LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 28, No. 2 - Summer 1982
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1982 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE CONQUEROR OF THE WORLD
by KAZYS ALMENAS
I have met two world conquerors so far in my life. The first was drunk and when he sobered up, he was afraid to go home because his wife might take it out on his hide. The second was David Kelman.
It would be good if I could laugh at him too and no doubt in a certain sense I can. In a certain sense one can laugh at just about anything. But I wish I could laugh freely, knowing that the matter is trivial and harmless.
In that sense I have never been able to laugh at David Kelman.
He was a biophysicist who was working in our laboratory that semester. The physics laboratory, you see, had an infrared spectrometer and a few other older apparatuses which, as Kelman emphasized, were not worth acquiring for a modern biophysics laboratory.
In fact, I met him as he was intently bent over the spectrometer. I said "hello" and he nodded his head. He was of medium height, stockily built with a rather broad face. His hair was black, straight and combed back. When he bent over, a shock of hair parted in the middle and hung over his eyes like the mane of some straight-haired lion. He was dressed in a threadbare gray sweater and very rumpled pants. He looked as if he hadn't shaved for three days. In American universitites only those very sure of themselves and their position, or those without position, can allow themselves the carefree sloppiness which Dave Kelman represented.
As I soon found out, he definitely belonged to the first group.
He turned to me. "Say, does the current always fluctuate in this place?"
"You're not using the regulator," I answered.
"Oh . . ." he let his voice trail off and reaching under his sweater scratched himself vigorously. "I thought that was part of the instrument's power system. How do they expect a person to catch on in an old-fashioned laboratory like this? . ."
Though we preferred to explain that our laboratory was historic and had its own traditions, I could not really deny that the facility was quite old.
"So which lab are you from?"
"Me I'm a biophysicist."
"Oh, so they just built that new lab for you . . ."
"Of course! Important research requires a good lab. Well, how do you turn this little instrument on?"
I showed him, and that was the beginning of our acquaintance and a friendship of sorts. I qualify that statement because we were not friends in any personal sense, and with good reason. In a subjective but undeniable way, we both felt the incompatability of our characters. This happens, sometimes, when two people have superficial similarities which allow them to understand each other fairly well and, because of that understanding, to evaluate their basic differences.
Actually, Dave Kelman had a similar relationship with our entire group of doctoral candidates in physics. No one liked him very much personally, but at the same time we could not help appreciating him. After all, he had a Rhodes scholarship, was excellent in his field, and even in the quantum mechanics course given by Dr. Eklund, the terror of the physics department, he received the highest grade. Besides, he turned out to be a fiery and strong opponent in the discussions we had evenings and over dinner. Though we were physicists and looked down on the other branches of science (not to mention the humanitites) we had quite a bit of respect for him.
But that is how it is in academia. In the spectrum of all possible personalitites you can be the most unpleasant, be thick-skinned, hot-headed, even a homosexual (we had one of those, too), but if you are advanced in your field, if you are competent, you will have respect, and at least in a professional sense, you will have friends. I can say that with a certain degree of authority. We spent one Friday evening and a good part of the night discussing this very topic and arrived at the unanimous conclusion that in academia there is neither equality nor democracy, but an undeniable aristocracy of achievement. He who achieves much and is most capable in an academic sense, will both attain recognition and become the natural leader. All other considerations whether personal or measured by the American criterion of money are strictly secondary.
