THE LIMITS OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
By Roland Watson
In the last series, I gave a basic description of evolution. This therefore brings us to the question: Whither humanity? Are we evolving? Will we evolve?
I intend to consider this in a number of ways. First, I will take a broad look at the current status of human development. Secondly, I will examine the evolution of human society, by reviewing in detail the linkages that exist between individual development and social change. And finally, I will evaluate the overall prospects for human evolution - the different directions that we might take, including the factors that would have a bearing on this.
In the University of Life, I have reviewed the history of homo sapiens. And, what we have seen is that in many ways, at least in the context of our traditional behavior, we are evolutionarily mature. However, we also know that the human society of the last few centuries has experienced great change, and lost its equilibrium, and that such conditions are the seedbed of new evolution, which further can occur relatively rapidly. To what extent are we at the end, or the limits, of the human experience, and to what extent are we broaching these limits to create a new experience, and perhaps even a new species?
I have also said that we must evolve, and through this we are among the few cases, perhaps even the only one, of a species that by changing its own environment has forced itself to do so. I would also add that we are singular in the sense that we seem to be the only species that pre-meditatively, through its self-consciousness, is seeking to shape and create its own evolution. Indeed, we may become the first species to evolve not through instinct, the primary directive to compete, but rather via a self-consciously taken decision to cooperate.
The end of creativity?
The evidence of our being at the limits of our experience is manifold. While you, personally, may not have tried everything, there is little left which someone has not done; or thought; or made; or bought; or smelled, tasted, heard, felt and seen.
There are a number of ways to categorize our experience, including as it is done by our memory - which I discussed in the Learning in the Brain series in Part 2; by forms of creative expression; and also by the development of our social institutions and their respective cycles of behavior.
For the second, I would say that there is little, truly new, creative expression. More people are creative, but not to the extent that they are making things which are completely original. While we are seeing some new artistic representations, these do not represent original forms or even styles, but rather new combinations of previously isolated forms and styles, which have now come into contact with each other and which are, to a degree, merging. Indeed, through the associated process of cultural destruction, many traditional forms of artistic expression are actually being lost. In summary, there is little real originality, truly new developments, in the fields of fashion, design, art, architecture, music, literature, cinema and drama. For the most part, we have heard or seen it all before.
An interesting question here is: do we have a lack of originality because everything possible has been tried, or because the system that seeks to control us is opposed to such originality? While the second situation certainly exists - artists also suffer because of the punishment meted out for nonconformity - I believe the basic reason is the former.
It is further notable that, excluding for the moment the computer, and science in general, there are no new languages, or alphabets, and few new, non-technical words. Rather, what we have seen is that many languages, and the unique means of personal expression that they represented, have passed out of usage, and are dead.
Viewing creative expression more widely, we can also see that there are no new sports, or games - again, excluding from consideration for the moment computer games, and also, for the former, that there are few new records in our existing sports.
Improvements in training and the use of performance-enhancing drugs have seen some records fall, but in general we are approaching the physical limit of what the human body can do - and also, of how long it can stay alive.
We have further reached the end of the age of exploration. All places, including in our local area of space, have been visited, and many times. The opportunity to pursue this form of venturing into the unknown has largely passed. However, I would add that the ability to pursue adventure remains undiminished. The experience of a great adventure, such as climbing a Himalayan peak, is not degraded simply because other people might have done it before you. Your own experience, actually any experience, is singular: a personal exploration.
New discoveries in science?
Science is also a form of creative expression, as a means to new knowledge, but it too is in many ways mature. First, we now recognize that our initial view of science, as a whole, was incorrect. It cannot provide total control, to eliminate the uncertainty in our lives; it cannot provide answers to, and therefore illuminate, all of our unknowns; and it is not necessarily, certainly on its own - with the backing of corporations, the route to real social progress.
In addition, we are approaching the limits of basic scientific exploration, in part because many of our efforts so far are quite possibly right. Relativity theory, quantum mechanics and chaos mathematics work. They accurately describe physical phenomena - or the probabilities of physical phenomena. Also, we now understand many of the mechanics of life, both physical and behavioral, starting with the design and components of DNA.
This does not mean that there are no unanswered questions left. There are many such questions, a few of which I presented in the Universe series in Part 2. However, it is also the case that of these questions, few of them probably are answerable, at least by humans.
