"Who Do We Think We Are?"

From: J. R. Molloy (jr@shasta.com)
Date: Fri Oct 26 2001 - 14:18:31 MDT

The Shattered Self: The End of Natural Evolution. Pierre Baldi. xiv + 245 pp.
The MIT Press, 2001. $24.95.

In the 20th century, science and technology helped shape modernism and its
radical new conception of what it means to be human. Rooted in a Freudian
vitalism, this conception suggested that the true self was irrational,
consumptive and perhaps ultimately unknowable. As radical as the modern human
image was, however, it retained a traditional element—the notion that each
person is unique, with precisely delimited boundaries demarcating self, other
and world. The striking thesis of Pierre Baldi’s new book, The Shattered Self,
is that biological and computational sciences—whose major advances came only
after modernism was firmly entrenched—are poised to shatter this facet of the
self. In so doing, they will force us to rethink what it means to be human,
from our beliefs about self, life and death to our understanding of
intelligence and sexuality.

Baldi, the director of the Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics at the
University of California, Irvine, is well positioned to write a book probing
the implications of biotechnologies and computer science. Intended for the
layperson, the book is written in a nontechnical, accessible style, with
more-technical material relegated to five appendices. In the opening chapter,
Baldi does an admirable job of orienting the reader by outlining the
decentering capacity of science, whereby a scientific understanding of reality
replaces an intuitive one. Following this, Baldi provides an extremely lucid
overview of molecular biology, providing the reader with the essentials for
the probing discussions to come.

In chapters 4 through 7, Baldi explores biotechnology’s decentering through
such timely topics as emerging reproductive technologies, human cloning, stem
cells and DNA morphing, along with even more exotic possibilities such as
combining cloning with technologies used to artificially produce Siamese twins
(as has been done with frogs) to create Siamese-twin clones of oneself. Some
of the implications Baldi highlights seem a little questionable—for example,
the possibility that reproductive technologies will make sexual behavior
extinct. Human sexual behavior is only loosely tied to reproduction, as
evidenced by female extended sexual receptivity, making it highly unlikely
that sexual behavior will be marginalized as its reproductive role diminishes.
On the whole, however, Baldi admirably avoids making predictions and instead
focuses on charting the landscape of possibilities that might confront us.

As interesting as the central chapters are, the last third of the book is the
most tantalizing. There Baldi departs from more-standard topical issues to
explore the relationship between biotechnology and computation, two major
forces that will shape the future. In the discussion of computation in chapter
8, information emerges as a central unifying theme. DNA is ultimately a medium
of information; nature, biotechnologies and computers thus share the common
currency of information. Because information can be distinguished from its
physical substrates, the decentering power of new technologies lies in
building interfaces between different kinds of information, ultimately
translating the information that defines individuals into new media.

Baldi adds a number of intriguing back-of-the-envelope calculations to this
discussion, including an estimate of how much information is contained in a
lifetime of experience, or brain inputs: By his estimation, the amount is 2.2
¥ 1018 bits (about 2.7 ¥ 1017 bytes), which at current rates of memory storage
advances will be within the memory capacity of a typical personal computer in
27 years. Based on this, Baldi then investigates the information size of what
he calls the external self, a complete genomic sequence together with the
recording of all inputs and outputs of an individual’s brain over a lifetime,
which he estimates to be still on the order of 1018 bits, within reach of
modern computer technology. The internal self, the amount of information
required to capture the relevant structure of your brain that defines your
identity, is larger—at least 1027 bits—but might still be within reach of
emerging technologies. Ultimately, your individuality is representable as a
large but finite amount of information that could be stored and manipulated in
new technologies.

These heuristic calculations illustrate that we inhabit an information space
whose depth and complexity science is only beginning to fathom. According to
Baldi, our growing capacity to manipulate this space may lead to the discovery
that our self-conception is based on the wrong data. The intriguing idea here
is that our self-conception, rooted in the notion of an enduring, discrete
self, might be a useful but ultimately erroneous evolutionary adaptation that
came about by inhabiting only the very tip of this information space. Baldi
suggests that decentering will come through realizing that the key elements of
this space—genomes, computations and minds—are fluid, continuous entities.
Thus the boundary between self, other and world will increasingly blur and
might eventually disappear as information flows freely among them.

Reflecting on these possibilities, Baldi suggests that our emerging capacity
to manipulate this information space may well mean the end of natural
evolution, as technologies allow us to reinvent ourselves. What we will become
remains intriguing and ominous, making this probing book a valuable
contribution to thinking about our future.—Steven R. Quartz, Division of
Humanities and Social Sciences, and Computation and Neural Systems Program,
California Institute of Technology

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Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment

We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.

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