Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Could We Evolve Into The Culture?

Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks has set a number of his stories in a pan-galactic civilization known as "The Culture". The culture of The Culture is shaped by the unique requirements of a space-faring civilization, which is necessarily self-sufficient. In The Culture universe humans and artificial intelligences cooperate so that neither is exploited, "labor" is closer to what we would consider a hobby, and education is a lifelong process. On top of that, advances in genetic engineering allow everyone to be healthy. Banks gave an overview of the Culture back in 1994:

Thanks to that genetic manipulation, the average Culture human will be born whole and healthy and of significantly (though not immensely) greater intelligence than their basic human genetic inheritance might imply. There are thousands of alterations to that human-basic inheritance - blister-free callusing and a clot-filter protecting the brain are two of the less important ones mentioned in the stories - but the major changes the standard Culture person would expect to be born with would include an optimized immune system and enhanced senses, freedom from inheritable diseases or defects, the ability to control their autonomic processes and nervous system (pain can, in effect, be switched off), and to survive and fully recover from wounds which would either kill or permanently mutilate without such genetic tinkering.

And the biological alterations go beyond basic protection from disease and disability. Culture humans can modify their own physiology for the purpose of pleasure.
The vast majority of people are also born with greatly altered glands housed within their central nervous systems, usually referred to as 'drug glands'. These secrete - on command - mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into the person's bloodstream. A similar preponderance of Culture inhabitants have subtly altered reproductive organs - and control over the associated nerves - to enhance sexual pleasure. Ovulation is at will in the female, and a fetus up to a certain stage may be re-absorbed, aborted, or held at a static point in its development; again, as willed. An elaborate thought-code, self-administered in a trance-like state (or simply a consistent desire, even if not conscious) will lead, over the course of about a year, to what amounts to a viral change from one sex into the other. The convention - tradition, even - in the Culture during the time of the stories written so far is that each person should give birth to one child in their lives. [. . .]

And the genetic alterations to humans can also allow them to breed with other species, helping integrate humanity into the Culture, which involves a number of alien civilizations.

Last week Banks invited readers to submit questions, from which he picked the most interesting to answer. One reader asked what the most important development would be for humanity to evolve into a Culture-like civilization. He thinks that it's an unlikely genetic alterations that would allow it to happen:
Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general - these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) - and knocking them out. Possibly then we'll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it. Of course maybe inventing true AIs will be enough, always assuming that they're as benign - and yet sympathetically interested in us - as they are taken to be in the Culture.
Certainly fear and loathing of "the other" is detrimental to the development of the kind of healthy and scarcity-free civilization like The Culture. However, it's likely that prejudice is largely based on environment and experience rather than our genes, so there won't be any easy genetic engineering fix. I'm hoping there will be a steady change in humanity towards less prejudice, but I suspect it will be a painfully slow process.

Related links:

Tags:, ,


  1. "However, it's likely that prejudice is largely based on environment and experience rather than our genes, so there won't be any easy genetic engineering fix."

    I must say I disagree, with both of you.

    With you, a lot, because I think you're conflating the genotype with the phenotype.

    While we're wired to run from danger, xenophobia is a social corralling of this predisposition (genotype) and Banks' suggestion is we might be able to remove it's over-sensitive hardware while the Culture deals with it's fascist social exploitation (phenotype and niche construction as 'group selection')

    The predisposition to 'otherphobia' is probably also related to that index measuring an individual's tendency to nervousness and neurosis. Which I've seen in quite bright people waste all their cleverness on paranoid worrywartism, such that some will think them none-too-bright, when they are really just handicapped by overactive neurosis.

    And with Banks, I disagree for political reality reasons, for even though he declares it scientifically unlikely, such a neurotic tendency is primal, given it's evolutionary advantage to fight or flight, is deeply built into all of us and will mean, if removed, we will no longer be human.

    Which is something so scary— we'd never ever do it.

    Indeed if I was more clever than I am and less of a worrywart, I'd politely suggest, your criticism of Banks' suggestion was drawn from the same should-I-stay-or-should-I-run-like-hell biological animal source. But I'm not so I won't.

    There are some other problems too. For example if you are not conflating the genotype with the phenotype than I'd say you might be mistaking which genotype is to be targeted for removal. Stranger recognition per se, instead of primal stranger-danger. Or baboon troop-like subservience to dominant alphas who run hate-clubs for fun and profit....

    (yes that last one _is_ a reference to both Osama and Gearoge W. Bush)

  2. HapiBlogging to you my friend! Have a nice day!

  3. i believe alot of our emotions have gentic and eviromental factors

  4. Meika: I'm not sure how I'm conflating genotype and phenotype. The phenotype is "prejudice against the other" of various sorts, including xenophobia. While "running from danger" might be based on wiring that is encoded in our genes, the way that the "running from danger" manifests itself through xenophobia would be the phenotype. It seems pretty clear to me that prejudice is strongly affected by various environmental conditions, including education, exposure to the groups that are the target of prejudice, etc.

    It also would not surprise me if human tendency toward "prejudice" were found to be caused by different types of hard wiring in the brain - maybe "run from danger", maybe some kind of "neurosis", maybe something else. To me that says that the "prejudice" phenotype is not as simple as the presence of a particular genetic allele or genotype. I guess that's my long-winded way of saying that I do believe that our tendency toward prejudice has at least some genetic basis, but that basis is so complex and intertwined with other behavioral patterns that it's unlikely that there will be a genetic engineering "fix".

    To the extent that the tendency toward prejudice is hard wired, I suspect you are right

  5. Anonymous7:30 AM

    It must also be said that the Culture cycle is also a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/anarchy_in_a_world_of_machines/


I've turned on comment moderation on posts older than 30 days. Your (non-spammy) comment should appear when I've had a chance to review it.

Note: Links to Amazon.com are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.