Thursday, 11 April 2013

Peter Dickinson's Eva: a posthuman perspective

A couple of years ago I put a call out through blogs and social media asking people to give me examples of young adult fiction that dealt with neuroscience in some way. Someone recommended I read Eva, by Peter Dickinson. I can't discuss Eva without giving the plot away so if you want to go away and read the book first, look away now.

In a nutshell, Eva is the story of a young girl who was severely injured in a car accident; so severely that although her brain was undamaged, her body was beyond repair. The medical establishment's answer to this problem was to transplant her human brain into the body of a young female chimpanzee, Kelly.

There are several readings of this book that critique it from an environmental or animal ethics perspective. And the novel does raise many questions about consciousness and the rights of humans over animals as well as desecration of landscape (the book is set in a future where all animals, except for chimpanzees, only exist 'virtually' and cities have completely overtaken natural landscape except for a few isolated pockets). My interest in the novel, however, came firstly from a neuroscientific perspective, and now from a posthumanist perspective.

The neuroscience in the novel is based around the notion of 'neuron memory'. In the novel the character of Eva describes it as follows:
What you are is a pattern, an arrangement...all your thoughts and imaginings and dreams and memories make up that pattern, and are kept there by the neurons in your brain that have sent their wriggling axons and dendrites branching and joining and passing messages to one another through the incredible complex networks they have grown into...
However, right from the start of the novel, it becomes apparent that Eva has not only her own memories but those of Kelly, the chimp. Thus the novel moves beyond neuroscience as a tool to an exploration of consciousness being embedded in the body as well as the brain. One of the first questions that Eva asks herself after she discovers what has happened to her is: "...what had happened to Kelly, the real Kelly, the one who used to live in this furry skin. Where was she now?"

But now that my research interests have moved beyond neuroscience to its potential role in creating posthumans, the key question that Eva raises for me is not is Eva human or chimp (by the end of the book she has rejected humans and lives with chimps), but is she a posthuman? She definitely fits my definition of posthuman, in that her body has been altered to have skills and abilities she wasn't born with. She has a superior intellect to the chimps she decides in the end to share her life with; thus she is not an animal. And she has kept her human intelligence while gaining physical skills of the chimpanzee (although this means she has lost some human physical skills).

Much of the writing about posthumanism is focused on technology, on the changes to what it means to be a human brought about by mechanical, computing or neuropharmalogical means. There appears to be little focus on becoming posthuman through the transplantation of organic material or tissue. But it is, I think, an equally valid way to become posthuman.

Eva is clearly something other than human, and I believe that 'other' is posthuman; not just because of her chimp body but because she has found a way of living in the world that is not human and yet not animal either. She did not have a choice about whether or not she wanted to live in a chimp body; however she did make deliberate choices about how she would live once she was in that body. And what is a posthuman if not a person that is not only altered physically, but emotionally and psychologically, to adapt and live a satisfying life in a techno-centric world.