by Kris Schnee
Text ©2006 Kris Schnee; illustration ©2006 Cubist
Im Shadow the Hedgehog, the one and only Ultimate Life Form.
Sonic Adventure 2
Superpowered characters arent enough for some people. A number of stories have presented us readers with characters so powerful that, explicitly or by implication, theyre supreme beings. Most of these stories do us a disservice; either they mislead readers about basic science, or they present a concept of ultimate based on questionable politics, or both.
What does the phrase ultimate lifeform even mean, anyway? This term comes from common misunderstandings about biology. Evolution doesnt rank anything or anyone as good or bad, or as higher or more evolved. Those arent well-defined biological traits, theyre human judgments. To rank some creature as a higher lifeform is a holdover from the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, which cubbyholed all real and spiritual creatures into a vertical line with humans having dominion over other animals. But evolution doesnt provide ranks; it only describes the tendency of living things to get better at surviving. It doesnt follow that a species thats great at surviving is ultimate in some general sense, or morally superior to anything else. Shadow the Hedgehog is certainly durable (having survived orbital re-entry), but hes not exactly invincible.
Q: Who would win in a nuclear war between the US and Russia? A: The cockroaches. Cold War joke
But cant we judge ultimate lifeform candidates by intelligence or complexity, since evolution moves towards greater levels of both? Not really. Whats more likely is that there was no other option. A succinct way to put it is, You cant fall off the floor. If life started with single cells, then the size, complexity, and intelligence of lifeforms had no direction to go but up! Since theres no innate idea of progress built into evolution, this rise doesnt make us better overall than bacteria. In fact, one-celled creatures greatly outnumber us clumsy multi-celled types, and theyll survive even if we manage to wipe ourselves out. Another explanation for lifes increasing complexity is that its a sort of migration to new niches, new ecological roles. The first multi-cellular creatures werent better than regular bacteria; they just had a temporary monopoly on the multi-cellular lifestyle. So the fact that humans are big, smart and complicated doesnt make us objectively superior to other life, and some story-beast thats even fancier than us (for any particular definition of fancy) wont be ultimate either.
Anne McCaffreys dragons, from her long-running novel series, are another candidate for being ultimate. Theyre flying, fire-breathing, intelligent, telepathic, teleporting, time-traveling dragons! These über-beasts point out another problem with the search for superiority: Life has tradeoffs.
To the extent that evolution can be said to have a goal at all, it tries to make creatures better-equipped to survive in whatever environment their parents lived in. Since theres no foresight whatsoever in this process, it wont produce a species thats perfectly adapted to all possible situations; as The Onion recently put it, dolphins are not so smart on land. Abilities that make a species good at one thing depend on biological equipment that costs materials and energy to grow, and may even make the species worse at something else. For instance, compare the huge-eared desert breeds of rabbit and fox to their small-eared arctic counterparts. The tiny ear-size thats ultimate for conserving heat in darkest Canada is lousy in the Las Vegas summer, where big ears help shed heat instead. Similarly, animals tend to be stockier towards the colder ends of their habitat (possibly even including humans), and neither pine trees nor cacti have overrun the other. Of course there are generalist species, able to handle a variety of weather and food sources, but they demonstrate the truth of the old saying jack of all trades, master of none. Humans are an excellent example of a generalist species; we can run, jump, climb, and swim, but were not especially good at any of these things. Raccoons and coyotes, too, are generalists, able to survive in a range of environments; but neither of them are ultimate, because a specialist can beat any of them at its own specific game. Does this mean specialists are ultimate lifeforms? No. Faced with a strange environment, a generalist will probably be able to make a living there, even if it doesnt thrive; a specialist will just die.
Seen in this light, McCaffreys dragons are silly. How do they fly? Do they have hollow bones like birds, to reduce their weight? If so, thats a weak point; if not, theyre so heavy they need incredible muscles, which means they need huge amounts of food just to move. Or they could spend most of their lives idle, as cats do. Either way, they simply arent as all-powerful as they might seem. The same goes for their other abilitieshow big a meal does it take to gather the energy for one fire-breath or teleport? The dragons are such resource-hogs that evolution is unlikely to produce something with so many bells and whistles. Why drive a tank to the mall?
