Thoughts for the End of Days: A Morning Star, Insatiability, DishBrain, Xenobots

He had also gone through a bad divorce, become estranged from his only daughter and been diagnosed with skin cancer, but he insisted that all of that, however painful, was secondary to the sudden realization that it was mathematics—not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon—which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant.

We can pull atoms apart, peer back at the first light and predict the end of the universe with just a handful of equations, squiggly lines and arcane symbols that normal people cannot fathom, even though they hold sway over their lives. But it’s not just regular folks; even scientists no longer comprehend the world. Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.

— Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World

Karl Nausgaard’s novel A Morning Star and Insatiability by Stanis?aw Ignacy Witkiewicz are two brilliant and vitally important works of literature that should be required reading by students and adults in the Western World. Insatiability, written in 1927, and set in the year 2000, is an often prescient work that speaks, in some instances, to our fractured and dystopian times, particularly  the loss and creation of new identities. Both novels speak in their own way to the decline and destruction of the West, although Witkiewicz culminates with a definitive result. Witkiewicz, upon learning of the Soviet Army tanks rolling into Poland killed himself rather than live in a world he had largely predicted in his exceptional novel. Daniel Gerould writing in Science Fiction Studies, November 1979, summarizes the book nicely.

This wild, lunatic, and phantasmagoric book has proved to be one of the most prophetic works of 20th-century fiction, not so much in its particular predictions (although some of these are quite uncanny) as in its capturing of the age’s sensibility through brief composite portraits of the “psychosocial” environment. The fractured picture that results is that of an incoherent ersatz world which resembles our own. In the Witkacian era of insatiability, everything from genius to revolution, from food to mystical experience, from art to patriotic heroics, is an inauthentic manifestation of pseudo-culture. Change has accelerated so strongly that ‘the distances between generations had diminished to the point of being ridiculous: people just a few years younger than others were apt to refer to the latter as their ‘elders’. Throughout all the media there is systematic falsification of the news, while the government is perceived by all as an organized mafia behind a mafia, causing such a loss of belief in politics that the state becomes regarded as a sport. In the background, the superbly disciplined Chinese communists, after subduing counter-revolutionary Russia, are poised to take over the blandly Bolshevized states of Western Europe and ultimately eliminate “the poison of the white man”. Murti-Bing pills pushed by the Chinese softens up the already demented and debilitated Europeans so that they can painlessly adjust to the political control which will definitively liberate them from their own madness and despair and turn them into smoothly functioning members of the state machinery.

Knausgaard’s Morning Star, exactly 666 pages in length, concludes with this ominous phrasing:

And last night a new star appeared in the sky.
It shines above me now.
The Morning Star.
I know what it means.
It means that it has begun.

There are any number of ways to interpret those five lines above. I don’t want to spoil what comes before; but for me; with much of A Morning Star’s focus on the boundary between life and death—and the biblical significance of the Morning Star—I think that Knausgaard has a both painful and joyous reckoning for Norway and the Western World. This passage strikes me as a clue to the fate of the Western World, “…the dead, like the sun, descended in the West, the land of the dead being referred to accordingly as the West and the dead as westerners.” For what is “the West” now other than automatons pushing through the daily grind. Knausgaard has the uncanny ability to go from horrifying at points to another form of horror: the excruciating steps involved in making a cup of coffee, working the cellphone, and summoning up the mundane words necessary to be a social human being in meatspace. None of the characters seem certain of anything, particularly the priest who doubts like Thomas. God and myth are largely absent in the Western World now, having undergone an incision and removal in the cultural body by science and capitalism.

Knausgaard, via one of his characters, asks if death is dead. In other words with genetic manipulation, synthetic biology might not one day see a humans leading a relatively “eternal life.” Eternal life after death is something that certainly Christianity proposes. And yet, it is science that holds out the offer of eternal/extra life, not religion. People believe the scientists, not the priests or gods.

Xenobots: They Did That?

Late in 2020,reconfigurable organisms or Xenobots were created by the University of Vermont and Tufts University researchers. The Xenobots are about the size of the period located on a computer keyboard. They were created by an evolutionary Artificial Intelligence software program and frog DNA cells. They appear as little Pac-man type cells that developed, unexpectedly, the ability to reproduce.