I am emphasizing that "aristocracy of achievement" with which our discussions constantly dealt because it provides a fitting background for describing Dave Kelman. Of course, all of us doctoral candidates considered ourselves members of this group, but Dave Kelman seemed to be something more. He was, if I may use the expression, the aristocrat of the aristocracy of achievement. It was not only his evident scholarly competence but, more than anything, perhaps it was his natural belief in this class that brought him our respect. Perhaps the rest of us talked about it more than we actually believed in it, but Dave Kelman believed in it entirely. That is why in our discussions he used to develop the thought and analyze what the new phenomenon in his social order meant now, and what it would mean in the future, for us and for the world. It would mean the emergence of a class whose power lies neither in its weapons, nor in its capital, not even in the number of votes, but simply in its ability to understand, develop, and control the very backbone of this twentieth century the science and technology of the century. The word "aristocracy" is not used haphazardly here. We attach somewhat unpleasant connotations to this idea in our at least theoretically egalitarian society. And these connotations are also attached to this class of the "aristocracy of achievement," maybe only in a new or figurative sense, but attached nevertheless. Dave Kelman was different not only by not avoiding, but by actually striving to accentuate those aspects of the word.
I'll give you just one of many examples.
It was the end of the first semester. Dave had the university bulletin of student statistics from all departments spread out on his desk. He analyzed the statistics intently, copied out some data, and came over to my desk carrying the whole bunch of papers. I was using the calculator assigned to our room.
"Give it here, I just have a few multiplications . . ."
"Sure," I answered. I was writing a report and needed the machine only occasionally to check the results.
He quickly made a few calculations, added a few points to his coordinates, and extended the graph.
"Look," he told me. "I've been following this for three years now, and both the percentile and the absolute number of freshmen dropping out of physics, chemistry, and engineering are constantly growing . . . The number of those entering is growing even faster . . ."
The lines of the graphs did indeed show this. I looked at them and was myself almost surprised. This year, the percentage of dropouts from freshman physics and mathematics was in the teens.
"It's the same with the sophomores," continued Dave. "About twenty percent of them drop out . . . About twenty percent more drop out of other courses. Of all those who enter only about thirty percent finish."
"It's not an easy major," I said. "In my class, I think about sixty started and only nineteen finished." "And what about the others?"
"Some dropped out completely. Others transferred to humanity courses."
"That's the point! That's it! And the trend is growing. Both the percentage of those entering the sciences and of those dropping out is growing."
"There's been too much emphasis lately on higher education," I added. "Too many fools want to get in. It's too bad because they only drop out anyway, and that's bad for them psychologically."
"I don't feel sorry for them at all. That's the way it is and that's the way it'll always be. In the future almost everyone with any kind of ability will try to get in, and the remaining disciplines will get the people who weren't capable of making it in the sciences and dropped out."
As always, when he was on this topic, he was very serious. I should also mention that "sciences" to Dave Kelman and the rest of us meant only the exact sciences.
"You don't feel sorry for them?" I asked, though from previous discussions I sensed how his mind worked.
"Not at all. It has a double benefit. First, this way we'll get to choose all the brightest ones and secondly, it will be perfectly clear to those who drop out why they had to. They'll realize just how much strength we have and what a gap there is between us."
I might have said that maybe those thrown out would also feel hatred for "us," but I already knew Dave's answer to that: hatred is the highest compliment. Especially futile hatred, which turns back on the hater, humiliates him, and makes him ineffectual. "We" will have not only the brightest, but also almost all of those capable of independent action. All that is necessary is to unify the percentage.
I knew what he would say, so we did not discuss it further, and we both returned to our own work. But maybe I should define the meaning of that word "we" more precisely.
In a broad sense "we" were the "aristocracy of achievement" in technology. It was we who sought degrees at the universities, who had already received them and worked in the labs at the universities. It was we who planned and developed this country's defense industry, and especially it was we who sat on the advisory committees of Congress, the Senate, and the President. But we were largely an unconscious aristocracy. Though it had already changed the world, our aristocracy had come to maturity in the old world, where "they" were the "Aristocracy," had the power and ruled. And they had not yet connected the words "science" and "power" even for themselves.
Behind that broad "we" was the even foggier and somehow even more intriguing "we." It was the "we" which will rule the world and know it. When you write that out so nakedly, you give a start and ask yourself if you're all there. Frankly, Dave Kelman was the only one who came out with it so openly, but, to be equally honest, the rest of us also talked about that "we," about that ruling "we," that power-wielding "we," maybe not directly, but we certainly talked about it.
