Sciency Words: Cyborg

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


In 1960, two American researchers named Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline were worried.  How could human beings ever hope to survive in the extreme conditions of outer space?  As they saw it, there were two solutions: we could either create artificial environments for ourselves, or we could alter our bodies to better suit the harsh realities of space.

That first option—creating artificial environments for ourselves in space—seemed utterly impractical to these two men. They equated it to fish inventing mobile fishbowls so they could leave the sea and go explore the land.

No, it would be far safer, easier, and cheaper (they reasoned) to reengineer the human body and mind through the use of technology, pharmaceuticals, and hypnosis.  So, first at a symposium on human space flight and then in this article for the journal Astronautics, Clynes and Kline described a “self-regulating machine-man system,” and they decided to call this hypothetical invention a cyborg.

The word is a portmanteau, combining the first three letters of the word “cybernetic” with the first three letters of the word “organism.” It’s actually Manfred Clynes who’s generally credited with coining the word.  Kline apparently liked the word well enough, but according to this article from The Atlantic, he expressed some concern that it sounded too much like the name of a town in Denmark.

Clynes and Kline seem to have had some rosily optimisitic notions about what our cyborgized future might have been like. Becoming cyborgs would not, in any way, diminish our humanity.  Rather, we would be elevated, both physically and spiritually, by all the new opportunities that would suddenly be available to us to go out and explore the universe.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, I think it’s easy to see at least one flaw in this idea.  The original question was how would human beings be able to survive in space?  Our options were the mobile fishbowl method or the total cybernetic reengineering of our bodies.

Well, since 1960, human beings have been to space quite a few times.  Our mobile fishbowls have their flaws, but they work well enough most of the time.  Replacing the human respiratory and digestive systems with technological alternatives (as Clynes and Kline suggested we’d need to do, among other things) does not sound like a safer, easier, or cheaper solution.  I mean, as difficult and expensive as it was to build the International Space Staion, that’s still probably easier and cheaper than doing the kind of surgery Clynes and Kline were talking about.

Maybe someday, that kind of cybernetic augmentation will become a reality.  But we’ll have to learn a whole lot more about how our bodies work first.  At least that’s how I see it.

P.S.: Clynes and Kline would have argued that cyborgs are still human, but better.  A superior form of human being, perhaps.  That is a position that the titular cyborg in my “Dialogue with a Cyborg” story would not agree with.

7 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Cyborg

  1. It’s not a popular position, but I actually tend to agree with Clynes and Kline (catchy name pair) that space exploration by organic humans is ultimately going to be impractical. We might do it in our own solar system, but short of a breakthrough in physics, it’s hard to imagine us doing interstellar exploration. Space belongs first and foremost to robots and, if ever feasible, uploaded humans.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I generally agree with that, especially looking at interstellar missions that might happen in the distant future. Clynes and Kline deserve a lot of credit for introducing the cyborg idea. The thing is, after reading some of the stuff they wrote back in the 60’s, I think their specific proposals were kind of naive.

      For one thing, they clearly overestimated the dangers of going to the Moon. And when they get into how “easy” it would be to replace our lungs and stomachs with machines, and how pharmaceuticals can solve all our other problems, and how just a little hypnosis can take care of our psychological needs… they lost me. This would have left a lot of people dead on the operating table, I think. Especially if they did it with 1960’s technology, as they were proposing.

      In the future, I do think some kind of genetic or cybernetic modification will be important in space exploration. But for right now, I think the engineering problems of building habitats for ourselves in space are more within our reach, and when we do start reengineering our bodies, I think a less-is-more approach would make more sense than the kind of extreme surgery C & K were describing.

      At least that’s how I feel about it right now, after reading their stuff. My mind, as always, can be changed, and I’m planning to do more reading and research on this topic in the near future.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Really interesting read, once again! I have been perusing your lat few posts mostly through WordPress reader, so I don’t know when you update the look of your site, but I like it! Hope you have been enjoying your time off.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I watched a sci-fi movie… The Titan, I think? The scientists weren’t dealing in cyborgs, but they did genetically modify a handful of humans to survive on one of Saturn’s moons. They did not have any of the psychological stuff very well figured out before embarking on the experiment, definitely a wild ride for the main character and his family who didn’t really know what they were signing up for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds a lot like what was in the original cyborg proposal. Maybe it sounded like sound science in the 1950’s, but you can’t just hypnotize all your psychological problems away. I’d hope modern scientists would be a bit smarter about this, but I don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

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