I was down at MIT yesterday and paid a visit to a campus feature that I'd long heard about, and never seen myself—there being no photographs of it on the web. I'd heard that MIT was so high on the power of technology that a building on campus featured the empty promise of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, "You shall be as Gods," inscribed on a wall.
Well I discovered that it is true that serpent's words are painted on a wall (in Latin), but their significance is not so clear.
Through some web research, I found that the inscription is in the Walker Memorial Building (MIT building no. 50) at 142 Memorial Drive, facing the Charles River. It's in the central food court; if you'd like to orient yourself, you can see a 360-degree VR of the entire room here.
Here's the online description of the mural from the campus paper, The Tech:
The murals in Walker Memorial have been enjoyed by diners since their completion in 1930. The murals were painted Edwin Howland Blashfield1, who graduated in 1869. Everett Morss, after whom the hall is named, financed the venture. The following is a description of the murals printed in The Tech [“Alma Mater central figure in murals,” April 24, 1963] which was originally in a pamphlet written by James R. Killian '26 in 1935.
“Ye shall be as gods”
The left panel on the south....
The symbolic figure of the scientist stands between two great jars containing beneficent and maleficent gases, or constructive and destructive possibilities. the group below represents diplomats and officers at the council table of the world. In the upper section of the panel a figure of Hygeia is depicted placing a crown on the head of the scientist.
Animal figures symbolic of the dogs of war lurk beside the evil gases, while in the background may be seen the figure of Famine. The large figure standing in the shadow of the tree of knowledge represents Nature.
At the foot of the panel two children support an inscription from Genesis: “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
I omitted the beginning of the description of the mural, which sets it up as presenting a definite moral:
The left panel on the south wall conveys the thought that chemistry has given mankind almost unlimited power and raised the question: shall the power be used to build up or demolish civilization?
In other words, the mural doesn't re-offer the serpent's false promise, but warns against using our technological powers to accept that promise, the Latin inscription of the promise being the "punch line" of the warning.
If only more MIT students read Latin.
But then you have to ask yourself: why reproduce a lie without clearly demarking it as such? The mural itself seems to be rather more ambiguous than the description. Is the emphasis on the dangers of technology to man and creation, or on the crowning of man as a god? The original empty promise is itself ambiguous, and what keeps its larger meaning from ambiguity in the Bible is the God's judgment of man: "There is a real God and you aren't he."
On the other hand, almighty God is absent from the mural, the closest replacements being the metaphorical Hygeia and the personification of Nature.2 Certainly, the scientist is not exactly crowning himself, but it is not clear that Nature, in light of man's growing power, can maintain the superiority implied in the mural. (Lacking a creator god of some brand, Nature has no principles that originate in anything above man, so why shouldn't man manipulate natural principles at will?)
Certainly there is a dualism between the left and right sides, but is man portrayed as the master of good and evil, or is he also their recipient? The mural doesn't even carry any reminders of man's mortality per se (e.g., a skull).
In short, it is not clear that the mural isn't exalting the scientist and his power to dispense good and evil as he wishes. The mural could just as well be a celebration of man's supposed apotheosis as a warning against technological hubris.
1. It turns out the artist, Edwin Howland Blashfield, also did the central mosaic of St. Matthew in St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
2. Perhaps the artist could depend on the monotheistic cultural background of the audience at that time, but no longer. Maybe we should thank God more MIT students don't read Latin!
"Walker Murals," The Tech 120:25 (May 5, 2000). [article in online edition only]