During a talk that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave some time ago, he brought up a “fascinatingly disturbing thought”. It addressed, in a way, the oft-repeated question of why humanity has not so far made contact with extraterrestrial aliens.
Tyson forgoes the question of why it has happened and asks why we must assume that we are even worth contacting. He observes that human beings share with chimpanzees more than 99 percent of their genetic material. And in that less-than-one percent genetic material lies all of human civilisation — art, science, culture, literature.
He then asks his audience to imagine an alien civilisation that is as removed from humanity as humanity is removed from chimpanzees. What would these beings be like? Perhaps they would have access to realities we can not even imagine. Perhaps what we consider the greatest mysteries of the known universe — dark matter, dark energy, the nature of time and space — would be primary school science to them.
Maybe when they view us, we appear wholly unremarkable to them — like ants, or germs, or particulate matter even. Nothing worth writing home about. And definitely nothing worth actually talking to.
Tyson makes a fair point. I want to take it a step ahead. Specifically the part about the genetic difference that makes human beings human beings.
When speaking of evolution, there is a tendency to speak in Panglossian terms — assuming that evolution is somehow linked with progress and increased capacity. We keep talking about how some species are “more evolved” than others and how some are “unevolved”.
In truth, evolution is a rather more dispassionate process. It does not weigh species on the scale of any subjective measure of quality. It only cares if the species will survive the prevailing conditions at any given point of time.
When we use our imaginations to peek into our collective future and see that the human species has spread out through the galaxy, we are not only being vain, we are also being unrealistic. It is perfectly possible for such conditions to arise that would make evolution turn us back into hunchbacked apes foraging in the bushes for fruits and the occasional small animal.
Transhumanist Fantasies of the Future
Transhumanism is a school of evolutionary thought that believes human beings are now in a position to decide the course of their evolution by use of augmented body parts and genetic engineering. They believe that through the use of these patently human advantages, we may take humanity in a direction of our choosing and not be subject to the unpredictability of the evolutionary storm.
Before I go into a lengthy explanation of why this is not necessarily the best of ideas, let me write a little about the way evolution works.
It is a game that two players play. One player is you, the species. The other is your environment. You change your environment in small ways and your environment changes you in small ways. For the most part, the impact a species has on its surroundings is in sync with the kind of changes the environment can take. For example, a caterpillar eats leaves and seems to destroy the environment but it is something that is, in a manner of speaking, accounted for. The caterpillar is one of the many ways nature uses to keep the balance. The caterpillar and nature serve each other.
If the caterpillar started believing that nature is holding it back from becoming all that it can, it might start thinking of doing things that transhumanists are thinking of doing. It might think that if it becomes capable of eating and digesting soil, it will not have to rely on nature’s supply of leaf. It might decide to create artificial leaves in labs to fulfill its needs. It might even decide that it has no need for hunger and go for the elimination of the need to eat.
There is nothing wrong with transhumanist thinking. On the whole, human beings are no different from caterpillars. We consume our surroundings and our surroundings consume us. We put some effort into preventing being consumed by our surroundings of course. We fight against our natural lifespans, we resist forces of nature, we cut through things that are in our way. In addition, we also spend time feeling guilty about all this and berating ourselves for not being more like the lovable caterpillar.
Transhumanism is the other end of this spectrum. It believes that human beings occupy a special space in the order of things — one that allows them to transcend the boundaries set by nature, perhaps even deny that these boundaries exist.
But let us consider transhumanist thought for a while.
We change as a result of evolution because we are subject to pressures from our environment. This pressure fuels mutations and over the course of generations, we become something we are not right now. Evolution moulds us into shapes better suited to survival. But it is still a moulding force. It applies pressure and it hurts. Many die before those worthy of survival come into being. The human species may be making the mistake of seeing this creative pressure as a destroying force. Evolution brings death yes, but it also brings necessary change.
When transhumanists talk of placing the human species out of death’s reach, what they are essentially talking about is ending evolution’s grasp on us.
Perhaps it is not possible to do so. And if it were possible, how advisable would it be to do so?
Imagine that in the future, the human species has somehow managed to prolong its lifespan and become practically immortal. Death is no longer a part of the human equation. In this future, evolution by natural selection still works on other animals and plants, but not on us. We would have effectively created a bubble that separates us from all that is out there.
This would mean that the “out there” no longer plays a part in our lives. The changes that happen to human beings no longer happen because nature chose them. They happen because we choose them.
This appears to be empowerment until you start wondering: On what basis are the changes are being chosen? What are our criteria for deciding what enhancements are good for human beings and which ones we should not go for? In other words, given complete freedom to choose any evolutionary direction, which one would we take?
Taking charge of one’s evolutionary path sounds like a good idea until one realises that it is not a matter of simplifying the existing equation. It is creating a whole new equation.
Are we making humankind stronger by augmenting our bodies with artificial enhancements as a matter of standard procedure? If, at some point in the future, the Earth begins to suffer regular electro-magnetic pulses from outer space, it could mean crippling the entire population.
Are we working towards a better future for humankind by giving everyone increased physical and mental capacities? What form would these capacities take? How do we decide which genetic factor is of most value to humanity?
In short, if we take upon ourselves the mammoth task of doing what natural selection has been doing so far, will we be able to do it justice?
The bubble that we surround ourselves with has to be absolute. Once we make the conscious decision to stop being participants in natural selection, we will also become extremely vulnerable to the pressures that nature exerts upon all creatures. The resistance we have built against these pressures will be one of the first things to go out the window when we take the proverbial reins into our own hands.
Of course, no technology we have right now allows us to remove ourselves completely from the forces that nature exerts on humanity. So what I am worrying about may very well never come to pass.