You and Me Baby Ain't Nothing but Mammals


At The Chronicle of Higher Education, the authors of a forthcoming book on literature and biology note a common thread running throughout fictional dystopias: Rejection of the idea of human nature. It got me thinking, though: O'Brien is surely mistaken when he claims that he and the Party "make human nature," and even Huxley's vat-bred good citizens seem to be pretty standard issue homo sapiens. But it's increasingly clear just how contingent that is—eventually we will make human nature. Which brought to mind a line from an old Bruce Sterling essay:

Human thought itself, in its unprecedented guise as computer software, is becoming something to be crystallized, replicated, made a commodity. Even the insides of our brains aren't sacred; on the contrary, the human brain is a primary target of increasingly successful research, ontological and spiritual questions be damned. The idea that, under these circumstances, Human Nature is somehow destined to prevail against the Great Machine, is simply silly; it seems weirdly beside the point. It's as if a rodent philosopher in a lab-cage, about to have his brain bored and wired for the edification of Big Science, were to piously declare that in the end Rodent Nature must triumph.

Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats.

Which got me wondering…if we passed the planet to a successor species that didn't want or need freedom, say, or love, were perfectly happy without those things, would we (now) have reason to regard that as a bad thing? Do we care about those things because they're important to us, or do we further want it to be the case that they continue to be important to whoever mans the great gap between us and the giant telepathic cockroaches?

NEXT: Hair-Splitter Nitpicked

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I, for one, welcome our new giant telepathic cockroach overlords.

  2. In order to thrive, I suspect that even giant telepathic cockroaches need freedom.

  3. Hey, a Pixies reference!

  4. Maybe the desire for freedom and happiness gives us some selective advantage, and evolved for that reason. And so other intelligent creatures, whether made by us or nature, would also find those traits an advantage.

    Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

  5. “Do we care about those things because they’re important to us, or do we further want it to be the case that they continue to be important to whoever mans the great gap between us and the giant telepathic cockroaches?”

    Todd Fletcher is correct. Even telepathic cockroaches will need freedom in order to find the “strange attractor” of “order for free” which is most beneficial for their future.
    (Refer to the Santa Fe Instutute studies on complexity.)

    P.S. “mans” or “cockroaches” in above by Sanchez?

  6. Julian,

    That was some serious fuckin’ turnaround on the BG reference promise.

    jorge, Hey, a Pixies reference! lol! But be nice.

    “I’ve never been nice my whole life. But I’ll do my best to be sweet.”

  7. Interesting that everyone here seems to be working from the assumptions that human nature seeks freedom, and that freedom is necessary for happiness. I suspect that this is the minority opinion. I would be more accuarate to say that people want to choose what herd to indenture themselves to, and to ensure that others act just like members of thier herd.

    You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but cattle…

  8. In the fullness of time, and assuming that there is no force that can completely obliterate all humans everywhere, perhaps the desire for freedom and love do confer sufficient evolutionary advantage to allow humans to prevail, whatever horrible fate may befall any individual human at any particular time.

    BUT, if there is not enough time or opportunity for the motivations of love and liberty to allow ANY humans ANYWHERE to prevail against the machine or the mutant cockroach overlords — even for luck to play a factor in our survival — then I can’t imagine “human nature” being worth a whole lot. In that case, I’m with Sterling. But then again, perhaps he hasn’t seen “Willard.”

  9. Hmmm… I’ll bite, but not directly. What is love, if not just a chemical drip in our brain that gives off a “feeling”. If I recall correctly from an article I read too long ago and from an unnamed source, mourning doves also “feel” love. They mate for life. When they see their mate for the first time, their brains begin to release a chemical that signals “love”. From that point on they’re together. Now, how do we know it is “love” (according to an unknown article) is because the chemical drip occurs in the same place in the brain in humans when they have a crush or are “in love”.

    Those of you with a true science background please weigh in.

