Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Only Human

"Nothing that is Human is Alien to Me"
What does it mean to be human?  Defining 'human' and what constitutes humanity is a central theme of a great deal of literature. I've been digging through a variety of Buddhist, Theosophist, Rosicrucian and other manuscripts for a while now, and so for a slight change of pace I thought that I'd see what an atheist thought on this matter. If you plug in "Defining Human" into Google, you'll find a LOT of alternatives if you dislike the following quote:
"The present limits of our concept of humankind are not obvious and not universal. They have been attained as the product of a long, hard struggle in the Western world to find a way of understanding humanity which embraces communities formerly excluded by racism and ethnocentrism, while insisting on a clear distinction between humans and non-humans."
by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
No, that doesn't define human, but it states the problem we run into when we attempt to define humanity and the guy does it really well, or so I thought. It's a thorny issue, and one that is increasingly getting serious scrutiny as all sorts of legalities will be getting dragged into the mix as technology ramps up and we start seeing the benefits and after-shocks of the Human Genome Project and other, similar endeavors that are bringing us all sorts of ways to discriminate against people that our ancestors couldn't have even imagined possible.  But apart from the fairly low-level stuff like insurance companies rejecting or dropping people based upon their genetic pre-disposition to various health risks, just wait until we get such fun stuff as home-cloning kits.  We already are wrestling with the ethical, moral and legal ramifications of products derived from human tissues -- and the questions of who can patent/own such things and whether or not doing so is slavery, child abuse, or an abomination that must be stopped at all costs...or another aspect of progress (with a capital P), technological development that has transcended the boundaries of conventional human experience, and just the tip of the whole biological remodelling-renaissance awaiting us on the otherside of the Singularity. This is some serious stuff.  In fact the struggle to define humanity is at the very crux and heart of the emerging culture war between the semi-new religion of Science/Technology (the church of the singularity?) and the established/traditional faiths. Forget Conservatives versus Liberals; this fight will be much more interesting, and potentially far more lively, active and extreme. In fact the only thing that will likely get even more heated will be the debate over artificial intelligence and what Hugo de Garis calls Artilects, such as he details in his book The Artilect War.

So defining humanity going forwards will be just as messy as it always has been in the past, and it is extremely likely that the process is going to be a stressful, potentially militant/violent process that will have at least two major influences on the outcome rooted in technology and our response/reaction to them. Cool. Drama, conflict, tension and the swelter of ideas and beliefs that come from this will drive loads of good soap opera-esque fiction where people work out the various fears, fallacies and radical truths that come part and parcel with the new technology, just like how folks worked out the whole end-of-life issue. Oops. Guess we'll have to settle that one as well. What will happen if a person is brought back from death by way of some sort of AI-based personality recording--are they still the same person with all attendant rights, or something else, something lesser/other? Man oh man do we ever have a lot of stuff to sort out, and I haven't even mentioned the implications of nanotechnology or eugenics yet.

"What's the future of mankind?  How do I know?  I got left behind."
I Don't Know, Ozzy
Humans currently delude themselves into believing the Victorian foolishness that we somehow dominate the world, which is utter bullshit.  We impose our culturally-mandated will upon the world based upon our politics, religions, technologies and economies, but the world responds, reacts and often lashes back.  Consider the last few hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and out-of-control fires that have been in the news in the last few months.  Humans had to fight like heck just to survive, escape or get things back to some semblance of normality in some pretty harsh circumstances, and in some cases things still aren't back to normal and may well never be.  Like it or not, Nature can sometimes veto our grand designs.

When you look at things outside the blinders of the 'Humans Rule' creed, you'll notice that our cities are extremely susceptible to environmental backlashes like flooding, earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires and so on and so forth.  Nature Rules.  At least for now.  Just think of how something as small and insignificant as a virus can play havoc with modern society--remember H1N1 or Avian Flu?  Viruses kick our collective butts more often than we'd like to admit or even think about.  But I'm not a fan of viruses.  Bacteria are more interesting.  Bacteria outnumber and inhabit and consume all living things on this planet and they also have a greater range of biomes they can inhabit to boot.  Plus they are older than we are.  They will survive any nuclear war we care to extinctify ourselves with and they are already colonizing the solar system (probably).  They may even have a form of collective intelligence/sentience.  We don't know if bacterial colonies can think or not.  Those giant mats off the coast of South America might be dreaming of shining flying purple wolfhounds, but we'd never know it, unless we listened to Jon Anderson, of course.   But that does not make them superior to humans, unless you want to strictly measure population, diversity, longevity...oh...it does get kind of one-sided, doesn't it?   The notion of bacterial intelligence is intriguing to me and I expect it to rear its amorphous faceless head in Riskail shortly.  But how will such things interact with humanity?  How will they challenge/change our definitions of human?  Then there is the matter of mycelial networks...thinking 'shrooms.  But mushrooms are not just for hippies anymore.  Check this out:

