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“Justin Smith-Ruiu’s speculative fiction is consistently as sumptuous as it is demanding.” —Dmitri Bezglazov, The Oort Cloud Review
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Never say never. Until a few years ago I never thought my partner and I would end up installing a Gro-Pad in front of our open window in the early springtime, when the Zephyr begins to blow in from the East, hoping to trap a little one to call our own. Yet there we were, both our biological clocks run down, more or less stuck with this small strip of gauze, like the absorbent pad in a package of fresh fish that soaks up excess fluids and that always somehow makes me lose my appetite, as the lone remaining method if we wished to start a family.
I mean I understand the controversy. Many still maintain the spores that land on these peculiar-smelling rectangular mats aren’t really human at all, and that whatever subsequently grows there is only some sort of counterfeit homunculus. But some of us don’t have the luxury of dwelling on metaphysical riddles like this. There are by now thousands of beings walking among us who began their earthly lives, or at least their most recent earthly lives, on just such Gro-Pads as ours, and for all anyone can tell they walk just as human beings do, and talk just as human beings do. And that’s enough, at least for my own pragmatic sensibility, to deem them human.
This is to say, now that we’ve been through the process, that I think on balance it’s worth it. Not that we’ve had it easy. In fact things were tough for us right from the get-go, starting with an unusually gruesome mishap just a few weeks into our efforts, when, I confess, I absent-mindedly dropped a new replacement strip onto the carpet, only for Sam to find in that same spot, a few days later, a horrible mass of miniature human organs with no rational organic connection between them and no prospect for survival, like some grotesque Empedoclean abortion from the dawn of time.1 We were under no strict obligation to dispose of these remains with the ritual solemnity commonly accorded to legal and moral persons. But they were human remains, or something like it, or so we believed, and believe still. And in any case professional carpet-cleaners have by now adopted a blanket policy against dealing with this sort of mess. So we had our private funeral, Sam and I, in the backyard, for our little carpet-growth — our squandered human-spore.
As a bioethicist myself, I could not help but appreciate the irony that, just fifty years or so after Judith Jarvis Thomson imagined a carpet-growth such as this,2 within the course of a philosophical thought-experiment about abortion that she herself meant to be as outlandish as any human imagination could conjure, we found ourselves dealing with the real thing. I’ll never say this to my colleagues, but sometimes it seems to me that anything we can so much as imagine —yes, anything at all— will become real sooner or later.
The more I think about it, though, the more it seems to me we really could have seen this coming, if only we had not been so dismissive of the ancients, with their crocodiles and oxen generated from the frothy bubbles on the surface of the Nile,3 their bees that emerge from within the rotting carcasses of dead cattle,4 and most of all their widely documented observations of the mares of Portugal, who, it was said, could conceive without being covered by a stallion, simply by positioning themselves in the right place, on an open plain, and waiting to receive the moist West wind as it comes wafting in at the beginning of springtime.5
It was generally agreed in antiquity that no wind-born foal could live past the age of three or so, and that any chick born of a wind-egg would expire before reaching adulthood as well. The idea was that without the generative contribution of the male, these animals could not be full members of their respective kinds, and so were destined to develop only up to a certain point, as mere generic animals rather than as full-fledged representatives of their species. In cases of even more dramatic misfire, such as the one that appears to have stained our carpet, the being that begins to develop lacks even the outer form of an animal, and comes out as a mere moles or mass, such as the ancients believed they were observing in the case of the amorphus globosus, a rare bovine birth-defect that yields up little more than a perfect round ball, soft and warm, covered in fur.
The ancients were clearly seeing many things that we, over the most recent centuries, have been less prepared to acknowledge. But of course that all changed when the Chinese caught their first mouse-spore on a Gro-Pad, almost five years ago now. This was totally uncharted territory, with no bioethical protocols at all, and we knew right away it was just a matter of time before they started using human luteinizing hormones on the pads to trap spores of our own kind instead. Sure enough, only two months later, a lab in Guangzhou announced the successful growth (where “success” is measured by readiness for independent life-functions separated from the pad) of the first human “Gro-Baby”.