    Therefore to hit your question a little more, julian, I would say “yes” it is a bad thing for a human and non-human reason. Human: Love, anger, and other emotions drive our lives. We are unable to control them and they run us. Yet it is in such a way that these emotions occur that they are intensely personally and unique, therefore enrichening our lives. On a non-human level. If all animals are motivated by some “feeling”, than clearly it plays a role in development. Looking at humanity–especially capitalism and major advancements — achievements are not done to better humanity. Humanity’s betterment is often a side benefit to what was originally an emotionally driven activity.

    Also, while i may be crazy, I’m a doubter of darwinian evolution. BUT if vertical evolution was to take place so that we were obviously replaced, and if evolution theory holds water, then it seems that the natural progression would be to an animal that has further developed emotions and rational capacity. How is that for a dichotomy?

  10. Come. Join us. Why do you resist?

  11. I think Frank Herbert had far better insight into human nature, humanity and it’s survival than many biologists or social scientists.

    want or need freedom, say, or love, were perfectly happy

    It’s interesting that you group those together – where love and hapiness have a chemical basis within the human body. Freedom on the other hand is a driving force, much like survival.

  12. David Brin put it succinctly:

    I’d put my money on a truly civilized, diversity-loving, adventure-thirsty
    macro culture, against any monolith it encounters in deep space… or
    against a Darwinian stew of vicious, mutually-predating pirhanas, spreading
    randomly and chewing up everything in sight. Neither opponent sounds very
    formidable to me. A federation of sub-units that try a myriad
    possibilities, yet will still come to each others’ aid, is simply

    A posthuman species that seeks diversity will likely be more productive than others, especially in a changing environment. While a non-free species might still try to be diverse, it will have the usual information problem (someone has to tell the citizen units in what way to be diverse, and this will be a big bottleneck).

  13. Clearly, I have not evolved enough. Where I was going with the whole dove thing is that if feelings are chemicals, then it is likely that other animals have “feelings” though maybe not as developed. If that is the case than it seems like mammals (since i have no idea if birds reptiles fish or amoebas have chemical drips like ours’) are evolved or designed to have feelings which initiate a wide variety of activities. Therefore removing feelings from mammals would be like eliminating spark in an internal combustion engine.

  14. You people just haven’t been listening to me.

    Your descendents won’t think it too funny 350,000 years from now when their robot protectors lose the war with the mutant cockroaches.

    I am so through with being cool.

  15. They’ll just have to wait their turn for the ultimate triumph of rodent nature!

  16. You can’t think about motivations or values as being universal or somehow distinct from a given evolutionary history. We are wired as we are wired becuase we have bits of mind that came out of the ass end of natural selection that way.

    Values are just chemicals informed by history.

  17. Just chemicals!? But what else is there for anything to be but chemicals?!

  18. This is why I love reading H&R!

    We go down the philosophical roads that others won?t dare touch.

    I’m personally looking forward to the rise of the machines.

  19. As noted below in the 2014 @ 9:26am post, once we get all wired together on the ‘grid’ freedom will become obsolete. We will all be servants to the ‘hive’. Paradoxically this will be the ultimate triumph of freedom. Individual people will possess no freedom, but that will be no more lamentable than the fact the cells in your body possess no individual freedom. The human race will come to an end and a brave new humanity will come to be… Resistance is futile.

  20. Warren,

    If we’re all wired in, who’s going to reboot the system when Windows 200,000 crashes?

    Don’t give me any of that distributed network crap either because whoever pulls off your Borg fantasy is going to make sure that some one or thing will be top dog (and that it includes his genetic code). When the top dog software “hangs”, and it will, our protector robots will go offline as well and then the cockraoches will take over.

  21. Warren, are you saying that ants and bees are the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder?

    Since they’ve been around the longest without significant changes (half a billion years IIRC), I guess it’s logical.

    I just hate to think that the removal of personal autonomy is a part of “progress.”

