Romantic Biocryptology

As the 1700s became the 1800s, England and France escalated their rivalry with advances in scientific knowledge. The new hydrogen balloon brought novel dangers and pleasures. In fact, gases in general were the new thing. Humphry Davy had apparatus built for him in order to test (by inhalation) carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen, and especially nitrous oxide. Assistants stood by to bring him into fresh air and consciousness as needed.

Other discoveries had made earlier headlines. When Lieutenant James Cook returned to England from Otaheiti (Tahiti) in 1771 he brought with him 500 animal skins and skeletons and 1000 new plants. As well came several native women, of whom he marginally convinced the Royal Society were stowaways. His hard-working science officer, Joseph Banks, was lauded with a doctorate and prestige memberships. It was well deserved. For several years thereafter he made the lecture circuit, but after ten years he had still not written his anticipated account of the expedition. He was trying to understand some troubling knowledge. In Matavi Bay he had witnessed hundreds of marine animals procreating. They were unknown in Europe, and it wasn’t until sixty years later that they would be identified as trilobites, a prehistoric ancestor to the lobster.

Several were captured but would not survive the voyage. Found beneath the hard carapace were symmetrical, interleaved fins that were neither bone nor cartilage. Carl Linnaeus himself, the father of taxonomy, became frustrated at classifying them. He finally accused Banks of fraud.

Linnaeus died in 1778, never recanting his opinion of Banks. By then Banks, stricken with gout and living in his chair, had bigger problems. The Earl of Sandwich had accused him of having gotten his daughter pregnant. Then the daughters of several other important men made similar claims. The problem of classifying trilobites was forgotten, along with the question: What were paleozoic creatures doing on that shoreline? And what were those gear-like structures?

Scientific Biocryptology

Charles Darwin could come no closer to the solution when he visited Tahiti in 1835 on his return from the Galapagos. By then the island was a fallen paradise, due to alcohol and religion. By 1860, Darwin was the rock star of his day. Having published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, he was lauded as the father of modern biology. Darwin had met Jonny Edmonstone, a freed black slave born in Guyana, who told him lurid tales of the South American rain forest. Edmonstone grew up in nature, never having seen money or poverty until his slavery. His wisdom of the natural world was all he had. In order to survive the bewildering technology, Edmonstone applied his organic experiences to machines. Edmonstone was keen to see that all things are connected by a common drive, which is to perfect itself. All animals strive to live safer, eat better, know more.

Machines, he felt, wish to thrive too, and could do so if released properly. “Everything is everything,” he said to Darwin over darts and stout. Darwin was impressed by his depth and arranged for him an appointment at the University of Glasgow College of Natural History. Edmonstone demurred, and both agreed that Edmonstone would instead teach Darwin taxidermy.

Darwin continued his travels and writings. It was his practice to send home notes for later research, as his quarters on The HMS Beagle allowed him little room. Among his notes was found dictation of an exorcism that was performed in a port town in Ecuador. It was dated around the time of his explorations through the Galapagos Islands. Could this have been a story told by another man, Jonny Edmonstone?

Darwin was forever seeking new knowledge. In his twenties he had moved to London and had made an acquaintance with Charles Babbage, then in his forties. Babbage was a philosopher mathematician, the man credited with building the first computer, which he called his difference engine. His influence on the younger man would be lasting, for it was Babbage who got Darwin to think about a machine that could stand alone and make noble decisions for itself. Was this the genesis of biocryptology?

At some point Darwin met Ernst Haeckel, a physician and restless artist who, like Darwin, had married his own cousin. Over cigars and port they discovered they had similar interests: Izaak Walton, Emmanuel Swedenborg and the romantic poets. Both lamented the passing of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Haeckel questioned whether such a man could be built from parts. Darwin claimed to have seen such men in the Caribbean, “men whose eyes bled such as one who has seen too much.” Haeckel wanted to document this man photographically. Darwin admired the lithographs he had seen of Haeckel’s, and suggested he do that instead. Haeckel responded with, “If you find him, I will draw him.” “Fine,” said Darwin, “but I have a bigger prize. Biocryptology.”

As Haeckel was leaving for Italy soon, maybe Darwin would join him and they would find biocryptology there? “Biocryptology is everywhere and yet nowhere. Everything is everything,” Darwin said with a wink. They parted, promising to correspond.

