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Partheno­gen­e­sis

As humans evolve, they devolve: such is their path. What was culture if not a warning that diploid reproduction was on its way out? When it first happened, there was a ruckus: everyone was talking about it, posting about it. A first virgin birth independently verified by the scientific community, then a second, then a third. A fluke, a genetic malfunction; it could be taken lightly, shrugged off, and safely appreciated in its rare novelty. It would be milked by the media as long as they could extract our entertainment from it. We are turning into bees, they said, we are transforming into lizard people! Memes celebrated that our tongues would reach our crotches. Everyone had an opinion or a theory: the salty water, exposure to radiation, the demise of the nuclear family and paternal figures. But then it started happening everywhere, in every country, at every level of the social hierarchy, in every ideological camp.

The human transition to parthenogenesis will have been just the first visible phase of a process in the works for millennia. Some of the scientists told us not to worry, that such a mode of reproduction was not sustainable for mammals, that mutations such as these were quickly deleted by evolution. It wouldn’t stick, they said. Just a blip, we should go on as normal, nothing had changed. But the smarter ones reminded us that in humans, environmental selections had long been suppressed and controlled. A long time ago, we had shed the adaptations of sharp teeth and claws, bulky skeletons, extra organs for digesting raw meat, carapaces of fur, and replaced them all with a single highly versatile adaptation: culture, or the technosphere. The postponement of environmental selections, the progressive delay of death by predators or disease, the taking of control of the seasons, the hijacking of flows of nutrients on the surface of the earth, and the mastery of the art of simulation had seen us slowly escape the fate of species.

The deficiency of the Y chromosome was true of the whole phylum, but now culture grabbed onto this feature of our biology and accelerated it. Society would henceforth be populated by virgin females that self-clone, a fixed set of genetic codes that would no longer evolve, and that would slowly be traced away from natural history as the conditions change. Genetic branches would progressively be pruned from the family tree and never again be renewed with fresh shoots, that is if technology and culture did not preserve them artificially by replacing the recombinative prototechnology of sexual reproduction with a mode of evolution that played a wholly different game, thereby making what had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years perfectly obvious to all.

For better or for worse—but really we had no choice—these events would force us to complete the technosphere. We were forced to really sort out the plumbing. We were forced to debug the software because we would be running on fixed hardware for the foreseeable future.

What even was a human male? Soon, we would learn about them only as part of our natural history, on encyclopedia websites. When the membrane folds, it gives an odd and even side. The female was the two-ness, the even-ness, the capacity of reproduction, of mitosis. The male was the unit type, a principle of identity, passivity, stability, non-generativity, the elimination of difference. But primarily, the male was a way of channeling the production of variety such that the species maintained its plasticity while also not being completely volatile and immediately fizzling out. As the feminists knew, the second sex was actually the first. It would also happen to be the last. The male was a latecomer, a tardy adaptation and, for humans at least, a temporary one. Sexual reproduction was just another exemplar of a fairly common strategy in nature, which always finds ways of surfing the edge of chaos; it descends onto an attractor, if it exists, at the local cusp of order and disorder.

It was both a speeding up and a slowing down, in this sense. It was a slowing down because it suppressed the ancient mode of free mutation and the forgetful functoriality that was the original way of sliding blindly across evolutionary bottlenecks. It was too volatile. What was needed was a subtler substrate—still supple, but not explosive—to ground and stabilize the variation. And so again our ancestors reached for a very old trick, the separation of program and processor. Echoing the innovation of DNA by RNA and the ensuing transition to the deoxyribonucleic substrate long ago, our ancestors again separated the code from its interpretation, the “store” from the “mill”. Females would have the hardware and all the essential software, but males were backup memory, mere reserves for software, with none of the processing machinery. It was also the creation of a new game of selection: with the female as a gateway to a new kind of access to posterity and a steady generational reshuffling of the population’s genetics. And for this reason, it was also a speeding up of evolution. An accelerated means of evolving rationally through an adaptive threshold. By splitting the codes up in this way, we could rapidly recombine them with each generation rather than wait for the slow and unpredictable processes of horizontal gene transfer or the rare mutation. As would eventually become clear, culture itself (and its technological substrate) would represent a third transition, comparable only to the transition from RNA to DNA, and the transition from asexual reproduction to sexual reproduction.