  22. If you’re going to argue that freedom and/or love are necessarily important for any powerful, successful, sentient species, then it seems to me you’re simply rejecting Julian’s question. He’s asking if you’d mind if a successor species didn’t care about love or freedom or what have you. You’re cheating the whole exercise if you simply say that any successor species must share your values. Fine, but how would you feel about that? If you must, pretend there’s a *magical* telepathic giant cockroach that can be successful and interstellar or whatever, but has no values or emotions you share. Does that matter?

    I still side with Hume that reason gives you no reason to embrace any particular set of values, simply tells you how to achieve them. My values are good, however, and species without them must be destroyed. Death to the Cockroaches!

  23. Who says we’re gonna be replaced. We evolved beyond our monkey predecessors and they’re still around.

    I look forward to throwing feces and rollerskating in funny outfits to entertain our telepathic cockroach overlords.

    We’d make great pets (to quote Porno for Pyros)

    [end peanut gallery comment]

    Obviously, we like these beliefs because they are valuable to ourselves and our culture. We believe that these are necessary for stability and give us the best chance of survival. What is the difference between a mother’s love and her instinct to protect her young. Obviously, that gives us an advantage over species that eat their young. You could expand this beyond mere familial love and extend it to tribal, national or love of species. Each bond is less tight than the previous, but they still increase our evolutionary q rating (by helping us survive).

    Freedom allows us to improve ourselves and the conditions for our species. Maybe we would be better off in some ways by linking ourselves together ala the Borg. Is there anything wrong with being a cell among many? Do any of you think of your skin cells or your blood cells as enslaved? Maybe that would be a better system. Would I prefer it? No. I like freedom and the diversity it brings about, it makes the world a more interesting and enjoyable place. I guess I’d be happier as an amoeba than as a sponge cell, but to each their own.

    P.S. iconoclast, you answered your question regarding bird chemical drips by bringing up doves in the first place.

  24. “David Brin put it succinctly:”
    Anders Sandberg,
    I haven’t heard of David Brin, but he sounds too sentimental to work here on this thread… not ruthless enough.

    Going back to my earlier post, will a future “missing link” be labeled “cockman”?
    hee hee Couldn’t resist.

    Warren said–“once we get all wired together on the ‘grid’ freedom will become obsolete. We will all be servants to the ‘hive’. Paradoxically this will be the ultimate triumph of freedom. Individual people will possess no freedom, but…”

    This seems to resonate with my prediction of the “strange attractor,” but I assume, by then, if we are able to go through “worm holes” using string theory, then we will also be able to jump from one strange attractor to the next in search of a “better” freedom.

    Semper sursus summa!

  25. Julian:

    Do we care about those things because they’re important to us, or do we further want it to be the case that they continue to be important to whoever mans the great gap between us and the giant telepathic cockroaches?

    That seems to be a question asking about the extent of our empathy and sympathy. How far removed from us do we still project the wishes that our values prevail? For myself, even if we weren’t talking about a “successor species” for *our* planet…let’s say we’re privy to a conflict on another planet, or between planets. If there’s a more libertarian side, I’ll root for them. Now, I believe that liberty tends to yield more humane results so it might be argued that my bias is one for kindness. But on a thought out level, it’s a bias for freedom, for sure.

    Love? Love is so ingrained in us by our evolution that even Bruce Sterling’s lab can’t exorcise it. Take our parents away before we know them; but when we have our own children, we will still love them.

    Freedom? Perhaps the desire for individual liberty has been selected by human evolution because it tends to enhance survival. Maybe not just human evolution either. Remember when a very clever chimp was taught to communicate with the scientists in sign language? His first independent sentence was “Let me out of this cage.”

  26. This was out just today:

    “UCLA Study Points To Evolutionary Roots Of Altruism, Moral Outrage”

  27. I believe that, despite ryan’s objections, said thought experiment is impossible, because a valueless cockraoch is one that could never be succesful or anything else, because he has no motiviation to even move. After all, to us, FOOD is a value (something that furthers our lives), and we are therefore rightfully incentivized to get it in some fashion. So a valueless being is impossible. That cockroach has to value something, otherwise he wouldn’t get out of bed (the roach hotel?) in the morning.

