More than 98% of our DNA is shared with chimpanzees, and only somewhat less is shared with chickens and mice.
That fact above gives one pause, doesn’t it? I discovered it in a collection of essays by anthropologists on the question, “What makes us human?” The question seems especially important at a moment in time when some–like me–are wondering if there are ways in which we are becoming less human.
This inquiry surfaced for me as a result of the brief fantasy I published last week on relocating to another planet. The less connected we are to earth, the easier it would be to leave. And the deeper we get into technology, the more we seem to distance from reality and the world around us. Sociologists are watching this closely, particularly in regard to the young; and alarms are going off about difficulties focusing, the loss of social skills, and even the loss of language.
At the same time, we seem also to stand on the threshold of the development of a thing called “superintelligence” that could make such losses irrelevant. I am now reading a book on this subject by Nick Bostrom, founder and director of The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He defines superintelligence as “any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.” This would be created through advances in computer science that would probably have us being run by computers, rather than vice versa.
It does seem that computer programming ignited something extraordinary in the human brain that may have divided the history of our species into BC (before computers) and AC (after computers.) One wonders sometimes how long AC will last. I have been thinking hard about what intellectual gifts we would leave behind in this new era. Which one launched the evolution that has been so extraordinary?
The anthropologists I mentioned earlier have ideas largely based on research involving the primates we have so outstripped. Their conclusions suggest that we were advantaged by a combination of gifts, but it seems intuitive to me that one–the ability to learn from observation–was the most important.
I’ve already written about how study of the moon’s cycles may have taught us about time and how to count. From the very beginning, though, observations about what plants, fruits, and creatures could be consumed were critical to the survival of our exceptionally vulnerable, upright bodies. There is probably nothing like desperation to make you pay attention.
When we review the early evolution of Homo sapiens, it’s obvious that our environment provided a priceless curriculum that both taught and inspired. This remains true even now as scientists explore both ends of the spectrum of wonders through microscope and telescope. Even though we have certainly learned from it and in spite of our amazing achievements, we have never equaled the genius evident in the ecology of a single meadow.
In fact, there seems to be no end to the advantages of cultivating skills in observation. Now, however, we’re beginning to see a larger general fascination with our own inventions. The signs of distraction are everywhere as more and more of us tune into devices instead of each other, the moment, and–most particularly–the natural world.
So one has to wonder: Is it our will to move steadily toward this superintelligence that will transcend everything we have ever learned and depose us as the “apex cogitator,” as Bostrom puts it? Or do we have unfinished business with the development of our own minds? And if the latter is true, don’t we need to turn a few things off and do some hefty thinking to figure out what that might be?
I don’t know. I’m just watching and wondering.