Where we are still seeing growth, where we are not yet mature, is in the commercial application of science: in technology, most obviously with computers and communications, and medicine and genetics. These presumably will see many more developments - but hopefully not developments that lead to a greatly increased life span, at least not until we learn to regulate our population.
Nonetheless, even here many technologies are mature. From cars to planes and stereos to refrigerators, many such products are so well-developed that - one - further enhancements will be marginal and for the most part only in peripheral features, and - two - their use is so widespread - at least in modern society - that they are effectively commodities.
By field, probably the greatest potential for growth, both in basic knowledge and technological application, is in genetics and biochemistry. In theory, this encompasses understanding the physical and behavioral evolution of every species; the roles of every gene in every species - including the genes that are responsible for the genes themselves, and also all of the proteins that the genes encode; as well as the alteration and splicing of these genes to manipulate the species. But, regarding species genomes, while we may learn the primary effects of this or that gene, we will likely never be certain of all of the effects of any one gene, nor of the complete sets of genetic combinations which are responsible for complex systems and organs, starting with the brain. With so many genes, there are too many possible combinations. Such combinations cannot be empirically tested, hence their effects cannot be fully known. Also, the question has been asked: is there such a thing as a genetic "metalanguage"; a higher level of genetic organization of which we are presently unaware?
In computers, the trend towards smaller and faster will continue, perhaps incorporating organic or even atomic-sized components at some point - and also with the potential, via such nanotechnology, for self-replication. I believe, though, that a useful quantum computer is still a long ways off, simply because there are so many barriers to harnessing the technology.
With communications, we will see more technical languages - "physics" and "genetics" are also languages, and ever more realistic "artificial" intelligence: advanced algorithms, coupled with applications in robotics and production processes, and in increasingly complex, and real, virtual realities and games. In addition, the Internet will continue to spread and develop in new and unexpected ways.
For physics, many unknowns remain. For instance, what is mass? And here, I don't mean how it is created, such as by the Higgs boson, but at a deeper level, what it actually is. For that matter, what is time? Is space continuous? And, what is the universe's total energy and charge? In addition, the basic quest to link the mechanics of the very large to those of the very small is still unsatisfied - provided one retains some skepticism about "string theory."
Also, while quantum mechanics accurately describes the probabilities of the behavior of sub-atomic particles, it precludes us from predicting the actual behavior of any one particle. And finally, there is the formidable task of incorporating what we have learned about the physical world, into our knowledge of the behavior of life.
One other, practical barrier also exists. The quest for a greater grasp of the nature of reality is reaching technological and financial limits. To peer deeper into the structure of matter and energy, and the universe, requires equipment larger than we can make and more expensive than we can afford. Therefore, while there is little doubt that new theories will be advanced, and that some of these will pass the rigor of mathematical proof, it is also the case that for many of them it will be impossible to demonstrate, experimentally, that they are indeed correct. As Einstein commented, we are constrained to speculate on the inner workings of a timepiece, the case of which we can never open.
In tandem with reaching such basic limits of science, we are also approaching the limits of philosophical speculation. This is tied to the maturity, and also the limitations, of our language. While some new ideas no doubt await us, from such things as continued advances in science, logic and meditation, in general we are aware, to the extent that we can be, of our existential state.
The end of social evolution?
Regarding the maturity of our social institutions, as we have seen, the family appears to be in the final stages of exploring all of its possible forms and combinations, and so it is with educational institutions as well. Religion also is mature, both in the decline in superstitious belief and the reduced desire of religious faiths to seek the conversion of non-believers. Their emphasis now is on maintaining their current populations of followers. National government, too, is mature, and its role is diminishing. And conflict, at least between nations, is dying out. (It is alive and well, though, within nations: between cultures, and also at the inter- and intra-personal levels.) Even economic systems, and their participants, financial, corporate and media institutions, evidence some maturity, as through what is called market efficiency, although future developments can be expected based on new applications of science, in other words, technology.
In summary, social institutions in general - and society as a whole, appears to be mature and even inexorably in decline. However, as my parenthetical point about conflict suggests, perhaps it is advisable not to overstate this trend. Viewed from another perspective, society is not evidencing any change at all. It is still plagued with unrest. Indeed, this again raises the question of why, with all the technology we have been able to develop, and all the progress it purportedly has enabled, we are unable to eliminate such conflict, or even to reduce its scale. At this point, we can see that this derives from the competition that, seemingly, is an inescapable part of our environment. The real evolutionary question for humanity is: can we escape from this?
In the next article, I will explore social evolution.
© Roland Watson 2015