Ah, the McCaffrey fan says, but these dragons didnt evolve, theyre gengineered! Sorry, but technology doesnt mean you get to ignore the laws of physics. Evolved or gengineered, a small-eared rabbit just plain does lose less heat, and therefore is better-adapted to arctic cold, than a big-eared bunny. And if you design a creature with the ability to breathe fire, youre going to have to design its fuel source and lighter, and the biological resources that go into it all wont be available for your creature to do anything else with. In other words, designed lifeforms will have trade-offs, too. A related example is the Chakat race, as seen in the stories of Bernard Doove. This species is gengineered for superhuman strength, sense of smell, etc., yet Chakats need extra food, sleep, and living space. Which are superior, these cat-people, or McCaffreys dragons? Theres no general, one-size-fits-all answer; its a question of what criteria we think are more important. Asking who would win in a fight might be fun, but steel-cage matches dont measure the full range of a species abilities.
Well, maybe we can use conventional technology to get around the tradeoffs of pure biology? Yes, we canbut that just sweeps the problem under the rug. Hard tech upgrades like cybernetic parts have tradeoffs of their own; thus, youve really only exchanged one set of tradeoffs (i.e., those of biology) for another (i.e., those of machines). For instance, the Ultimate Lifeform prototype in Sonic Adventure 2 was a big lizard on life support. A race thats designed to depend on advanced machinery, like Star Treks Borg, will be crippled when the machines break, while a rugged race that can live without gadgets is imperfectly adapted to live with them. (That is, if its body is designed for the ability to digest grass, its got internal structures that it doesnt need in a technological civilization, hence that are useless most of the time.) Even a nanotechnology-based shapeshifting power would have tradeoffs, as the shifting itself would cost energy and materials. So regardless of the technology, there is no ideal set of body parts and powers that works in every possible situation. The only way to get an ultimate lifeform is to ignore both the physics of building efficient living machines, and the logic of judging them by more than one ability.
The Fifth Element
(scientists gawking at a carrot-haired anorexic girl built from perfect DNA)
What about intelligence as a source of ultimate status? A powerful mind helps an animal adapt to new situations in a single generation, and survive in a wide range of environments. By intelligence, humans have colonized most of Earths land and set eyes on the sea and sky. Yet does our cleverness make us objectively superior to other species? Intelligence seems to require a large brain, which in our case consumes about a quarter of the whole bodys blood supply (i.e., its oxygen, nutrients, and energy). The brains size makes us vulnerable to spine problems and blows to the head. A mother can vouch that it makes birth traumatic and potentially fatal. And even with a babys large head, the brain needs a long childhood to continue growing, making human babies stupid and useless at ages where other animals can walk and join in the hunt. With such expense attached to intelligence, its no surprise that mammals and birds are the only groups that have made much investment in it. And how much of our brainpower is devoted to battling our own species?
Even a gengineered, optimized mind wouldnt be all-around perfect; just saying so begs the question, Optimized for what? Humans excellent vision and tactile sense come with mediocre hearing and worse smell. Our talent for language and tool use leaves out exotic talents like birds starlight navigation, dolphins sonar, and squirrels ability to find all those nuts (possibly) by memory. In fact, theres a book devoted to How To Outwit Squirrels, with the premise that itd be shameful to lose a bird feeder to the less intelligent furry little ninjas. The fact that Man the Hunter would need such a book suggests that our brainpower advantage lies in specific areas, not describable by a single IQ number, and that in some ways we really arent all that smart!
It may not possible to design an objectively perfect being, but theres still reason to look for some kindsmany kindsof improvements. If we shatter the illusion of a single Master race or the rigid alphabet of specialists from Brave New World, and leave decision-making to individual families instead of some central authority, we can see the real potential of gengineering and other technologies. The designer babies of the future wont have a specific Adonis design imposed by some tyrant or corporation; instead, theyll take many paths, many approaches to life. Humans will become more diverse than ever before as we explore new ways of being, with no one version being ultimate or superior. We can appreciate the ability to explore and experiment without hoping to settle on any one design.
Theres one area in which an artificially-designed race could be changed without a direct effect on the energy and materials it needs: Personality. To the extent that genes shape behavior, we might shape the personality as well as the bodies of a created species. There are probably specific genes and brain regions (lots of them) involved, and we can try to understand them through science. What if we designed a new species to be more peaceful, more honest, kinder, and gentler? Sounds nice but such people would have to compete with some dangerous pre-existing creatures: Us! Wed be trusting in our well-meant design to be at least as good at survival as our own, one with billions of years of evolution behind it. We run the risk of making people too nice for their own good! Still, theres the potential for using the tools of advanced technology to experiment with not one, but many ideal ways of living.
It may be optimistic to suppose we can improve in any way on the clunky, often tragic system that produced us. But if we understand the trade-offs involved, and dont expect perfection, it may ultimately be worth our effort to try.