H+: From Mind Loading to Mind Cloning: Gene to Meme to Beme: A Perspective on the Nature of Humanity
A central concern of the pro/anti transhumanist debate is whether to restrict our human bodies to a biological form or to expand our personal existence onto non-biological platforms. The anti-transhumanist position is that we are our DNA-birthed bodies. I suggest that cybernetics may very well offer a means for expanding the human being.
In Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s essay “Cybernetics Is An Antihumanism: Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion Against the Human Condition”, Dupuy misstates the cybernetics premise. Dupuy suggests that cybernetics in its quest for control is something anti-human. Alternatively, I suggest that cybernetics is simply an extension of life, much like a modern primate digging stick or insectoid behavioral pattern all of which quests for control over the environment. Failure to exert control over one’s environment is tantamount to extinction, for no environment provides all the requisites for life at all times without manipulation. Even bacteria control their environment by movement through it and linking together metabolic excretions. To control is not only to be human, it is to survive.
The goal of cybernetic personal existence would be to continue human development rather than to artificially arrest it at the 20th century level, after it has developed for countless millennia. For all practical purposes, in the distant future, it is inevitable that the earth will be lost to a cosmic catastrophe of some sort, as that is the fate of all heavenly bodies in the universe. Those, such as Pickering, who oppose cybernetic personal existence, condemn humans to astrophysical excision, whereas proponents of cybernetic personal existence provide a potential vehicle for sustaining the human species. Voltaire was correct when he said that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but he did not mean that we shouldn’t strive to improve ourselves. To the contrary, Voltaire meant that we ought not stop trying to improve ourselves simply because we cannot be perfect. The same point goes for humanity. We are far from perfect. Cybernetic existence will not make us perfect. But it could make us better, and that is and always has been a worthy cause.
Here I would like to turn to Katherine Hayles’ “Wrestling with Transhumanism” wherein she neglects the fact that transhumanists are actually the most socially connected culture on earth because transhumanists want to use technology to overcome the anomie-inducing isolation and desperation of spatio-temporal distance. The very goal of the transhumanist project is realization of the connective consciousness of all humanity, the noosphere (as suggested by Teilhard de Chardin), which is the epitome of social awareness. Our human tribal sense of community is frustrated by physical separation in buildings, economic separation in classes, and social separation in cultures. Is this utopian? Ted Peters in his paper “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future: Will Technological Progress Get Us There?” seems to think so.
However Peters mistakes extrapolations for explanations. The transhumanists are no more utopian or naive than were the socio-technological pioneers of the 19th century who believed in and fought for universal education, railroads, and public health. Our antecedents in the 1800s dreamed of a day when everyone would have a quality education, when transportation would not involve degradation, and when horrifying epidemics did not sweep away our loved ones. It was that lofty — even utopian — goal that invigorated society to introduce compulsory education, the transcontinental railroad, and sanitation. We are still far from the utopian goal, but what sane person could contest the benefits that the utopian vision has created in its wake? It is the same situation with transhumanists. Of course transhumanists realize that fungible bodies are off in the future, but if that dream can motivate us to relieve the suffering of those stricken by paralysis or other bodily dysfunctions, then it is a dream well worth propagating. Utopia is not so much a place as a direction, a good direction. Transhumanists are taking us in that good direction, and cannot be fairly criticized for telling us all that we can do better that we are doing now.
The larger issue of transhumanism concerns human transformation rather than what Don Ihde refers to as a superhuman fantasy in his paper “Of Which Human Are We Post?” Ihde ignores the fact that we are continually transforming, from the time we domesticated wolves into dogs and ragweeds into crops, to the times we inoculate ourselves with xenoviral fragments to protect against influenza. The difference between transhumanists and many detractors is that transhumanists are out of the closet, whereas the detractors seem to be in a type of denial. The transhumanists simply see the projection of technological trends which are augmenting and enhancing humans, while the detractors largely ignore historical trends, deny current trends, and decry many aspects of the future that do not immediately benefit them. Far from hunting for paradise, the transhumanists are simply following an age-old curve of development that goes back millions of years in human history. Ihde’s view of the world seems to be lost in a romantic fantasy of nostalgia for times we would probably not have survived. In an earlier generation transhumanists would have been called progressives; anti-transhumanists would be known as reactionaries, royalists or racists. The differentiating question is as simple as this: are we to abandon individual humans, as well as human societies, to the random fate of disease and disaster? The transhumanists say “no!”, and will relentlessly aim to enhance humans and their environment until “life is fair” (because we made it so). The anti-transhumanists say “yes”, and will lift a finger to save individuals or groups only so long as there is no cognizable consequence to the kind of human body and human society with which they are familiar.
In a nutshell, for the transhumanist, alleviating suffering and avoiding extinction trumps the comfort of sameness. To the anti-transhumanist, maintenance of the status quo trumps ending pain and even human survival. Better evolve than dissolve, says the transhumanist. Nay, better dissolve than evolve, retorts the anti-transhumanist.