According to Science News, “The fact that they were able to do this at such a small scale just makes it even better, because you can start to imagine biomedical application areas. Minuscule xenobots might be able to sculpt tissues for implantation, for instance, or go inside bodies to deliver therapeutics to specific spots. Beyond the possible jobs for the xenobots, the research advances an important science, one that has existential importance for humans, says study coauthor Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts. That is, ‘the science of trying to anticipate and control the consequences of complex systems,’ he says. ‘Originally, no one would have predicted any of this,’ Levin says. ‘These things are routinely doing things that surprise us.’ With xenobots, researchers can push the limits of the unexpected. ‘This is about a safe way to explore and advance the science of being less surprised by things,’ Levin says.”

And so it should be no surprise that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had a hand in funding the creation of the Xenobot life forms, part of the Pentagon’s push into Synthetic Biology: a means to enhance human warfighters metabolisms and, henceforth, reduce the cycle time of the kill chain.

DishBrain Cyborgs: Would You Like to Play a Game?

Big news in 2021! Scientists in the UK and Australia taught human brain cells growing in a petri dish to play the legacy video game Pong. According to the authors of In vitro neurons learn and exhibit sentience when embodied in a simulated game-world (writing at bioRXiv)

Integrating neurons into digital systems to leverage their innate intelligence may enable performance infeasible with silicon alone, along with providing insight into the cellular origin of intelligence. We developed DishBrain, a system which exhibits natural intelligence by harnessing the inherent adaptive computation of neurons in a structured environment. In vitro neural networks, from human or rodent origins, are integrated with in silico computing via high-density multielectrode array.

Some hundreds of years from now, there will be human sized cyborgs created in the public and private genetics/bio-machine laboratories around the world. It is inevitable. What military wouldn’t want super human fighting organisms? What Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk billionaire would not want to be biologically modified to live longer?

The ethics of it all is a bunch of malarkey. The sanctity of human life? Ha! When the Director of the CDC Rochelle Walensky jumps for joy at the fact that Covid is killing mostly the elderly, you know eugenics will return somewhere in the future. On Good Morning America during an interview, Walensky said this: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really these are people who are unwell to begin with, and yes,  [this is] really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.”

Can’t you hear it? Sometime, one day in the future, this decision comes down: “After all, grandma and grandpa just don’t make the cost-benefit analysis cut and so they will have to kill themselves. They did not make the human augmentation life extension program either, so that’s it for them. I mean they are part of humanity 1.0, older models, sorry,” says the social services cyborg.

This is the End

The current version of humanity just isn’t up to the task of running this planet or governing it. It is as if the entire species is shooting and asking the tough questions later. Take the Xenobot example. Researchers had no clue that the Xenobots would procreate on their own. It’s just one small experiment, but over the coming years these “surprises” are likely to explode into the wild. There will be a Humanity 2.0 for sure: genetically altered, machine augmented, superior to the current model. Humans are well on the way to becoming their own gods at their own peril. They believe in nothing but production and consumption, and the selfishly gratifying sense of being the center of the world. We simply do not know what we are doing nor do we seem to care about outcomes. There is no guide post, no apparent order as 2022 begins. Belief and faith are absent in government, each individual or in something beyond oneself. Order is necessary.

Maybe Knausgaard and Witkiewicz are right: the beginning of the end has begun.

But maybe the late Roberto Calasso is on to something. In his The Book of All Books, he wrote:
We should hardly be surprised, then, looking back to the origins of human thought, if we invariably run into works like rta, asha, ma’at,me,dike, simati, dao, torah. Their can be no gods, no God, unless connected to those words that indicate an order. Divinity itself is inseparable from those words. What much later came to be understood with the term Science is just our most recent attempt to articulate an order that had already been spoken of with many other names. All endless, open, provisional, unsettled. All indispensable if some form of life was to keep going. The figure of the Messiah is the shadow one glimpses behind the perennial branches of order.

John can be reached at He published a book in 2019 titled Cancer for Jokers, an irreverent, black humor based look at his first cancer diagnosis. Read other articles by John.