We talked about it when we considered the rate at which computers were increasingly taking over the apparatus of business, government, and especially the country's defense systems. Along with computers, of course, "we" were needed. "They" still need those of us who design, control, and understand these machines.
We talked about it when, in discussing politics, we considered the current meaning of the word "power." Military power especially was no longer "they." It was no longer the masses and the armies, not even the tank manufacturers; it was only "we." From that day, when the first mushroom-shaped cloud sprouted above Alamogordo, New Mexico, all earlier measures of power lost their significance. And that, of course, is not a matter of the future or of theory; it is the present embodiment of this reality. Maybe the world still does not understand the shift in the meaning of power, but through the influence of this shift the politics and history of the world have already changed universally and for all time.
You cannot stop the flow of the river, and now the river flows in "our" direction.
Though of course he did not know Maironis,1 Dave Kelman would have said it in almost this way.
The rest of us did not see the special drama or even the especial specialness of these topics, though we discussed them. The world was evolving in this direction, and we were very busy individuals, more than a little nervous, and fundamentally maybe even boring. Most of my colleagues were married, some even had children, and a whole line of related everyday problems, some petty, some not so petty. Most fit the description in a magazine clipping that hung on the bulletin board. It maintained, in all seriousness, that scientists were exactly the same as other men. Although, of course, even articles like these can be interpreted in two ways.
"Undoubtedly," agreed a gratified Dave Kelman when he read this. "Completely the same. And when we have power we will demand exactly the same things which other aristocracies have demanded in the past."
This is enough to introduce Dave Kelman. Now I can return to my initial topic, to "the conqueror of the world," and especially to the reason why I cannot laugh at the concept.
* * *
The biophysics building of our university is new and impressive. The corridors are wide, sterile, and painted in a pacifying shade of green. The laboratory facilitites are spacious; the sense of spaciousness is amplified by the exceptionally large windows of dark glass. The whole building is air-conditioned and its cool, humidified air has only a hint of ether and formaldehyde.
I noted all of this the first time I went to visit Dave Kelman in his "home" and decided that our tall, red-brick physics lab, though old and cramped, was much more attractive. His lab was on the first floor, at the end of the building facing the lake.
"You're torturing those innocent rats again," I said to him as I entered. He turned to me because at that very moment, he really was working at the three neat rows of white laboratory rat cages which covered a whole wall of the room.
"Shh . . ." he whispered to me. "Not so loud . . ."
"Why? Will it upset your rats?"
"Are you serious?"
"That's the experiment. These here," he pointed at the middle row of cages, which were covered with a white sheet, "have to be kept calm and undisturbed for at least twelve hours. No noise, no harsh light, nothing that could upset them ..."
"Oh ..." I said. "Maybe I should beg their pardon?"
Dave smiled impatiently. He had no patience in general with any kind of humor.
"We'd better go," he said. "It'll be another half hour before their required period of complete calm ends. Then I'll take a blood sample . . . Come on, I'll buy you a cup of coffee."
"So how will you get a blood sample without exciting them?"
"You'll see, my boy, you'll see . . ."
He led me down that same wide corridor to the other end where there was a small dining area serviced by vending machines. The coffee machine, clicking precisely, counted out fifteen cents change for his quarter and, in a black, accurate stream, poured coffee into a paper cup.
We sat down at one of the small tables.
On the table lay a copy of today's newspaper which someone had left behind. On the first page loomed a moon photograph of Alphonse's crater. It looked as if the crater had been photographed from a high-flying plane. Two deep canyons and a number of smaller craters speckled its flat bottom.
Ranger IX had plunged straight into the bottom of this crater only the day before, and had sent several thousand photographs to Mother Earth as a posthumous farewell.
We gave the picture only a quick glance since we had already seen it in the morning edition of the paper.
"Hey!" I said, placing my paper coffee cup right in the center of Alphonse's crater. "Here's a good vacation spot. Still uncrowded. Plenty of parking."
