by Robert L. Jones III
Almost silently, the hover train whisks to a stop on its magnetic rails. I’m not the only one scanning this crowd for targets. Professionals all over the country work this and other transportation hubs, and now my attention is drawn to a blonde woman disembarking with the other passengers.
Not every woman who looks like her is what I’m looking for, but few women look like her. This one is carrying a small travel case and nothing else, another clue. As I watch her, I can’t imagine anyone being closer to physical perfection. Her blonde hair is tied back, revealing a lean, exquisitely shaped face, and her dark blue dress can’t hide a figure of what many would consider ideal proportions. Her shoes are low-heeled, soft-soled, and designed for ease of movement.
Our eyes meet from across the seething throng on the platform. Though I’m a stranger, she doesn’t look away, and her face is as expressionless as mine as we slowly close the distance between us. I know her type. She’s an amoral sociopath, but that isn’t the reason for her blank, unapologetic stare. I’ve seen this look many times. She’s ovulating, and she wants to mate. Displaying a flat affect and keeping my hands in plain view at my sides, I maintain the deception for as long as I can. I need to get as close as possible. I know she could break me in half, probably kill me with her thumb.
Now we’re almost close enough to touch, and we stop our mutual advance. Her head cocks slightly to one side — a definite, almost reflexive tell — as she assesses me, and I reciprocate. It always takes them longer to examine a person because they don’t read the subtleties of character very easily. This isn’t due to neurodivergence or a structural abnormality; her brain scan would appear normal.
Now is the tantalizing moment when success is imminent, when temptation and danger are at their highest pitch. I’m only human. Unlike her, I can be attracted to something which threatens my survival. She finally sees what I’m trying to hide, something beyond her comprehension, and instinctive fear animates her features. She’s a synthete. Though I occasionally have my doubts, current dogma says that I possess what she lacks: a nonmaterial soul.
The goal was the creation of the first human beings from inorganic chemicals. It was to be the triumph of chemistry and reductionism, the final proof that mind is nothing more than body. Such a grand objective awaited developments on five fronts: first, a more thorough understanding of the human genome and how it operates within the context of chromosomal and cellular structure; second, whole body three-dimensional imaging at the atomic level of resolution for constructing initial templates; third, reliable methods of altering genes without negative side effects; fourth, sufficiently advanced chemosynthetic technology to build from the revised templates; and fifth, artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to coordinate all of the parameters.
It was less than straightforward — far less. The chief obstacle once these developments were in place was the nanosecond timing required to assemble and activate functioning bodies before molecular decay could set in, and this was particularly crucial for the viability of the nervous system. It was the literal creation of life from nonlife, an artificial abiogenesis. It could only be achieved instrumentally under the control of superior AI because the quickest human reaction times were far too slow, the most coordinated human dexterity too imprecise.
Adult male and female synthetes were constructed simultaneously, activated, and evaluated. Their vital signs were normal — actually better than normal — but predictably, the nascent individuals were deficient in a number of physical and psychological functions. They required education and training. Over the long term of this process, a number of things became obvious. The synthetes were extremely powerful and had the capacity for developing great coordination and dexterity. They were highly intelligent and could learn language skills. All of these attainments came with difficulty yet astonishing rapidity, but the grand experiment failed to fulfill its primary objective. The soul hypothesis has remained viable for lack of definitive contradiction.
Through extensive analyses of cognitive function, key deficiencies have come to light. The synthetes are uncommonly good at logical problem-solving on a concrete level, but they are unable to perform subjective abstractions of anything more than an elementary nature. They show no signs of metacognition — the ability to think about thinking — which supposedly is a defining characteristic of humanity with respect to other animal species. The general assumption is that synthetes are organic, stimulus-response machines, adept at mathematics, technology, and various physical skills.
It does not appear that synthetes will ever write great poems, philosophical works, plays, or novels. To date, they have shown no interest in doing so. They have no concept of God or immortality, but like us, they have a strong instinct for survival. While excellent forgers, they are rudimentary, if not simplistic, in the creation of original art. They are similar to computers in that they can compose music of a complex but rather sterile quality, and this makes sense owing to the underlying mathematical principles of music.
I am aware that artificial intelligence systems can fool people. They can beat them at complicated games like chess. They can simulate literature, art, and music. They can learn. In short, they demonstrate many functions once considered the sole province of humanity, but such AI systems are programmed by entire teams of highly intelligent scientists who consult with specialists in the fields being imitated. By contrast, each synthete must think more autonomously.
None of the reported limitations stopped researchers from taking the next obvious steps. Citing economic and military demand for expendable soldiers and workers, they obtained industrial backing, created more synthetes of desirable genetic variation, and taught them sexual behavior in order to generate an independently reproducing population. Now that this population is with us, however, we have noticed some disturbing social traits.