As if thinking goo or talking toadstools wasn't bad enough.  And it wasn't.  Consider this; both bacteria and fungi can colonize and infect human hosts.  If they are capable of intelligence, the infection could either extend their networked sentience into human bodies which are then used as vehicles, or maybe, just maybe the infection can bring about a bridge-event where they become able to communicate with us via their infected/enslaved hosts/ambassadors.  Just imagine bacterial colonies with PR staff and voting rights.  The mind reels.  But then Clades are very similar to the bacterial colonies in many important respects, and maybe the bacterial consciousness(es) will make themselves known through the various clades.  Each clade being derived from a central template-profile, each member of the clade being directly related to all other members of the clade has a lot in common with a bacterial colony.  Maybe they'll be in cahoots with one another, or secretly opposed to each others' nefarious plans, or locked in a bitter struggle for dominance with the human genome as their battlefield.  Could be a cool movie in there, and maybe Shatner might make a cameo.

Humans are already colonized by bacteria.  We are their hosts and their vehicles, and making the leap of having intelligent bacteria driving a body instead of the native human software isn't that much of a leap at all.  They could be out there even now, amongst us, unsuspected and working their weird wills upon the world looking like one of us.

Maybe we need more etheogenists out there trying to open up lines of communication before the mycological empire decides to eliminate us with tailored toxins.  Thanks to Stamet, I've been really digging into the information available on mushrooms and it is mind-boggling to say the least.  In Riskail there are mycelial colony-towers, fungal cysts, deliberately maintained old growth forests, and a dozen different varieties of fungal-descended hominids, some of which are more than partially human.  Some humans are likewise not colonized so much as hybridized with mycelial-derived genes such as the spore-nymphs.

But that goes well past uncomfortable through weird and on into stuff that doesn't even go half as far as Stamet is talking about doing in real life at his site.  Lovecraft has nothing on this guy, and his ideas are simply amazing -- and he may well end up changing the world in ways that nobody saw coming prior to him.

Maybe I should have started with the insects.  They outnumber us too, and they're also more diverse in over-all terms (collectively) but less well distributed and they really suck in terms of longevity and over-all GDP.  But that is now.  What will happen when someone designs modified bugs with enhanced brain-power, or when we decide to upgrade our pets with implantable PDA-esque chips, or some other, similar scenario?  Ever see the movie Them?  How about H. G. Wells' Empire of the Ants?  Telepathic Tyrant-Ants who enslave people?  Cool.  Those will make it into Riskail, definitely.  Ever hear of The Giant Spider Invasion?  Lame, but the little rolly-balls that crack open to release mutant spiders--that's a priceless gimmick.  Then there's Kingdom of the Spiders (with Shatner!) which promises that your nightmares will never be the same.  Yeah.  Well, maybe not so much.  Spider Labyrinth has some seriously creepy stuff going on but it quickly descends into WWE-level violence as burlesque.  The spider crawling back into the arm was very icky and will also make it into Riskail when I introduce the arachnohosts and the huskivite egg-tender cultists.

Insects make excellent cops and even better villains.  So do bureaucracies.  Insect-bureaucracies are incredibly frightening.  Humans with insect/arachnid/crustaceal attributes are incredibly old tropes; before Ditko sketched the first rendering of Spiderman there was Khepri, an ancient Egyptian deity with the head of a beetle.  Ever see Mimic

Unless you grow all of your own stuff on a hermetically-sealed asteroid farm, you already eat genetically modified food or foodstuffs that are tainted by them thanks to Big Agri-Business.  It's not a conspiracy theory, just a fact of modern life.  In many ways it's just the logical outcome of developing better breeding methods for livestock or Brother Mendel's experiments with pea plants.  We live in a time of technology that surpasses quite a bit of the prognostications of old science fiction and it's only getting warmed-up.  Change is accelerating.  So is stress.  The so-called Singularity, much like Mr. Hoover's  Greenspan's Bernanke's Prosperity, is supposedly just around the corner.  Even if it is, (whatever it winds up being), we probably won't recognize it until we're on the otherside looking back and academics are arguing over the semantics of the transition's description for the sake of the histories that they'll be composing for posterity or as part of a pernicious and venal info-war being waged over the ownership of the past.  So things will not have necessarily changed that much at least.  I won't even go into what happens if the singularity fails or stalls-out, though Vernor Vinge already has.

