Barking Up the Tree of Life

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Humans have long sought elevation from their earthly state, either spiritually via religion, or culturally by social elevation. Others seek superiority by the acquisition of powerful weapons, and more recently, and imaginatively, by developing super powers or becoming cybermen.

Over the last half-century, the  word ‘transhumanism’ has found its way into the vocabulary. Loosely this is the technological, cultural or intellectual transformation of the human into a superior non-human species.  Some use the term ‘H+’ to describe the achievement of  transhuman characteristics.  For many of us, this as a kind of sci fi idea, speculative. Others take it more seriously –  academically, technologically and philosophically.

I am the curious observer who has reached a stage in life when she realises there is an optimum level of ‘seriousness’  one should apply to anything. Too much or  too little and nothing is questioned or understood. The process of enquiry is the important thing. I’m not sure that I understand the question of what is meant by ‘transhuman’.   Is it merely an argument chasing its vestigial tail? This needs context, but I’ll shake a stick at that later. Maybe the desire to become transhuman, or just the concept, is another manifestation of biological evolution. Let’s consider evolution as the practical process  of successful adaptability to new conditions. A biological optimisation process.  So when do we stop being human? In nature, a species does not ‘become’ a new species overnight, it changes gradually within a range of mutable natural characteristics and the successful variants propagate their young. Eventually, the variants are so far from the precursor that they can be given a new species name.  So perhaps ‘transhumanism’ means that a person is transformed effectively overnight by some unnatural agency, be it technological, cultural or intellectual.

Again, one can argue that any modification by man is an emergent characteristic. Humans are anthropocentric, yet we seem to be arguing themselves out of the place as the jewel in the crown of Earth.

Are transformed, enhanced, humans better than the common or garden? The success of any organism, enhanced or not, is in its staying power. Algae, mosses and lichens have been around for millions of years – modern humans for less than a couple of hundred thousand

Perhaps ever since early humans picked up a stick and used it to kill something, or to support a bivouac made of grass, we could argue that humans began the process of emergent ‘transhumanisation’. We have extended our bodies with technology. This is a trait not confined to humans, but I’m arguing loosely. Consider the capability of tool use as a perceptual potential that develops in some species more than others. One could argue that any process of abstract thinking – with or without a defined physical outcome – such as tool making or construction – is a nudge in the direction of transformation of the human condition – to an advantaged human state.

Just as a lever magnifies human strength, developments in computing and electronics have given us the capacity to ‘magnify’ brain power – to do calculations faster and aid our thinking. We are already happily integrated with our electronic  devices, for which we have designed people-friendly interfaces.  It is possible to envisage  lives where we are  physically integrated with intelligent machines or are wholly absorbed into them. We could be re-embodied. From a human perspective, is this ‘disembodied’? Traditional spiritual and religious thinking look towards the end of an ’embodied’ human state.

Humans seem to have a long battle with their state of being human, always striving to be something more. Give a man a fancy hat and he becomes a king or a magician. We confer titles that give on man some advantage over another.

Our human bodies are essentially like the bodies of other mammals. We breathe, we eat, we shit and we breed. Herein is the condition we strive to surpass on our transhuman journey. Yet, all aspects of our being, even the most abstract thoughts, are connected to our bodies. Everything we are is  tuned to the basic needs of an organism, which is itself part of a bigger ecology. We are driven by the fundamental needs and interests of our animal selves, yet we are driven to refine what we are, to idealise it with laws and moral codes. It is a compromise. The more we seek to regulate the way we live, the harder it becomes to live as essential humans without running into problems. We desire to transcend our bodies, but why? What set of instincts drives us to do this – is it a sense that we will be more successful as a species? We struggle with the issues of morality – sex, sexuality and procreation more than just about any other  characteristic. It is a wonder that children are born at all.

Our species has adapted to its environment. It compensates for changes to its habitat. In evolution, the process of change is usually seen over thousands of years, but new research in the field of epigenetics shows that our genome (or that of any other animal) is not fixed in  its expression. It is influenced by environment. Change happens in the space of a few years without us knowing,  in ways that could be considered good or bad.