Returning to the concept of cybernetics, Andrew Pickering, in his paper “Brain, Selves and Spirituality in History of Cybernetics” criticizes transhumanism in regards to a goal of cybernetic immortality and perfection by trying to purify and excise humans. With this said, I turn my attention to the concept of copying the mind onto non-biological platforms. I do this not to provide fodder for unsubstantiated science-fiction, utopian thinking, but to invite those who shudder at the idea of the human not remaining an exclusively biological animal destined to die to consider a possible future post human being which could at some point in the future overcome the multiple apartheid structures of the agri-industrial world with a seamless presence in virtuality within which the mind or minds could exist.
The phrase “mind cloning” conjures weird and perplexing images. Does it mean stamping out an army of people who think the same? Also, how could a mind be cloned? We can visualize identical twins as a proxy for body cloning, but no two people have ever had the same mind. And why would any one want to clone minds? Who would want someone else running around with all of our most private thoughts?
In order to explore a world full of mind clones that is now a key R&D project of dozens of government agencies and private companies, I will briefly address the why, how, and when of mind cloning, and propose a sensible framework for its social acceptance.
Let’s start with the term “mind cloning.” It means copying the essence of a person’s consciousness. We need the wiggle room of “essence” for two reasons. First, there is no such thing as a perfect copy of anything. At least at the sub-atomic level, things change too quickly to permit any kind of a perfect copy. Even cloned sheep, for example, are not exact copies. One reason for this is that not all of the genetic information of a sheep (or a person) is in their nucleus, the part of a cell used in the cloning process. There are additional strands of genetic information floating in the cytoplasm of each cell, such as “mitochondrial DNA”, which is not susceptible to cloning using the techniques now employed. Nevertheless, a cloned sheep is certainly a copy of the essence of its mother.
The second reason we need the wiggle room of “essence” is that consciousness is not an objective quantity, like a sheep. Consciousness is subjective, or personal, to its possessor. This means there is only one of each consciousness, by definition of it being a subjective quantity. However, a person who had all of another’s mannerisms, personality traits, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values would surely be the essence of the other’s consciousness. The mind clone would know they were the same, but different, as its original – in much the same way we realize that we are the same, but different, as we were ten years younger.
With today’s technology the copy of one’s conscious essence would reside in a computer system. This means that mind cloning results in software that thinks of itself as a human being when running on an appropriate computer. With future technology it will be possible to download the software mind of a conscious computer into the brain of a fresh body. Such bodies (including brains) could be grown from stem cells the way skin grafts are today, or perhaps be built as hybrid nano-biotech hybrids the way artificial joints are today. Until this future arrives the mind clones would live in virtuality, such as future stages of secondlife.com, and rely upon the web for their social interaction.
It’s not hard for any web-savvy person to imagine how mind clones will be created. Consider first that there are finite numbers of human mannerisms, personality types, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values. The number of different combinations of these human attributes is astronomical, far greater than the number of people. And then add in recollections that are unique to each of us — clearly, there is no problem arriving at billions of unique consciousnesses from a few finite sets of human attributes.
Let’s zoom in on these attributes. Imagine a website that permits you to create an avatar by selecting its human attributes in the way you might order sushi. A click for a certain shy grin, a click on a 1-to-10 scale for introversion, clicks for one’s beliefs about God, charity and love, and so on. As you click away, your uploaded image animates increasingly similar to you, much like a police sketch artist’s rendering takes on an increasing likeness. Spend enough time at a well designed website, and a sort of cyber-twin or digital reflection of you will arise. This is mind loading. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, step toward mind cloning.
The mind loaded version of you is a vast set of look-up tables or database preferences. It lacks the wiring of your brain, the multiple subtle inter-relationships of your thoughts, the worldly knowledge you have but can’t click, the neuro-hormonal connections that trigger sensations, the curiosity, cautiousness and conceptualizing that moves you from moment-to-moment based upon decades of living life. It’s the best puppet ever made, but it is still just a cyber-puppet.
Now, there are many smart people out there trying to digitize the brain. They are using brain scanning technology to see which parts of the brain light-up, and how they light-up, when we feel awe, brave, cuddly, dread, ecstatic, fearful, God, hatred, isolated, joyful, kind, loving, morose, neglected, outraged, pretty, quixotic, rowdy, sad, trusting, understanding, vapid, wonderment, xenophobic, yearning and zesty. For every feeling some unique set of nerves light up. There are many ways for neurons to light up with awe, or bravery, or cuddliness – but a finite number of ways. As with personality types and mannerisms, there are a finite number of ways to feel human, but an uncountable number of combinations of these ways.