It's easy to see why so many people would prefer to go back to a supposedly 'simpler' time.  The
utopian impulse is nothing new.  Thomas Moore didn't invent it, he just wrote a book about it and got blamed for it ever afterwards.  Even Plato bitched about the disrespectful slacker-kids in his day in the Republic.  But all in all, there never were 'simpler' times, they were differently complicated and just as soap opera-esque as any period of human civilization.  If anything soap operas are what most of history revolves around; scandals, who's sleeping with whom, miscommunication, deceit, underhanded acts of emotional betrayal and sabotage, lies, damn lies, and so on.  One of the best ways to appreciate ancient Rome is to watch the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves'masterpiece of historical soap opera: I, Claudius.  There's more history oozing from Graves' work of fiction than some textbooks manage to deliver and it has Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, some guy named Patrick Stewart and the impossible to forget Sian Phillips as Livia.  Plus John Hurt as Caligula.  Oh just go watch the thing already!  If that doesn't get you interested in history, nothing will.  Two thousand years ago, give or take a few decades, and Claudius' Rome doesn't seem oh so simple after all, does it?

Imperial Rome, Big Business, Genetically-Modified Organisms, the Singularity, Nature flipping us the bird, extinctions, migrations, bacteria, Soap Operas, plagues: what does all that have to do with humans, the matter of races and sentient species in
Riskail?  Plenty.

The Human Descended include a variety of Ethnocentric Clans, Technocentric Clades and Biocentric Tribes as well as pseudo-nationalist Dynastic Groups and Lineages that merge and splinter to form the various minor and major Houses.  The affluent and prosperous Families form cliques and in time can gain standing as Nobles who form Lineages and Dynasties.  The less fortunate Families become Craftsfamilies if they join the Guilds and devote themselves to specific arts, crafts or technologies.  Others join the Unions and take up the tasks of maintaining and attending to civilization and society both in terms of the work of establishing culture, creating knowledge and defining, interpreting and critiquing all that is known.  At the bottom end of things are the faceless proletariat, people who occupy such a dim and distant position to those at the height of power that they register only as brownish-gray hazy smudges unless their social superiors actually make an effort to observe them.

Riskail is a classist society.  Not rigidly so, but definitely everyone has their place and it is a matter of public record.  Your allegiances and affiliations are socially obvious, unless one takes great pains to occlude the truth or develop a layer of obfuscation or misdirection, or one purchases privacy at great (exorbitant) expense.  Secret societies and sects have developed numerous ingenius ways to hide in plain sight, or to cloak their true identities by infiltrating other, more acceptable and agreeable cliques or groups.  For all of the quick and easy open access to such information, it doesn't tell much that is truly useful.  Discredited political orthodoxies linger on amongst students on campuses across Riskail, but mostly as affectations and extracurricular cliques, rarely as anything serious beyond the occasional art-riot or protest-party.  Factions transcend biology, being open even unto Abstract Intelligences and in some few cases there are Factions more powerful than some Houses.

There are 12 Ascendent Houses and 12 Descendent Houses, each one of which has its armorial insignia arranged in sequence around the circumference of the face of the Great Clock.  Every House has its hour either of the Day or the Night.  The Descendent Houses were once the Great Powers of Riskail, occupying the massive arcology-mansions along the First Tier, but they have since been supplanted by the Ascendent Houses which are not exclusively parochially-tied to Riskail.  Thus it is that the older Houses of Riskail are eager to find some way to reclaim or regain their former glories, often engaging in risky ventures, subsidizing voyages of exploration, or supporting Mad Wizards or Insane Geniuses in the hopes of gaining an edge, an advantage, or an opportunity.  The Houses encompass both mercantile and corporate interests, and no corporation operates in Riskail that doesn't have patronage from one of the Houses.  The Nobility have their various ranks and titles based upon the lands they manage and/or the followers that they lead either through tyrannical or other means.  The accountant-heralds who register such things make no distinction beyond known and verifiable quantities and they do not judge the quality of such things as it is not their place.

Social Status and ones' Social Class is not so much fixed as firm. It can be modified and even transcended through merit, distinction, largesse from a Patron, or escaped from via elevation earned through various forms of service, bribes, achievement, blackmail, contractual arrangements, marriage, inheritance, bequests from philanthropic-types, or other means. It is a much cherished notion, myth and enduring bit of folklore that even one born amongst the lowest of the low can rise above the mob to become great and powerful. Genes can be augmented, modified, enhanced or even replaced when needed or desirable. All attributes can be improved upon or refined via implants, surgery or other adjuncts either machine-wise or organically, even psychically in some cases. Death itself is not a barrier to personal accomplishment as the Helical Cathedraes provide eventual rebirth and recovery for even the poorest of the citizenry who cannot afford a more prestigious form of reincarnation.  And of course the Necrosophics are always an option as well, should one wish to shed this mortal coil and go off into the deep blackness of the void-between-worlds.