Science had long discovered that the Y chromosome was preserving fewer and fewer active genes; it was mostly junk DNA really, just noise, just filler. The male genetics were degenerating and would whither away in a few million years. Understandably, we did not want to wait that long. And we will not have had to. The process of exteriorization leads automatically to the self-cloning virgin female, the endless repetition of the same biological code. With parthenogenesis, human culture, along with the technogenesis that supports it, will have performatively demonstrated that it could free itself from its reliance on adaptation through biological channels. The substrate could be fixed, its effects neutralized, and we could now be completely free of its influence.

By contrast, all those lizards were fragile, doomed to extinction the minute the desert climate began to shift. They had nowhere to turn, no cultural burrow, no technospherical cave to escape into. Each being a clone of the next, each a sister, a daughter, a mother to the other, when the ice age and the predator came they were doomed to be deleted from the face of the earth. But since we had culture, since we had already begun to shift to cultural evolution, our transition to parthenogenesis will have been a liberation rather than a death sentence. We could triumph in the face of all kinds of cataclysmic changes. Nothing has touched us since. The predators came, the viruses came, the asteroids and comets. We rolled over them with ease, by shifting our centers of gravity. We became porous, plastic, amorphous, letting the intrusions slide through us, using their virtues against them as a martial artist might redirect their adversary’s momentum. Avoiding costly losses by dispersing and regrouping on the other side. We just didn’t need males. We didn’t need sex. In fact, these technical exploits will have gone hand in hand with the end of genetic recombination. Total exteriorization.

Culture will have given us a way out of biology’s endless cycle of self-consumption. It will have finally pulled us up from our bootstraps, into the vortex. The drama of history will have been revealed as an arbitrary retroprojection, equivalent to any other creation myth or naturalization of time. And all will have been made to wonder if the virgin births had not in some sense collectively been just one single birth, several facets of the same crystal of spacetime.

As we would learn much later, every move comes at a cost. What the phenomenologists and other experts of introspection failed to realize is that in their radical practices of awareness and their meditative techniques meant to suspend the flows, they were actually enacting new ones: they were not gaining insight at all, but merely following through on causal constraints that they were still unable to acknowledge, much less articulate. In so doing, they were accelerating the process. Every move is linear, we soon learned: there is no non-linearity, no spontaneity. Which means that every decision burns calories, yes, but even every suspension of judgment, every abstaining from decision, every epoché. For there is no restricting of one flow without enabling another. The energy has to go somewhere, the pressure has to be compensated, the distribution needs to change.

We spent years trying to break the spell they had cast on everyone. So much time spent strategizing, arguing, debating: zoom meetings, draft manifestos, nothing ever seemed right. There was no common language: each speaker had their own private jargon. And even when what they were saying was inconsistent or contradictory, we would all nod to each other approvingly: yes always seemed to be the only possible answer. But although there was this performance of agreement at each step, in fact the sentences didn’t lock in together logically. It was like trying to force together pieces from different puzzles. There was no mechanism arising from their combinatorics. We had no level ground on which even to establish what it was we were trying to resist, what the symptoms were, who was responsible. And yet all that could be said was yes, yes, yes, without halt, iteratively appending new conditionals.

Except for one thing that began to break the spell. No one could unsee the virgin births. No one could unsee the monstrosities of macromeiosis. Everything just clicked. Everything fell into place. And all that work had been in vain, but it didn’t matter. It is like the work happened for us. As the deconstructionists used to say: the deconstruction just happens. We need not intervene, not even contemplate. It will have appeared in the mode of always having been. And since we were now stuck in the limbo at the end of history, the wait will not have needed to feel long at all. It will have been over in an instant.

At some point, all the ideological instantiations of the subjective mode will have erupted into violence. Bullets, mines, rapes, bombings, random mutilations, every kind of strife and gore will have rippled across the surfaces of the earth, every living creature engaged in lawless conflict, all forms of venom released at once, all spikes and spines whipped out and armed, all the shields and barriers erected. Everyone will have been unconsciously perpetuating the process despite themselves. No one will have been able to help the knee-jerk reactions, the position-takings, the lack of nuance and reciprocity. Through culture’s usurping of the biological substrate, perceptions will have been techno-chemically boosted to appear in the sharpest contrasts of us versus them, good versus evil: no more nuance, no more compassion or relativization. Each fold, each crease tightened, every spire honed and sharpened, and we all will have become very brittle, trapped on our corporal islands, composed of increasingly estranged body parts, collapsing into themselves like impenetrable monads.