Each feeling amounts to a mental filter that focuses our thoughts moment to moment in a manner consistent with the feeling. Each feeling is a sub-routine, an overlaid program on top of a larger program. If I’m sad, things seem sad, and I see the glass as half-empty not half-full. The feelings are usually temporary, and in time our macro-program reboots to its default settings. But sometimes feelings persist, and the macro-program cannot recover. Many feelings trigger sensations across our bodies via neuro-hormonal connections, or, vice-versa, sensations trigger feelings. These sensations are select sets of nerves being pinged toward positive or negative polarity. The brain interprets these along a range of ecstasy to agony, and we find ourselves thinking that we feel the brain’s interpretation.
Ultimately, feelings are nerves being more or less activated in a plethora of possible combinations. This sort of thing is tailor-made for digitization. Software circuits can be divided into hundreds of feeling elements, scaled from positive to negative, and grouped into emotional bundles. Hence, it is just a matter of time before hackers start selling awe, bravery and cuddliness modules. The mind loads will feel the emotions with ever-more authenticity to human feelings as the software engineers get ever-smarter about which neuron pools are associated in which way with which emotions.
In time mind cloning software will watch a human emote (uploaded digital video, perhaps with some biofeedback such as galvanic skin response), and auto-tune its feelings modules to match those of the human. As this is done, the mind load will morph into a mind clone. A puppet that feels is a puppet no more. Software that fears for its life, and that quests for more life, is alive.
Here I introduce the concept of what I refer to the “beme”. The word “beme” is an adaptation of the linguist’s word “morpheme”, which means the smallest unit of meaning. A beme is the smallest unit of being, or existence. Being is usually defined as a state of existing, or as somebody’s essential nature or character. Hence, a beme is the smallest unit of someone’s essential nature or character.
Bemes are similar to “memes”, units of cultural transmission that behave like genes and were first explicated in 1976 by Richard Dawkins1. Memes span a broader field than the linguistic-bound morphemes, and are studied more for their transmissibility characteristics than for their inherent meaning. By analogy, a beme is a unit of existence, nature or character that can behaves like a gene. Hence, a beme can produce behaviors like a gene can produce proteins. Also, a beme can be replicated or combined or mutated either within a being (as occurs with genes) or in an offspring (as also occurs with genes).
“Bemes” might be thought of as specific kinds of “memes”, although not all small units of existence are also units of cultural transmission. In any event, the growing public familiarity with the concept of memes is helpful in gaining understanding of the new concept of bemes. The following table shows these similarities amongst genes, memes and bemes:
Mitosis & (A)sexual reproduction
Talking, Media & Education
Digitization of beingness
Extinct species v. dominant species
Discarded images v. prevalent images
Lost thoughts v. prevalent thoughts
Humans are defined in large part by our thoughts rather than our genes. The concept of a beme, in this regard, could be mightier than the gene.
Humanity, Transhumanity, Genes and Bemes
Now, focusing on the question of our humanity, is it our genes or our bemes that are responsible for our uniqueness? Do we reproduce through our genes or our bemes? As is indicated in the above table, these questions cannot clearly be answered one way or the other. Our genes are of course responsible for the common features of our bodies, but our human essence lies in our minds not our bodies. Those who have lost their limbs are no less human; those who have lost their minds lose their human rights as well.
Our genes are also responsible for the layout of the brains that give rise to our minds, and consequently for many if not most of our basic behaviors as well. However, these genetically-determined bemes can as well be isolated from the genes, digitally coded, and separately reproduced. And there are many more bemes that arise solely as a result of our experiences in life. These bemes cannot be expressed in genes, but they too can be abstracted, digitally coded, and separately reproduced.
The central thesis of this essay is that in an Information Age the beme is mightier than the gene. This means that transmissible units of character or existence are more important than genetic information. For example, most people’s love-mate is a person with whom they share no genetic commonality outside of that which is in the general gene pool of their community. However, a lasting interpersonal relationship is only possible if the two partners share a strong appreciation for each other’s bemes, their characters, their natures, and their ideational units of existence. To say the “beme is mightier than the gene” is to disagree that “blood is thicker than water.” Most people’s strongest relationship — that with their spouse, or with a best friend, is not a blood relationship.
On the other hand, bemes are not like mere water. A person builds up his or her bemes over time, and evolves them as appears most conducive to an enjoyable life. That which we have spent time developing, like a relationship, is more valuable, and reliable, than that which just appears and claims affinity based solely upon flesh. Perhaps a better phrase is “minds are deeper than matter.”
1. Richard Dawkins,The Selfish Gene, 1976. Though Dawkins defined the meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,”memetics, the study of memes, contains a variety of definitions of meme. They share in common the concept of genetic-like properties to cultural phenomena.
Different definitions of the meme generally agree, very roughly, that a meme consists of some sort of a self-propagating unit ofcultural evolutionhaving a resemblance to thegene(the unit ofgenetics). Dawkins introduced the term after writing that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission—in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplifies another self-replicating unit, and most importantly, one which he thought would prove useful in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.