As described in HPL’s At the Mountains of Madness and discussed on this blog site, the Elder Ones used existing microbial life on Earth to create Shoggoths, which are probably a form of eukaryotic life far more complex that the existing macro-eukaryotes of animals, plants and fungi. With the ability of feed like animals, photosynthesize like plants and digest organic matter like fungi, the Shoggoths can be thought of as the pinnacle of Terran evolution (obviously from a non-anthropometric point of view). However, it should be emphasized that Shoggoths were directly created by the Elder Ones and were not the product of natural selection like the rest of Terran life. One of the key components of Shoggoth biology that exemplify this is the fact that Shoggoths are not known to reproduce on their own. Although it is mentioned that the Shoggoths did eventually acquire the ability of reproduction, this was either not sustainable or it was taken away from them in some manner. The bottom line is that Shoggoths do not currently have the capacity to reproduce.
The cover of Astounding Stories – 1936. A Shoggoth on the move.
While the previous article discussed the Elder One – Shoggoth relationship within the context of class and race (or better described as species), this article discusses this relationship within the context of the inherit biology of the Shoggoths –that they were an elaborate and epochal experimental program of genetic engineering conducted by the Elder Ones. While HPL did not consciously have genetic engineering in mind when developing this concept, it does lend itself to such discussions.
Genetic engineering is defined as the direct manipulation of DNA or other hereditary material and was first defined by Jack Williamson in the novel Dragon’s Island (1951). In addition, the identification of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as the molecule responsible for the genetic inheritance of an organism’s traits from its parents was not identified until the mid- to late 1950s by Francis Crick, James Watson and Rosalind Franklin. Thus, while the idea of artificially altering the genetic make-up of an organism to modify its traits and/or to pass these new traits to offspring was not on HPL’s mind when writing At the Mountains of Madness, the story is an interesting interpretation of the potential impacts of manipulating organisms on the genetic level.
DNA molecule (www.astrochem.org)
It should be cited that in a sense genetic engineering has been used by humans for thousands of years. Specifically, artificial selection (e.g. agriculture) has been used to maximize crop yields and milk production by selecting for favorable genes through controlled breeding. In contrast, strict genetic engineering directly modifies the genome of the organism. Such manipulations tend to be more frequently conducted with microbial life and the fact that bacteria freely exchange genetic information (sex with no reproduction; see Convention Talk, Part 8) is one of the reasons people are concerned over the use genetically modified organisms.
In the previous article on this blog site, At the Mountains of Madness was compared to Planet of the Apes and Metropolis. However, in considering the Shoggoths as a product of genetic engineering, it is probably better to compare them to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. In those books and movies a company (InGen) developed the technology to harvest dinosaur DNA from blood-feeding insects trapped in amber. In turn, the company developed “pseudo” or “artificial” dinosaurs. This is an important point to make since the dinosaurs were not created out of pure dinosaurs DNA. Instead, amphibian DNA was used to “fill some of the genetic gaps”. This is an important point since this produced a “sterile” population of dinosaurs that eventually acquired the ability to breed thanks to that amphibian DNA. Essentially, the mechanism behind this is similar to what was described in Convention Talk 7 (More notes on Shoggoth reproduction) regarding cladoceran zooplankton such as Daphnia. That is, although the population is all female, some individuals can become male under specific environmental conditions or stresses. This is basically what happens in Jurassic Park.
If you think about it, Jurassic Park can be thought of as a “re-imagining” of At the Mountains of Madness. While the Shoggoths were created as laborers and workers, the dinosaurs were created by InGen for entertainment purposes. The dinosaurs are created by humans and in their arrogance and oversight; they lose total control over their creations. Such a scenario is very similar to the Elder One – Shoggoth relationship. Again, another example of how the Elder Ones “were men!” However, one of the big unanswered questions is: if you create life through an artificial (non-sexual) means, do you have the right to do whatever you want with that life?
Logo from Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park (1993)
Another example of “artificial life” is hybrid striped bass or sterile grass carp (see Convention Task 6 – Shoggoth reproduction). These are fish that would not exist unless humans created them; one for food / recreation and the other as a means of controlling nuisance densities of aquatic plant growth. Both of these fish are sterile and are not known to reproduce. However, I have heard a number of people express concern that in spite of being sterile these fish will eventually reproduce and thus such fish should not be created and used. It should be noted that to date there is no formal documentation in the scientific literature of such conditions occurring. However, do we have the right to create such sterile life? If we are talking about fish there does not seem to be a moral dilemma. However, what if that life is or becomes sentient? Do we still have the right to do whatever we want with that created life?
While resurrected dinosaurs may be an appropriate analogy for the Shoggoths, two other examples will be discussed in the next article. Specifically, these examples will be Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus and existing artificial life (robots). Thank you – Fred