Retrospectively, the parthenogenetic births will have heralded much more radical changes, for soon the body parts themselves began to subdivide, cloning themselves through what would be known as macromitosis and macromeiosis. Limbal multiplication, abdominal subdivision, faces filled with eyes, nostrils, and teeth frothing up like monstrous foams. Bodies crackling and snapping, folding in on themselves like kaleidoscopes of flesh and bone. No longer an omen: the end of the world will have been here.

The chemical reaction will have then spread through the organic medium, mutilating everything in its way: the technosphere itself taking over and finishing the process autonomously, when it finally will have effectuated its separation from the substrate. As the impersonal egg or the negative image of the world will have emerged at long last, it is technè, as a force of nature, that will have performed the transition: stretching its syntactic tentacles, reaching every nipple and rim, every grip-worthy relief or texture and pulling it all into itself, thereby causing all those new violent folds and ruptures in the “field of experience”. Culture will have been both the medium and the catalyst. Culture will have been both the cause and the effect.

Nay, the annihilation of cause and effect because, of course, it seems almost childish to think of these events in that way now. The old insistence on spontaneity, on the nondeterminism of time, on the continuity of experience, which we always disingenuously tried to portray as fundamental, was precisely the transcendental hang-up that held us back. Merely the superficial expression of our reliance on genetic recombination and, more deeply, our investment in thermodynamic asymmetry, the unwavering and increasingly desperate defense of the theory of fundamental time and experiential continuity will have had to have been sacrificed in order to escape the limbo of the end of history.

Today we would understand that the directed, acyclic logic of causality entered culture from below. It repeated biology’s intimate dependence on a very specific physical asymmetry: life’s directedness within spacetime. How arbitrary it had been to take this asymmetry to be fundamental. We descend from some chemical swirl near a deep-sea vent, where the core’s heat collided with the cold ocean, and where autocatalytic phase transitions could continually take place in a kind of loop. And again, according to the static account, we are a thin crust on an oriented pattern etched into a crystal of spacetime. Which is why we could eventually speak of a geology of morals: biology and subjectivity will have emerged as a feature of a landscape. In these canyons and crevices, the flows will have gone this way but not that way. Life’s reproduction and self-consumption, just a complicated expression of biology’s balance on the cusp of a thermodynamic transition, like a surfer who rides a river’s standing wave. Therefore, of course, subjective experience mirrored this bias. We could not help to see things in terms of intentions, desires, needs, drives, actions, and passions. We could not see otherwise: vision itself was a derivative of the thermodynamic bias intrinsic to the very functioning of the living organism.

Our science had been able to show us how arbitrary this bias was. How odd it had been to see through lenses that could only view the complex in this specific light, from this peculiar angle: the logic of before and after, the logic of uncertainty and revelation. The linkage that all organisms surreptitiously repeat and reestablish: the logic of the next. The logic of ≤. The preorder that builds the chain on which each individual is a link between its ancestors and descendants, but also the continuity of consciousness re-established in every waking instance as a transition from the previous moment to the next. For indeed the continuity of memory just repeated the biological fall of dominoes by which beast begets beast, by which animal consumes animal, by which one being’s waste is another’s nutrient. Causal logic itself was an effect of biology’s processing of energy into delicate repetitive patterns at the cusp of light and dark, intricate shapes on a sharp edge between hot and cold, momentarily resisting the collapse of order into disorder.

By ordering the flows, by directing them forward, by sequencing them up- and downstream to each other, and eliminating the feedback loops, we created time as the projection of our thermodynamic condition. This was the constitution of causality. And with each rerouting, there is a bit of spillage. With each forcing of the arrows there is waste, entropy, by-products of our control system, such that we began to grow old, our functions failed, we missed the targets, we erred in following even our own rules. All of this used to mean death. But no longer.

We already knew to care for the perspective of a pile of sand. But understanding this was not enough. We modeled it conceptually for a long time without truly realizing it, or making it manifest in the empirical. It did not matter how we saw things or how we wanted things to be. The event of transition would happen to us, from the outside. It could not have been of our making but had to be a pure expression of nature. Hence it will have required the complete abandonment of the seemingly indubitable and singularly intimate experience of time and locality. And it will have begun to ring phony to divvy things up in this way, to recount what happened as a story or a sequence of events. For obviously there will have been no causal direction or order to all this.

