The Posthuman as Evolution 3.0

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Knowing that you know that I know that you know, we should perhaps, you know, spark a doob and like, call the whole thing off.


So for years now I’ve had this pet way of understanding evolution in terms of effect feedback (EF) mechanisms, structures whose functions produce effects that alter the original structure. Morphological effect feedback mechanisms started the show: DNA and reproductive mutation (and other mechanisms) allowed adaptive, informatic reorganization according to the environmental effectiveness of various morphological outputs. Life’s great invention, as they say, was death.

This original EF process was slow, and adaptive reorganization was transgenerational. At a certain point, however, morphological outputs became sophisticated enough to enable a secondary, intragenerational EF process, what might be called behavioural effect feedback. At this level, the central nervous system, rather than DNA, was the site of adaptive reorganization, producing behavioural outputs that are selected or extinguished according to their effectiveness in situ.

For whatever reason, I decided to plug the notion of the posthuman into this framework the other day. The idea was that the evolution from Morphological EF to Behavioural EF follows a predictable course, one that, given the proper analysis, could possibly tell us what to expect from the posthuman. The question I had in my head when I began this was whether we were groping our way to some entirely new EF platform, something that could effect adaptive, informatic reorganization beyond morphology and behaviour.

First, consider some of the key differences between the processes:

Morphological EF is transgenerational, whereas Behavioural EF is circumstantial – as I mentioned above. Adaptive informatic reorganization is therefore periodic and inflexible in the former case, and relatively continuous and flexible in the latter. In other words, morphology is circumstantially static, while behaviour is circumstantially plastic.

Morphological EF operates as a fundamental physiological generative (in the case of the brain) and performative (in the case of the body) constraint on Behavioural EF. Our brains limit the behaviours we can conceive, and our bodies limit the behaviours we can perform.

Morphologies and their generators (genetic codes) are functionally inseparable, while behaviours and their generators (brains) are functionally separable. Behaviours are disposable.

Defined in these terms, the posthuman is simply the point where neural adaptive reorganization generates behaviours (in this case, tool-making) such that morphological EF ceases to be a periodic and inflexible physiological generative and performative constraint on behavioural EF. Put differently, the posthuman is the point where morphology becomes circumstantially plastic. You could say tools, which allow us to circumvent morphological constraints on behaviour, have already accomplished this. Spades make for deeper ditches. Writing makes for bottomless memories. But tool-use is clearly a transitional step, ways to accessorize a morphology that itself remains circumstantially static. The posthuman is the point where we put our body on the lathe (with the rest of our tools).

In a strange, teleonomic sense, you could say that the process is one of effect feedback bootstrapping, where behaviour revolutionizes morphology, which revolutionizes behaviour, which revolutionizes morphology, and so on. We are not so much witnessing the collapse of morphology into behaviour as the acceleration of the circuit between the two approaching some kind of asymptotic limit that we cannot imagine. What happens when the mouth of behaviour after digesting the tail and spine of morphology, finally consumes the head?

What’s at stake, in other words, is nothing other than the fundamental EF structure of life itself. It makes my head spin, trying to fathom what might arise in its place.

Some more crazy thoughts falling out of this:

1) The posthuman is clearly an evolutionary event. We just need to switch to the register of information to see this. We’re accustomed to being told that dramatic evolutionary changes outrun our human frame of reference, which is just another way of saying that we generally think of evolution as something that doesn’t touch us. This was why, I think, I’ve been thinking the posthuman by analogy to the Enlightenment, which is to say, as primarily a cultural event distinguished by a certain breakdown in material constraints. No longer. Now I see it as an evolutionary event literally on par with the development of Morphological and Behavioural EF. As perhaps I should have all along, given that posthuman enthusiasts like Kurzweil go on and on about the death of death, which is to say, the obsolescence of a fundamental evolutionary invention.

2) The posthuman is not a human event. We may be the thin edge of the wedge, but every great transformation in evolution drags the whole biosphere in tow. The posthuman is arguably more profound than the development of multicellular life.

3) The posthuman, therefore, need not directly involve us. AI could be the primary vehicle.

4) Calling our descendents ‘transhuman’ makes even less sense than calling birds ‘transdinosaurs.’

5) It reveals posthuman optimism for the wishful thinking it is. If this transformation doesn’t warrant existential alarm, what on earth does?