"A trifle," answered Dave. "Good propaganda for technology but otherwise a trifle."
"Listen! This is the moon, don't you understand?"
"Alright, so it's the moon."
"We're really going to the moon! You understand?! We really are going!"
"Did you ever doubt it?"
This is another reason why talking to Dave was a rather unnerving experience. He really lived in the future. Things still in progress were already accomplished so far as he was concerned. To him, foggy possibilities were a developing reality.
"Well, no . . .," I protested, though at the same time I had to admit to myself that until quite recently I had doubted it. "I don't doubt it. O.K., so what's so new and earthshaking on the horizons of biophysics?"
"Chromatography and electrophoresis, my boy."
I shrugged my shoulders. These methods of combination, separation, and identification rapidly were being perfected, but they were far from new.
"Look, if the moon impresses you so much, I'll explain what is really important. So important, that it will change the whole world ... It will change the order of the world and the way of life, change the understanding of morality and even religious dogma.
Dave was speaking in his usual serious manner now. Grandiose over-statement may serve as a form of irony sometimes, but not for him. Dave had neither the time nor the patience for irony.
"Well," I asked him. "Englighten me. What?"
"I'm not kidding, you idiot."
"I know you're not. What?"
"What I just said."
"Chromatography and electrophoresis?"
"That, plus controlled sedimentation, centrifugation, radioactive tracer-analysis, and cryogenics."
"Almost everything you learned at school."
"Almost. Plus about a dozen other techniques. Look, you're amazed at the moon, aren't you? You believe that we're going to land there?"
I didn't answer; I just sipped my coffee. Dave traced the mountainous edges of the Alphonse crater with his dirty fingernail.
"And I'm telling you that we'll identify a good deal of the chromosomes before even landing on the moon . . ."
"How will you identify them?"
"Their general structure. Which hereditary characteristics the structure is tied to and especially how those characteristics can be identified in living cells. Of course, the first step will be to single out the defective chromosomes. Ova are rather large cells, but in the spermatazoids this will be accomplished before we even get to the moon. It's much handier. After all, there are millions of them in every fertilization, even if the fertilization is not a very scientific one. We'll be able to separate them. Do you understand what that means?"
In part, at least, I understood. In fact, I too had read that good results in separating out the spermatazoids carrying X chromosomes had been achieved in the case of rabbits and cattle. By thus separating the spermatazoids and using artificial insemination, it is now often possible to determine the sex of the gamete. This can have great economic importance, especially on a dairy farm.
But, as always, Dave was already somewhere in the future.
"We already have the technology to control sex before fertilization, but that's only the beginning. Next we'll focus on the identification of defective chromosomes, on the identification and the means of removing the spermatazoids that carry them. These experiments could be well-controlled because, of course, we will be able to grow the gamete completely without a mother. But that's more for the sake of the experiment. In a practical sense, I wonder whether it would be economical. After all, women are very handy and cheap incubators . . ."
"Then you're talking about people?"
"Of course." He looked at me as if he pitied my naivete. "The most important mammal on this planet is homo sapiens, right? This technique will be expensive, at least at the beginning too expensive for other mammals. After all, which other mammal is more in need of genetic improvement?"
"You're talking nonsense," I argued.
"You don't believe that we'll develop the necessary technology? Listen, a great deal of it already exists. We only have to develop it, to integrate the existing processes into one . . . Believe me, it's closer than the moon."
"Don't be naive. It won't be applied to people."
"Me naive?! Naive? Aren't you the one who's thinking in those trite naiveties?!" He leaned across the length of the table, his straight hair parting in the middle and slipping into his eyes. He laughed briefly and contemptuously. "You'll argue moral reasons, maybe?" "Yes . . . Let's say moral reasons."
"Moral reasons? Is it moral to allow cripples to be born? The mentally retarded to be born? Can morality demand that five percent of those born have twisted backbones? Atrophied legs? Water on the brain? That's to be allowed in the name of morality, is it?"
