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.