the movement of evolution


Ollivier Dyens

Evolution is a strange, self-governing movement. Today, brought forward by biological, cognitive and informational viruses, evolution questions the movement of bodies. We are, I believe, in an age where humans, machines and culture are called upon to create and produce new structures of life.

Richard Dawkins has developed a theory which seems important and pertinent to this analysis. This is the theory of memes. A meme is an "idea virus",that is, essentially an independent piece of information travelling in virtuality. Essentially, in order to communicate, living beings exchange memes. But to exchange and process "idea viruses" is also what computers do.

This exchange of memes happens in what I would call a memescape. A memescape is a geography of memes, it is an idea-landscape, where human memes thrive, encounter and couple (culture is such a memescape). I would argue, too, that a different kind of memescape is now emerging from our post-industrial world. This new memescape is both electronic and organic; it is a territory shared by both humans and informational machines. In this memescape, human and computer memes interact, which creates the conditions for the emergence of a different kind of phenomenology. Never before have we had to truly communicate with the machine. In the electronic memescape, however, machines become interlocutors, with whom true cognitive exchanges are made. I would argue that not only is cyberspace such a memescape, but that today's media culture in general (that is television, radio, faxes, etc.) is also that kind of a memescape, for it is essentially alive through structures formed by ideas, both human and non-human.

This encounter and coupling of memes creates, then, something close to life, which I would call the cognitive cyborg. According to Dawkins, as genes are replicators of biological life, memes are replicators of cognitive life. Memes replicate culture. Thus, genes and memes are pieces of information that give birth to what Dawkins calls "survival machines" (for example, a human being would be a survival machine for some specific genes). My point is that we are now on the verge of a new evolution, for memes are acting like genes, creating cognitive survival machines, born out of computer and human intelligence. Thus, today's survival machines are not exclusively biological anymore. They are cybernetic, organic and cognitive, being formed by the enmeshing of numerous intelligent structures (what Pierre Levy calls a cognitive ecology, that is an ecology of all forms of intelligence, be they human, computer, sociological, institutional, political, etc.). These cyber-organic structures, I call cognitive cyborgs.What's worth thinking about is the fact that survival machines tend to develop their own autonomy and their own ecology, where they can reproduce and disseminate. The actions, reactions and mutations of these cognitive survival machines is what forms our new evolution.

If we accept this hypothesis, we must then treat cyberspace and the whole of today's culture as we treat biological evolution. We are now into a meta level of evolution, much faster than the first one (as memes take much less time than genes to reproduce and disseminate), a level where the body becomes a survival machine for memes. But it is a strange survival machine, for memes are essentially viruses and viruses are moulders of metabolism. Thus a meme, like a virus, imposes plasticity on its survival machines, be they organic or non organic. Furthermore, viruses, like memes, are carriers of information. In fact, viruses, both biological and informational, are the ultimate consequences of communication for they can only spread through communication The point about viruses is that they trigger plasticity in bodies. A virus forces a body (be it biological, informational or artificial) to redefine itself, to change, to mold itself to the virus' input. What the AIDS virus does, for example, is to provoke a lethal plasticity of the human immune system. My point is that memes do act the same way, forcing bodies to change, mold and become plastic. Thus, through the memescape that is our culture, through the memescape in which we plunge everyday, encountering many different sort of memes, our bodies are being constantly challenged to become plastic What the cognitive cyborg is, then, is the living cognitive structure, half-human, half-cybernetic, that causes plasticity in the human shape. Furthermore, if we keep pursuing this same line of thought, we must then reject the idea that the cyborg is the end result of evolution. On the contrary, I believe it to be only a first step in a complete new family of life structures.

In his book, Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould explains how a myriad of different life forms were tried in the organic primeval soup. According to this scientist, the early years of life on earth were the theatre of many more different life structures then we have today. For Gould "nature" was experimenting with biological structures, of which only a few survived, although many species were developed from them. We are today the product of these structures.My hypothesis then states that what we are faced with today is quite similar.(F)or I believe the memescape to be a "primeval electronic soup", where a new evolution is taking place. This evolution, mainly cognitive, uses both computer and human cognition as a springboard to many different sorts of "life" forms. Many of these forms will perish; a few will survive. We are, and this is my hypothesis, in a electronic primeval time where many different cyborganic life forms are tried.

What would be the phenomenology of this culture? I believe it to be movement: movement of ideas, of living shapes, movement of societies and artistic endeavors, all encompassed in the more general movement of man to machine and machine to man. To me, the end product of these evolutionary electronic structures (cognitive cyborgs) is not what defines this culture and this evolution. Movement is the actual phenomenological centre. And it is in the human body (both physical and cognitive) that this movement is now most visible. The human body is becoming the actual essence of this new culture. On and in the body, society's technological narrative and evolution is not only being written, but it is also being nurtured and born. We are now searching for the extreme limit of plasticity in a human shape (in the words of H.G.Wells), for plasticity is movement, and out of this movement an understanding of our world will be found. Through movement, the symbiosis of man and machines is made visible. As man plunges into a non-material universe, where time, space and the laws of nature are all subordinated to cybernetics, the machine itself plunges into our cultural world. It is through the close analysis of this reciprocal movement that we will arrive at an understanding of our world. Thus it is possible to suggest, as Hans Moravec has done, that machines are becoming our "mind children," for it is in our bodies that machines grab on to the material universe. It is through our bodies that informational machines such as computers are able to exist in the material universe. Our bodies are then becoming the sacred text of informational machines.

A rapid evolution is upon us, an evolution of minds and cultures, where bodies will be redefined as they become doors unto different worlds for both the organic and the cybernetic. The body, then, becomes the narrative upon which this evolution and culture will be written and read. But as this phase of evolution is far from being completed, so then the mutations of the human body are far from over. This, then, is quite an exciting and frightening time, for I believe this physical and cultural evolution to be as crucial to our self-definition as the development of writing was so many centuries ago. Machines are not only tools anymore, they're becoming interlocutors. They will then force us to reassess entire sections of our understanding of the world. What is to become of our social contract, for example, as machines plunge into our political, sociological and economical realm? What is to become of art and emotion as machines not only force us to use different tools, but also confront us with their own emotion? What is to become of our spiritual life (our tectonic plates as Michel Serres puts it), if spirituality becomes enmeshed in cybernetics? Those crucial questions are to be confronted and answered as the human race plunges into a close relationship with machines.

Will robots inherit the earth? asks Marvin Minsky in a recent Scientific American article. Yes he emphatically answers. Let me suggests here that robots will not inherit the earth anymore than we did. It's a new evolution that will inherit the earth. An evolution into which constant movement between human endeavors, machine presence, biological life and informational structures will create different and strange forms of life.Thus the crucial question to address is not where we're going, but how we're getting there, for hope and despair have equal stakes in that long journey.