Charles Darwin was one of six children born into comfort and privilege. In this intellectual freedom, brother Erasmus seemed the wildest, going from the seminary to free love to bird watching to Rosicrucianism. In 1885, two years after Charles’ death, much was made of the new manuscripts Erasmus tried to publish of his brother’s lost theories. Scientists found Erasmus’ hand all over them. Half were made available to an interested public but the academics ignored them. One quarto-sized volume entitled, De Mundo Bio-Cryptologicum, found an audience in the new communes of transcendentalists appearing in Austro-Hungary and other European sites in the 1890s. Biocryptology’s role in society was well debated in parlors across mittel-class Europe.

It was a custom across the continent to accept into one’s home vagabonds, who for a bed of straw and some soup would tell of news elsewhere. Into the Alois Hiedler household came one such traveler, who left behind a pictureless book, De Mundo Bio-Cryptologicum. One of Hiedler’s six children, young Adolf, was scolded more than once for abandoning his studies and instead reading “fanciful tales of snowmen and machines with feelings.”

The years between 1900 and 1920 were restive for Europe and its encrusted society. Einstein was in the papers, but so was Picasso. The critics used new words like “non-Euclidean” to describe everything from the new X-Rays to their morning omelet. Rutherford had smashed the atom, motion pictures were born, and anarchists were found in every coffee pot. When a prince in a green-plumed hat named Franz Ferdinand caught a bullet in his neck in Sarajevo nothing was the same again.

Biocrpytology pulled in its head as it does in times of war. Nobody had the resources for lofty thinking, and zoology professors turned back to their fruit flies and botany professors turned back to their seed pods. Ernst Haeckel resigned from teaching and left the Protestant Church.

The wounds of The Great War were healing. American doughboys stayed in Paris, and farm boys became writers. New paradigms appeared in the social psyche. Geopolitical borders became porous, as the next country looked better than the one you were in. It was common for stateless men to pass each other at the frontier, hoping to find safety in each others’ country. Smirking collegians dubbed them “free electrons.” French mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki wrote that the times were as “troublesome as a witnessed event for which can be found no proof.”

Bourbaki would later emerge as a force in French mathematics, but in the 1920s he embodied biocryptology. He developed a prank to be used on tourists on the southern edge of downtown Paris. Due to labor strikes and apathy, there started to appear a mound of garbage on one of the main streets. It grew daily, and students called it Parnassus, after Apollo’s mountain in Greece, that which sheltered Delphi. Bourbaki put on a milkman’s uniform and stood at the pile with arms folded, shaking his head. As a tourist neared, he would solicit donations for this magnificent capital project, which when complete would finally prove the existence of biocryptology, if only they could compete with Marseilles, whose pile was twice as high. All of the donors would have their names inscribed on official paper and added to the heap. Only then would the pile grow. A donation of two francs would add ten pieces of paper. When the experiment was over and biocryptology proved, all the donors would be contacted and paid huge royalties.

Nicolas Bourbaki saw nothing unethical about it. If biocryptology was proved, he himself would joyously pay the royalties. The scraps of paper were the tickets to a curtain that never opened. From the affair we get the term “street theater,” and the street itself eventually became Boulevard Montparnasse.

Classical Biocryptology

European arts were slowly coming to life. Langston Hughes made a splash, with Josephine Baker and Jack Johnson and Charles Lindbergh and King Tut. Europe was lighting itself back up. Science too was back in the game. Interest in biocryptology was coming from all levels. It was passed around the table at every conference in Europe. Every discipline weighed in on it, but it was when the theoretical physicists got hold of it that Classical Biocryptology was begun.

After the correct atomic calculations were made, an invariance was discovered. Biocryptology, at its most basic level, posed problems. Physicists look for symmetry in systems. Everything in the universe maintains the law of conservation of energy, and when a system appears not to follow it, it means some unseen particle is still out there. In an undated notebook uber-mathematician Emmy Noether wrote, “Nothing here adds to the sum of its parts. Possibly me. I’m drunk. BC is a puzzle. Why didn’t Dr. Lustner call back? This last particle appears to have no spin. It just sits there. What would the molecule lose if the particle was shed? Nothing!”

