Monday, December 11, 2006

The Taxonomic Subject

This entry attempts to reconcile ape taxonomy with evolution theory, in order that a more fitting classification can be attached to one Mr. Todd Huffman, a voluntary cosmetic cyborg who implanted magnets into his fingertips, enhancing his natural sensory interface.

Huffman is an example of an individual who has chosen to enhance his body in order that his environmental needs are met. He has in a sense self-mutated his phenotype, undermining the necessarily slow process that is natural selection.

In him, we see that traditional taxonomies need to make room for a new class of Homo sapiens: the transhuman. Transhumanism can be considered a function of cultural evolution rapidly outpacing genetic evolution to the extent that our natural physicality no longer meets the needs of our environment. The meme pool is mutating at a rate far faster than the gene pool. Let us look at how:

Colin Groves states that “Although Homo (human) and Pan (chimpanzee) share a common ancestor subsequent to the separation of the ancestry Pongo (orangutan), it is obvious that far more morphological change occurred during human evolution, so that chimpanzees and orangutans seem to resemble each other more than chimpanzees resemble humans(Groves 2001: 6). Here the question is raised: how did we become so different from our ancestral cousins, the chimpanzee?

Both human and chimp are products of genetic evolution. This statement seems irrefutably true until one begins to consider the evolution that gave rise to the physical attributes we humans now possess: the extended frontal lobe. This allowed us to adapt to our surroundings in a more immediate way, whilst creating a social reality that allowed us to learn, communicate and copy. This was the start of cultural evolution.

The importance of the birth of this social world can be seen in this example: When Colossus of X-Men fame (genus Homo superior) was conceived, a particularly useful mutant gene arose in him that lets him turn into organic-steel in times his life might be at risk. His reproductive opportunities are increased by this mutation, furthering the likelihood of him passing on his genes to a wider populace. Other factors contribute to his attractiveness as a direct result of this mutation, but not as a function of it: his power made him a world-famous X-Man; his strength is enhanced to the point that he can beat enemies. Life-world knowledge of human sexuality, borne from cultural evolution, makes Colossus a highly prized mate to a woman: he is rich, famous and can protect you. It becomes clear that cultural attributions of attractiveness are as influential as genetic attributions.

Genetic mutations will persist if they offer a mutated subject an environmental advantage that will ensure the mutated genes will proliferate. Memes do the same, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one co-adapted memeplex attempts to altogether stop reproduction: contraceptives. Another seeks to nearly kill their host: extreme sports. Apes do not have these same conflicts. In this way memes are changing the way humans evolve.

Cultural evolution has overtaken genetic evolution as the shaper of things to come. The knowledge exists to now actually change our genes through scientific means. Homo sapiens are in control here. We can shape ourselves to suit our needs, nullifying the process of genetic evolution. We don't necessarily need good genes any more, because technology can repair alot of our problems.

For example, Cat Jones' Long QT Syndrome, a hereditary trait, need not afflict her life thanks to technology, but she will pass on the gene to future generations to deal with. This can be seen as a weakness of memetics taking over our evolutionary process.

Huffman’s implants represent a physiological fusion with the machine world as he can now sense electromagnetic fields around him. He chose this adaptation. Research is ongoing to simulate evolutionary processes in machines that also choose their own taxonomy. In Nolfi and Floreano’s ‘Evolutionary Robotics’ they discuss the problem of programming a robot to be evolvable: “For adaptation to occur, these systems must possess evolvability, i.e. the ability of random variations to sometimes produce improvement.” (2000: 17). In the human world, we have reached our potential for evolvability by our own unprogrammed means. We are like the evolutionary robots in their study, because we too “are free to select the way to solve a task by interacting with the environment” (2000: 18), another feature of the extended frontal lobe.

It is only 200,000 years since Homo sapiens arose; yet we are already seeking to adjust our genotype to more directly meet cultural needs. Marshall McLuhan would say that we seek to ‘extend’ our bodies into the world around us. We elaborate on his ideas in ‘the extended subject’.

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