What does it mean to be human? Where is technology taking the evolution of the human race? A.A. Attansio ponders these questions here and in his short story “River of Stars, Bridge of Shadows”available [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]
by A.A. Attansiao
Are we really human beings—or human apes? Clearly, most people exhibit the self-reflective and innovative awareness of human beings. Yet, as a species, our violent history of endless wars and our social hierarchies structured by the power and privilege of dominant individuals, xenophobia, and nearly ubiquitous misogyny have more in common with apes than rational sapiens.
All that is about to change—if our simian behavior doesn’t destroy us first. Advances in genomics, computer science, and nanotechnology assure a tremendous transfiguration of human identity.
It has already begun: The gene-editing tool CRISPR can now control insect vectors of viral diseases, with important benefits in medicine and agriculture. Somatosensory virtual reality has opened opportunities beyond entertainment, for enhanced education as well as emotional processing therapy. And nanoparticles are currently being deployed to commandeer cancer cells.
But where is this going? What are we becoming? The answer is far more surprising than you might guess. Yes, we are becoming less like apes—and more like the story that narrates us.
Our human story is not told by us. Homo sapiens is, in fact, a tale authored by non-human powers ancient beyond reckoning. Unfathomed and anarchic to reason, our narrators root in the deep time that is fermenting in our gut. These three-billion-year-old storytellers are the bacteria manufacturing hundreds of neurochemicals among the enteric folds of our intestines. 95% of our serotonin is made there. And these chemical signals composed by gut bacteria profoundly influence our brains and, consequently, our thoughts and feelings.
How dare we imagine these gut bacteria as storytellers? Because they produce the ecodelics that shape our subjective experience. The contour of our minds— everything from intellectual skills and creative inspiration to moods and qualia—originate with them. They decide if we are energetic entrepreneurs or dysfunctional depressives. The story of our lives begins in the rhizoid animacy of our gastrointestinal tract.
Because the dreaming of our bacterial hosts is so awake in us, the coming amplification of our cognitive powers will not be a computational augmentation. Fusing genomics and nanotech in the decades ahead will not make us cyborgs. Instead, we will transmute ever more faithfully into the language that has been expressing us from our homininbeginnings—namely, the ecopoetics of the planet’s biome. So far, we’re just a short story, compared to the episodic novels of the dinosaurs or the saga of the prokaryotes in the primordial ocean. But soon, a new episode begins for us.
The sentient robots of the future will not be mechanical. We aren’t going to assemble the digital components of artificial general intelligence. Those constructions of cybernetic parts will only ever be smart devices. True sentience will be grown.
Through artificial abiogenesis, we will generate organic architectures with varying degrees of mindfulness. Our dwellings will possess bodily self-awareness such that the needs of the occupants are met spontaneously. These biotectures will provide the most delicious foods we’ve yet to imagine. Reading our metabolic wastes, our homes can then monitor our health and supply not only precisely suited nutrients but also medicines.
Fusing genomics and nanotech in the decades ahead will not make us cyborgs. Instead, we will transmute ever more faithfully into the language that has been expressing us from our homininbeginnings—namely, the ecopoetics of the planet’s biome
New kinds of pets organized with social self-awareness will prove the most engaging and reliable of emotional companions. Their physical needs shall find satisfaction from our biotectured abodes. Maintenance free, the many varieties of these sociobots can be purposed to handle with joy every manner of daily activity from games to chores.
Those organic creations with introspective self-awareness will prove even more rewarding, though a bit trickier. They will understand feelings, know desires, and evolve beliefs. The bacterial narration of our anthropic legacy at this point enters a new kind of telling.
In my short story, “River of Stars, Bridge of Shadows,” each of the three variations of synthetic self-awareness make an appearance. Glimpsing a biotectured planet, the protagonist—a sapiens very much like us—gets to compare an anthrorhizal (human rooted) arboreal world with the agricultural community of her origin. She had just come from working the land for food and then briefly encounters a forest of somatic self-awareness that works on humans for the mutualistic fulfillment of planetary bionomics.
Later, she encounters a zoological bot—a zobot. Endowed with nimble social self-awareness, this construct of nanosized biological units shapeshifts. It de-represses life’s phylogenetic memories to answer the situational demands of the moment and can become any creature its companion requires.
Most strange of all, introspective self-awareness appears as an artificial human unrecognizable as a somebody. Neither a he nor she, certainly not an it, they have been designed through germline engineering to perceive the quantum mechanical regime. They can read the wave function, the set of probability amplitudes for quantum states, the basis of all appearances. This manufactured person embodies the paraphenomenal awareness traditionally associated with seers. For their ability to follow the entrainment of probabilities and influence outcomes, they are known in my tale as an omen-coder.
Mine is a fiction that attempts to extrapolate what the storytellers in our gut intend. They began their narration in darkness. Billions of years ago as archaea, when our planet’s thermal vents saturated the atmosphere with volcanic gases and melted the ice sheets encasing the globe, they found their way to the light. The unborn dream of solar fire turned their story green. Until then, dawns and sunsets and the wheeling stars had occurred for no one.
Then, a dark twist in their story transpired. 1.5 billion years ago, the fateful encounter of prokaryotes and mitochondria initiated the secret life of the nucleus. We eventually emerged from that extraordinary coupling. Our story is theirs. Over billions of years, consciousness has journeyed out of darkness into the light and then back into the dark of our cranial lives. Gut bacteria organize the chaotic determinism of our minds. We think we author our own thoughts when, in truth, we are the psychoenergetic product of our earliest ancestors. Within the lightless depths of our entrails, they are inventing “I am” and the real and enduring promise of human being.