Efforts between the gray Nobel laureates and the newly-minted theoreticians to explain the particle were mixed. The meetings of the finest minds of physics and chemistry became shouting matches. Chalkboards were completely filled, then erased and filled again. They called it the Couch Particle. Someone suggested they try to impart a spin to the particle and get it to break its orbit. This would be caught in a gold sieve. They would thus have a description of its characteristics, and possibly a new compound. It all came to nothing. By then it was passed to the hydrologists who gave it to the undergrads.

Being that the nucleus of all matter has an arrangement of protons, neutrons and electrons, these new particles were named morons. Indeed, they had no spin, and when artificially excited, only decayed.

By the end of the 1930s a lot of the talent in Germany had either fled or been arrested. Universities had lost many stellar minds, and magnificent orchestras were gutted. It was in that decade that U.S. black Olympian Jesse Owens had disproved the notion of Aryan perfection at the Summer Games held in Berlin. At least one German track coach, a P. Helminth, disappeared overnight.

But people had been running for cover for years; not just Jews and intellectuals, but artists and clergy. Biocryptology was about to meet its most ardent seeker.

In his battles with Great Britain one of Adolph HItler’s most obsessed-over targets was St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. There, hidden in a basement mausoleum, was a stone tablet with only one sentence. The sentence was in four languages: Latin, Greek, a pagan Norse tongue and a style of Old English so old it had never been translated. In plainly readable Latin was, "Deus est machina."

As Hitler’s explorer-theologians scuttled over the planet in search of secret knowledge, all curious heads turned to Coventry. What kept appearing in their worldwide searches were references to God being a machine. A similar reference by German Jesuit scholar and Egyptologist Athanasius Kircher, written in the mid-17th century, was found in a modern tomb in 1936. Kircher wrote about “some clamor that God was (in) a machine.” In light of his Catholicism it’s doubtful he believed this. He may have been referring to magnetism, one of his hobbies, but as history has subsequently proved many of his hieroglyphics claims to be false, so has this tidbit been cast out with the rest.

There it would have laid forgotten but for the sharp attention of a Leutnant Josef Helterlein, a young historian in one of the Nazi expeditions. Cambridge educated, he had heard rumors of a tablet locked in the basement of the Coventry cathedral. The knowledge carved into this stone would purportedly explain everything, but in strictest adherence it could never be shown to anyone.

Leutnant Helterlein grunted upon realizing the connection. A link had been found, here blowing in the sandy Egyptian winds etching the valley walls where he squatted.

The construction of St. Michael’s Cathedral was begun in the fourteenth century, and it served the historic town of Coventry, itself founded in 1043 by the building of a monastery by Leofric and his wife Godgifu, the legendary Lady Godiva. Its demolition took place over ten hours on the night of November 14/15, 1940, by the Luftwaffe.

In the years before the start of the war, German attempts had been made to obtain the stone. None succeeded, but Hitler eventually had his way. Even the best intelligence must be destroyed if it is not receivable, lest your enemy receive it.

The Nuremberg Trials ended in 1949 to relief. Those who started the war in Europe and who could be found were executed or put in prison. German wartime research was scoured by U.S. Intelligence. General Armand H. Theodore, later President of Common Oil, doled out to American technology companies projects to be exploited. Among the three given to lowest bidder Courville Chemical was a footlocker that was thrown onto the truck in Bavaria as an afterthought. Inside were some child’s drawings, books in German, English and Latin, and a thick folder wrapped in red string. The folder held no less than the Reich’s complete knowledge of biocryptology, with formulas of new semi-organic compounds, results of algal studies done over time, and ghostly negatives of men with thermometers standing at various seashores.

Courville Chemical assigned it to their marine division, where it landed on the desk of a biologist who knew what it was. With handpicked assistants, he locked his door and began unsorting the theories. Research furthered, and by 1954 Courville Chemical had registered three basic patents. Collateral developments included making a blood substitute for cats from squid ink.

Cold War Biocryptology

In the infamous witch-hunts of the 1950s, the U.S. Government “requested” that all scientific efforts made on its behalf be conducted toward neutralizing Communism. Biocryptology was nothing about politics, it was about people, said the scientists. Sounds Marxist to us, said the Government, and their funding was cut. Biocryptology now took up eight rooms, which were crated and labeled. In 1962 Courville Chemical’s marine division was sold to Florin Flotation, owned by Common Oil. Armand Theodore himself came to confiscate the technology, saying, “It belongs with Tesla and that whole farm. There’s nothing here.” It was a shot across the bow of biocryptology.

