Guided Evolution

“A scientific definition of God.” That’s how Stanley Kubrick described his 1968 movie masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Darwin had stirred German thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche, to recognise three phases in the evolution of humans: ape, man, and finally, superman.  As Nietzsche said, “What is the ape to man? A laughingstock, or painful embarrassment.  And man shall be to the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.” Modern humans are solely the stepping-stone from ape to superman.

Trouble is, neither Darwin nor Nietzsche is exactly primetime TV.  And there is little drama in Darwinian evolution.  Just the sluggish, unsolicited course of creeping change.  So, along with famous science fiction author Arthur C Clarke, Kubrick souped-up Nietzsche.  And they souped-up Darwin: they developed a fictional form of Stephen J Gould’s ‘punctuated equilibrium’.  In 2001, dumb, blind evolution is ruptured by the periodic guiding hand of an elusive alien race.  It is a story of the effective creation and resurrection of man in three easy parts.  A scientific definition of God, in effect.

As the movie’s title implies, the story takes us on a journey in time and space.  We start with the subhuman ape, and end up with the post-human starchild.  2001 is a four-million-year filmic story, whose unfolding embraces each theme of science fiction: space (alien contact through the monoliths), time (evolutionary fable), machine (HAL, the computer turned murderer), and monster (human metamorphosis).

The odyssey begins with a small band of apes on the long, pathetic road to racial extinction.  But they are saved.  And their salvation comes in the form of guided evolution.  The mysterious presence of the black monolith transforms the hominid horizon.  The journey to superman begins.

In a single frame of film, the space age dawns.  It is a bland future, dominated by corporations and technology.  Ironically, the most ‘human’ character is the robustly intelligent spaceship computer, HAL 9000. The potent evolutionary force imparted by the black obelisks is once more overdue.  The space age was ultimately inspired out of the apes by the alien intelligence.  And so it will be with man.

Under the watchful presence of the monoliths, modern man, in the form of the astronaut David Bowman, comes to an end.  With the immense presence of planet Earth filling the screen, the foetus of the superhuman starchild glides into view.  Moving through space without artifice, the image suggests a new power.  Man has transcended all earthly limitations.

The brilliant use of movie technology helped make 2001 a tour de force.  Winner of an Oscar for special effects, the film presented a more ‘realistic’ portrait of space travel than the real-life odyssey of Armstrong and Aldrin a year later.  Sections of the film were used in training NASA astronauts.  And Arthur C Clarke suggested that of all the reactions to the movie, he was most chuffed by the response of Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, “Now I feel I’ve been into space twice!”

As with Nietzsche and Kubrick, three was also the magic number for Béla Bánáthy.  The famous Hungarian linguist and systems scientist was inspired to identify three seminal events in the evolutionary journey of our species.

In his book, Guided Evolution of Society, Bánáthy suggests the first decisive episode occurred some seven million years ago, when our hominid ancestors first developed.  The second crucial event happened when homo sapiens began the revolutionary route of cultural evolution.

And today, says Bánáthy, we have arrived at the third major event.  The revolution of conscious evolution.  We now have the power and responsibility to guide the evolutionary journey of our species.

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