformation of behavior and social organization because we are not hard-wired like chimpanzees and bonobos. We do not need to change our genes to change ourselves.
In the long run, I am optimistic. While I do not expect utopia to emerge tomorrow, we may, barring the collapse of technological civilization, look back upon this era of war and religious and ethnic differences as a sort of Dark Age. We are and will be what we make ourselves to be.
I addressed a part of this subject recently in a discussion about human values. There will never be peace in this solar system until all sentient beings therein are enlightened, and this is directly related to human values.
Human values come in two disjoint sets: unenlightened values; enlightened values. Unenlightened values are regulated by the lower three chakras and culminate with the third charkra which is the basis of Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.” Will to power is the pinnacle of value development in the unenlightened being and is the source of all strife. Many unenlightened people convince themselves that their will to power is completely altruistic, i.e. the Christians with their “go forth and bear witness.” Talk to just about any Christian and they’ll swear they’re out and about saving souls when in fact they’re engaging in a most hypocritical form of will to power (I actually prefer the Muslims in that they’re in no way hypocritical; they just scream, “Die you worthless infidel,” and blow your ass away!).
Enlightened values are regulated by the upper three chakras, the divine counterparts to the lower profane chakras, and culminate with the seventh chakra which is infinite wisdom or omniscience. Infinite wisdom immediately leads to infinite compassion because the infinitely wise well understand the unnecessary suffering that the unenlightened are dealing with; “the butterfly understands the caterpillar but the caterpillar doesn’t understand the butterfly.”
These two disjoint sets are separated by the Heart Chakra; of course, some refer to it as the Gate to the Garden. In the Biblical story of the garden we manifest in the garden as the “Tree of Knowledge,” knowledge being that of good and evil. This is because our chi or prana is concentrated in the lower three chakras generating a profane ego and this profane ego is time dependent, hence, it defines good as that which promotes its continued existence and well-being, in time, and evil as that which threatens its continued existence and well-being, in time. This is the source of the two guardians at the gate: Fear of Ego Death; Desire for Ego Life. The way out of this situation is the flaming sword. This is referred to as the sword of death and discrimination because it allows one to discriminate between the temporal and the eternal and this discrimination leads to the death of the temporal ego. What it is, specifically, is spiritual discipline, a type of subtle mind discipline. Once one properly develops the sword of death and discrimination, they are able to destroy the guardians, the gate opens, and they are “reborn” as the “Tree of Life.” This is because the profane, time-bound ego is replaced by the divine, eternal ego and one experiences first-hand that which “has never been born and shall never die.” It’s really quite simple.
Do you see now why I prefer the Muslims? The Christians go around, using temporal wealth as incentive, convincing folks that there is nothing they can do to effect their own “salvation;” all they can do, the Christians say, is turn it over to Christ. This is absolute bullshit and causes many sentient beings to waste a perfect opportunity for spiritual development. The Muslims, on the other hand, they just blow your ass away which could very well provide one with an opportunity to take rebirth in a situation in which you don’t encounter any Muslims or Christians! I’ll take the last scenario every time!
You know, on a profane level, it seems as though our business culture is evolving into one which places all the value on shareholders. Take for instance the recent trend in hiring “independent contractors” instead of employees. CFO’s do this because the company then no longer needs to pay medicare, social security, or workman’s comp. This naturally undermines social stability as we currently know it but it is of tremendous value to the shareholders, i.e. it reduces labor costs by 30-40%. This is what Sandy Pentland, in his book Social Physics, refers to as the “tragedy of the commons.” It’s also what Murray Gell-Mann, in his book The Quark and the Jaguar, identifies as the failure to charge “true costs.” So the solution, to me, would seem to be the development of a social structure in which all sentient beings are shareholders and in which every decision is based on “true costs,” ha, ha, ha . . . I’m not going to hold my breath . . .
I could add something to the Persinger experiments but I won’t; those who are meant to know will know . . .
Thanks Wes for commenting.
I clicked on your name and took a look at your site. Nice artwork! I thought I had tried to do that before but it didn’t seem to link to anything significant. At any rate, again, nice art!
I could argue with some of what your wrote but I a not going to because I mostly agree with your sentiments even if I would not word it exactly like you have.
I am still reading this, but I’d like to comment on where I am in it right now, if I may…
Three is no doubt that in the USA the distribution of wealth has been becoming more and more unequal in the last 4 decades or so. But while the USA has been doing that, a funny thing has been happening around the rest of the world (though certainly not all of it).
A bit over 40 years ago I did my first traveling overseas, a couple of trips to Europe and the Middle East. At that time most of Europe was still only just recovering from World War II and its devastation. My first trip was just after Richard Nixon, supposedly in a panic over inflation, which at that time was about 3% (OMG!), did two things in one day, using one as cover for doing the other. He initiated price controls (some Free Marketeer he was!). And he also took the USA off the gold standard of $35 per troy ounce of gold, which had existed since just after WWII. A few months later, and even on my next trip 16 months later, the dollar was KING.
