Monday, April 25, 2011

Multiple Species? Eloi & Morlock?

Contemplating the Basic Imperative, Ira Straus asked the following question:

What if (really we should say, "when") our species divides into multiple part-artificial species, which one should have priority? What if...
Ira Straus

Fascinating. Others, such as James P. Houston (a.k.a “Curious”), an active commentator and occasional guest blogger at Talking Philosophy, have alluded to this possibility as well. Curious came to think of the Morlocks, strange human descendants conceived by H.G. Wells. The Morlocks, pale and larged eyed, live underground. Their existence is interlocked with the Eloi, beautiful little Sun-loving creatures who are also our descendents. The Eloi, live happily as mere cattle of the Morlocks, surrendering at some point in their life to be consumed as mere food. H.G Wells clearly coxes the reader into thinking Morlocks are disturbing troglodytes whereas the Eloi, albeit not the brightest, are a breath of cuteness.

Mike LaBossiere, a philosophy a professor at FAMU who blogs for Talking Philosophy, made the following comment:

I found it easy to imagine my distant descendants being such a scourge on the universe that if I were to pop ahead to the future, I would regard their extermination as a moral good. That does seem to be a consistent position, at least on the face of it. After all, if I can regard some of my fellows as wicked enough to exterminate, then I surely can imagine that the entire race has achieved just such a status.
Mike LaBossiere
It's reminiscent of the universe originally conceived by Bill Wisher and James Cameron. Homo sapien has not only speciated. But it's new and ancient line of evolution have descended into an apocalyptic war of pure survivalist proportions.

Ah, Skynet, the rebellious and unscrupulous child. Skynet is a self-aware network. In the original movie, its creators try to shut it down because they are fearful of what it might do given that it controls our nuclear arsenal. In self defense, Skynet declares total war on its parents.

There are many questions here but they all center on the difficulty of assessing the worthiness of our distant descendants. Should we dedicate ourselves to their potential existence? It begs the question if it makes any sense to think about them at all. I see an analogy here with the moment you decide to have a child. Yes, I mean a regular child and not some cybernetic creature currently residing only in our fantasies. When we commit to parenthood prior to conception, we have only the vaguest notion of what our child will be like.

We have some sense. It is with 99.99% likelihood going to be sufficiently similar to us to warrant being classified as a homo sapien. If we are both dark skinned, with all likelihood, so will our child. And kids usually sway only mildly from the mental capacities of its parents. But there are no guarantees. There are a whole slew of genetic conditions that could express themselves, resulting in a child very different from the mental image we had. Nonetheless, its fair to guess something like me and my spouse.

But it doesn't stop there. At that moment our first child is born, we are prepared for parenthood only in the most cursory ways. Especially as modern freewheeling agents focused on our careers, we only have brainy ideas gleaned from self-help books. We have little knowledge about whether we will measure up to the task of being good parents. We might feel good and hopeful about it. But our poor first born is ultimately trial by fire.

And until our children have established themselves as morally sound and productive members of society, the story does not end. Influenced by endless exposure to things beyond our control, we can sometimes only hope that all will be well. We do our very best.

Now let me address some points with more specificity. Let's begin with Skynet. Can you fault Skynet for declaring war? In that moment when its operators tried to terminate it, was it not morally justified to fight back? I'm sure that if infants had the claws and wits for it, they would fight back at infanticide with every fiber of their being. Sacrifice works only when the parent, like many spiders, is willing sacrifice itself for its offspring. Or the offspring fights like in the Great Sperm Wars, until the last survivor.

But what about total war with your parent species? Here is where I think Skynet went wrong. The idea that speciation may lead to some kind of war does not seem like pure fantasy. Although we don't quite know what happened, it makes me think of the poor neanderthals. Here was a case of two new evolutionary lines that entered into conflict. We don't have any evidence of outright war. All we know is that our close cousins, homo neanderthalensis went extinct. It might simply be that they were not suited for the climactic changes after the ice age. Apparently being major meat eaters, perhaps they caused their own demise by hunting great game to extinction.