"That's your specialty. I'm talking about the development of science. Soon we'll learn how to recognize chromosomal defects. Some are already known, and we'll learn how to identify them. We'll learn how to sort the spermatazoids with defective chromosomes from those without them. Just suppose there'll come a time when we'll be able to guarantee children who are completely free of defects . . . What church dogma will be able to stand up against that sort of artificial insemination?"
"Oh, they'll be able to ... Don't worry . . ."
"There's a clinic for mentally retarded children right here at the university . . . Go over, take a look . . . The state is paying for those children. When the technology is found to save society from them, the state will pass the proper laws. It will affect families with abnormalitites first. They will simply be prohibited from having children the normal way. As soon as this has happened, the churches will decide that it is a sin to disregard these laws. And that will be only the beginning . . ."
"After that no one will be born except through this fertilization of yours?"
"Eventually, yes. There will be a few stages till that point is reached, of course. That's why it's a good thing that we can emphasize the destorying of defects to begin with. That should sweep away all moral arguments . . . After that we'll learn how to separate the superior chromosomes from the ones that are just average . . ."
His idea of course was not new. Plato himself and many other philosophers, poets and even dictators have suggested the selective reproduction of man, but Dave was not talking about plans or philosophy he was talking about technology. He was talking about it almost as if it was an accomplished fact, and it was hard for me to deny the supposition that the technology will really exist in the future. So I could only return to the argument based essentially on emotion.
"Say what you will but people will not accept it. Never." "You're afraid to think about it, aren't you? You're afraid, of course, the same way others are afraid and will be afraid, but what if they're forced? Let's suppose that Red China achieves this technology . . . China, which has discipline, over-population and, it seems, an infinite hatred for the Western world. Let's suppose they start a program by which they artificially inseminate not all, of course, but let's say five, say even one percent of their women with the selected spermatazoids of a few geniuses . . . Geniuses with an inclination for physics, let's say ... What then?"
I screwed up my eyes. The idea was really horrible. A million Chinese per year born with great mathematical ability. More maybe. I doubt whether a year would pass before the first senator proposed a similar program for America. Not five would pass before the growing hysteria of the public would carry such a program out . . .
"Or let's suppose this. You're Lithuanian, aren't you? Let's say the Poles start such a program. Could Lithuania lag behind? Let's say you would have to decide. Would you accept a situation in which, in a single generation, Lithuanians would become inferior to Poles, like children before their teachers? . . You see, it's not a moral question at all, my boy . . ."
I couldn't think of an answer. I might have argued that heredity does not determine everything, but that was only half an argument and besides, Dave didn't affirm that it did.
He leaned back, not so much pleased by my silence as fascinated with his own vision of reality. Suddenly he started and looked at his watch.
"Hey, time to get back . . . Back to the biophysics of hormones."
We returned to his lab. 1 was still trying to think of opposing arguments. I have to admit, that except for a futile repetition of "it'll never happen" it was hard to grasp onto anything more concrete. It was easier just to let my thoughts wander in the direction of "but what if it does . . ."
Dave, meanwhile, was preparing his lab table. He pulled a flat-bottomed enamel dish and shining chrome shears from a sterilizer. They were like shears gardeners use to prune roses. Bit by bit, he slowly pulled off the sheet which had covered the middle row of rat cages. Behind the wires there was a whole row of little white snouts and red eyes flashing with curiosity, looking at me. More white rats calmly lay in the piles of shavings.
Dave turned to me. He even turned slowly.
"You can talk, but talk quietly . . . And whatever you do don't make any sudden moves. They can't be the least bit disturbed."
He opened the door of one of the cages and, sticking his hand in slowly, picked up a rat which seemed to have climbed into his hand by itself. He lifted it out and came over to the table. The little animal looked around calmly and Dave stroked its back gently with his right hand.
