Human nature is a very ambiguous term and one that I have disliked for quite some time. Because it is so ambiguous people consistently assign it whatever attributes they see fit to further their own agendas. If a person wants to inspire hope and faith in humanity, he or she will claim that it is in a human’s basic nature to be kind and compassionate. If a person is looking to condemn humanity then he or she will claim that people are naturally hateful and opportunistic. But each of these standpoints is pre-engineered to lead to their own biased worldview. I, on the other hand, will try to establish an understanding of human nature starting from the more scientific standpoint of viewing the human being as an animal ruled by the same basic evolutionary principals as all other animals; and from this understanding of human nature, to establish its relationship with technology as an extension of that nature.
Discussing the degraded distinction between human and animal, Haraway writes,
“By the late twentieth century in the
There is no longer any scientific basis on which to found an argument for humanity as somehow innately superior to the rest of the animal kingdom, except as an ecologically dominant species. Haraway refers to several of the traditional distinctions that humans have cited between us and other animals. The first is language, the fundamentals of which have been observed in a multitude of animals. Creatures as simple as bees give each other directions by means of a visual language that even we have not yet deciphered. Chimps and gorillas have learned sign language and even taught it to their young, proving that they have the basic cognitive capacity for language. And one of the multitudes of things I have learned from Carl Sagan is that whales have developed an extremely complex aural language with which they hold extended conversations that can be drawn out, in bits and pieces, over a span of years. The second traditional distinction is tool use. It is well known that chimps use simple tools on a regular basis. It has also recently been discovered that not only have they been using these tools longer than humans have, and thus did not learn to use them from us, but also they are developing new tools. The National Geographic reported in February 2007 a recent discovery by an expedition in
I have belabored this point, tearing down previously conceived distinctions between human and animal, to emphasize that none of these ideals of humanity are exclusive to humanity. More importantly, humans arrived at these traits in the same way that all other animals have, by finding that within an environment and a population these traits were advantageous for the survival of the individual and the group. Interestingly though, all of these traits - language, tool use, social behaviour, etc. – are distinct from the physical adaptations that are usually associated with evolution. Rather than developing some new physiological trait these animals, like humans, have developed technology. All of these adaptations are developed by individuals or groups in order to better themselves. Evolution dictates that an individual, and therefore a population, will progress via the path of least resistance; and each new technology creates a new path of least resistance. Technological progress is an extension of the evolutionary process and therefore an extension of human nature, which is itself no different than the nature of any other animal.
There are people who see a threat in this concept. People like Bill Joy look at the concept of technology-as-evolution and see the possibility for speciation. Speciation is the emergence of an entirely new species via evolution. This occurs when two populations have become so genetically distinct as to no longer be able to reproduce and create viable offspring. The technological equivalent would be the creation of an intelligent, autonomous robot. “And once an intelligent robot exists, it is only a small step to a robot species - to an intelligent robot that can make evolved copies of itself.” (Joy) Joy is afraid that once this new species exists it will replace humanity and retain no traces of our human nature. “It seems to me far more likely that a robotic existence would not be like a human one in any sense that we understand, that the robots would in no sense be our children, that on this path our humanity may well be lost.” (Joy) But what Joy does not take into account is that since technology is an extension of human nature it is inextricable from that nature. All technology is created to facilitate some drive that is already present in human nature. Newer and better farm equipment and technologies make it easier for individuals and populations to eat. Social and cultural mores concerning courtship and sex allow people to choose their mates according to certain desirable traits. Even something that seems as frivolous as an iPod is an attempt to fulfill the desire for contentment, which is undoubtedly an innate quality of human nature. Technology is created for and imbued with purpose, and that purpose is always to further a need or desire which is already present in human nature. This is true now, and it will continue to be true when the technologies in question become intelligent. No company will create a legion of intelligent autonomous robots simply to take up space. They will be created to fulfill some purpose, to aid in the fulfillment of some aspect of human nature and as such will be inextricably tied to humanity for its purpose, for its very existence.
Joy pulls a quote from George Dyson in which he says, "In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines." (Joy) Dyson is very close to the truth. He sees that technology is the natural progression of human evolution. However, where both he and Joy go wrong is in assuming that there are sides to be chosen.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
“The Persistence of Memory.” Cosmos. Narr. Carl Sagan. PBS, 1980.
Roach, John. "Chimps Use "Spears" to Hunt Mammals, Study Says." National Geographic News 22 Feb 2007 14 Oct 2008
Joy, Bill. "Why the future doesn't need us." Wired 8.04Apr 2000 14 Oct 2008