Skeptics have made much of the fact that the beings growing up from spores typically, though not without exception, do not pass through all the ontogenetic stages of a human fetus, but rather tend to appear fully formed, if in miniature, usually at the stage of growth of a child between one and three years of age. The reasons for this were and remain poorly understood, and the general confusion was much exacerbated when news began to spread of the occasional fully formed miniature adult appearing on the Gro-Pads. Conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, some claiming that secret labs in enemy states were resurrecting the dead, some claiming these were zombies resurrecting themselves for reasons no one understood, while the scientists were only pretending to be in control to provide a comforting spin on news that would otherwise have triggered panic. These ideas were all far-fetched, of course, but it’s hard to blame the people who were spreading them. We were truly on terra incognita, and nothing seemed more far-fetched than reality itself.
The situation was not made any less confusing by the fact that in this case, as so often in the history of science, the experimental breakthrough occurred well before any theoretical understanding of what was happening. It was not until a year or so ago that the first coherent account of this strange new phenomenon was given, when a team of scientists in Kyoto announced that they had isolated the “death particle” of a recently expired laboratory mouse. This was not strictly speaking a “particle”, but rather an extremely tiny and tightly packed bundle of nucleotides, no more than fifty nanometers wide (roughly four times smaller than the Mycoplasma genitalium bacterium), that, the Japanese researchers explained, represented the enduring post-mortem existence of the same individual mouse that had previously been held in their laboratory.
It soon became clear, after some months of heated debate among experts (and even more wild alternative theories online), that what we have throughout the entire history of our species been in the habit of calling “death” is in fact only a “retreat to a smaller theater,”6 as a particularly astute philosopher put it long ago, a dramatic reduction of the size of our bodies and the scale of our operations, but not, strictly speaking, a disappearance.
Other labs around the world quickly replicated this same discovery, and soon a method was developed for radioisotope tracking of the microscopic organic bodies of deceased lab animals. Just as that same philosopher had conjectured, after death, and after the retreat of the body to the smaller theater, an animal simply drifts about on currents of air indefinitely, or floats in the scum on top of a brackish pond. Sometimes, it seems, these drifting animal-particles (if we may again speak with some imprecision) get trapped inside a bubble with the proper balance of heat and moisture, or find their way back into a womb of the same species as had gestated them at the beginning of their previous passage on the “larger theater”, and they grow up again and are said, by common convention, to be “generated”, as if for the first time. It would be a misnomer to say that this is “reincarnation”, even if it is not totally distinct from that archaic folk-belief, since there is never a moment when the animal, or the animal’s soul, exits its body entirely only to be reinserted at some later moment in an entirely different one. Rather what we have is a sort of cyclical metamorphosis, repeated phases of expansion and contraction, while embodiment of some sort remains a constant across all the phases.
The old natural philosophers imagined that such metamorphoses could only characterize the animals, and not rational human beings, since religious dogma traditionally required us to separate entirely from our bodies at the moment of our deaths, at least until the resurrection of the body at the Final Judgment, and to leave this low world of perpetual growth and change (though I cannot now say “of perpetual generation and corruption”) in order to enter into a wholly new state of perpetual salvation or damnation. Whatever a particular religious tradition’s views might be on the fate of the body after death, whether it accompanies the soul to its ultimate postmortem destiny or whether the rewards or afflictions of heaven or hell are rained down only on the incorporeal part of us, it was universally agreed that the afterlife is spent in some place or dimension quite separate and inaccessible from our earthly realm of gentle breezes, flowing rivers, and the miniature vortices that form when Sam, having ordered up a pumpkin spice latte (“my guilty pleasure”, Sam says), stirs in a packet or two of Splenda.
Sam has been so good through all of this. I’m so impressed with Sam.
After the discovery in Kyoto, and after other researchers began putting the different pieces of the puzzle together, it was becoming clear that human beings were no exception to this universal rule, that all living creatures were subject to these cycles of metamorphosis, and, alas, that the beings that landed on our Gro-Pads were nothing other than the microscopic human-particles of real individual humans who had lived out their lives in the past. This explained, finally, why the miniature humans who grew up on the strips appeared to represent a variety of ages — though for reasons still poorly understood those who had died in early childhood seemed particularly suited for regeneration.
There is still just so much we don’t know. To date the oldest known successful regeneration was of a thirty-seven-year-old woman, on the privately owned Gro-Pad of a childless couple in Malmö. What a surprise it must have been for them, to have taken legal responsibility —which, according to the hasty legislation passed through in Sweden as in most of the rest of the world, kicks in after the tenth day of continuous growth— for a full-grown adult. And this particular adult, at least if the reports we’ve received are true, seems to have got off to a pretty rough start. It’s said that once she grew large enough for her cries to become audible, and even after she had completed her “gestation” period on the strip and began to walk around freely, she could do nothing but repeat the words “Get off!” over and over again, in some sort of Old Norse dialect, with a look of sheer terror on her face.