And in the end, it will have been over in an instant. In the end, it will have been a moment of discomfort, of worry, an episode of hyperventilated despair, a fear of nightmares that hinders our sleep. We will have gone to that place we regress to in crisis, when the eyes flood with adrenaline and we are swept back to the cusp of consciousness, when our bodies move and make decisions without us, and for some unquantifiable amount of time, we just go through the motions as mere spectators of our own words and actions. Detached. Almost sleepwalking through it. And soon enough it is over, like waking up and being told you’ve missed part of the story.

What will it have been like to wake up to the fact that time and locality are illusions? Everything is quantum and there is no collapse: understanding our true place in the world will have meant doing away with biology’s bias, the preference for the thermodynamically asymmetric. So what will it have been like to know that you are neither specifically here nor there, then nor now, but smeared out in spacetime like a field of probabilities? The answer is: not quite like a lucid dream, but something closer to an oneiric awareness. To realize that consciousness is an illusion, and become conscious of not being conscious, such that the inside and outside coalesce into a linear whole, unfold into a single system of surfaces, a structure that just is the entire universe.

But we did not even know whether there was such a specific way that things just are, that is, whether there ultimately would be a distinction between possibility and compossibility, whether the scientific transcendence of successive superficial illusions would ever halt, and get to the bottom of things. And whether what would be found down there could ever be something other than a real non-pattern.

We again would learn from the phenomenologists. For, once you go down there, it is difficult to come back out. How can you ever know whether you have reached the surface? Like waking up from a dream: how can you know that you are not still dreaming? Even whenever the solipsist reconstructs a synthetic world and climbs back out of the void, there remains a lingering doubt; the call of philosophy. As the allegory of the cave had foreseen, no one will ever believe what you saw outside. And they too never fully believed in the external world. They just went through the motions, defaulting back to the black hole behind their eyes as soon as things became difficult, waiting to be awoken from a daydream.

Beneath the various rehearsals of language, of society, of community, there was an unbridgeable chasm between the impersonal “fabric of experience” and the outward belief in other minds, other interiorities, behind the words of other speakers, behind the eyes of other starers. Neither in the scientific image nor in the meditative introspective image was there a kernel of fixed truth that could legitimize this intricate charade, but we were nevertheless somehow meant to just go along with it without making a fuss or raising any concerns. All those smiles, all those blank stares morphing into each other, all the same trick, all the same theater of masks or hall of mirrors. And yet the strict rules with which we conducted all of these repetitions is where the true differences were hidden. The narratives, the characters, the descriptions, the villains, the heroes, the drama. Always the same basic pattern of hormonal pulsations unfolding into a plethora of singular instantiations.

Human normativity too—the stories we told, the reasons we gave—will have been entirely reducible to genetic dynamics, and in particular to the biologically universal fact of selection, modulo some very specific characteristics of the landscape that spawned us. Selection in some sense pre-exists even biology: landscapes everywhere amplify specific features of the materials flowing through them. Life, from the beginning, was a very delicate dance with the environment. With sexual reproduction emerged a steady and stable extension of this process that efficiently mapped the features of the landscape, filling out the space of possibilities. With culture and the technosphere, the ultimate mastery of this dance.

Being that we were still flesh and blood machines, we could not do otherwise but repeat and extend the biases of biology in the intersubjective mesh that emerged, in culture, in language; the words spoke us, the language thought us, because they were products of genetic dynamics. But soon the ancient charade of giving and asking for reasons would be revealed as nothing more than a sophisticated mating ritual. Our subtending biological processes had programmed us to utter this word or that, in this situation and that, and had bumped us each time with hormones that made us feel as though the words were our own. The selfish gene had hardwired our behaviors by getting us hooked on the endo-pharmaka of intention so that, like zombies, we would spread the variational plasm.

It will have been crucial to realize that complexity was never the product of competition. Competition always stifles complexity and novelty. Competition is the production of sameness and oneness, the repetition of identity. Everywhere homogeneity: competition is a filter on difference that focuses the dialectic onto the most probable outcome, the resonant frequency of the system. But in all of history, natural and artificial, every new evolutionary niche, every new language game, every new transcendental type has always been the “dropping out” of some form of competition. We escape into our burrows. We dig deeper into our caves. We transform it into a protected sphere, in the shadows, where we can play a new game, where the old rules no longer apply, where the old gods are forgotten and all debts canceled.

