10 May 2009

In our nature

In this posting three weeks ago, I linked to a news article on the extension of healthy life span, which included this quote:

He says that we are also living to an “unnatural age” because technology has defied nature. “In the Stone Age men and women died in their thirties, once they had had children, because they were not needed by evolution to carry on. Now health technolo- gy wipes out evolution and we are into an unnatural stage. No one was meant to live to this age.”

Rita commented:

I don't know if I agree that this is unnatural. Perhaps some of our current ideas of evolution are in danger of being outmoded like some of our current ideas of religion?

To which I responded:

Evolution never "meant" us to wear clothes, or take medicine, or read and write, or be able to travel to another continent in a few hours. All those things are just as "unnatural" as using modern technology to live to 90, or future technology to live to 190. To look at it another way, every animal has naturally evolved with various tools for survival, and in our case, the main tool is intelli- gence. So everything we do with that intelligence to extend our lives and protect ourselves is "natural".

I think this point deserves a bit of elaboration.

Projections of the feasible technology of the next forty years (such as the eradication of the aging process and death from old age, use of full-immersion virtual reality to broaden the range of human experience, and the achievement of mind-computer integration to vastly increase human intelligence, capabilities, and even the subtlety and intensity of emotional life) often meet the objection that such developments would be "unnatural" or contrary to our essence as humans. I've never seen any reason to consider this a bad thing in itself. If living forever would be "unnatural", so what? I don't want to die; I don't care whether someone thinks it would be "unnatural" for me to succeed in avoiding death for hundreds or even millions of years, rather than mere decades. The same is true of the vast increase in intelligence and richness of life which we will gain from direct integration of computer technology (far more powerful than today's, of course) with the human mind. Since I find this desirable, I do not care if anyone considers it "unnatural".

There is, however, another important point here. As I said above, human intelligence is a natural phenomenon; it's what evolution has given us to use to survive and thrive. The way we use our intelligence for that purpose is to create tools which increase our capabilities -- that is, we create technology. The first human to chip out a flint arrowhead was engaged in this process just as much as the humans of today using stem cells to repair damaged organs are.

Most people who think it would be "unnatural" to cure aging so that people can live for centuries probably do not think brushing their teeth is "unnatural", but fundamentally it's the same thing. In both cases, one is using tools created by human intelligence to prevent damage which would otherwise slowly degrade one's health. Since we understand what causes tooth decay, it's perfectly natural for us as intelligent creatures to make and use tools to avoid it. The aging process is far more complex, as are the tools we will need to develop to stop it, but the principle is the same.

Vaccines and antibiotics, by which we defeated the epidemics which once routinely devastated whole populations, are the product of human intelligence. So was the early agriculture by which our ancestors secured a more abundant and reliable food supply. Since human intelligence is a natural phenomenon, flint arrowheads and agriculture are also natural. And so are tooth- brushes and vaccines and antibiotics. And so is the life-extension technology we will develop in the next twenty years. It's all part of a continuum.

The same is true of the enhancement of the mind. The written language which the hand-wringers use to express their objections is itself a technology. It's a human invention, thousands of years old, which supplements both our memories and our ability to communicate. That is, it's an enhancement of the innate abilities of our brains. Education is another such enhancement. So are the computer systems which we use to perform mathematical calcula- tions and to store, access, and process information, all far more quickly and accurately than our unaided brains could do (and often in ways which our unaided brains could not do at all). All these things augment the capabilities of our minds, and computers especially are rapidly increasing their, and therefore our, powers. The obstacle we face now is that we can access this supplemental machine "intelligence" only through slow, clumsy interfaces of keyboards, monitors, and (soon) speech. The machine intelligence of the mid-21st century will not only be trillions of times as powerful as today's, it will be as seamlessly part of us as our innate biological intelligence is. It will be the natural culmination of the process of using increasingly powerful tools to augment our mental abilities -- a process that began with the Sumerians six thousand years ago scratching out cuneiform symbols to help them remember things.

What really bothers the hand-wringers, I think, is the radical nature of the transformation which is coming. Extending the life expectancy from 40 to 80, or having movies and stereo systems, or using education to help us think more clearly, is all very well; but living forever and making virtual reality indistinguishable from real experience and becoming trillions of times more aware and intelligent, all represent too much of a leap -- especially in less than forty years.

But all of that, too, is part of a natural continuum. The exponential acceleration of progress has been going on for a billion years. It's stopping or retarding this acceleration which would be unnatural, and probably impossible.

When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the transformation is a radical one, but it is not contrary to nature. The potential for it was innate in the caterpillar from the beginning of its life, as the Technological Singularity was foreshadowed by the first flint arrowhead. Aborting the transformation so that the caterpillar just stayed a caterpillar would not be honoring nature; it would be a profound violation of the caterpillar's nature, and a tragic waste of potential.

That is what the Luddites and technophobes want to do to the human race -- but they will fail. We will fulfill our potential and achieve the culmination of that billion years of development. We will become what it was always in our nature to become.


Blogger CountingCats said...

When it domes to discussions as to what is and is not 'natural' I always start out by inviting the detractor of unnatural to squat naked under a tree during the next thunderstorm instead of sitting all dry and comfy inside their house. It helps to point out that every trick in medicine is designed to subvert some natural process.

Mother nature is a vicious old bitch, and I am always happy to see her down on the floor in an arm lock.

10 May, 2009 05:26  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I think you explain it very well here Mr.Infidel. I mean ... what is "unatural"? This is all natural...we by nature struggle to survive and evolve...it's part of our root nature, as any other animal...even the chimp's make tool's... you do what work's! I have alway's told religious folk's for many year's for instance... that god is them...and when they read the bible for instance...and the stories of the creation...and the goal to reach heaven and be at one with god with "eternal life", what they fail to see...is everything they read about those thing's...is a reflection of themselves ... they yearn for everlasting life...they create, they destroy,heal,transcend,etc. What I have told them for year's...is that nature/universe/ intelligence/life is all one thing, it constantly changes and adapt's to the changes... it has one goal...to survive and evolve...there is no natural/unatural ... we are the god's that we once wrote about, and we will create everlasting life and rule the universe...and create many mansion's in the skies even, many dimension's etc. I am not scientifically knowledgable as you... so my word's are not very well chosen on these subject's. But, I know what I know... and have no doubt that we will achieve our wishes, which is just that. Natural? It is very natural, even the technology, everything evolved from life and this earth, and the quest to survive... this is nothing but natural.

10 May, 2009 07:06  
Blogger Rita said...

Great article. It totally makes sense.

10 May, 2009 08:16  
Blogger Alessandro Machi said...

Lawyers won't allow us to live forever.

Once we can live for a very very long time the first time somebody slips and falls and can't go on exactly as before because of their injury, the calculation for damages will bankrupt the entire planet.

10 May, 2009 10:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

the first time somebody slips and falls and can't go on exactly as before because of their injury,

The same kind of technology I'm talking about would allow any imaginable kind of injury to be repaired -- in fact, eventually we won't be dependent on physical bodies at all.

Look at it this way -- if you live for millions of years you might even live to get your credit card balance paid off :-)

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

10 May, 2009 11:49  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

While we evolve, however, several generations of inbreeding have caused about 1 in 5 of us to DE-volve.

They seem to be racing backwards as quickly as the rest of us try to go forwards. They justify their race to the trough of stupidity with a book that was written thousands of years ago by guys living in caves. I have little hope that our way-too-brotherly brethren are ever going to get "with it."

10 May, 2009 22:24  

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