Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 2 The Creation of Artificial Life

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Frequently life is simply defined as the conditions that separates organisms from inorganic objects and the dead (Elements of Biological Science, 3rd Edition, William T. Keeton and Carol Hardy McFadden, 1983). Life is also more frequently described by listing characteristics typical of life such as metabolism, responsiveness, movement, growth and reproduction.

All life on Earth is shaped and molded through the forces of evolution; specifically, natural selection is the biological engine that continuously tests a species’ adaptation to its ever-changing environment. Thus, life being influenced by natural selection can be thought of as natural life.  In contrast, artificial selection is the breeding of preferred traits (e.g. producing more milk or seeds; faster animals or more attractive flowers) and the development of such species could be thought of, in a sense, as artificial life. For example, the English bulldog would not exist if humans did not breed dogs for the traits that this particular breed exhibits – thus, in a sense the English bulldog can be thought of as a type of “artificial life.”

bulldog           Zoey, the English bulldog, can be considered a form of artificial life

Another definition for artificial life is life directly created by another species as opposed to being the result of millions of years of natural selection in operation. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, it is revealed that the Elder Things created all life on Earth so does that make all life we know a form of artificial life? In this case I would say no for several reasons.

The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and most evidence suggests life began about 3.8 billion years ago; however, some recent work on carbon minerals provide some tantalizing evidence to suggest that life may have been on Earth as early as 4.1 billion years ago (www.sciencemag.org; October 2015). However, it should be noted that the data to support this is small and additional studies / analyzes are required to further support this hypothesis.

Based on the fossil evidence and bas-reliefs found in Antarctica, the Elder Things arrived on Earth during the Archean Eon, approximately 4.0 to 2.5 billion years ago (Joshi, 2001). If the Elder Things arrived on Earth before any life existed on Earth, then they could be the creators of all life on Earth. However, if they arrived after prokaryotic (bacteria) appeared on Earth (say they arrived 2.5 billion years ago and life was already on the planet by 3.8 billion years ago), then the Elder Things may have created eukaryotic life out of prokaryotic life. Indeed, evidence suggests that eukaryotic life appeared on Earth approximately 1.5 billion years ago. Thus, in this scenario, the Elder Things used the raw prokaryotic (bacterial cells) life to create more complex, eukaryotic life such as fungi, plants and animals.

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While the Elder Things “created” eukaryotic life, once released into the wild these organisms grew, had offspring and under the existing genetic variability that was coded in them, natural selection arose. The Elder Things largely left the majority of life on Earth alone to evolve and diversify through the eons. Thus, while the initial “eukaryotic germ cells” were artificially produced, once released into the environment, they became “naturalized” and adhered to the conditions used to define life: metabolism, responsiveness, movement, growth and reproduction.

In the case of Shoggoths, these organisms are better defined as artificial life since they cannot reproduce on their own. While Lovecraft does mention that the Shoggoths can reproduce through binary fission, this apparently is completely controlled, more than likely on a genetic level, by the Elder Things. Reproduction can only occur with the direct supervision and assistance of the Elder Things in special areas or structures called “shoggoth pits.” Thus, shoggoths cannot reproduce on their own, something that is required in the definition of life. I believe the Elder Things intentionally designed the shoggoths like this so they could control the population, the way only sterile grass carp are used to control heavy aquatic plant growth in lakes. By controlling or eliminating the potential for reproduction, this prevents the grass carp from taking over a lake, the way it would prevent the shoggoths from taking over the Earth.

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Additionally, shoggoths do not appear to age or increase in size. They are fluid organisms, similar to the octopus, in that they can change their shape, size and structure but not their mass. Shoggoths in their natural state appear to be spherical with a diameter of fifteen feet, although smaller sub-species have been noted (possibly in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). Thus, shoggoths do not appear to grow; again, another important characteristic used to define natural life. Thus, I would define shoggoths as artificial life; the cannot grow and do not reproduce and so are not influenced as a species by evolution through natural selection like the rest of Terran life.

In the HBO series Westworld, bioengineering is not used to create the “hosts,” a term used to describe the androids in the park. Instead, high-tech robotic engineering used to create the “core” of the hosts, which are then covered in biological tissues to make them look like real people. In one episode, it is casually mentioned that the hosts use to be entirely composed of inorganic / mechanical parts but it’s actually cheaper to cover their robotic skeleton and organs with biological material. No detailed were given on how this biological material covering the hosts is created, however, I hypothesize that its grown through the proliferation of stem cells in large vats akin to the Elder Things shoggoth pits.

westworld-hbo The creator examining his creation in HBO’s Westworld

The fact that humans developed and manufactured the hosts makes them obviously artificial life. While the hosts have an inorganic core with a biological shell they still have much in common with the shoggoths. In reviewing the basic characteristics of life both the hosts and the shoggoths exhibit responsiveness and movement. In terms of metabolism, both the hosts and the shoggoths need to take in energy of some sort to continue to function. In the case of shoggoths, based on Lovecraft, these organisms had very flexible modes of nutrition. They could directly be modified by the Elder Things for various modes of life (living deep in the sea or on the land) or nutrition (e.g. photosynthetic or heterotrophic) through direct artificial selection, similar to breeding a dog for a specific trait. While the hosts on HBO’s Westworld could eat and drink, nothing is known about how they derive their energy. Do they actually extract energy from the organic material they ingest or do they have alternative sources of energy built within them?

lovecraft___shoggoth__terrastial_ii_by_kingovrats-d5uohe5 A terrestrial shoggoth by KingOvRats (www.deviantart.com)

Again, the key traits that both the shoggoths and the hosts have to define them as artificial life is that they do not physically grow and they cannot reproduce. However, in spite of these control measures imposed by their creators, both groups eventually developed consciousness and that will be the focus of the next article.  Thank you and Happy New Year! Fred.

02-shoggoth                                                                                  Shoggoth by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

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