Europe was not yet prosperous as we know it today, and of course much of the Middle East was not, either. I visited four Middle Eastern countries, so I got a fair idea of the level there as well as the several European countries we enjoyed.
The dollar was king and the USA’s economy was driving the world. But the USA economy was mostly an internal system, with probably 90% of its production being for domestic consumption and use. That hindered the USA for the next 20-25 years, but the rest of the world was a much more open economy, with common standards (the metric system, SI), and able to work together and interchangeably and also compete against each other and innovate.
So, long story short, much of the rest of the world caught up with the USA and quite a few passed us up in various ways – ways that even count. And it is not just about American blue jeans, as was once the case. And all that while most of them did not have to give up their basic lifestyles – only to make those lifestyles more agreeable and prosperous.
I have NOT heard the same assessments about other countries about growing inequality. It’s possible that such has happened, true, but in the growing prosperity the middle classes around the world were growing and weren’t complaining if some on top were garnering a bit more. Maybe I am mistaken. Maybe they were complaining about this. But after my trips then I kept my ear to the ground fairly well and can’t say that I ever heard about growing inequality – except in the post-Soviet Russia, yes, which was and is a special case – and perhaps some of the other Soviet spin-offs. The rest of the world has gone through a tremendous increase in prosperity.
Along with that has been a continuing of the increase in life expectancy, almost everywhere. Much of that has to do with greatly reduced infant mortality and better medical care – the latter especially being another shortcoming of the USA versus the rest of the world, and why (IMO) the USA cannot be held up as a model for the world in total.
Sometimes when I point out to people about increased life expectancy, I get a knee-jerk reaction about, “What is the good of longer life if you are sick?” But such is not the case at all. The USA itself has gone from an average life expectancy in 1900 of 49 up to 79 now. But the increases in most other countries is even much more remarkable. That 79 years ranks the USA only 29th in the world now. And lifespans are not just longer with 30 more or whatever added years being sickly. We remain at normal health up to a year or three before the end, just like before – so the added years are actually normally healthy years. And in Japan and Norway, one only has to live about 16 or 17 years beyond average to make it to 100.
In 1800 not ONE country had a life expectancy of 40, with only two at 36. Now only some Sub-Saharan African countries and Afghanistan have life expectancies lower than 55. THAT is a stupendous change in the world.
In the USA, in 1900 only 122,000 people were over 85 years old. In 2000 that number was 4.2 million – 34 times as many. And most of the rest of the world did even better.
Birth rates, in the meantime, have dropped like a rock since the advent of The Pill. Birth rates that were 6 or 7 kids per mother in the 1950s are now almost universally in the range of 2.1- 2.7. That is a drop of about 2/3. Mexico, where I live now, at 2.5, is only 0.2 behind the USA, even with the influence of the Vatican. Women the world over are seeing that life for their kids is just better if they only have one or two kids, and they are choosing that. Fortunately that has happened and slowed the world population growth, to the point that we can actually envision a time when the world population is going DOWN, not up. Some are projecting the peak at about 2100 or before, and that by 2150 or so the population might be only 5 billion or so.
THAT all may portend another version of Childhood’s End – one in which centenarians are the norm and childhood is just a flicker at the beginning of long lived humans. I don’t have any projections, but in a century or two we might see populations averaging 60 or 80 years old, instead of 30 as it is now. In such a world, childhood in some ways DOES end, it being such a small part of each individual’s life.
And the robots taking over the production lines – Is that a Good thing? a Bad thing? Assembly line jobs were not jobs. The flesh and blood people were treated as automotons, anyway. The only difference is that the job markets have change radically. The tech stock bubble burst in 2000, but you’d hardly notice that now. Tech and tech jobs is and will be the wave of the future. Those who deal with it will fit in well and be prosperous, just as factory workers from 1810 to 1900 were more prosperous than the farm laborers were in times previous. The working world is a different place. Gone are drafting departments of 100, typing pools of 100, rows and rows of accountants pulling the arms of adding machines – even office workers have been replaced by tech. The change has happened already, and it will expand and continue to expand.
So, is life better? It’s longer, and by almost all measures IS better. It is likely that retirement age will need to increase substantially. But is that a good thing or bad thing?
With so much higher percentage of our lives lived in adulthood, childhood is a much smaller part of life. For myself it is an opportunity to expand ME and my experience, in years I wouldn’t have even HAD.
To heck with childhood! When someone writes the book “Adulthood’s End”, THEN we will have a problem! LOL
There’s a lot to comment on in what you wrote.
A long time ago I posted this:
Among its arguments was the idea that we were going to be facing two big challenges that affected each other:
1- Dramatic increase in life span.
2- Dramatic reduction in the need for labor.
More people living longer with less and less to do in an automated economy. We are going to have to change something in how we organize society.
Population plateaus are predicted by the U.N. and others for late this century but what if the immortality drug becomes widely available? What does that do to the prediction?