The Great Work
Everything that can go around eventually gets around to going around. During most of my life, for example, various middle-aged ladies have explained to me how the alchemists were really interested in spiritual transformation rather than metallurgy; but of late scholarly historians of the Art have emphasized the empirical research conducted by adepts who often used mystical language to preserve their trade secrets in an age before patents. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, butter of antimony is sometimes just butter of antimony even if you call it the dizzy leopard to confuse the competition. But at least some of the time some of the alchemists were speaking neither about spiritual matters or material matters but about both at once, as if one could precipitate a metaphor in the bottom of a beaker. This program is not necessarily absurd.
I’m pretty big for a homunculus, but I myself am presumably the product of a chemical synthesis. The alchemical recipe for an artificial man usually involved hermetically sealing various ingredients in a vessel and incubating them for months and months in a steaming pile of horse dung, the so-called Mare. It turns out you have to have a lot of patience to pursue this crock-pot cookery to a successful conclusion. Three or four months of ferment hardly suffice and you need to think big. After all, the original run, conducted on a planetary scale, lasted for some 4.6 billion years. The point of alchemy, of course, is to accelerate and miniaturize nature; but an experiment with a fair prospect of a favorable outcome would still be a major undertaking. Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist with the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity, has proposed a somewhat similar operation. In his book, the Origins of Order (1993), he suggests that life might spontaneously emerge from under the right conditions if a couple of thousand chemical species were mingled in a biochemical reactor. The results of such a trial would not be very impressive to look at, at best a very activated sludge, and would probably be exquisitely fragile, utterly defenseless against natural living things, which are all finalists in a very long Mortal Kombat tournament. So far as I know Kauffman never actually conducted this experiment—the financing might be harder to assemble than the chemicals and you don’t even want to think about the permits—but perhaps it could be adequately simulated on a sufficiently powerful computer. As one might also have said about the endeavors of the alchemists, Kauffman’s idea is perfectly reasonable even if it turns out that the available means are insufficient.
I expect that a lot of people would be alarmed at the prospect of a modern version of the Great Work—I imagine the farmers of central New Mexico stocking up on torches and pitchforks just in case—but the grave threat of such researches is metaphysical rather than environmental. As with genetic engineering, it isn’t so much the practical as the moral risks of such activities that alarm people. Many people still believe that life was created, after all, and that makes the artificial life a blasphemous parody of the action of God. The rationale for the commandment against graven images is that artists should not pretend to be able to make living things. Actually pulling off that feat would be even worse just as Bonaparte had to be institutionalized on St. Helena because he thought he was Napoleon. But even a nonbeliever might find the production of a couple of grams of metabolizing goo anti-edifying if the expense and difficulty of the process only served to underscore the general sterility of Mother Nature.
The original alchemists believed that material things harbored occult potentialities that could be released by their art. They credited nature with an intrinsic ability to make, which is part of the reason they were distrusted by the Church, which insisted that God had a monopoly on the creation business. The newer alchemy promotes a more depressing heresy. Life indeed arises from unliving matter, but only as the tiniest of impurities. Nature’s trade is disorder; but disorder has an irreducible minimum. As I wrote in the margin of Kauffman’s book, “The Devil only permitted good because he could produce a greater evil from it.” That’s a rather stupid joke, of course—I was sitting through jury duty when I wrote it and plead boredom. Life may be overwhelmingly rare, the residue of a residue like the faint glow of radium left in Madame Curie’s last crucible in the Greer Garson movie, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. Au contraire. Still…
The occasion of these thoughts was an argument I had on the Internet about Bush Administration plans to go back to the moon. I made the point that the motivation for manned space is not scientific—unmanned probes yield far more knowledge at far cheaper rates. Like so much of our politics, the program appeals to our fantasies. We persist in sending human beings into the abyss because we dream of traveling to the stars even though it is very unlikely that an expedition, let alone a migration, is feasible over interstellar distances. When I quoted the tee shirt “186,000 miles a second. It’s not only a good idea. It’s the law,” I was accused on underestimating human ingenuity, etc. But the consideration that really makes me doubt the possibility of leaving this neck of the woods is not physics—even if I were an expert on the subject, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of some loophole in the rules—but the evident fact that we aren’t up to our necks in aliens. If long-range space travel is possible, even at a very low rate, the mathematics of exponential growth guarantees that intelligent life would have long since infested the cosmos like bacteria in unrefrigerated soup. To which it was countered that we may be the first and only planet on which intelligent life emerged or—and this is where I was brought up short—intelligent life may routinely self-destruct before it seeds itself across the heavens.
The idea of the self-destructiveness of intelligence is familiar from many a science fiction novel and doesn’t much further a discussion of the advisability of manned space flight since the technical feasibility of rocketing off to Sirius wouldn’t make much difference if we’re doomed to blow ourselves up before we get around to making the trip. What the thought suddenly illuminated for me, however, was an error of my imagination. I have long been awed by the rarity of sentient life in space, but its rarity in time is probably just as sublime. It’s very likely that the Great Work is not only a mountain that gives birth to a mouse but that it can only produce a very temporary rodent. Our civilization is probably as evanescent as the homunculus of Paracelsus. Fueled by the rapid combustion of coal and petroleum that was build up over many millions of years, it is likely to run out of gas before it achieves escape velocity.