And the biological alterations go beyond basic protection from disease and disability. Culture humans can modify their own physiology for the purpose of pleasure.
Thanks to that genetic manipulation, the average Culture human will be born whole and healthy and of significantly (though not immensely) greater intelligence than their basic human genetic inheritance might imply. There are thousands of alterations to that human-basic inheritance - blister-free callusing and a clot-filter protecting the brain are two of the less important ones mentioned in the stories - but the major changes the standard Culture person would expect to be born with would include an optimized immune system and enhanced senses, freedom from inheritable diseases or defects, the ability to control their autonomic processes and nervous system (pain can, in effect, be switched off), and to survive and fully recover from wounds which would either kill or permanently mutilate without such genetic tinkering.
The vast majority of people are also born with greatly altered glands housed within their central nervous systems, usually referred to as 'drug glands'. These secrete - on command - mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into the person's bloodstream. A similar preponderance of Culture inhabitants have subtly altered reproductive organs - and control over the associated nerves - to enhance sexual pleasure. Ovulation is at will in the female, and a fetus up to a certain stage may be re-absorbed, aborted, or held at a static point in its development; again, as willed. An elaborate thought-code, self-administered in a trance-like state (or simply a consistent desire, even if not conscious) will lead, over the course of about a year, to what amounts to a viral change from one sex into the other. The convention - tradition, even - in the Culture during the time of the stories written so far is that each person should give birth to one child in their lives. [. . .]And the genetic alterations to humans can also allow them to breed with other species, helping integrate humanity into the Culture, which involves a number of alien civilizations.
Last week Banks invited readers to submit questions, from which he picked the most interesting to answer. One reader asked what the most important development would be for humanity to evolve into a Culture-like civilization. He thinks that it's an unlikely genetic alterations that would allow it to happen:
Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general - these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) - and knocking them out. Possibly then we'll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it. Of course maybe inventing true AIs will be enough, always assuming that they're as benign - and yet sympathetically interested in us - as they are taken to be in the Culture.Certainly fear and loathing of "the other" is detrimental to the development of the kind of healthy and scarcity-free civilization like The Culture. However, it's likely that prejudice is largely based on environment and experience rather than our genes, so there won't be any easy genetic engineering fix. I'm hoping there will be a steady change in humanity towards less prejudice, but I suspect it will be a painfully slow process.
- Banks' 1994 essay, "A Few Notes on the Culture"
- Annalee Newitz's detailed essay at io9 "Welcome to the Culture, the Galactic Civilization That Iain M Banks Built"
- CNN Interview "Author Iain M. Banks: 'Humanity's future is blister-free calluses!'"
Tags:Iain M. Banks, The Culture, genetic engineering