Has mankind released from the womb of matter a Demogorgon?

A review of Haldane’s “Daedalus, or Science and the Future,” released by Project Gutenberg June 2023

Tom Tordillo
6 min readJun 11, 2023

Following Project Gutenberg’s ‘new releases’ presents all sorts of unexpected finds.

A good necromancer should carefully study to discover ideal subjects to add to his zombie platoon.

Some books are best remembered as objects of constructive ridicule (e.g., Lothrop “Laughingstock” Stoddard).

Critics and scholars should handle such texts. Necromancers, by contrast, may resurrect the bad zombies — piss on them — then send them back to oblivion. Healthy fun. Doesn’t hurt the zombie at all.

But our purposes should focus upon finding the zombies we actually want to KEEP. Particularly zombies ‘nobody’ knew about.

Like J.B.S. Haldane.

Picture of Indian scientist J.B.S. Haldane.
Indian scientific polymath J.B.S. Haldane, 1914. Wikimedia Commons

Skimming J.B.S. Haldane’s short book (93 or so pages), Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, this caught my eye:

Has mankind released from the womb of matter a Demogorgon which is already beginning to turn against him, and may at any moment hurl him into the bottomless void?

J.B.S. Haldane, Daedalus; or Science and the Future (Project Gutenberg)

How many people in 2023 will stumble across the word ‘demogorgon’ and think of the ‘oily black masses’ Haldane witnessed during chemical weapons attacks of World War I? Or the “gigantic steel slugs” (aka ‘tanks’) he imagined relentlessly pursuing human beings?

Or the dread possibility humans might be consumed entirely by machines?

Much of the brief book amounts to ‘humble prophecies.’ Haldane intends to limit himself to predictions akin to H.G. Wells’ ‘laughable’ claim in 1902 that within 50 years, machines heavier than air would play important roles in warfare.

Some snippets of the prose, taken out of context, are even more entertaining though.

…we shall be forced to conceive of all change as occurring in a series of clicks,

p. 18

Mr. Haldane, it’s one thing to coin a whole bunch of forgetable terms nobody uses like “cloning” and “abiogenesis” — but WTF? Proposing a world of “clicks” back in 1924?

…the exhaustion of our coal and oil-fields is a matter of centuries only…Ultimately we shall have to tap those intermittent but inexhaustible sources of power, the wind and the sunlight. The problem is simply one of storing their energy in a form as convenient as coal or petrol.

p. 23–24

Maybe we wouldn’t still be asking the same questions Haldane was asking in 1924 if more of us knew who he was.

But as the world frets about new technologies du jour, Haldane offers some worthy counsel.

I fancy that the sentimental interest attaching to Prometheus has unduly distracted our attention from the far more interesting figure of Daedalus.

In 1924, so well-read a man as Haldane would know the readers of his day saw the word ‘Prometheus’ and visualized Mary Shelley’s ‘Modern Prometheus’ (aka ‘Frankenstein’) — the same way readers in 2023 read ‘Demogorgon’ and envision ‘Stranger Things’ — even if they’ve never watched the show — and the same way readers in 2123 will unpredictably connect certain words to certain images and emotions we cannot anticipate.

The story of Daedalus that centers the book, and a concept of the role of the scientist in society worth contemplating.

The scientist CAN anticipate certain things, and ought to receive a bit more attention than others.

Haldane presents Daedalus as “the first modern man” —

It is with infinite relief that amidst a welter of heroes armed with gorgon’s heads or protected by Stygian baptisms the student of Greek mythology comes across the first modern man. (p. 43)

After Daedalus builds the world’s first robot (take that Mary Shelley!),

his interest inevitably turned to biological problems, and it is safe to say that posterity has never equalled his only recorded success in experimental genetics. Had the housing and feeding of the Minotaur been less expensive it is probable that Daedalus would have anticipated Mendel.

But given how expensive it was to feed the Minotaur, “Daedalus was forced to invent the art of flying.” Witty!

Odysseus merely BLINDED Polyphemus, the Cyclops son of Poseidon, and look how he was punished for it. But Daedalus kills a son of Zeus…and how is he punished?

Picture of a human with sunlight passing through the face as if it was a Cyclop’s eye.
Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

But it is most significant that, although he was responsible for the death of Zeus’ son Minos he was neither smitten by a thunderbolt, chained to a rock, nor pursued by furies. Still less did any of the rather numerous visitors to Hades discover him either in Elysium or Tartarus. We can hardly imagine him as a member of the throng of shades who besieged Charon’s ferry like sheep at a gap. He was the first to demonstrate that the scientific worker is not concerned with gods.

Not punished at all. Well, he didn’t have such a happy ending…

The most monstrous and unnatural action in all human legend was unpunished in this world or the next. Even the death of Icarus must have weighed lightly with a man who had already been banished from Athens for the murder of his nephew. But if he escaped the vengeance of the gods he has been exposed to the universal and agelong reprobation of a humanity to whom biological inventions are abhorrent, with one very significant exception. Socrates was proud to claim him as an ancestor.

Wait, his son Icarus flew too close to the Sun, died… but Socrates claimed to have him as an ancestor? That raises two interesting possibilities, which Haldane is too classy to ponder in print.

Perhaps we should regard Icarus as “the less fit progeny of Daedalus.” Icarus would be the first “Darwin Award winner” in mythology. Perhaps Daedalus had other kids before or after Icarus who actually listened to Daddy’s advice?

Perhaps we should regard Daedalus as Socrates’ ancestor THROUGH Icarus. If so, then Icarus had at least one child who survived. But Icarus died when he flew too close to the Sun, while Daedalus did not — so that means, Daedalus was flying around CARRYING A GRANDCHILD ON HIS BACK (maybe because stupid Icarus couldn’t be trusted to look after his own kids?).

Way to go, gramps!

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

In a post-modern world, and one in which science is routinely denigrated by people who like to mock what they do not understand, certain minds shrug at a reference to Daedalus, reducing him to a figure in Icarus’ story.

Hah! Science! Just means our kids will fly to the Sun and die. Icarus would have been better off as a Minotaur snack. Science sucks.

Daedalus warned Icarus, but he left Icarus free to decide for himself. Icarus chose to ignore the warning. And thus Icarus died.

But Daedalus himself? Invents glue, then flies off to Sicily.

Photo by Ruth Troughton on Unsplash

They’ve been making some pretty impressive Sicilians for thousands of years. Greeks stopped telling stories about Daedalus post-Sicily probably because they worried dumb Athenians might invade distant Sicily to help defeat neighboring Sparta. And that war is probably Daedalus’ fault too.

Haldane’s point is probably that we ought to listen to the warnings of the scientists a little more carefully than those of others. How many of us STILL ignore his warnings (if we even know what they are)?

As with Haldane, so with Oppenheimer. And many others, onto today.



Tom Tordillo

Necromancer unleashing zombie hordes from Project Gutenberg to work literary atrocities. Also father/lawyer/commentator/ironic.