by JJ Ventrella, Feb 14, 2008
The original selfish gene put us on a path of emergent complexity on a grand scale. Considering that imperfect self-replication in a complex environment begets "better" self-replication (the Darwinian equation), one may conclude that the continual emergence, redefinition, and reassertion of humanity is unstoppable. Our innate nostalgia for original nature is not enough to subdue our innate trajectory toward the post-human state. But in my mind, this is not all bad news. And our continued control over nature could be turned from destructive to nurturing. The question of whether our population continues to grow and whether we allow some of us to become immortal will ultimately be tied to questions of how we choose to preserve the natural balance of Earth.
2. Is Physical Immortality Possible?
I believe that at some point in the future it will be theoretically possible through genetic engineering, prosthetics, and medical technology for a human to be made to live forever. However, it is extremely unlikely that any human can live for a very long time, for the following reason:
* There are three causes of death: 1. aging, 2. disease, and 3. trauma. Even if we come up with technologies to overcome aging and disease, physical damage beyond recovery is still possible. And the chance of this happening, no matter how rare, converges to 1 as lifespan increases towards infinity. And even if no physical destruction occurred to a human who was engineered to live indefinitely, we do not know whether the universe itself will continue to exist forever. And even if this universe ends in a Big Crunch which results in the next Big Bang, which leads to the next in a series of universes, any remaining humans - as well as everything else - will be reduced to quark soup in this transition.
A post-human is a future being whose abilities exceed those of current humans to such a degree that is can no longer be called "human" by current standards.
I believe that post-humanity is a natural extension of humanity. It's no different than the path from Animal to Human - it's just more of the same. Let's define "human" as the species of animal which has evolved adaptability, physical dexterity, abstract symbolic language, technology, and culture to a much greater extent than any other animal has. The complexity and utility of such things (which is currently accelerating) is so great as to make humans qualitatively different from all other animals - in a class of its own. What I believe is that humans are already on a trajectory that naturally leads to post-humanity. We might already be described as "post-animal". And so "post-human" is the same as "post-post-animal". But enough with definitions. My point is that in order to talk about immortality, I want to put it in the context of what humans are, and what they do - which is to push the boundaries of nature. For better or worse, we are destined to keep pushing ourselves beyond nature. The original selfish gene set the course.
4. Responsibility to Preserve Mother Nature
Even though I am suggesting that humanity is destined to continue pushing itself beyond and above nature, this does not necessarily mean that we must destroy nature in order to continue on this post-animal path. In fact, increasing awareness of our negative impact on Earth may be just the beginning of a major re-evaluation of what it means to be a human on this planet.
It is possible that at some point humanity will have no choice but to leave Mother Earth in order to save it while at the same time continuing on its inexorable path beyond original nature. We may launch a panspermia that fertilizes other worlds with DNA, making them pseudo-biospheres (Earth being the original). In doing so, we may then allow ourselves to pursue immortality, since we would then have more space in grow and never die.
But to be honest, I do not feel good about this kind of scenario. Perhaps we must allow our desire for immortality to be expressed in other ways, such as in cultural artifacts, memories with loved ones, and simulated virtual worlds. Perhaps we will be able to simulate life on earth in computers to such verisimilitude that we will be able to cast off our physical bodies (death as we currently know it), and merge neurally into virtual reality. This would allow us to have a cerebral population explosion without making such an impact on the physical earth.
Or perhaps we will come to see our physical existence as so intertwined with the rest of Earth (the ultimate ecosystem - Gaia) that we will come to associate its continued existence with our own immortality. This would require a significant erosion of the hubris that helped bring us to our current position at the top of the food chain. But it may be the only choice we have, considering that we rely on - and are a part of - the super-organism which is Gaia. And Gaia is alrealy far ahead of any one individual human, as far as longevity goes.
This leads me to the question of "whose" immortality we should be concerned with. I began by talking about the physical immortality of a single human individual. Certainly an interesting subject from a scientific and philosophical viewpoint. And perhaps it is something that is innate for humans - who may be thought of as the ultimate expression of the selfish gene. Dawkins suggests that we are, after all, elaborate vehicles whose only purpose is to help the selfish gene perpetuate itself. In fact our brains have evolved the sense of self, consciousness, and a desire of self-preservation - perhaps as a by-product of this original accident of self-replication.
But since the notion of altruism can extend beyond the self to the immediate family, the species, or even all of life, it may also be appropriate to associate one's need to live forever with the same need of the larger living system of which one is a part. Therefore, I would say that there are not only many forms of immortality, but there are also many ecological scales in which to describe this innate desire to live forever. And so, when I associate myself with something that is greater than myself, my own death becomes easier to accept.
But even so, it would be really great to live a healthy life to age 1000. Why, I could plant 1000 trees and help Gaia breathe just a little bit better!