Recently I’ve said that it seems obvious that our descendants will soon be artificial, as will be any advanced aliens we meet. And I’ve complained of futurists and astrobiologists who ignore this possibility. But I’ve realized that even though I may “know it when I see it”, I don’t have a good definition of “artificial”.
Usually it works to say that stuff is “artificial” if humans made it, but didn’t inherit their ability to make it from pre-humans. Making spears, language, and bags “artificial”. But this definition doesn’t work well for alien civilizations, or for our future after humans are gone. So let me try here to find a better definition of “artificial”, in contrast to “organic”.
And let me make my task easier by assuming that we have some working definition of “life”, something like “processes that consume negentropy to try to perpetuate stuff like itself.” We can of course talk about artificial life, and artificial non-life.
The concept of “artificial” that I want to explore here is “not self made”. (With “organic” meaning “self made”.) Now of course nothing is literally self-made, but things are sometimes made by things very much like themselves. For example, when an asexual cell reproduces, the new cell is very similar to the old one, at least if we can distinguish between the thing itself, its environment, and the ways that environments naturally change things.
In contrast, when a beaver makes a dam, or when a human writes a program, the things made differ far more from from the things that make them. So we can consider calling these made things “artificial” in the sense of “not self made”, relative to “organic” things that are “self made”. Now let’s explore more examples of this distinction, to see how useful it might be.
Compared to an asexually reproducing cell, the child of a sexual cell differs more from its parents. In Eukaryote cells, different parts reproduce separately, and so are only like the matching parts of their parents, and less like other parts. In a multi-cellular organism, most of the cells differ a lot more from the stem cells from which they start, which were made by parent stem cells. So if we focus on individual cells, then most cells in such a creature seem more artificial. It is only when we look at the entire organism that we can see it as relatively organic.
Thus how “self made” something is depends on how we divide it from its environment, and on what size units we consider. Evolutionary progress has consisted in substantial part of moving to larger self-made units, where their parts are less self-made. How artificial something looks should also depend on the timescale we pick, and on our diversity reference. Things look more self-made on short timescales, relative to long, as distant ancestors may be quite different. And things look more self-made the wider the variety of other creatures to which we compare them, as parent-child differences will loom less large then.
Once humans developed culture, our behaviors were less made by our parents, and more by a larger culture from which we learned. Isolated groups of humans together with their cultures were relatively organic. But as our world has become more integrated, we are made less by local associates and more by the entire world culture.
For example, an individual firm that tries to be profit maximizing is “made” to some degree by its investors, designers, producers, managers, suppliers, and customers, all of whom are watching the entire world for ideas on more efficient ways to do things. Such a firm is “like” the prior firms associated with such people mainly because the prior experiences of they or their ancestors shaped their sunk investments, expectations and understandings. To a substantial degree, it is the entire world economy that is “self-made”, with each firm being much less so. Firms are more artificial, but the whole economy is more organic.
But even so, there are still identifiable smaller units that are “self-made” to important degrees. Individuals, firms, and nations, among other units, “own” and control resources that they use to promote the future prosperity of “their” future units. Especially their investors.
Governance processes are justified in terms of promoting the future of the units they govern, but internal sub-units are often rightly suspicious that such processes are used by rival units to gain relative advantages over them. Governed units become less “self-made”, which carries substantial risks. Competition between larger units can restrain such internal predation via governance, but competition would not restrain a world government.
Someday humans will probably create artificial creatures who are fully capable of cheaply doing all the tasks needed in their future economy. These creatures are likely to differ more from humans than from the creatures that they make to follow them. So relatively “self made” humanity will “artificially” make new creatures who then more “self make” their new world. But each particular new creature will be much less “self made”, and thus more “artificial”, as it will be made more by its entire civilization.
Okay, while this concept of “self-made” depends on units and timescale, it still seems useful for discussing how future life should be more “artificial”. Life will in general be less self-made on smaller unit scales, even if still self-made on an entire civilization scale. And after alien civilizations meet each other, even they may become less self-made.
Added Jun18: I had this related conversation on Twitter with the author of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.
Like Robin, I am pleasantly surprised that this idea has such an ancient and esteemed pedigree. Very cool!
A fancy term for self-made or self-creating is autopoiesis.
One interesting aspect about artificial vs organic or non-self made vs selfmade is that the latter is usually regarded as having an intrinstic and often intangible/difficult to articulate advantage over the former.e.g. the preference for 'organicly grown' food, various forms of environmentalism, small family businesses, respect for primitive societies, etc etc
There are various Hansonian explanations for this phenomenon already but one explanation might be that 'self-made' things are subject to a natural selection while nonselfmade things are not.
In other words self-made things are subject to a mostly hidden optimizing process.This means that 'self-made' things may be more robust in hard to understand ways and would explain the seemingly irrational preference of many folks for self-made and organic things/culture/art/food etc.
One is reminded of Joe Henrich's "Secret of our succes".
Wow, that's great. This is such an old subject I doubt I could be original on it, so the best to hope for is to have converged with high quality others. :)