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.