In 1964 “Mary Poppins” won Best Picture Oscar, and in 1969 it was X-rated “Midnight Cowboy,” such was the change happening. Hairy young people burned money and went back to nature. The older generation was baffled. Both sides got ready for the revolution, sure to be televised. Biocryptology stayed out of it, as it does in times of turmoil. Following the collapse at Courville, the family that had formed there while developing biocryptology stayed together. One of them inherited his family’s scrap metal business and another had a trust fund. With spare change from the others, together they bought a small college in the Northwest. They closed it for a year and reopened as Upper Pacific New School. In the interim they recorded what they remembered of their projects. They would pick up where they left off. Privately, they would refer to themselves as The Gamma Group.

Biocryptology lived on, but it was never called that. The school would become their private launch pad for furthering the cause. The catalog was written to discourage application. There would be no classes held, no diplomas given, no degrees conferred. The Catalog Committee, four humorists, added there would be no national holidays and no winter break. On your birthday you got an A for the day. Those whose birthdays fell outside the school year got a C. But it didn’t matter; nobody was reading anymore anyway.

It was a beautiful autumn. Trees blazed, then shuddered naked. Touch football recalled the Kennedy style. In fact, the college president had been an undersecretary of economics for President Kennedy. The campus was a happy one. The Art Department was, fittingly, in Haeckel Hall. After Physics lost a bet with Art and had to change its name to Haeckel Hall, all the departments did.

Biocryptological compounds had been taken out of the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1931. With the drugs off the market, great freedom in research could be had. Not uncommon was seeing bearded young botany professors working alongside crew cut veterans of the OSS. Biocryptology called those who heard, and it was an equalizer.

One week in April two men from a vague accreditation body appeared at the campus. They were taken on a tour where they nodded at everything but asked no questions. During lunch (at Haeckel Hall) they asked the faculty why such potential was being wasted by their not being accredited? Alas, came the response, they were such poor administrators that it devolved into a research facility; labs are rented month to month and nobody knows anything, sorry.

They ended the day at the handball court, where the two men turned out to be surprisingly fit. As they left, they told their hosts, “We know who you are. Just keep your heads down. No headlines.” To demonstrate their depth they handed the dean a flyer for a Christmas play he and some other scientists had staged in Los Alamos, New Mexico almost thirty years earlier.

It was a neat bit of intrigue. One of the OSS veterans in the Psychology Department had cornered the two, and in language known only to them, pressed upon them his bona fides and the school’s absolute independence from any governmental bureaucracy, theirs included. He might have added his assurance of patriotism, but he didn’t need to. The late model sedan crunched over the gravel and everyone was happy.

That close-knit family eventually fissioned into separate clans that carried forth their own biocryptological missions. Between 1963 and 1983 their members were awarded three Nobels, one Pulitzer, one Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Grant and a pardon from President Jimmy Carter. One became an astronaut and one died homeless. Reunions of that special faculty were held sporadically, whenever someone needed to see someone. Many passed away, and their middle-aged children came.

Then came talk among American scientists of an existence of a man-made orchard or swamp in Arkansas where the military had grafted biocryptological material onto apple trees and juniper bushes; also onto salamanders and parakeets. Nobody talked to anybody who saw it, but it was taken as fact by those who knew its scope. What they were referring to was revealed in a 1986 book, Area 102: Twice as Secret and Twice as Exciting.

Some biocryptology activity is seen on the Internet, but the warning from Big Brother is fresh as ever: no headlines. A middle schooler was investigating gill structures of the samypede and happened to show the librarian his drawings. She in turn pulled out a large book that demonstrated those very tissues. The volume was recent, but it was a copy of a book published in the 1880s. “This is important work you’re doing,” she said. “Know as much as you can, but keep it to yourself.” Upper Pacific New School is now, properly, a secular seminary. From a movement that found God in a machine comes a religion that says humans are God.