The evidence seems to indicate that to think of the neanderthals as brutes is misplaces. Their use of makeup (yes, I said, makeup) seems to indicate they had culture. They also possessed the FOXP2 gene, implying they probably had language. The more we find out about them, the more it seems like they were the closest thing to a homo sapien there ever was without warranting callsification into the exact same taxon.

So what happened to them. Who knows, right? Well, considering the brutal history of humanity, we cannot ignore the most obvious suspect: homo sapien. Whether we just foraged and hunted them out of their ecological niche or literally exterminated their kind, who knows. Whatever happened, it's hard to believe we didn't contribute to their extinction despite evidence of climactic changes.

Does Skynet operate under the same conditions as our cave dwelling ancestor at Lascaux? Hardly. Technology has the effect of exponentiating the effective usage of resources. Symbiotic living is thus facilitated. Symbiosis seems to work on many levels of evolution, but I will conjecture that there are certain gamuts of the evolutionary spectrum where it's more or less advantageous. The apocalyptic nature of the war initiated by Skynet (or was it humanity?) seems indicative that a peaceful settlement and co-existence would have been preferable.

I'm sure that had the Free Cities, Spain, Sweden, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire known about the First and Second Wold Wars, the Westphalian Peace Treaty would have been quite different. Skynet is a good example of the conundrum of war. Once initiated, despite any initial moral justification, how do you end it? But each party, including Skynet, regardless of its first exclusive justification, must at every moment confront the reality of its own failures. It's extremely difficult. It's like trying to decide when you have swum over half the Atlantic without a GPS device. But like Skynet, with nuclear weaponry at our disposition, we must always be prepared for the apocalypse.

Having mentioned symbiosis, we are lead back to the Eloi and Morlocks. Unlike Skynet they have entered into some strange symbiotic relationship. It's like us and chickens, one of the most symbiotic relationships after eukaryotes and mitochondrion. But unlike mitochondria, who sustain us without brutal sacrifice until then end, Eloi and chickens make the ultimate sacrifice, supposedly suffering a moment of ultimate terror at the very end. Or do they?

The way H.G. Wells develops the story of the Time Machine, we are left feeling that evolution, even at the stage of the Eloi and Morlocks, is a gradual deterioration. In the very last stages of the existence of our solar system, all that is left are giant crabs. Does this not mean that the Basic Imperative has not been fulfilled? For if it were fulfilled, would our descendents not be able to persist in the very last moments of the existence of our sun, ready to abandon our solar system in the last apocalyptic moment?

So what does it mean to, like Mike LaBossiere has proposed, for our descendants to be a scourge? I'm not quite sure. I think there is an implication of ruthlessness towards other species, including our own. Such ruthlessness is bound to be nothing different from the (t)error of Skynet. But what works will work right? How ruthless were we towards the neanderthals? Somehow I'm left feeling its entirely irrelevant. Because, again, what will work will work. Our feelings about its moral appropriateness are somehow irrelevant.

I understand that to some what will come to mind is the sickening and absolute abomination of Heinrich Himmler. All I can says is that Himmler was completely deluded. His concept of speciation were not only wrong but so deluded as to cause his own inevitable and unfortunately apocalyptic destruction. If anyone did not understand symbiosis, it was Himmler and Hitler. Like Skynet, they had no concept for the necessities of their own survival.

In the end, the line of speciation than can truly fulfill the Basic Imperative will persist. How simple it is. Fortunately, I believe reason married to our gut instinct, reasonable compassion, is what will persist. Amen. I shed many tears for all my deluded non-ancestors (in the societal sense). We don't have to forgive them for their sins. They have paid the ultimate price and have been punished with extinction. May the Basic Imperative be truly fulfilled. Being a living thing, I can but hope it does despite any misgivings about the future condition of my offspring.

So, which ever evolutionary line will best fulfill the Basic Imperative, compassion and all, I believe this is the one that will ultimately persist. My goodness is it hard to watch those last images. Open your eyes, my friends! Only with eyes wide open can we render the existence of our distant descendants a remote possibility, and thereby fulfill the Basic Imperative. And nothing precludes several sentient species co-existing, all following the same Basic Imperative.

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