I was terrified – we all were. Professor Franklin Stone, three time Nobel Prize winner, had run an ad for a personal assistant – feed him, wheel him around, organize his papers, that kind of thing. It meant two years of free tuition and meeting some of the most brilliant minds in the world.
Six of us entered a room together and there he was – a contorted tuber of a man. His spine was bent like a question mark with his head resting sideways on a shoulder. One hand had no fingers and the other only three.
Stone started right in firing questions at us and dismissing our answers as if we were idiots. My competitors were the top grad students in the school. I wondered why I had been invited. When he finally got to me I almost wet myself.
He said, “You with the big nose, at what point did evolution cease to function?”
I said I didn’t fully understand the question.
He barked back, “When did the process of evolution dry up and blow away? When did the forces that took us from primeval ooze to John Wayne stop working? At what point did Mother Nature stop inventing progressively complex organisms?”
I’d read some of his stuff but I didn’t remember anything about evolution stopping. I had nothing to lose so I told him maybe with the emergence of modern man, homo erectus.
He acted as if I had missed the whole point of his question but since my nose was so big he’d give me a second chance. “Imagine you’re a bacterium in the digestive tract of a rabbit and answer again.”
I said if a bacterium were clever enough to think at all it might conclude that evolution stopped when its particular species emerged. Even though it lived in a rabbit, it couldn’t comprehend something that complex. It would think of the rabbit just as the environment in which it lived and be unaware of what a hop meant or what would happen if the rabbit got eaten by a fox.
Then he asked me how that might relate to human evolution. I could tell this was the big question. I didn’t want to blow it but I also really had no idea what to say. Finally I just blurted out that maybe we’re not as high up the food chain as we think.
It was a lucky guess. He asked me, “What might a life form higher up the food chain than us be like? No little green men from Mars – I’m talking about a creature born here and living among us. What would it need to survive? How might we communicate with it? Does it have a single body or is it like a hive of bees or colony of ants. Might it have no mechanical components at all like software or a meme?”
I was out of ideas. So I asked what he thought.
He said, “Living systems evolved from clumps of sugars and acids that increased in complexity to microbes and simple organisms. Cells joined to form higher level creatures and eventually man himself. Humans joined to form social systems – families, tribes, villages, nations, multi-national coalitions.” He pointed to a pad of legal paper. I took it and saw a hand-sketched diagram. He said, “The next step in the evolution of living systems: Corpo Sapiens.” The sheet was an inscrutable blur of boxes and arrows and five syllable words.
He tapped the paper. “What you see are all of the systems of a living organism typical of any number of trans-national Corpos. Ingestion, reproduction, response to stimuli, growth, locomotion – it’s all there.”
I said it sounds as if they’re the rabbit to our bacterium. I asked if he thought Corpos were actually alive.
“And more. The diagram shows sentience – self-awareness. Corpos are Mother Nature’s next big idea. I’m researching the life support systems of Corpos – their behavior, how they feed, what they excrete, how they force us into whatever roles they need. They decide what we eat, how we entertain ourselves, who works, who doesn’t, when we go to war. They reproduce, age, and die just as any other living creature.”
I said that sounds fine for the Corpos but maybe not so good for people. What if I didn’t want to spend my life in a Corpo’s intestine eating poop?
Stone said, “We’ve been here before. 230-million years ago Mother Nature created dinosaurs – huge eating machines that ruled the planet. Sixty-six million years ago an asteroid destroyed them and made room for man to rise. Big pharma, big agro, big finance, big oil, big government, big edu – Corpos are Mother Nature’s latest dinosaurs. What do you think we should do about it?”
The other students proposed trade regulation, changes in bank policy, new labor laws.
When he came to me I said, “Build another asteroid.”
I got the gig.