"I was talking about techniques . . . The ones I'm using here are simple, although the problem is not easy ... I want to isolate the hormones which produce agitation and those which produce cairn. These calm rats have to be petted for a few minutes when they're taken out of the cage . . ."
The rat lay calmly in his left hand, as if pleased with its fate. Dave stopped petting it and slowly picked up the large shining scissors with his right hand. The rat contentedly wiggled its whiskers and all of a sudden "zwsht." The sound was moist and quiet. "Zwsht" and he had cut off the rat's head. Quite cleanly. The rat's white body jerked only a little and clear red blood began to flow in a thin stream into the enameled white dish. "From the white rat into the white dish," I thought for some reason, as I watched the stream of blood rapidly becoming thinner and thinner. Dave squeezed the rat's body and for a moment the blood increased.
"A lot of blood is necessary for these experiments . . . The amount of the hormone we are looking for is really microscopic . . . But again that's only technology. I have a more interesting question for you. When we start to separate the spermatazoids according to the quality of the chromosomes they carry who do you think will decide the significance of that quality? In other words, who will decide which hereditary characteristics will be propagated and which will not?"
The rat had stopped dripping and Dave threw its headless body into a box nearby. He returned to the cages, again slowly and carefully he took another rat.
"Yes, little one . . ." his voice sounded almost fatherly. Maybe he also felt the irony, because he continued to talk in the same calm, quiet way as he stroked the rat with his right hand. "You have to understand that those who control these decisions will decide what the next generations will be like. Who do you think those fathers of the future generations will be, if I can put it that Way?"
"You want me to say that it will be you?"
"Shh . . . Quietly ... I would say it'll be those who rule and understand the technology . . . Yes, we."
It was no longer clear to me what this "we" meant. I only felt that I was no longer a member of that "we."
"Let's suppose that it will take ten years to achieve such technology ... It will take another ten until we can adapt it on a large scale . . . That's not so long, my boy . . ." The rat he was petting calmly wiggled its white, almost transparent whiskers and looked at me with red eyes like clear caviar.
"I won't be fifty years old yet. I'll be one of the leaders in this field ... So it will be up to us to decide whose spermatazoids will be used . . ."
With a slow sweep of his hand, he again reached for the shining scissors. Against my will something in my throat strained and I wanted to turn away.
"Zwsht" . . . again the scissors cut moistly and the rat's blood flowed in a stream into the already blood-spattered dish. Dave put down the scissors and threw the two rat's heads into the box.
He looked at me and smiled.
"Yes . . . Let's suppose you could be the father of a thousand children . . . Maybe of tens or even hundreds of thousands . . . Children for whom the best of your hereditary characteristics had been selected? . ."
"Me? . . No ... I have sort of been trying to avoid that . . ."
Dave continued to squeeze the headless rat, looked at the little red backbone which was sticking out through its cut neck, and threw it into the box.
"You have no imagination, my friend. None at all. Just imagine ten thousand parts of you . . . Ten thousand capable parts . . . Imagine ten thousand women . . ."
"Whom I will never see . . ."
Again Dave went to get himself a rat.
"You not only don't have any imagination, but you're primitive as well . . . Maybe even worse you're a romantic. That sleeping with women will be an entirely secondary matter ... It will be so unimportant that we will leave it to private initiative."
With a slow motion he again stroked another curious-eyed rat.
"You're raving," I accused him. "You're completely out of your mind."
"Shh . . ." he answered. Quietly. These can't be excited. Wait a while. We'll be allowed to excite the next dozen. In fact, we'll have to excite them. We'll shake their cages for five minutes and after that they can be killed in any way . . . You could help me."
"No, thank you," I answered. "I have my own work to do. I've already stayed too long."
Before closing the door I heard how precisely, moistly the scissors made the sound "zwsht" . . .
translated by Kristina Bukaveckas-Vaiθikonis
1 Maironis: Major Lithuanian poet (1862-1932). One of his poems begins with the line "You cannot stop the flow of the river . . ."