futuristic landscape science fiction
Like a lot of others, I've been working my way through Ian McGilchrist's The Matter With Things. This is one of those truly seminal, vast, once-in-a-century works of syncretic philosophy that is destined to leave a deep impression on the world. The dust cover says 'one of the most important books ever published, and yes, I do mean ever'. It lives up to that billing.

One of McGilchrist's points regards the nature of life. Specifically, he goes after the machine model. This is something that Winston Smith covers in detail in his essay Are You a Machine? That's a long read, and while it's well worth your time, I'll quickly summarize the main points of the argument.

For centuries now, organisms have been understood as basically mechanical in nature. The modern view is that life-forms are basically survival machines, biochemical robots constructed by selfish genes for the purpose of their own propagation.

This is a very left hemisphere way of seeing things. The left hemisphere likes to understand reality as pure mechanism, composed of discrete parts related by clear causal linkages, such that the whole can be decomposed into the parts, understood at the level of the parts, and then reassembled - the whole being no more than the sum of the parts.

The left hemisphere also likes to pick out one part of a process, freeze it, and identify it as the whole point of the process. In the case of biology, the idea is that the purpose of biology is to reproduce biology. Therefore, the act of reproduction is the crux of the matter, and the agent of heritability - DNA - is the central component of importance, with all other aspects of the organism necessarily understood in relation, and only in relation, to this component.

This view is rather arbitrary. I could as well posit a theory of Natural Shitlection, in which organisms are biological robots driven by selfish poo, constructed by the poo for the purpose of making more poo. The cow eats the grass, the grass is turned into cow and poo, the poo comes out of the cow, and is turned into more grass. Ultimately the cow dies, and is eaten by flies, who turn the cow into more flies and into fly poo, which also makes more grass, which makes more cows, which makes more cow poo, and so on. You could argue that this is silly, because you can't make organisms without DNA; but you also can't make organisms without poo, taking 'poo' in its most general formulation as 'any gaseous, liquid, or solid waste product expelled into the environment as a result of the organism's metabolism'. From poo we came, and to poo we return1. If anything, Natural Shitlection makes more sense as a lens with which to understand the 'purpose' of organisms: unlike reproduction, which occupies only a very brief fraction of the life-cycle of any creature, making poo is a more or less continuous process. Furthermore, while I doubt any of you have ever experienced anything that felt like a selfish gene prodding you to go and do something, I am very sure that you've felt the inner discomfort of selfish poo yearning to break free.

Obviously, that's absurd. The point is that trying to understand organisms as having a purpose defined by a single one of the many, many things that organism does throughout its life - many of them conducted in parallel with another - is intrinsically absurd.

That gets to the first problem with the machine metaphor for life. Machines have a purpose; they are built to do a thing. A car is made for the purpose of going from point A to point B; a firearm is built for the purpose of delivering murder to your enemy at a distance; a space telescope is built for the purpose of looking at distant objects in the universe using light that we're blind to thanks to the optical properties of the Earth's atmosphere. An organism's purpose is ... what, exactly? What is a pine tree for? We may have planted it with the intention of later harvesting its lumber, but this has nothing to do with the tree. Is the pine tree's purpose making more trees? Providing a home for squirrels? Turning carbon dioxide and sunlight into oxygen? Pulling minerals from the soil? Preventing the soil from eroding? Raising the acidity of the soil to prevent the spread of undergrowth? The pine tree does all of these things, but no one of them stands out as its purpose.

The next problem is structural. A machine is a series of components arranged in a causal sequence such that, once power is applied at one end, that power is transmitted through the components and the machine's function is activated. By contrast, an organism has no 'stop' button: if the flow of energy, matter, and information through an organism ceases, the organism simply dies; unlike a machine, it can't be restarted. Further, in an organism the 'components' have no such obvious, linearly causal relationship. The various parts of the organism are densely inter-related, and are inter-related at multiple levels, with both horizontal causality (parts at similar levels affecting one another), vertical, bottom-up causality (for instance, hormonal cascades affecting psychology) and vertical, top-down causality (for instance, social cues affecting hormonal levels). The entire system is one of complex feedback loops that defy identification of any one level as cause and the other as effect.

McGilchrist suggests that a better metaphor for life might be as a river rather than a machine. A river has no purpose, it simply is. The river's behaviour is governed by the laws of physics, and conforms itself to the environment, just as organisms are and do. If you look at a river closely, particularly in the shallow areas where the stones peek through, you see that it contains persistent structures - currents, standing waves - that exist independently of the water flowing through them. Those structures wouldn't exist without the water, the flow is absolutely essential, but they don't depend on any specific water, either. This is analogous to the way that organisms consist of persistent patterns of matter, energy, and information; metabolism moves the atoms through the patterns, and if the flow of matter ceases, the organism dies.

A river obviously isn't a perfect metaphor. Rivers lack intentionality - unlike animals, they can't up and move to another part of the landscape because they feel like it; unlike plants, they can't push their root systems through the soil to access nutrients2.

