Blade Runner: What Does It Mean to Be Human in a Artificial World?

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 5, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Blade Runner: What Does It Mean to Be Human in a Artificial World? Email this article
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by John Whitehead
September 5,
2007 Note: Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.

In our strange and potentially very dangerous world where science fiction and Charles Darwin often collide, a handful of scientists are racing to be the first to create life. According to a flood of recent reports, this artificial life could be as close as six months away.

In fact, Pat Mooney, executive director for the science watchdog organization the ETC Group, states: “For the first time, God has competition.”

Indeed, far different than cloning or cultivating stem cells, today’s scientists are going beyond replicating life. They’re creating life in a lab. The process of creating so-called “wet artificial life” or “synthetic life” involves building a living organism from nothing but life’s very own basic building blocks—genes.

Such scientific tinkering will obviously have revolutionary implications—especially in how we humans view ourselves. “When we can synthesize life,” professor Arthur L. Caplan recognizes, “it makes the notion of a living being less special.”

This was the overriding message of director Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, prophetic 1982 film Blade Runner. When it opened 25 years ago, it was both an omen and a solemn warning against scientific meddling. Although the film did not do well at the box office, Blade Runner’s discovery on cable TV, videocassette and in revival houses revealed a cult film par excellence. And according to a poll conducted several years ago by a British newspaper, Blade Runner was chosen as the best science fiction film ever by 60 of the world’s top scientists.

Set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner presents a world where the sun no longer shines and there is a constant rainy drizzle. An energy shortage has crippled life in the future. The earth is decayed, and people have been forced to colonize other planets. Those who remain behind live in huge cities consisting of new buildings 400 stories high and the dilapidated remains of earlier times. The crunch and crush of the modern population seems overwhelming and totally dehumanizing.

Genetic engineering has become one of the earth’s major industries, with humans now assuming the role of “creator.” Since most of the world’s animals have become extinct, genetic engineers now produce artificial animals.

And artificial humans called “replicants” are manufactured by the mega-giant Tyrell Corporation. The replicants only have a four-year lifespan, however, and were created to do the difficult, hazardous and often tedious work necessary in the colonies on other planets—military, industrial, mining. And when the replicants somehow make their way back to earth, they are systematically “retired” (or “killed”) by special detectives or “Blade Runners.”

The film shifts dramatically when the replicants, who are on a mission to extend their short life span, display a stronger sense of community than the human beings on earth. After his three partners are destroyed by explosive bullets, the fourth replicant, Roy Batty, succeeds in finding his way to Tyrell himself, the master of the Tyrell Corporation and the genetic engineering genius who designed him.

Batty wants to have his genetic code altered to extend his assigned four-year life span. He simply wants to live. But when he discovers he cannot, Batty kills Tyrell in a despairing rage, calling him (as Zeus to Cronos) “Father.” At one point, Batty remarks: “It’s a hard thing to meet your maker.”

The importance of Blade Runner is that it reaches for higher truths. Three key, yet profound, questions contribute to the core of Blade Runner: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? These are the same basic questions that humanity has faced since the dawn of time.

The eternal problems presented in the film are, thus, essentially moral ones. That is, should human beings really be in the business of creating artificial life? Should replicants kill to gain life? Should the Blade Runners kill the replicants simply because they want to exist?

As we see with recent scientific developments, defining what it means to be human is increasingly the dilemma faced by contemporary society. As such, the most vital question confronting us is how to maintain our humanness in the face of an increasingly dehumanizing world.

Blade Runner is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” “In my mind,” Dick said, “android is a metaphor for people who are psychologically human but behaving in a nonhuman way.”

During research for an earlier work, Dick had discovered diaries by Nazi SS men stationed in Poland—men who had defined the Jews as sub-humans. One sentence in particular had a profound effect on Dick. It read, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” As he explained, “There is obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that. I later realized that, with the Nazis, what we were essentially dealing with was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them.”

“Worse,” Dick noted, “I felt that this was not necessarily a sole German trait. This deficiency had been exported into the world after World War II and could be picked up by people anywhere, at any time.”

The dilemma is even more acute now than when Dick was penning Sheep for we have moved deeper into the methodological terrain of a post-9/11 world—one now, more than ever, dominated by technology and an amoral science. And with the daily bombardment of terrorist threats, perpetual wars, global warming alarms, entertainment distractions and a propagandizing media, it is no wonder that only a few realize what is happening to them.