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Are We Becoming Less Human?



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. owl_

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.boymicroscope

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.

3 Responses to “Are We Becoming Less Human?”

  1. Kate Heath

    Ellen and I have spent many hours recently cogitating over this topic, and I am sure we will spend more in the future. But our thinking will certainly be more informed by John’s comments. We need the imagination of the best scientific writers and the grounding of the Native American cltures.

  2. Ellen Heath

    I am deeply honored by your beautifully written, very interesting, and moving comment, John. And the wisdom of your mother and Scott Momaday will stay close to my computer as a daily reminder. Thanks so much.


  3. John Corey

    I’m finding Ellen’s recent posts VERY interesting and curiously inter-related. Starting with the discovery of the bone fragment engraved with the monthly phases of the Moon and Ellen’s question as to whether the Moon had something to teach us. Following that was her question about humans leaving Earth some time in the future. Now her recent question on whether we’re becoming less human.

    As a computer science engineer and science fiction fanatic, all of these topics are of immense interest to me. In 2000 I purchased a book with the title Robo Sapiens. The title as you might guess is a play on the words Robots and Homo Sapiens. The sub-title of the book is Evolution of a New Species. In short, the subject of the book is how humans are evolving in the context of artificial hearts, heart valves, ocular implants, artificial knees. hips, etc etc. It concludes with the suggestion that any given person could, in the future, have so many artificial implants as to make it hard to separate human from robot.

    Years ago I attended a talk by Issac Asimov at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore during which he spoke at length about technology, robots, and human evolution. Mr Asimov was a Science Fiction writer whose most famous series of books was about a future world populated by both humans and independent, sentient robots who were indistinguishable from humans. Being a book, and a fictional book at that, there was, of course, conflict and the uniquely human fear that the robots would take over the world, a scenario which may yet happen.

    Having worked, studied, and earned degrees in computer science for the last 42 years (yes, there were computers 42 years ago). I’m of the opinion that you can always walk over and plug the power plug, an action that surprisingly fixes a lot of issues, including domination of the human race by robots.

    I conclude with two very personal thoughts and life beliefs. My Mother was full-blooded Iroquois Indian and she taught me that it is not enough to look, you must see. It is not enough to hear, you must listen. It is not enough to touch, you must feel. We talk to each other with words. The rest of creation, plants, animals, the rivers, lakes, mountains, talk to each other with their hearts.

    Scott Momaday, a Navajo/Cherokee Native American lives here in Santa Fe. He is a Writer. Poet, and Pulitzer Price recipient. We are friends and he often reminds me to read (again) one of his poems titled, The Earth.

    I’d like to quote it here if I may because I feel it connects the engravings on the ancient bone, the question on whether we’ll leave this world, and in a way, what we should be evolving into..

    THE EARTH By Navarre Scott Momaday

    Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk. For we are held by more than the force of gravity to the earth. It is the entity from which we are sprung, and that into which we are dissolved in time. The blood of the whole human race is invested in it. We are moored there, rooted as surely, as deeply as are the ancient redwoods and bristlecones.

    John Corey jcorey62@gmail.com