Organisms, by contrast, exhibit intentionality as a defining feature. That goes all the way down. It isn't something that emerges at a certain point in the great chain of being. It's not like you get to a certain point - dogs, say - and suddenly, organisms gain awareness, consciousness, and the ability to make decisions about whether to zig instead of zag; while below that level of evolutionary development or complexity, it's all just blind deterministic mechanism.

Observe single-celled organisms under a microscope, and you see them darting about, moving towards sources of food and away from toxins. You see amoeba stalking their prey, sneaking up on them and then pouncing to engulf and digest them. In the laboratory protozoans have exhibited the ability to learn, remembering how to navigate mazes or how to avoid novel toxins. It's very clear that intelligence is intrinsic to life at every level. The trillions of cells making up the human body are really trillions of little minds.

Bacteria have exhibited the ability to develop novel DNA sequences in order to synthesize the proteins and enzymes required to metabolize nutrient sources they could not previously have utilized. These genes are developed much faster than can be accounted for by random mutation, and are rapidly disseminated through the bacterial colony. This makes very little sense if the cell is simply a biorobot being run by the DNA, which is itself nothing but a deterministic computer program grinding through molecular calculations according to preordained programs. It makes all sorts of sense if the cell's intelligence is distributed throughout the organism, with the DNA being essentially a library of blueprints. This ability also implies that evolution is not a random process: the bacteria develop new capabilities intentionally, rapidly adapting to environmental necessities, and then pass these capabilities around to their friends, in more or less exactly the same way that humans develop new tools to solve new problems and then show one another how to make and use them.

This rapid development of capabilities has apparently been seen in fruit flies, too. Fruit flies with the genes necessary for eye development knocked out lose the ability to grow eyes ... for a generation or two. After that, however, their descendants start growing eyes again, using new or repurposed genes. It's as though the organism as a whole senses that it should have eyes; if the resource it had previously been using to make eyes is removed, the organism adapts by figuring out how to jury-rig what it still has access to in order to get the job done. That's impossible in the context of evolution by natural selection acting on random mutations spreading through a population by means of differential reproduction. That mechanism is just too slow. However, it makes perfect sense if the basic mechanism of evolution - intentional cellular intelligence - is operating in fruit flies as well as bacteria ... which is just what you'd expect if you see it in bacteria. Why should the minds of fruit fly cells be different from the minds of prokaryotes?

In my view, this is the source of 'intelligent design'. ID theorists have made a compelling case that the irreducible complexity of life and the sheer velocity of evolution are simply impossible to reconcile with the 'drunkard's walk' Malthusian-inspired model. The neo-Darwinians then sneer back, 'So what, are you saying God did it?' But this doesn't require God at all, at least not in the sense of a clock-maker deity standing in the clouds who personally, painstakingly designed each and every cilium on each and every bacterium. In this model, mind is simply present at every level ... and I do mean every level, because I've got no reason to suspect it doesn't go all the way down to quantum fields. Biological systems look like the products of design because they were designed by themselves; evolution proceeds far faster than a random process could allow because evolution is a consequence of organisms designing themselves. This paradigm seems to hold within it an answer to the origin of life itself: rather than a lucky accident due to random biochemical combinations (a process that most calculations suggest would have taken much longer than the lifetime of the Earth, or possibly the universe, to produce a single minimally functional cell), we might wonder if life emerged due to the intentionality of atoms. Atoms wanted to form molecules; molecules wanted to form life; thus, the moment the Hadean epoch ended and conditions become marginally possible for life, life emerged.

And it's here that we finally get to the point I wanted to arrive at, which is that transhumanism is fundamentally Soviet in its mentality.

For the uninitiated, the transhumanist project is essentially to make evolution into a rational, human-controlled process. Rather than the supposedly plodding, random, aimless evolution that (somehow) gave us the glory, beauty, and intricacy of the natural world, transhumanists want to intervene by using engineering principles to improve biology, humans very much included. We'll become genetically engineered cyborgs, our DNA optimized in software models, our flesh melded with machinery, our brains penetrated by circuitry; ultimately, we shall conquer death itself, whether by using nanobots to clean and repair our bodies, or by uploading our consciousness to the cloud and living forever as disembodied software models. We will become as gods - Homo Deus, as Klaus Schwab's pet psychotic nerd Yuval Harari has it.

The transhumanist view takes the machine model of life for granted. Since life is just biochemical machinery, it stands to reason that it can be seamlessly combined with actual machinery.

Further, the transhumanist project takes for granted that evolution is in fact a process of natural selection acting on random mutations. Since it's random, it stands to reason that a firm hand on the tiller would produce superior results.

But if, on the other hand, life is not mechanical, and if contra Darwin and Dawkins evolution is in fact an intentional, guided process and has been so from the very beginning, transhumanism (as currently framed) is something very different. Rather than an attempt to impose order on a chaotic system, it is a project designed to remove agency from a system and draw that agency towards central, controlling powers. It is fundamentally managerial in nature: remove decision-making power from the workers, and ensure that the workers merely follow the orders they are given by management, who in turn follow orders from higher in the chain until ultimately everything is being decided by the big guy at the top.

