Saturday, August 30, 2008

The human condition and the linear narrative of history

Civilisation is a chaotic, deterministic non-linear dynamical system. Despite this, human history clearly has the structure of a linear narrative, where in this context, 'linear' means 'unidirectional'. This suggests that human history is converging to some sort of attractor. It is worth reviewing this linear narrative because the nature of the attractor might be inferred from the nature of the narrative.

The human condition is a biological and cultural condition, and because both biology and culture have varied over the history of humanity, the human condition is fundamentally a variable state. Humans diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees approximately 6 million years ago, and our DNA has been mutating at the rate of approximately 0.71% per million years ever since. Our ancestors lived in the trees, had not the capability to walk upright, nor the power of language, nor even the self-consciousness we now possess. Their human condition was fundamentally different to our own.

The durations over which linguistic capability and self-consciousness evolved are difficult to identify, but by the time at which Australopithecus existed, circa 3.2 million years ago, bipedal capability had developed. 2.5 million years ago, hominids began using stone tools, and this defines the beginning of the paleolithic age. Humans persisted as hunter-gatherers until the agricultural revolution 10 to 12 thousand years ago, when the introduction of crops and livestock, and the establishment of more permanent settlements defined the transition to the neolithic age. The stone age was then succeeded by the bronze age several thousand years ago, which in turn was succeeded by the iron age a thousand years or so BC, the exact time varying in different parts of the world. The industrial revolution occurred several hundred years ago, and the electronic/information revolution has occurred in the last century.

Two crucial facts emerge from this outline of human history:

1) There is a linear narrative in the cultural evolution of humanity. After the agricultural revolution, humanity did not, some time later, revert to being hunters and gatherers; after the stone age was succeeded by the bronze age, bronze age humanity did not revert to stone age humanity; after the bronze age was succeeded by the iron age, iron age humanity did not revert to bronze age humanity; after the industrial revolution, humanity did not revert to a pre-industrialised state.

2) The rate of cultural evolution has been accelerating over human history.

The electronic/information revolution has now brought with it the possibility that humanity will be able to bootstrap itself outside evolution by natural selection. Cybernetics will permit humanity to change its biological nature, and then to ultimately replace its biological substrate with an electronic substrate. In doing so, the human condition will not only change, but become subject to human control. This transition perhaps defines the end of the human narrative.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

While it's true that none of these ages reverted to former modes of life in the ways you say they didn't, which of them, I wonder, accurately predicted what would come next?

The death of humanity courtesy of cybernetic erosion of our organic base, is indeed one possiblilty, as we turn ourselves into robots of some kind. Yet this raises the question of what this 'humanity' is that would be lost. It is as if we presuppose in the assumption of humanity's demise that there is something to us that a machine could only undermine or deny by taking us over according to its nature. Yet what is this?

Is this consciousness? And if so, may not a transformation of consciousness, in terms of its expansion and transfiguration, instead of a mere acceleration of the electronic/information impetus in the direction of cybernetics, be our next revolutionary step?

This may yet spell the end of humanity, but not in the same sense; rather instead only of humanity as we have known it - a narrow visioned and oppositional humanity, hidebound and fraught by its limited perspectives.

'Spiritual' as this may sound, and indeed be, this would not presuppose a retreat to some romantic, pre-electronic or pre-industrial state; but would hopefully guarantee that this consciousness in us that makes us human in ways machines cannot be, will survive and remain the master and not the servant of our technology-, a technology that would remain our servant, as it was originally intended to be.

Or is that too optimistic?