Clips, Science

Dr. Henry Jekyll: Victorian Biohacker

A rare edition of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which doesn’t carry on the cover an illustration of a gentleman and a debauch, but of a vial.

Red Fez, October 13, 2015.

Dear Dr. Henry Jekyll:

It was with profound sadness, a sadness spiced with wide-eyed surprise, with which I read of your fate in the narrative by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” published in early 1886.

Most know it to be a philosophical rumination by you on the perennial duality of human nature. In your discoveries, you had learned “that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Be that as it may, I am inclined to explore another facet of yours. My belief is that you were a Victorian “biohacker,” a term you are, understandably, not familiar with. Who or what are they, you wonder?

“Biohacking” is a 21st century hobby, pursued by a few dare-devils who seek to tweak the human body, and modify it, with an eye toward enhancing it. Put plainly, it is an attempt by some humans to play god.

One school of this subculture advocates “grinding,” a form of body piercing, taken to a frightful pinnacle. Folks, bored of those shiny protuberances that stick out of their skin, the nose hoops and belly rings and nose bones and tongue barbells, turn to going deeper under the skin, literally.

They embed in their bodies, objects, mechanical or electronic, not with the intent of flaunting it as a piece of jewelry, but with the desire to augment their biological form at one level or another.

Sometime ago, a piece ran in Verge magazine, which told the adventure of an ex-military man who owns a body piercing store in downtown Pittsburgh called Hot Rod Piercing.

One fine day, it said, he picked up an elevator (a surgical instrument for dissecting and scraping.) With it, he split a fragment of a muscle tissue inside in his friend’s finger, creating a small cavity there. Into that empty pocket of space, gingerly, he slid a tiny chip of a rare earth element, thinner than a dime, and no wider than a pencil eraser.

The incision was carefully sutured, and the wound dabbed with a disinfectant. Next, he dangled a needle above it, tantalizingly closer and closer, till it suddenly, leaped through the air, and attached itself to the wounded digit, drawn by the magnetic pull of the silvery, neodymium wafer, an alloy with a boiling point of more than 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

After the procedure, his buddy yelled, “I’m a cyborg!” the piece quoted him as saying. He was geeking out at the prospect of having morphed into a cybernetic creature, mostly organic, and mildly, inorganic—a man-machine mixture.

The less daring, though no less radical, want to amplify their minds. With the ingestion of drugs, popularly called “nootropics,” they wish to either boost their mnemonic prowess, sharpen their focus, or goose up their motivation or accelerate their cognitive speed.

Their canvas is neural circuits, which they attempt to rewire either by controlling the level of neurochemicals or by more pumping more oxygen into the crests and crannies of their gray matter. These people then monitor, and record the changes they experience.

What makes you one of their predecessors? A doctor though you are, you are more of the chemical bent than of anatomical persuasion. You are more a pharmacist; less, a sawbones.

One winter night, you embarked on a bold experiment that set you on a path of no return. You compounded a group of drugs, and with courage, you gulped them down.

The mixture, which was, at first, of a reddish hue, began, in proportion as the crystals melted, to brighten in color, to effervesce audibly, and to throw off small fumes of vapor. Suddenly, and at the same moment, the ebullition ceased, and the compound changed to a dark purple, which faded again more slowly to a watery green.

Standing in front of your bedroom mirror, you witnessed the strange changes they brought about, and you rejoiced in your new, liberated self.

Of course, you had every reason to be astonished, for yours was a metamorphosis, far more drastic that than of the gentlemen of today. You had become an entirely new individual, with a different face, stature, and proclivities.

You had bent down from being the upright, socially esteemed, and grave Dr. Henry Jekyll to the sinister and maleficent “human juggernaut” that was Mr. Edward Hyde, an embodiment of condensed evil, made of the baser elements of your very own soul.

Like the biohacker of our day, you too, had employed the power of science known to you to perform a lethal experiment, with you being its subject.

But there is a difference between their tinkering and yours. Your goal in changing your condition was born out of an inner, existential unhappiness, engendered by the restless struggle of your two halves—one austere, puritanical, and straight-laced; the other, fond of twisted frolic—jostling in your conscience. You succeeded in sieving out those two identities, freed one of the other.

The worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence, it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of me.

If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way; delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

What inspires our so-called techno-libertarians, instead, is the hard, cold dream of developing a “sixth sense.” Their actions are powered by thoughts of being a species, made not merely of flesh and blood and bones, but also of titanium, motor oil, and silicon.

Our freelance Frankenstein wants to employ the instruments of technology at his or her disposal to acquire comic-book superhero-like powers, such as a “spider sense,” the ability to echolocate, or defy gravity.

In and of itself, a magnet, inserted in the superficial fascia, allows a person to detect electromagnetic fields in their vicinity: a microwave oven in their kitchen; a subway, snaking through an underground tunnel; a high-tension power line overhead.

Again, like you, such persons have D.I.Y. laboratories in their homes, usually in their basements or garages, littered with such components as motherboards, soldering irons, electrodes, a jumble of cables, flash drives.

Yours occupied a windowless building, lit by a cupola, which was once a dissecting hall. It had tables “laden with chemical apparatus, the floor strewn with crates, and littered with packing straw.” It mounted through a flight of stairs to your cabinet (think: den), furnished by a business desk, a fireplace, a “cheval glass.”

There, one also found several “glazed presses,” of which, one, marked E, had a drawer of “powders, neatly enough made up, but not with the nicety of the dispensing chemist.” One of the wrappers held “a simple crystalline salt of a white color.” It also had a vial, half filled with a “blood-red” liquid, which was “highly pungent to the sense of smell and seemed to contain phosphorus and some volatile ether.”

In the end, they want to be trans-human; you, a less conflicted human.

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