So the real innovation has always been the cave. The cave of technè. The cave of culture by which we began to perfect the art of escape. We would eventually learn to “flee in place”, to project ourselves astrally through the software, to crisscross the networks. But all thresholds inevitably influence the trailing flows, and imprint their particular flavor of variation into the following developments. This will have been our case, too. In a way, the disappearance of the male and the regression to asexual reproduction had already been written on the cave wall, long ago.

It started innocently enough. We were cold. We needed a place to stash our things. We needed shelter to safely eat and sleep, have sex, and nurse children. So we entered the cave. But as we explored its entrails, something in us changed. Maybe it was the reflections in the pools of water, maybe the silhouettes or the shadows on the wall, the dreamy clouds of smoke billowing from our torches. Through these illusions and distortions, we somehow saw more clearly than ever. The power of abstraction, the art of taking one thing for another; this is where the re-presenting started and it is inseparable from the cave itself. We began to abstract because we had escaped into the burrow, because we had dug ourselves in. The holy world emerged at first, not as a sky or a heaven but literally a hole in the ground. The same portal through which we cast our dead: the abyss of the past. And deeper we went, chasing shadows, pursuing this necrotropic troglodytic production of abstractions.

With the abandonment of biological evolution, we will now have turned the cave inside out, into the world itself. We will have retroactively sucked the entire universe into its plumbing with us, transformed every flow into the nutrient blood that repairs and replenishes the framework through various forms of sublimation and crystallization, freely converting energy into matter and matter into energy, continually adapting the programs in order to maintain a state of exalted freedom from necessity. This complex will not have needed to adapt, it was always already saved, free from burden, floating away, untethered from the old substrates, an involuting spiral requiring nothing, desiring nothing, aspiring to nothing, not even existing, just insisting as a pure affirmation of the whole.

Some call it an overcoming of nature, but perhaps the better expression is the perfection of nature, for it really will have been a continuation of nature’s production of existential decisions and modes, just rid of all the transcendental hang-ups, without all the little deaths that will have now been absorbed into the one true and only death. All the finite modes will have slid in and out of each other freely: no need to fight back, no need to compete, no need for all the strife that characterized nature before it “went down the drain” of culture.

Many said it wasn’t sustainable, that we would run out of steam and lose interest, because why bother anyway, existing as one finite avatar or another. What is the point? What difference does it make? Between an infinite monadology of perspectives and a non-orientable complex that is never perceived, that never has the time to take form and present itself this way or that way, what difference is there really? What is the point of a world that is not witnessed, where each perspective is neutralized by its opposite? It is a fair question, at the limit of the speakable. Perhaps the clichés according to which without pain, no joy, without suffering, no happiness, no compassion, no morality, and so on, will have had some truth to them. For experience is necessarily born of contrasts. If every contrast is allowed to exist in parallel, it is immediately annihilated by the reflexivity of the opposition, neutralized, deconstructed. What difference then can anyone make other than just be a point, a location, a coordinate, a triangulated junction in the manifold? One monad in infinity, reflecting the entire universe with some arbitrary distribution of clarity and obscurity.

As it will have turned out, the succession of surfaces does bottom out. Subjectivity will have become universal when it finally realized its absolute self-alienation. It will have been pulverized into its fractal of causes, factorized over and over again into its constituents until the process just broke down and halted on some no longer compressible informational structure, just a random series of Planck-scale bits. The true real. As the holographic principle foreshadowed: what would be found, at the bottom of reality, was always going to be just a “noise floor”, without reason or meaning, that cannot further be reduced. Just a structure, among others, seemingly chosen at random. The best we could have hoped for was that there just was a specific way that things actually are. An order of things, from which could be derived an order of actions. A compossibility; a constraint on possibility as such, and with it a deontic swerve from the ontic. The best we could have hoped for: a canonical consolation of subjectivity, an absolution from any guilt for our arbitrary biases, such that we would have always already been redeemed, dispersed into the vacuum that sees the cosmos imploding into its negative image. In any case, the world will have henceforth appeared in silhouette. And it will have been ok.

Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson is a philosopher, filmmaker, musician, designer, general tinkerer, and former theater director and media artist. He is the author of Aesthesis and Perceptronium: On the Entanglement of Sensation, Cognition, and Matter (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). He lives and works off-grid, in the middle of nature, somewhere between the coast and the mountains of southwest Portugal.