    That being said, I agree with Ken that it would further be impossible for a roach not to value freedom to some degree, even if it were freedom of movement to collect for his brother roaches. And yes, I would destroy any being that doesn’t value love and freedom…that’s called evil.

  28. Just a thought, but if we take a micro level, freedom truly is an emotional thought.

    In no exercise, business, emergency, etc, is the greater good ever served by individuals working only for themselves. Family units, brainstorming, football, for example, all work better when the individual components push towards a common goal. possibly forsaking themselves in the process.

    In theory it would be nice if this common goal included a path for the good of individuals as well, but assuming everyone in the group agrees on the goal, I don’t think it’s necessary. And here most people would agree, especially in say a family unit, that they would be willing to give up their individual happiness in order to further the group’s happiness.

    All this assumes we’re looking for the greater good as an ideal, and the dynamics are obviuosly much different on a macro level.

    Of course, as a spokesman for our new incoming leaders the telepathic cockroaches, I might be biased.

  29. Actually, SixSigma, you err is failing to realize that there is no difference between working for your own goals and working for the goals of others if you have decided that the goals of others also benefit yourself. In business and brainstorming, football and all the other team exercises, you help the team at your own IMMEDIATE expense in the hope that your investment will pay off. Rather than thinking of it like sacrifice (you lose 5 bucks) think of it as an investment in that the rewards to yourself if the team succeeds will be greater than if you individually went your own way (i.e. you lose 5 bucks to a mutual fund and gain 20 later)

  30. Love, freedom, whatever emotional states humans can be in… it still seems to me that all emotion comes from a basic instinct of self-preservation. Even love and compassion are at root selfish, rather than completely selfless, concepts. If the desire of self-preservation calls for love, that’s what we do. When it calls for hatred, that’s what we do. You don’t have to be a Darwinian to see that adapting is what all individuals do when the urgency to survive is there. When the urgency is not there, it’s leisure time; humans seem to will toward love and freedom in their leisure time.

  31. Russ D,
    I think we’ve agreed to what you said. We were trying to ponder what might be the case for our successor species, the cockroach.

  32. Munching a ripe, rotting mango,
    Doing the six-legged tango,
    Giving homo sapiens the shove,
    Looks like … cockroach love … uh huh!

    Ha ha ha ha ha …. ha ha ha ha ha ha

  33. Warren says, “Individual people will possess no freedom, but that will be no more lamentable than the fact the cells in your body possess no individual freedom.”

    And then there are those rebellious cancer cells, not to mention autonomous sperm cells, as well as eggs (which recent studies suggest exercise some form of choice).

  34. Ayn Randian,

    I didn’t say “valueless” — just no values that you share. As I said, reason doesn’t give you any goals or motivations, just a way of achieving them; you have to have values to have those goals in the first place.

    So the question is: do we care if another species has a different set of values? Or, to get back to what Julian is really asking, if it turns out that we eventually develop the ability to create our own nature, so that our own nature is what we’ve caused it to be, and it turns out that for some reason we might decide to eliminate the desire for love or freedom, and doing so would neither annihilate the species or make us less successful in the Darwinian sense — if all that could happen, would you mind? If you want to cheat the question and say it’s impossible, fine. I’m a magician. I’m waving my wand. Okay, now it’s possible. What do you think? (That’s called “the magic ‘if'”, people. The word “would” is the subjunctive *contrary* to the fact — it’s assumed that it might not or will not happen.)

  35. Will,

    Love the blog, if you are that Wilkinson.

    The ‘just’ in ‘values are just chemicals’ was not intended to indicate chemicals aren’t important. It was intended to indicate that liberty certainly isn’t universal if hydrogen isn’t.