These rare adults generated on the Gro-Pads have been, among other things, a real boon for historical linguistics. Not long ago, I read, a young man appeared on a laboratory strip repeating a few sentences of what was soon determined to be Proto-Uto-Aztecan, the common ancestor of Nahuatl, Hopi, and several other Indigenous North American languages, estimated to have been spoken around five thousand years ago. Remarkably, the particular strip where his spore landed was located in a lab on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, nowhere near the historical region in which the individual presumably passed his most recent tour of “the larger theater”. This occurrence confirmed the suspicion that human spores are capable of traveling very great distances, and indeed also that the more time that has passed since the individual contracted into a spore state, the further that spore may be expected to drift.
For the most part, anyhow, the Gro-Pads seem most suited to attracting the spores of pre-verbal babies, who unsurprisingly often experience some developmental difficulties as they adapt to life in the twenty-first century after what must have been some fairly traumatic circumstances that brought about their deaths (or “deaths”) in the past. These Gro-Pad babies get off to a rough start, sometimes, but they are often for that same reason exactly what one really ought to consider “prime adoption material”: human beings, in need of loving care, and of patient parents ready to meet the challenges as they come.
That’s the spirit Sam and I brought to this project, anyway. We scrupulously followed the instructions that came with our Gro-Pad — always rotating the strip according to the angle of the sunlight, always adding the nutrient crystals at the prescribed time, down to the very minute. We still ended up having at least three misfires (the instructions strongly discourage use of the term “miscarriage”). I admit one of them —I mean, one of them besides the carpet-growth I’ve already described— was plainly my fault. Sam was so sweet and understanding when I foolishly opened the packet of silica gel that had come in the box with the new Beats headphones that arrived from Amazon, and, mistaking them for Gro-Pad nutrients, sprinkled them on the four-day growth of what appeared to be a beautiful, healthy little toddler. I don’t know how I could be so foolish as to not even notice the skull-and-crossbones! I’m just a stereotypical head-in-the-clouds philosopher, I guess! And we were both severely distraught when a long succession of overcast days finally finished off the eighteen-day growth —for which we had already officially registered our parental responsibility— of a handsome little boy, whose sweet and barely audible singing we could just begin to make out, and were so deeply touched when we were finally able to identify it as “P’tit Quinquin”, a popular nineteenth-century lullaby from Northern France.
We experienced these setbacks at the same time as the Gro-Pads were triggering intense criticism, and were very close to being outlawed in several countries. As a bioethicist I had to endure the nearly universal condemnation by my colleagues of this new technology that I was simultaneously using at home with my partner. A consensus was emerging, which brought together both secular progressives and conservative faith leaders, that to bring human spores “back from the dead” in this way, to rouse them from what was widely presumed to be an unconscious or stuporous mental state, only to begin their conscious lives anew, was to inflict undue harm. It seemed few people had any arguments as to why this “harm” was any more harmful than what is inflicted on children who are born the “natural” way.7 After all, it would appear that such natural-born children are themselves floating around in the atmosphere as unconscious or dimly conscious spores too, only to be captured at some point, by pathways we do not yet understand, by the ordinary mechanisms of sexual reproduction.
The real reason for the anti-Gro-Pad fervor, as far as I can tell, was simply a fear of everything new and unknown, stoked by the admittedly worrisome applications that were being made of this new technology. It was around the time of our second misfire that the news began to come in of satellite images, captured in a remote corner of Xinjiang, revealing massive strips, larger than airplane runways, lined up next to one another in rows of several dozen, where presumably the Chinese state was now “growing” a new generation of human beings, and staving off the existential crisis that had only a few years before been triggered by new demographic projections of an imminent population decline. They’re growing entire armies, some analysts began to warn. They’re re-growing the hordes of Genghis Khan! These Gro-Babies aren’t really human at all, some talking-heads in the media were now insisting. They’re just drones, programmable drones. You can get them to do anything!
