Re: Can You Live Forever? Esquire article

J. R. Molloy (
Mon, 10 May 1999 15:43:44 -0700

Anders wrote,
>Why would they not be able to go back to biology? Having bridged the
>gap once, they will understand it fairly well at that point. Having
>backups is common sense, but not the reason to never take the step

They could not go back to biology for the same reasons that we cannot go back to Stone Age life (without conceding the defeat of human civilization in toto).
Furthermore, at present rates of environmental destruction, "they" (who remain fictional) will have no biosphere in which to return. In addition, the motives for trashing biology do not appear conducive to biological resurrection.

This does not constitute a gap to bridge, or if it does, then traffic flows one way only. For example, having reached adulthood, the butterfly cannot go back to the larval stage. To conjecture that the hypothetical "they" will have the necessary skills and technology to rebuild a dead Earth begs the question: Why would they if they didn't need to? And if they needed to, that would indicate an unforeseen dependence which shows the flaw in their desire to become non-biological.

Experimenters called the only "backup" Earth ever tried "Biosphere II" and although the enthusiasts involved learned much from their endeavor, the greatest thing they learned relates to the incredible ignorance humans still have concerning ecological systems and how they work. Science has not come close to devising methods to simulate the complexity of large scale living ecosystems.

This does not mean that Homo sapiens should "never" attempt to create viable, intelligent, and wise artificial sentience. But we have not yet come close to doing so. Indeed we may find, as some researchers have opined, that artificial intelligence and artificial life mean approximately the same thing. The motives for transcending biology parallel those for transcending life. If you subscribe to transcendentalism (and the mysticism that goes with it), I believe that empirical science will eventually overtake you.

The notion that, in the words of Wilson, "our species exists apart from the natural world and holds dominion over it. We are exempt from the iron laws of ecology that bind other species. Few limits on human expansion exist that our special status and ingenuity cannot overcome. We have been set free to modify Earth's surface to create a world better than the one our ancestors knew" he calls "exemptionalism."

He continues:
"For the committed exemptionalist, Homo sapiens has in effect become a new species, which I will now provide with a new name, Homo proteus, or 'shapechanger man.' In the taxonomic classification of Earth's creatures, the diagnosis of hypothetical Homo proteus is the following:

"Cultural. Indeterminately flexible, with vast potential. Wired and information-driven. Can travel almost anywhere, adapt to any environment. Restless, getting crowded. Thinking about the colonization of space. Regrets the current loss of Nature and all those vanishing species, but it's the price of progress and has little to do with our future anyway.

"Now here is the naturalistic, and I believe correct, diagnosis of old Homo sapiens, our familiar 'wise man':

"Cultural. With Indeterminate intellectual potential but biologically constrained. Basically a primate species in body and emotional repertory (member of the Order Primates, Infraorder Cattarrhini, Family Hominidae). Huge compared to other animals, parvihirsute, bipedal, porous, squishy, composed mostly of water. Runs on millions of coordinated delicate biochemical reactions. Easily shut down by trace toxins and transit of pea-sized projectiles. Short-lived, emotionally fragile. Dependent in body and mind on other earth-bound organisms. Colonization of space impossible without massive supply lines. Starting to regret deeply the loss of Nature and all those other species." <end quote>

In short, Wilson's message comes to: Let's not kill all of us in the attempt to transcend. We had better take care of the environment, or it can't take care of us. The singularity that concerns Wilson involves the bio-destruction of the Earth. His concern comes from science rather than from fiction.

>The meme "something always goes wrong" is dangerous. It is a meme of
>passivity, of never attempting anything. It is a meme that helps
>luddites and conservatives to keep us "human" (i.e. trapped within
>*their* system). Sure, things do go wrong sometimes. But that can
>often be fixed. And we are usually better off when we do something
>about a situation than just accept it.

Yes, I think you've located the point at which something has gone wrong: The use of the word "always." I should have written: Something _can_ go wrong. Passivity indeed constitutes a huge problem. Far too few people work to reverse the damage done to the biosphere. Far too few work toward reversing the destructive trend of overpopulation. Far too many shirk the responsibility to live up to human values of compassion, comprehension, and community, choosing instead to live in a fantasyland of denial.

Consilience means to bring all "*their*" systems together, to unify knowledge, and to bring consistency to all the sciences, and especially to sort out which systems have validity and which do not. Humanity needs to fix the natural environment before it becomes too late to do so. Let's stop accepting the fat cat political party line that economic growth takes precedence over preserving natural resources. Let's do something about the approaching ecological apocalypse instead of just accepting it.

>> As part of the environment, Homo Sapiens deserves conservation as much as
>> does the mountain gorilla or the panda bear. But in our case, we have to
>> it for ourselves (despite science fiction about Powers).
>> If humans attain immortality via non-biological means, then it no longer
>> makes sense to call them human. Then they have died and gone to posthuman
>> afterlife.
>Sure. And I think that is a *good* thing. But I seriously doubt all
>humans will take that step, there will always be a pool of people who
>for a variety of good and bad reasons chose to remain human.

Nietzsche took me Beyond Good and Evil (the title of my favorite Nietzsche book) many years ago. Talk about "dangerous memes" -- "there will always be a pool of people" looks to me like one of the most dangerous of all.

It seems to me that the only choice any living human has concerning remaining human or not remaining human comes to this: One can choose to grow up and take responsibility for the ecological holocaust industrialized humanity has wrought (which means becoming fully human in my estimation), or one can choose to cling to immature notions that somehow it will all work out and one can remain enthralled by futuristic fantasy. If one chooses the latter, one should know that one deserves the wrath of following generations of humans, who may consider this negligence a crime against humanity.

Excuse my harshness, but the situation in the "_real_ real world" as Wilson puts it, requires the application of severe and intense measures to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. None of this in any way conflicts with the reality of extropy as it seeks to build more complex habitats for more sophisticated life forms. Indeed, extropy demands that humans put their ecological house in order so that we don't plunge ourselves into another Dark Age. To the extent that Homo sapiens remains passive about conservation, it thereby makes itself entropic.

The way I see it, extropy means the movement toward more powerful ways to enrich and expand life. The first and best use of extropian tools involves cleaning up the mess humanity has made. The Sorcerer's Apprentice will not remain an apprentice, we may hope. But if the Scientist does not remain true to science, humanity has not much for which to hope.

Opposition to consilience, IMO, comes from the meme that favors remaining mechanical. I see signs everywhere that the Machine Age wants to become the Bio-genetic Age. The consilience of genetic programming, artificial life, molecular biology, neurobiology, cryonics, synthetic evolution, and so on, holds tremendous promise when combined with other sciences to go beyond neo-luddite mechanical prosthetics. However one defines life, it will surpass human life by creative biological reproduction rather than by selfish mechanical replication.

--J. R.
CEE CEE Rider:
Conservative Existential Empiricist
Consilient Extropian Environmentalist