Sebastian Awatramani

On the Morality and Efficacy of Scientists in Professor Dowell's Head and The Amphibian Man

The character of the scientist in Soviet science fiction can be plotted as a point along two vectors: morality, and efficacy. Along the former vector are two extremes of selfishness and altruism. Whereas on one hand a scientist acts for the good of humanity, on the other he acts with avarice, whether for fame or fortune. Along the latter vector are the extremes of efficacy and inefficacy, wherein the work of the scientist accomplishes the goals driving the scientist along the first vector, or not. Between Professor Dowell’s Head and The Amphibian Man, we can plot three points that are, if not exact, at least clear enough to offer us an understanding of the types of scientists present in Soviet literature, and how they relate to the society in which they live.

i. Morality

The first vector on which we will concentrate is the morality vector, along which we can plot three points: the decidedly moral, the decidedly immoral, and the mostly moral. The first two are present in Professor Dowell’s Head, which offers a bipolar contrast between two scientists. On the one hand, we have Professor Dowell himself, a man who, on the surface, dedicated his life to a post-humanistic betterment of the species through revivification. And even after he had been killed by his assistant, and faced the potential that he would get no credit for his work, he still held that his work should go on to be published for the good that it would do for the world. On the other, we have Dowell’s former assistant, Kern, a man who kills his research lead, steals credit for the research, and never offers any reason to think that his concerns are any but those of his own fame and glory.

In the previous paragraph I say ‘on the surface’ because that is exactly what is obvious on the surface. After all, the nature of the research in question was leading even before Dowell’s initial death to its ultimate prize: the revivification of the human mind, and not merely the body, as had been the case in the initial stages of the research. It is not clear though whether he would have continued to carry on his research in the case that he had not been murdered and revivified as a head, for at no point in his research was he ever forced to confront the gruesome results of the research that took place under Kern. Under Dowell’s lead, we are told that the success of the research was to be found in the revivification of human organs, which is to say, to revive organs in order to further human life on earth. In engaging in this type of research, the recipient of the organs would remain a whole product—a whole human being. His life would continue qua human, and for his or her own sake. Under Kern’s research—revivification of the mind—we are treated to a different outcome, as is apparent with the three patients revivified. First, there is Dowell himself, who is used as an “accumulator of creative thought” [1]—a mere means to Kern’s ends. Second and third there are a socially different type of person: not the scientist, but the laborer (broadly speaking), and I do not believe that these professions were chosen arbitrarily, for consider the contrast that their experience offers. While Dowell is still able to act qua scientist at least to some extent as only a head, for the laborers there is no such luxury qua laborer, as they are relegated into an existence without the means to “earn a crust of bread.”[2] Even for Dowell though, who is allowed to continue his role qua scientist, his existence is miserable. If Dowell were forced to confront this reality, would this moral scientist be willing to make the sacrifices that Kern likely doesn’t even consider to be sacrifices? Perhaps, but not if he possesses the consistent moral character that he appears to possess.

Salvator in Amphibian Man offers us a further contrast to these two scientists, one which is perhaps a more realistic man rather than ideals of good and evil presented in Dowell, as Salvator’s character is presented in an area more morally grey. For, while Salvator, like Dowell, desires the betterment of mankind, he appears to be willing to eschew some notions of common morality in order to achieve his goals. Namely, he believed that mankind could achieve a sort of utopia in the oceans if only he could breathe under water, but in order to achieve this goal, he was willing to operate on a boy without consent to test whether his gills would function[3]. Indeed, when Salvator goes on trial, this is exactly what he is accused of, and his defense being consequentialist in nature is subject to many of the criticisms levied at utilitarians in the real world, which is to say that he was willing to take a great risk at someone else’s expense for the potentially good consequences. Still, considering the purity of his intentions, as well as the good he did for many, it is hard to view Salvator as anything but a moral character, the faults of consequentialism notwithstanding.

ii. Efficacy

The second vector on which we will concentrate is the efficacy vector, on which we can plot this time only two points: the inefficacious, and the potentially efficacious. The efficacy discussed in this section has two components: the first is the literal outcome of the experiments vis-à-vis the scientist conducting them, and the second is the metaphorical implication of the experiment vis-à-vis society.

The former category is present in Professor Dowell’s Head with respect to both Dowell and Kern, are a function of the intentions of the scientist in question. Regarding the former, Dowell’s desire is the betterment of the human race, and the results of his research, as previously mentioned, have gruesome implications—implications which extend beyond the immediate victims of the research in the story. The revolutionary scientific novum in the story—the bastardized realization of the dream of the Russian Cosmists for a post-humanistic existence—is rendered moot when the results of the experiment are to relegate the moral scientist to an idea machine and the laborers to an impossible and contradictory existence. Moreover, this failure serves as a metaphor for political revolutions. On the one hand, perhaps the interaction between Dowell and Kern—wherein the latter steals the former’s work and conjures horror—serves as a stand in for the bastardization of Marxism. While Marx and Engels conjured a utopia that would be brought about through democratic means, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was forced upon the Russians, leading soon to a famine and a crashing economy that left the real proletariat much like the proletariat in the story: unable to secure work or food, and act qua laborer. Moreover, the structure of the story can serve as a critique of revolution more generally by demonstrating the deleterious consequences of sudden, forced change. While the American Revolution was inarguably a success, revolution in general is a bloody affair with unintended consequences. Regarding the latter, Dr. Kern, his experiment was also inefficacious, at least in the long term. His main desire was not the betterment of mankind, but only to gain fame and respect at any cost. While this worked out in the short term, he was eventually discovered, and chose to commit suicide. The death itself creates some vindication for the acts he wrought, implying the moral culpability of the scientist and the revolutionary.