Change is the state of  living things. Perhaps the organisms that have been with the planet for the long haul with little change are a kind of biological bedrock. Human time is but a blink in the cosmos. Humans are not permanent fixtures. Our arguments about transhumanism must therefor be confined to the sliver of time occupied by our species. A million years, maybe. But that is not important for my little excursion upon the page.

I have not talked about transhumanism via intellectual and cultural means. In simple terms (this is a pithy blog!) it is well-understood that our behaviour is strongly influenced by cultural and circumstantial factors. We are each capable of being more ‘civilised’ and also of behaving as ‘monsters’. This can happen in a relatively short time, in extreme circumstances, by those determined to manipulate minds.  Education can liberate us from some of the more unrealistic aspects of the revulsion for our human selves, but not from the law. In normal society, certain predispositions are encouraged. Attitudes to one sex over another, to the elderly, to youth. Effects of diet, education, living conditions – all have an effect upon the way we think.  One can readily see moral difficulties in assessing and judging the superiority or inferiority of some outcomes over another. if we are to become ‘superior’ how do we choose an intellectual or cultural framework to achieve this? One man’s H+ could be another’s H-.

As a child, I loved to read and watch sci fi. I variously wanted to be Supergirl, Wonderwoman, and various female versions of male characters, usually with astonishing mental powers and with the ability to fly. ‘What super-power would you pick?’ is a game played by most of us as kids. What would be the best superpower to have? That question has to have a context. For what purpose would you want the superpower? Kids are not necessarily philanthropic. Then neither are adults.

Our ancestors, in their developmental journey, refined and honed by the environment did one thing that those who are not our ancestors did not. That is, survived and reproduced. Each was successful in his or her era. Their genes were passed on to contribute to our genome. Would the ability to fly, read minds, freeze water with a gaze, or throw cars into orbit be useful for survival and reproduction?  Factoring in  bit of physics, the acquisition of superpowers would demand energy from somewhere, so perhaps the enhanced humans would have insufficient food available to use their powers. Experience shows us that there is never a free lunch, something has to compensate. There is always a feedback. This is something I have mentioned in other blogs.  Humans are part of a bigger ecology. A race of flying,  superstrong, telekinetic people would have outcomes for the planet. I’ll leave that to the imagination.

There are those who would argue further that the desire for transformation has to do with humans transcending the planet. This seems to put anthropocentricity at the top of the bill. If we transformed into creatures that can survive in near vacuum and radiation – to live on the moon or Mars say  – would they be human? Being human is living with all that comes with it, warts and all. It is inherent in the way we think, and of course – circularly – how we adapt and survive. We don’t do it alone. We need support from an ecosystem – from the flora and fauna in our gut, to the rain forests, the pollinating insects. All of it is such a complex web, that to unravel it will not give us a clear answer about where our ‘humanity’ ends and where our role in the bigger picture begins. This opens out a bigger perspective regarding the development of life, intelligence, consciousness and what we mean by these terms. Asking the questions is the thing, the essence of change.

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2 thoughts on “Barking Up the Tree of Life

  1. I enjoy your perspective which looks at the largest picture. Several decades ago, I also started looking at things this way. The ideas have developed into what I call “Mechation–How Evolution Changed.” The essence of the idea is that another process (“mechation”) parallels evolution in which machines/codes have established a pattern which has enabled them to radically alter changes on the planet. Humans set up the process and have guided it until recently. Currently, the machines are taking off on their own and don’t need any more human input. Everyone can picture what the next few centuries will be like. Most people don’t see it–like the elephant in the living room–but human evolution is on the downswing and machine growth/development is now omnipotent. You can explore this on mechocene.org. A book about how my thinking moved into this domain is on Amazon Kindle: “Whirlpool–A Memoir.” Thank you for your innovative thinking! –RFB

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