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Friday, December 18, 2015

The Post-Human Generation–An Engineered Evolution

Once the human genome was completely sequenced; once efforts to recombine DNA had become a reality; and once a mind-computer interface had been realized, there was never any doubt that a post-human era was coming.

‘Post-human’ is the term scientists have chosen to describe the life form that will result thanks to scientific modification.  The term, however, is not quite accurate.   Although as genetically-modified beings, part-organic and part-non-organic, we will certainly not resemble the creatures we now are, we will have simply evolved, albeit it through a more deliberate, focused an efficient means than Darwin ever imagined, into a more modern, capable, resilient, and powerful life form.  What currently defines human beings – cognitive, intelligent, sentient, imaginative, spiritual, and creative – will still be appropriate and meaningful.  We simply will have become more intelligent, imaginative, and creative than ever before.

The implications of this engineered evolution are profound.  First, we will no longer be retarded in our mental and spiritual evolution by the inefficient use of our brains.  When a mind-computer interface (i.e. once decoded, human brain impulses will be able to be read by the computer and vice-versa) has been completed, the range of our mental capacities, however limited in the past, will be limitless.  Imagine a Google search without a screen or keypad.  The mind will not only have access to all information available in real time, but all past information that has been digitized.  Not only will we have access to this information, but we will be able to manipulate it however we want.  The distinction between fantasy and reality will disappear; and we will no longer be tethered by what is but what might be or what might have been.

When the mind is linked to the computer via electronic patterning, DNA manipulation, and biochemistry, the new virtual reality will contain images, sounds, fragrances, and stories of all of history, and we will be able to enter this world, select the period in which we wish to live and the people we choose to accompany us – the girl down the street or the Duchess of Nantes.

We will write our own scenarios and our own poetry.  A man will walk through the gardens of Versailles with the love of his life, sit at court with Marie Antoinette, listen to chamber music, and wear powdered wigs and high, buckled stockings.  He will make love in the bedroom of the dauphin, look out the window as the summer sun sets and smell the last breath of lilacs from the formal garden.  

He will not be aware that this is a virtual reality, for it will be so meticulously created through a combination of one’s own imagination and the historical record, that it will exist in its own space.  He like the rest of us will willingly abandon reality, leave the dross and sludge of real life behind, and enter a virtual world which we will create, and travel in it with the woman of our choice whether real or imagined.

Who would not exchange this virtual world for the old, shopworn, hackneyed, and predictable real one?  No one.

The second important implication of this rapid evolution will be Man’s complete control of his environment.  No amount of global warming, Ice Age cooling, or variant climate change will be of any consequence.  Just as agriculturalists are genetically modifying plants to be resistant to drought, pests, and soil depletion; so will human engineers be able to modify our genome to adapt to current environmental conditions.   Cities will not have to be changed to accommodate global warming.  Human beings will change.  The ability to thrive in water, to breathe different compositions of air, and to live well in either colder or warmer climates will be easily programmed.  Environmentalism will die as a movement, and human modification will be the focus of all attention.

The third implication is that exploration of the galaxy will be fully automated.  We will not have to colonize Mars by creating breathable air and drinkable water; but will colonize it by androids.  Our machine avatars can make the long journey to other planets and our minds can be digitally transferred once they have reached their destination.  In other words, the machines become sentient and human when and if we decide it necessary.

On a recent BBC World Service program (News Hour Extra, 12.18.15), a group of space scientists were gathered to discuss these and other aspects of the post-human era.  “What about the human soul”, the moderator asked, wondering whether or not these post-humans would still be human.  None of the participants were particularly troubled by the question, since they all had assumed that the soul was no more than the particular configurations of DNA which resulted in varying degrees of insight, intelligence, creativity, and sensitivity.  Post-humans will be no different, they all agreed.  Only their individual genomes will have been altered to produce a very different human reality – in other words a different human soul.

“What about God?” would have been the next question had time remained; and indeed the subject is essential.  Religious conservatives will certainly object not only to tampering with God’s creation but playing God; but equally faithful but less doctrinaire believers will only conclude that God’s hand is miraculous and all-powerful.  Everything that happens on Earth or anywhere in the universe was caused by him.  He simply set the ball rolling.

Secularists will be the least distressed.  There is no God to be offended.  Evolution, whether happening the old way or the new, is simply a neutral, value-free progression from past to present.  There is no purpose to evolution, and the only reality is change.  The concept of  anicca - impermanence is an undeniable and inescapable fact of human existence from which nothing that belongs to this earth is ever free – has long been at the heart  of Buddhism.

There are, not surprisingly, legions of naysayers.  The human race has shown itself to be nothing but corrupt, venal, and destructive; and there is no way that a Utopian vision of a post-human generations will ever come true.  We will find some way to fuck it up.

These, however, are the same people who complain about the genetic modification of plants and animals, steps they believe that will surely lead to eventual famine.  Unknown viruses will reduce the newly-susceptible corn crop to stubble, kill all the livestock in Nebraska, and release twisted, artificially-created pathogens into the environment.   These critics ignore the many benefits of increased yield staple crops which take little water and need no pesticides or fertilizer.  Modern environmentalists are a very American blend of religious fundamentalism, idealism, and conservatism.


The outcry is even louder against designer babies a clear distortion if not perversion of God’s will.  Once parents can choose from a catalog and pick the child they want (Michael Jordan’s athletic ability, Marilyn Monroe’s seductive beauty, and Einstein’s intelligence), the human race will become little more than Barbie clones and Hollywood automatons.

The train has left the station, of course, and genetic selection will soon be common.  In fact one day soon human nature itself will be engineered and may no longer resemble the aggressive, self-protective, territorial, and self-interested combination of genes that has driven human history.  What we will replace it with is a legitimate question; but only one fact is important.  It will be replaced with something else.  That something, however, will have no permanence.  There will be no 10,000 years of predictable human behavior.  ‘Don’t like it?  Don’t want it? Change it’ will be the mantra of the future. 

Francis Fukuyama has been ridiculed for the twenty-five years since the publication of his essay The End of History in which he predicted that the fall of the Soviet Union would usher in a new age of universal adherence to liberal democratic norms and the prosperity and peace that would accompany it.  No one could have be more wrong; and the danger of futurism is that although history is fueled by the same previously ineluctable human nature, it always has surprises in store.   Both DNA modification and mind-machine interface can easily be corrupted, co-opted, and used for evil ends.  The post-human generation could end up worse than the human one.

The point is not to stop engineered evolution even if we could.  A new ball has been set rolling, and there is no way that it can be stopped.   ‘Human beings’ in 500 years will be unrecognizable from those living today.  They will neither be better or worse, but simply and inevitably different.

“Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise” – Surangama Sutra.

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