The latter category is present in The Amphibian Man, and serves as a contrast to the message portrayed in Dowell. Whereas in Dowell both scientists were inefficacious, serving to demonstrate the folly of revolution, Salvator is presented as potentially efficacious. “Potentially” simply because his goal is not fully realized, but nor is it destroyed, and ultimately he is able to continue his studies. When we consider Salvator’s brilliance, and the fact that the success of his experiments only progressed from one subject to the next, we have reason to believe that in the long run he will have been successful.

iii. Other scenarios

Along our two axis are two points which have not been plotted in these books. The first missing point, efficacious and moral, is missing, I suspect, because of its limited power to critique to any significant depth the subjects being critiqued therein. Consider again for example in Dowell that the revolutionary novum can serve as a critique of political revolution by demonstrating its unintended consequences. For Kern to have been moral and efficacious would have to mean that he acted justly and that the experiments were successful, rather than atrocious, in which case the critique is nonexistent (and perhaps would also lead to a boring story), and the outcome something closer to utopia. Further, consider also again Kern’s death and its vindicatory implication. Just as a moral and efficacious Kern prohibits the aforementioned critique of revolution, so does a moral and efficacious Kern prohibit the assignment of culpability to Kern for the atrocious products of his experiments, and analogously the culpability of revolutionaries for the consequences of revolution. A final weakness of the moral-efficacious approach is the inability to note that the ability to calculate and engage in rational, goal directed action does not necessitate that one will make moral calculations. There is no doubt, that is, that Kern is a brilliant scientist, even if he lacks the creativity needed to perform the experiments without Dowell, but as his moral compass points somewhere other than north, we are able to understand the potential effect of avarice on the rational mind. Indeed, the greedy simpleton’s tools are those limited to doing physical harm for a short while before being caught and imprisoned. It is the greedy genius that one should be weary of.

In The Amphibian Man, this missing point serves a different purpose. For one, if Salvator was purely moral [4], and thus unwilling to operate on Ichthyander without consent, the story in and of itself would have to have been much different. Perhaps, for example, he could have discovered Ichthyander as an adult, but of course this would eliminate the father-son dynamic within the story, and hence the god-Jesus relationship it analogizes[5]. In this regard, it is not that such a character is not possible, nor that the same themes could not exist with such a character, but rather the makeup of the character is merely contingent upon the structure of the story. But a more significant impact of such a change would be its alteration of the consequentialist and humanistic defense offered at Salvator’s trial. Salvator begins his defense by remarking that the only victim in the case is god—god for having his position as a creator usurped by man—and not Ichthyander, who, once again, was operated upon without consent. The ultimate point made, even if not stated explicitly, is that even if this is the case, both Salvator’s intentions for an underwater utopia, as well as the success of the operation, act in concert to justify from a consequentialist perspective Salvator’s scientific endeavors.

Second, if Salvator were purely efficacious, instead of potentially efficacious, the story would have been a utopia rather than merely hinting at a possible utopia at some point in the future. What pure efficacy would mean in practice here is the total realization of his goal: not just the partial adaptation of man to both the sea and the land—and one with flaws—but the super man able to transverse both worlds flawlessly. Again, this would serve to diminish the power of the critique, for the flawless superman is not threatened by the power of the merchants and the church.

The second missing point, immoral and efficacious, is missing for the same reasons. If Kern were to, for example, have gotten away with his usurpation of the research and the committing of Adams, and thusly achieved his goal of fame and recognition, the assignment of culpability would be unapparent. This is not to say that such a character could not serve a different purpose in another story. In Plato’s Republic, for example, the Tyrant is immoral and efficacious, and his success serves as a warning sign of moral corruption, and the potentially dangerous consequences of the “appetite” controlling political society.

iv. Conclusion

In this paper we considered the scientists portrayed inProfessor Dowell’s Head and The Amphibian Man along the axes of morality and efficacy. Through this theoretical analysis, we were able to see the strengths and limitations of their differing combinations on their ability to critique social phenomenon. In this instance, we limited our observations to critiques of revolution, culpability, and ‘rational’ thinking, but further analysis in this framework may help elucidate our intuitions about other types of characters and why they succeed or fail in the critiques they attempt.

[1] pp 127

[2] pp 135

[3] It is true that he operated on several monkeys beforehand in order to minimize risk, but any surgeon understands that risk can only be reduced, not eliminated.

[4] There is an implication here that it is not possible to be strictly utilitarian and strictly moral. This implication is of course contentious to any moral utilitarian souls who might happen upon this paper, but they will have to accept that the perspective drawn from here is, if not deontological, at least one that affirms to some degree the existence of rights.

[5] From lecture