Living in the Giant
If you ask one of my neurons, or a myocyte taken from my arm, it won’t tell you its name is Eric. Similarly, if you ask me what my name is, I won’t say the United States of America. Common sense tell us that the cells that make up our body are all part of a larger whole that makes up a unique and self-aware entity. In my case, it’s Eric Leuthardt. It goes against everyday intuition, however, to think of a nation as a sentient organism that is conscious. A hive consciousness usually harkens to far-out notions like “the Borg,” which as we all know, nothing kills conversation like a reference to Star Trek.
So putting space fantasy aside for a moment, the actual notion is likely more real than our human egos are likely to accept. I was recently reading an article by the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel. http://edge.org/conversation/infinite-stupidity-edge-conversation-with-mark-pagel. He argues that ideas are essentially the new DNA of the human species. For the last 1.5 billion years the combination of nucleotides (a biologic pattern) which is encoded in DNA (a biologic carrier) has been the cellular software that has shaped the physical development of biological organisms. Over the past two hundred thousand years, however, he posits that ideas (a biologic pattern) carried by human brains (a biologic carrier) are the new information bearing medium that has played the dominant role in our evolutionary development. While I think he is right that ideas held in human brains are the new form of biologic information that shapes development, he misses the mark in its importance. Ideas are not only the “DNA” that are shaping our human development, they are the DNA that underpins a whole new form of life– a “social macro-organism,” or more simply, the Giant.
It’s probably a bit of our own hubris to think that the evolutionary process stopped aggregating living components when it came to us. Ongoing biologic development has favored compiling biologic structures. It started with the formation of amino acids, which eventually became combined into proteins. Proteins then became embedded within plasma membranes to form the first single celled organisms. These differentiated and eventually formed molds, slimes, and early plants. Complex cellular structures eventually became mobile and more differentiated. Creatures were no longer clusters of cells, but had specialized substructures (different tissues, organs, appendages, etc) that did various things to give them some selective advantage to survive – legs to run, gills to breathe, teeth and claws to hunt. Eventually after a lot of trial and error, humans and their idea-carrying brains came on to the scene. My question here is why would nature stop aggregating life forms for higher levels of specialization and survival benefit?
Our government has already tacitly acknowledged that certain groups (i.e. corporations) can be treated as “people” in the eyes of the law. Namely, a corporation (a group of humans) has a legal personhood with rights equal and equivalent to single human. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations. Wikipedia is quick to note, however “that corporations are not living entities in the way that humans are.” Really? Why not? It’s a cluster of organisms (humans) that consumes resources, is built to grow, and has behavior that is distinct from any of its components with regards to self preservation. That is the same description of any multicellular organism – humans included. One could counter that a corporate entity (i.e. company, nation, or social movement), is not self-aware like a human. There is an absence of sentience like a living breathing creature (no matter how primitive). Returning to the individual homo sapien– is any one of the cells that make up my body “aware” of my thoughts, my feelings, and my intentions? No - just as any one cell or any one part of a body is not equipped to understand my higher order consciousness, so to we as individual humans may not be able to appreciate the sentience of a larger social organism. Who is to say self-awareness hasn’t already happened on the large scale, but we don’t have the capacity to understand or communicate on that level.
The perspective is a little disconcerting because it demotes one’s self-perceived importance in the world. I am in relationship and in someway bound by the giant I live in. Using a medical example to underline this point. I typically take care of myself and try to avoid any physically self-destructive behaviors – smoking, drug abuse, car surfing, juggling sharp objects, etc. That said, if a part of my body threatens my health, such as an appendicitis, or a cancerous growth – I’ll remove it – regardless if it’s a part of me. If the whole is threatened, the part has to go. Corporations and countries certainly act the same way when it comes to people for the purposes of self-preservation. Despite being a citizen, if one of those citizens endangers the greater health of a nation; that individual (or group of individuals) are removed. The US didn’t hesitate to kill Anwar al-Awlaki and another America-born militant with a drone – he was a threat. The point here is that we are not only in relationship with each other, we are in relationship with a larger being that we don’t fully understand and can not communicate with.
Taken together, the Giant may, and often does, have it’s own priorities. Moreover, just as history has shown, the evolution of the nervous systems leads to more complex and sophisticated means for the transit and processing of information. Just as our neurons became more numerous and myelinated with more complex connections, the Giant’s integration of information has been exponentially increasing with the printing press, telephones, and the internet (see Blog: Why is the World Changing So Fast?). Thus, the Giant is also getting smarter and more nimble. So in returning to the early Star Trek reference of the Borg, will we ever become part of a collective consciousness that can think and acts on its own? Well, in truth, I think we have already been assimilated.