The underclasses aren't just economically disadvantaged, in many cases they are entirely other races or species including varieties of Urfolk, Drones, Androids, Biocastes, Registered Hybrids and the Animal Descended.  Many of the servants who are not machine-derived are genetically designed and engineered to serve in their tasks, duties or roles.  This includes a wide array of clone-slaves, pod-born, vitroids, militarized paramanity, and ornamental humanoids such as the Solmiri, Kashurri and Treen.  Dronecops are bred from registered lineages of wasp and hornet-derived templates established millennia ago as ruthlessly reliable peace-keeping forces.  Urfolk are those Animal-Descendent peoples who have been able to develop their own cultures and to find some place in the greater scheme of things such as the goatling sherpas of Immakku or the Lutrin river-tenders or the various avials, saurials or weirder forms like the milicae or loricae descended from human-millipede hybrids. 

What is human and what is not becomes harder and harder to answer and after a while you have to wonder if the matter of sentience and the capacity for thought is a separate issue and needs to be broken-out from the whole human question.  Where do machines fit into this mix?
"The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends."
The Machine Descended form Abstract Collogues (collective simultaneous dialogues amongst closed-loop AI networks), and Materialist Robotic Enclaves, often with cyborg interface-races to act as go-betweens and envoys betwixt the biologicals and the mechanicals, the abstract and the manifest. The Drem serve no one -- not even themselves. The Vokad are a hyper-obsessed technological-materialist faction of autonomous robots who are so caught-up within their own frame of reference that they no longer consider humanity to be of any concern, often overwriting or obliterating or annexing huge swaths of human-occupied matter with no regard for the consequences. The Nhlorul are colonizing communities of nanological hybridized swarm-sentience that discretely occupy various and sundry voluntary host organisms, but what they are hiding from is unclear. The Jeheen are immaculately sculpted and designed synthetic humanoids who serve as vectors for a vast array of Abstract Consciousness who move, act and speak through them when they desire to deal with slowmanity. But those are the more visible, more articulate forms of the Machine Descended, those who interact or respond to humanity as equals, superiors or competitors. Far more numerous are the masses of unnamed and unknown machines that make up the Infrastructure, the systems that keep the gates open and the meta-scale public amenities such as the River Senube running, or the machines who occupy the matrix underneath the aesthetically variable cobblestones of the very roads and walkways of the cities of Riskail and maintain and repair them continually, perpetually, eternally.

I guess that defining humanity is going to have to be worked out as part of the overall setting and not be some sort of gimme.  Using the mechanics of a game to work out the answer could be fun.  It certainly is a central theme of a good deal of fiction and non-fiction as well.  I'm certainly not going to answer the question definitively any time soon, especially as we learn more about the way matter functions on the below-nano scale, mycelial networks, nature's extremophiles, and all sorts of other stuff that we're only just now getting around to perceiving let alone studying.  Any definition for what constitutes humanity will just have to get worked out though the fiction and the game and maybe that's okay.


  1. I'll admit that their not easy questions to answer, but questions of bacterial intelligence/sentinence seem predicated on viewing complexed interactions/emergent properties as indicative of intelligence.

    I'm not sure this is the proper definition, as it could be used to view a lot of natural, non-biological phenomena as intelligent.

    Which for fiction and game purposes would be just fine, I suppose. :)

  2. Stamets really gets you thinking, and the stuff coming out on bacteria-colonies is also pretty out there. Whether or not they are intelligent in the real world, the development of such things in a fictional setting really opens some pretty weird doors that I'm very happy to go explore.

    Viewing a lot of natural, non-biological phenomena as intelligent is not too far off from animism. I like to keep the door open and the light on, just in case what we think we know right now turns out as wrong as what we were completely sure about back in the Seventies or a hundred years back, etc. In the meantime, work with what we do know as best as we can know it, and when new or better or weirder information arises, adjust course accordingly. You just can't get attached to the results without getting tangled up in a web.

  3. "Viewing a lot of natural, non-biological phenomena as intelligent is not too far off from animism."

    I would say its exactly animism in any meaningful sense. :)

  4. It is also part and parcel of many varieties of shamanism, spiritism and other isms. Various mystics have reported visions of this sort of thing and they would ahve been horrified to have been called animists, especially the ones that got sainted. Dion Fortune talks about this sort of thing in terms of elementals--a subject that I'll be touching on shortly, as does several Golden Dawn authors (even Yeats) and Alice Bailey and if you dig into the more obscure and esoteric ends of various fringe beliefs you'll run into this idea again and again. Yeah, it amounts to animism, but it also can be found in a lot of other places, and it goes farther than animism, which often gets discounted (unfairly) as a simplistic and unsophisticated belief-system, when in fact it can get pretty darned complicated. Consider how elaborate Shinto can get, and that's not too far removed from animism. Quantum Mechanics gets wrestled into some weird contortions that start to resemble this sort of thing as well, but that tends to get silly more often than not, like all the chaos math that was supposed to solve everything back in the Eighties...


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