Their simulation of morality is based on mutual selfishness. They exhibit little emotion or empathy, mainly pragmatic altruism. In their dealings with us and with each other, they operate strictly according to a sense of social contract. They are everything social evolutionary theory says we are, and this paradoxically makes them different from us. This, however, is not their most threatening trait.
It has become evident that the synthetes are trying to out-reproduce us until they no longer need to practice civil restraint in their dealings with the rest of humanity. Unfettered by love, loyalty, monogamy, or personal preference, they mate and give birth as often as is physically possible, and they display an instinctive aversion to mating with any but their own kind. The discovery of their reproductive threat to our existence has prompted a series of legislative proposals and actions.
The first measure on which a majority could agree was that of excluding synthetes from positions in law enforcement and military service. Affording them those authorities and capabilities was deemed unjustifiably hazardous. Hardliners demanded total eradication, but the more rational claimed that such a violation of the social contract would drive the synthetes toward adopting extreme measures. The decision was made to confine them in preserves and limit their access to raw materials in the hope that logic and pragmatism would prevent their population from growing beyond what their prescribed range can support.
Before their confinement, the synthetes learned to reproduce our technology, but we limit their use of it to cable-based networks disconnected from the worldwide web. Jamming Wi-fi and satellite signals further enforces this edict. As another security measure, the preserves have a totally different monetary system from ours. We also prohibit providing them with materials requisite for the production of sophisticated weapons. These measures are effective, or so we think.
Despite the restrictions, a majority of the public consider this a generous policy. The preserves are spacious — complete with farms and cities — and periodic air drops provide them with products necessary for sustaining a good physical quality of life. In the perception of the captives, however, this isn’t enough. Their strategy of reproductive dominance demands more space, greater mobility.
That’s where agents like me come into play. The synthetes never stop trying to live and reproduce outside the preserves, thus circumventing physical limitations on their growth in numbers, and they are masters of escape. But for our efforts, physical superiority and ingenuity at counterfeiting currency and forging documentation would enable several of them to enter into general society each year. Once embedded, they would have access to the internet, and then they would be able to hack their false identities into national databases. Therefore, we must detect, capture, and return them. We comfort ourselves by believing that our success rate is one-hundred percent.
It’s not that I’m free of conflict in my duties as a federal agent, but it has to be done. Does that make it right? We profile and restrict them for being what we, for lack of foresight, created them to be. We performed the grand series of experiments, and its products are our responsibility. Our solution is problematic and morally ambiguous, but it’s humane — if only they didn’t resemble us so closely.
If synthetes are subhuman or inhuman, how are we to regard and treat fellow humans of limited or absent cognitive functions? The same question applies to victims of strokes and traumatic brain injuries. Are certain mental functions all that make us human? How do we define ourselves, and where do we draw the line? Should we draw it at all? If survival is our justification, as who or what should we wish to continue existing?
Maybe our current efforts are moot, for I fear they are temporary at best. One of the characteristics of speciation is reproductive isolation, and geographic separation, however maintained, can further accelerate evolutionary change. Into what might our created offspring evolve within those preserves? Will their adaptations someday exceed our responsive capabilities? Ironically, we might be enforcing the conditions that will culminate in our extinction.
I’ve been made. That I was impersonating male synthete behavior has revealed my profession. With extraordinary quickness she turns to run, but I pull the tracer gun from my coat pocket and tag her with a microtransmitter too small and too deeply buried for her to remove. A second later, she would have evaded me, lost to our tracking devices. I’ve done my part, and the capture crew will do the rest. They’ll place her in the nearest preserve.
I’d hate to admit how many times I’m tempted each day to go through with the ruse for the sake of mere pleasure, to exchange ethics for physical perfection, but then I remind myself of the danger posed by intimate proximity. If I compromise myself, if a female synthete makes me — and they all have, so far — and if she allows reproductive instinct to supplant pragmatic restraint, I’ll be dead before I can react.
Without ideals, without a higher life of the mind, I’d be little more than an animal. After all, I suppose I have a soul, and I should exist for more than physical gratification. I keep telling myself that my lifetime companion, my soul mate, is out there and that she’s a specimen of imperfect humanity.
Robert L. Jones III holds a Ph. D. in Molecular Biology from Indiana University, and he is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College in southwestern Missouri, where he and his wife currently reside. He is interested in science fiction and fantasy with philosophical and theological themes. His work has appeared previously in Sci Phi Journal, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, and Star*Line.
E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse, among others, championed the assertion that morality is a by-product of natural selection. I have imagined a world in which human bodies formed by advanced chemosynthesis display the behavioral traits consistent with such an assertion, and I have used this as an opportunity to ask what makes us human and whether we have non-material souls.