This is the same mindset that the Soviets applied to the economy. They viewed it is absurd that the free action of millions of interacting minds, each pursuing their own individual goals according to their own abilities and circumstances, could lead to an emergent order that optimized conditions for everyone. Instead, an optimal order could only be achieved if that order were rationally - as they saw it - imposed from the top down.

The 20th century demonstrated unambiguously that centrally planned economies don't actually work very well. I'm not going to pose as a free market ideologue here. There's a role for planning. Think of society as an organism (because it basically is). When, for instance, you decided to walk to the store to pick up a six-pack, you're setting a goal. The various parts of your body - your nervous system, your musculoskeletal system, your circulatory system, your respiratory system, and your digestive system - then cooperate in achieving that goal, namely acquiring the beer necessary to get you and your buddy drunk. Below the tissue level, your individual cells each play their role in their respective tissues in order to enable those tissues to perform the functions that facilitate reaching the high-level goal. Your cellular society of trillions of eukaryotic human cells, and trillions more of commensal bacteria, work together to achieve that goal ... all without you, the high-level human entity, having to be particularly aware of what they're doing.

The point is, you're not micro-managing your cells. You let your cells have cell-level goals, and your cells let you have you-level goals, and each level of 'you' cooperates in getting it all done. The cells cooperate in getting the beer, and then they get to enjoy the results when you drink the beer.

It's more or less the same in a healthy society. There need to be high-level goals (settling Mars, say, or industrializing Siberia), but at the same time, the level at which these are set can't be allowed to interfere with the lower-level activities. A few minds in a think tank, no matter how many letters they have after their names, are simply not going to be able to process the data required to coordinate everything if they try to pull all agency in the system towards central command.

This is essentially what the transhumanists are doing, though. By denying that there is intelligence and agency in nature, present and continuously active at every level of it, and insisting that mechanical order be imposed upon it, they're in effect intending to micromanage nature - to attempt to pull all agency in to themselves. The emergent order resulting from the collective decisions of the roughly 1030 cellular intelligences3 composing the terrestrial biosphere can't possibly have resulted in something rational, any more than the interactions of millions of free humans in a market economy can result in a rational economy. It looks like sheer chaos to the schizo-autistic mind, because it's all much more than any one mind can ever comprehend.

Seen this way, it shouldn't be surprising that transhumanism seems to be the most popular amongst exactly that sort of parasitic technocrat that populated the Soviet nomenklatura. The Soviets talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat, about the workers of the world uniting, and so on and so forth, but in practice their revealed preference was always to centralize as much power and wealth in the hands of the inner party as possible. Their planned economies resulted in starving peasants and workers dressed in rags. Similarly, transhumanism has found its most fertile ground in the fever swamps of Davos, where the global superclass meet to talk about liberating humanity through technology, while all of the actual technologies they gravitate towards look a lot more like enslaving humanity by using a combination of surveillance, social credit systems, genetic engineering, and brain-chips. The Soviets wanted to rationalize the industrial revolution; the transhumanists want to control the 'fourth industrial revolution', the application of technology to changing the human body (and the bodies of other organisms).

None of this is to say I have a problem with these new technologies in and of themselves. Just because communism was a horrifically terrible way to organize an industrial economy doesn't mean that industrial economies are intrinsically a bad idea. In the context of the paradigm I laid out above, human intervention in biology is really just the addition of another feedback loop in the evolutionary process. If it's entered into in a spirit of partnership with the cellular (and higher-level) intelligence that already exists, it could be a very positive, very cool thing. On the other hand, if we go mucking about under the stupid assumption that it's all just a jumble of mechanical parts we can rearrange at will, we court disaster. The colossal fuckup of the mRNA transfections is a stark example of the latter.

The Davos crowd version of this future looks a lot like the Borg: expressionless, androgynous cyborg zombie servitors clomping robotically about with their every action, thought, and emotion dictated by a central authority via chips in their heads.

On the other hand, I can see a future where my great-grandson is grinning like a thief as he gallops across the veldt on the back of his crimson velociraptor Fluffy, with one hand clutching Fluffy's mane of azure feathers while with his other (an elaborate cybernetic limb built from asteroid-mined steel and inlaid with a filigree of asteroid-mined gold), he fires his terrawatt gamma ray flashlight over his shoulder as he desperately tries to keep the mastodon ranch's security drones from getting close enough to drop a nerve net on him and his trusty steed. Goddamnit, he neuralinks to his girlfriend across a quantum-encrypted channel, You said your father wasn't home this weekend!

  1. The primordial soup from which life is supposed to have first arisen sounds, to me, like it probably looked and smelled a lot like poo.
  2. On the other hand, maybe rivers do have a sort of intentionality. The ancients posited a spirit in everything, a genius loci that served as the unique soul of every hill, dale, meadow, brook, and pond. That doesn't strike me as crazy.
  3. For those uncomfortable with scientific notation, that's 1 followed by 30 zeroes, or one million trillion trillion. The point is it's a really, really big number.