Still, Sam and I kept trying. It was about six months ago that we got past the ten-day registration phase with another beautiful baby girl, who soon after began to wither for reasons we still do not quite understand. Each of our losses was followed by another backyard funeral, which involved some strange and improvised new ritual that Sam and I had somehow agreed on without discussion: an appropriate-sized box, a little hole dug by the bamboo patch, a few spontaneous words from each of us about the mystery of life and the great hope we share for the future metamorphoses of our misfired spore. We reflected together, on these occasions, on the great wonder of this world of ours, and the beauty of this new discovery, which the ancients seem to have known all along: that there are beings swarming around us everywhere we go, not only the bacteria and microbes that we dismiss, rightly or wrongly, as inferior to us, but full-fledged moral beings like you and I — ancestors, loved ones, future members of our families and communities, drifting for now in a passive stupor, perhaps like a dream, perhaps like nothing at all, yet, Sam and I both suspect, collectively sustaining for those of us on the larger theater (for now) the unshakeable feeling that we are never truly alone.
But anyhow, after all these misfires and setbacks, just three months ago we were finally able to bring a spore to full maturity, and we are now the legal parents of a “Gro-Baby” (I hate it when they use that term on Fox). I can’t say we ended up with the simplest case, but by now every hopeful couple goes into the process with full and sober knowledge that things might turn out differently than we imagined — in any case isn’t that how all parenthood is?
There are now, appropriately, proposals emerging for the formalization of risk acceptance. The Netherlands, I’ve read, will soon be requiring a six-week training course and a solemn oath from all Gro-Pad users to the effect that they will care for any human who happens to grow from the spore, no matter who that human turns out to be. This makes sense. There are indeed some challenging cases, and no one should get into this if they don’t fully understand that hard fact.
In our situation, it remains to see exactly how things will turn out. As is happening more and more in these most recent months, again for reasons that are not fully understood, our successful spore turned out to be rather on the old side: the specialists we have consulted have estimated that he is twenty, give or take a year. He is already over three feet tall, and growing every day. So far he has not spoken with us, at least not in anything that might be called a conversation, but has only repeated the same information over and over again: “Denton, Eugene. Corporal. 42-8250-070. 06/11/48.”
I still do not know whether Sam has looked into this, but I did, and it was not at all difficult to locate the record of an American soldier with this same name and date of birth, who was taken prisoner near Da Nang at the beginning of the Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968. Corporal Denton was among the six-hundred or so Americans to remain permanently MIA in the wake of this operation. I know there are skeptics out there who would offer a different interpretation, but to me, at this point, there can be no doubt: that poor young man from Norman, Oklahoma, who died in Vietnam at the age of twenty, is now our adopted son. I don’t know why he keeps repeating his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. Perhaps he is still in shock, and perceives Sam and me as his Viet Cong captors. Perhaps he’s still not perceiving anything at all.
We feel terrible for him, and we’re doing our best to make him feel safe and loved. Poor guy. Poor all of us! It hasn’t been easy so far, but we’re hoping for better times ahead. And Sam has just been so great throughout all of this. I’m really impressed with Sam.
—Terry Dougherty, Ph.D.
Grossman Institute for Bioethics
La Jolla, California
October 9, 2023
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See Aristotle, Physics II.8 198b17–34. “Wherever then all the parts [of animals] came about just as they would have if they had come to be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his ‘man-faced ox-progeny’ did.”
See Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1/1 (1971): 47-66. “[S]uppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house?”
See Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals 762a18ff. “Animals and plants are formed in the earth and in the water because in earth water is present, and in water pneuma is present, so that in a way all things are full of Soul; and that is why they quickly take shape once it has been enclosed. Now it gets enclosed as the liquids containing corporeal matter become heated, and there is formed as it were a frothy bubble.”
See for example Varro, On Agriculture II.5.5. “Further, … it is from the putrefied body of [cattle] that there spring the sweetest bees, those honey-mothers from which the Greeks therefore call bees ‘the ox-sprung’ (βουγενεῖς).”
See for example Pliny, Natural History 8.67.166. “It is well known that in Lusitania, in the vicinity of the town of Olisipo and the river Tagus, the mares, by turning their faces towards the west wind as it blows, become impregnated by its breezes, and that the foals which are conceived in this way are remarkable for their extreme fleetness; but they never live beyond three years.”
G. W. Leibniz to André Morell, May 14, 1698. “I think, moreover, that everything is animate, that all minds except God are embodied, and that the universe always develops for the better, or if it worsens it is only in order to make a better leap. Also, that every organized substance has in itself an infinity of others, and that it even has fellow creatures in its center; that no substance will perish, and that those that are in the darkness of the centers will in their turn appear in the larger theater.”
See David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Oxford University Press, 2008.