Contemporary Biocryptology

Of the current roll call of biocryptologists, artist Larry Villarin seems to have his fingers on all the important pulses. He takes up the biocryptology movement from his studio in Long Beach, California. An autopsy surgeon for many years, Villarin also received his doctorate in Physiological Religion from California Southern Campus University. It was a meeting with his advisor, Dr. V. Ramanujan, that Villarin was given instructions that would change his life. “Don‘t study what’s already known. Go to the brink and come back and tell us. Be the first.”

“I saw the light that day," Villarin remembers. He canceled his classes, but was graduated anyway. His path led him to art school, and by chance to a mentorship under Prof. Ludminka Virchow, a direct descendant of German pathologist Rudolph Virchow, one of Ernst Haeckel’s professors. After weathering a personal crisis she had thrown away her lab coat and started a foundation. Minka, as everyone called her, became an artist in mid-life and decamped to Topanga, California, to teach and write. As for students, she chose from the best and the brightest, whom she called, “my delicious meat.”

“She was the best and the worst,” said Villarin over vodka and sudoku. “Did she abuse her position? Do I feel abused? No. You have to push your students or they don’t get it. And with Minka, you could add a thousand more rungs to the ladder and you still wouldn’t describe her.” And biocryptology? “There is something Professor Minka said to me. I still remember it. I was having trouble with some anatomy postulations and she said why don’t you try this, and it worked, theoretically. When it came time for human subjects, I asked what goes in where, and she said, ‘Everything. It’s always everything.’”

The investigations into biocryptology continue with artists who essay machine-as-body analogies. The current movement of contemporary biocryptology remains underground outside a few major cities.

Classic biocryptology lasted until 2003, with the unfortunate loss of Professor Virchow. In 2002 she was diagnosed with a rare form of interstitial growth. She was part of a study done by a distance learning college affiliated with a third-rate medical school. By chance they happened to identify this extraordinary neoplasm.

Wanting to go out on a high note, she assembled some students, and in true poet-warrior fashion, organized a trek into the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. She would die as she lived, with her eyes fixed on the next hill. Per her instructions her body would then be placed on a pyre of cattails, her ashes collected, and during a full moon ceremony be thrown into the river. By arrangement, a telephone tree was organized so that those in attendance would call others, and so on around the world.

The calls never came. She was misdiagnosed. The expedition metamorphosed to a bacchanal, which was held in a farmer’s valley in central Minnesota. They served homemade ale and played live naked chess, where people were the pieces on a giant board that was painted on the fresh mown timothy. A month later Ludminka Virchow would die in her favorite chair, her supple body discovered by her great-granddaughter Oubliette when she brought in tea.

Today biocryptology stalks the vacated halls of science and tastes from the water fountain of stale thinking. It hears its heels click smartly on the floor of yellowing history, then jiggles the doorknob of common belief before taking its own place down the dark stairs of unlit history.

Did it exist? Too much evidence says yes. Was it misunderstood? Knowledge is power, said the philosopher, and biocryptology was a wealth of information to those who saw it. Was it a fiction of Erasmus Darwin developed from the tossed notes of his brother? Among Ernst Haeckel’s drawings that did not make it to the engraver are a curious seventy-seven folio-sized pages of biomorphic forms. They have an uprightness about them and apparent binocular vision, and unnamed structures that jut from their dorsal margins. Several dozen have been dissected, and along their everted cut edges are plainly seen gear teeth.

For a brief moment biocryptology was in the glare of the academic spotlight. It accounted for no fewer than 26 doctoral dissertations between the years 1949 and 1969. It is curious to note that as many came from humanities departments as from life sciences. It was the only research project to ever receive both Top Secret and Bottom Secret levels, which means you need a library card.

The history of biocryptology is the history of the world. Throughout time those who lived in harmony knew of it, spoke of it. It was common knowledge to people like them. But it had its share of detractors. “It’s just an exercise,” Lord Bertram Russell once critiqued, “but I won’t stop you.”

Biocryptology has touched scientists, artists, scholars, dictators. What drives us to look for the unseen? An unanswered question is a wonderful motivator, be it for good or evil. Humankind has explored space and dived oceans, but there are no limits when one goes within. Our DNA knows our entire history. All answers are now. Everything is everything.

 

Dr. Edmund Fitzgerald Kennedy, MD, Ph.D., FACB

Los Angeles, 2005