    I’m a materialist. I can’t help it.

  36. “So the question is: do we care if another species has a different set of values?”

    Of course we care, but we do so with the realization that values are preferences rather than truths. I really think that this is where many libertarians go off course. A libertarian is not right for valuing liberty any more than a collectivist is wrong for valuing equality. To the extent that those values are truly expressed by proposals, the two camps have nothing much to discuss. If I REALLY don’t care about any degree of equality of outcomes (and I really don’t), there is no argument based on enhancing equality that is meaningful to me. It isn’t that I am wrong, it is just that I don’t care about something that this other fellow thinks is the most important of all considerations.

    Values are asserted as universals in arguments, but really they are a list of things we like to different degrees. These preferences are traded off with each significant decision we make. Some people like Brussels sprouts. I can’t imagine why, but I’ve known a few. Getting by is figuring out how many sprouts you can stomach to get a bite of that good filet. Very principled carnivores might rather die than digest a single sprout, but that is not most people. I’m being fairly literal here. I don’t think there is any real difference between your preference for liberty and your preference for filet.

  37. Jason,

    I believe that there is such a thing as free will because the universe is not deterministic. The universe is not deterministic because there is quantum mechanics. There for, we will never invent robots with free will until we build them such that QM effects obtain at critical places. I am a materialist as well and I maintain that materialism equals non-determinism.

  38. Rick-
    But QM doesn’t actually get you anything like free will in the traditional sense. At most it gets you some random noise in the system.

  39. Julian,

    I’m thinking that QM, at least, makes free will possible because this randomness of the tiny cuts the deterministic lock. However, I don’t know how the QM part of us interacts with the deterministic part to make it so that we are the agents of real choices. I was just thinking that it might have to do with the ability to run things thru in our minds repeatedly while comparing against previous real world results.

    How else is free will explained? Also, I’ve been sitting here trying to define free will and that might have to be a probability type definition because to know it when we see it maybe we would have to rule out random effects. Which, perhaps, can’t be done with certainty. Leaving that aside…

    What if there is no free will? Then we know very little about the universe because all our thoughts are determined by previous thoughts. We are then only thinking what we’re thinking because of a long chain of thoughts going back to our first thoughts and maybe back to the very first thoughts ever. The objection might be made here that these thoughts are also being informed by sensory input from the outside. Well, in the no free will scenario, isn’t how our brains (minds) handle this input determined by previous conditions as well? It seems to me that if there is no free will, then all bets are off. “Knowledge” would be a very limited thing.

  40. I’ll confess, the “knowledge argument” for free will has never made much sense to me. Or rather, I’ve never quite seen precisely what the argument is supposed to be. How, precisely, is free will supposed to improve matters? Why is a “freely chosen” belief supposed to be any more reliable than one arrived at through a deterministic process? Am I supposed to be more or less confident in the conclusions spit out by my calculator because I know it arrives at them via a deterministic process?

    What such arguments really seem to be driving toward–though they don’t get there–is some kind of transcendental validation of our knowledge. But that’s an epistemologically unreasonable thing to ask for. The real problem is something like: The only way we have of validating our beliefs is by way of our reasoning process, and we have no other, non-circular way of validating those reasoning process. But that’s just *true*; it’s the position we’re stuck in, and free will won’t let us cheat our way around it.

  41. It seems to me that an argument for free will being necessary for knowledge acquisition is that the first thoughts were very simple. With only environmental stimuli and no real choice of the direction of thought, how could thought get so complicated and accurately predictive about the universe around us? Doesn’t this predictive ability about the physical world outside of us validate our knowledge and beliefs?

    If we’re wrong about the future being as open as our basic intuition tells us it is, it calls into question how much we could possibly be right about. But, we must be right about many things as evidenced by our predictive ability. However, the thing that gives me caution in my free will belief is the question of, if and how much input from the outside world could *steer* us in the right direction even in the absence of free will.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.