Of Pond Brains and Humanity 2.0


Originally published at Dark Mountain: Part I & Part II

Part I: Theoteknosis

You're not going to take people who lack skills,' says Steve Fuller, 'you're not going to take homeless people, though that's not official policy.'(i) Fuller is sociologist-in-residence for the Space Ark, a craft in conceptual development by Icarus Interstellar to take nature with us when the earth becomes a no-go zone. Given vast ecological change, Fuller and colleagues are getting restless about our earth-bound future.

The Ark is envisioned to take the form of a ball of genetically-engineered soil, an artificial biome 15km in diameter, inhabited by 50 to 500 humans deemed worthy of saviour and building on work into artificial, closed ecological systems started in the early nineties at the $200 million Biosphere 2 complex - now owned and operated by the University of Arizona. This audacious, though disappointingly terrestrial, 'vivarium', when originally conceived, boasted a miniature rainforest, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, desert, coral reef and an agricultural zone complete with goats, hens and pigs, all on a three-acre site. It was home to eight 'bionauts' for over two years who lived a hermetically-sealed existence in a radical experiment in self-sufficiency.

The ark's theological inspirations are far from incidental. Fuller, a professor at the University of Warwick, as well as a Christian and proud transhumanist, argues for what he dubs theomimesis, the act of playing God. After all, he writes in his latest book The Proactionary Imperative, we are 'aspiring deities' with 'divine potential', and 'not simply one among many species'. Welcome to Humanity 2.0, Fuller's break away from boring old Humanity 1.0, with its human rights, creaky knees, and reactionary moral aversion to eugenics.

The Proactionary argument holds that the precautionary principle, much beloved of environmentalists, has become an impediment to our innate brilliance, lowering our aspirations and placing us amongst other lowly animals. This precautionary belief in 'do no harm', now built equally into policy and the popular consciousness (albeit, one should add, to little avail), should be replaced by the anti-Darwinian proactionary imperative. This would enable a departure from our evolutionary past, taking genetics into our own hands (Fuller is a proponent of non-authoritarian eugenics, a term which he deems wrongly maligned), hopefully taking leave from this space rock we call home, and ultimately replacing our weak bodies 'with some intellectually superior and more durable substratum'. Phew. 'Better to give hostage to fortune,' writes Fuller, 'than be captive to the past.'

Of course, if work on Humanity 2.0 were the writings of a lone maniac, this rich, heady vision of space ships and discarded corporeality could be laughed off as a fevered delusion, a Unabomber-style manifesto in a different key. Lone and isolated, though, this is not. Rather, transhumanism sits as the logical conclusion of much thought falling under the category of 'ecomodernism', 'ecopragmatism' or 'postenvironmentalism', embracing techno-fixes, Progress and our inheritance as unique beings to cultivate a 'good anthropocene.' It is high-priest of the ecopragmatists, Stewart Brand, after all, who reminds us that 'we are as Gods and might as well get good at it,' and the king of the transhumanists Ray Kurzweil who wrote, in his work, The Singularity is Near, that 'one cubic inch of nanotube circuitry, once fully developed, would be up to one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain.'

Before proceeding, however, allow me to slow things down with a hint of schadenfreude. As the film-maker Adam Curtis noted, the Space Ark's inspiration, Biosphere 2, should strike us as a somewhat tragicomic tale:

The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the "ocean" and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse - the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The "bionauts" began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another - furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another's faces... Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches... At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.(ii)

Returning from Arizona to the lush British countryside, let me now introduce another fanciful, failed biological experiment, long forgotten, which I would like to compare and contrast with both the Space Ark and Biosphere 2. In the 1950s an Englishman called Stafford Beer founded a field called management cybernetics, given its most famous instantiation through Beer's Viable Systems Model. Management cybernetics took its place as part of a transatlantic cybernetics movement which aimed to study regulation, control and communication in both living and non-living complex systems. Cybernetics itself, from the Greek word kybernetes, is a term translating as 'governor' or 'steersman'.(iii)

While the American incarnation of cybernetics, which Steve Fuller draws transhumanist inspiration from, became embroiled in military uses such as intelligent anti-aircraft gun mounts, the movement in the UK, based around the close-knit Ratio Club, developed a seemingly more countercultural, almost pervasively spiritual approach, even developing some tenuous links with British anarchism at the time.

Beer, in exploring how organisations, from factories to communities and governments, could better adapt to the complex environments in which many of them failed, developed an interest in biological computing. Standard computers, he found, particularly the early forms that confronted him, do what their human programmers intend, but struggle to reconfigure themselves to emergent, chaotic and unpredictable phenomena.

Turning his back on them, Beer envisioned replacing human management, and all its attendant failures, misjudgements and foibles, not with computers, but with the lively agency of natural, exceedingly complex systems. He experimented with colonies of insects, mice, even the play of his own children, ultimately settling most attention on pond ecosystems.

If this sounds Space Ark-style crazy, so far, stay with me.

'Pull the humans out of the factory, plug in a pond instead' as Andrew Pickering summarizes the project, allowing the pond, the factory and the business environment to ultimately find some performative equilibrium. In an attempt to get pond ecosystems to care about us and our organisations, to act as a homeostatic controller, one idea was to induce small water fleas, called Daphnia, to ingest iron filings, and then apply magnetic fields which would represent industrial variables in their adapted environment. Another was to use light in a similar manner, with the light-sensitive aquatic protozoa, euglena. Though perhaps holding unfulfilled potential, Beer's projects basically failed - the Daphnia simply excreted the filings, Beer moved on to other things, and pond organisms do not run organisations on our behalf. It's interesting to note, however, that the project remains with perhaps unfulfilled potential. After all, Beer's colleague Gordon Pask, another leading cyberneticist, had much-overlooked, though significant success with biological computing in the form of self-organising electrochemical threads that in effect developed an ear, the ability to intelligently respond to specific sounds as well as magnetic fields.(iv)

At a glance, Beer's out there experimentation could certainly be deemed naïve, hubristic, and anthropocentric; comparable in this way to Fuller's theomimetic techno-project of an ontologically separate and transcendent Humanity 2.0 discarding their human meat sacks, not to mention the Space Ark, and Biosphere 2. These projects certainly all project the aura of a culture where anthropic pseudo-control pervades every significant human-ecological interaction. I would perhaps not even call the projects which opened this essay primarily technological, or theomimetic, however, but rather theoteknotic. Teknosis, a term coined by John Biram, in a now largely forgotten work by the same name, stands for the 'disease of technical thinking,' so chronic in so-called advanced societies. This disease, in a summary by Michael Shallis, 'is an attitude of mind, part hacker syndrome, part Narcissus complex, whereby man worships idols of silver and gold and becomes like the objects of worship.'

And indeed Adam Curtis, in an accompanying piece to his documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, quoted from above, critiques a version of this teknosis, which he calls 'the ecosystem myth'. Ecosystemic thinking which, he argues, culminated with cybernetics in the fifties, and Biosphere 2 in the nineties, commits a fallacy in thinking of nature as a computer, a stable machine of wholes tending towards equilibrium. Rather, Curtis posits that 'nature is never stable, it's always changing.' For the film-maker, not only is this myth dangerous in itself but it is also grounded historically in the colonial thought of Jan Smuts, a racial segregationist, brutal militarist, and academic pioneer of the term 'holism'. Smuts turned to a 'scientific' vision of wholes 'to create a vision of a static world where everything is stable,' racial inequalities included of course, 'and your moral duty is to make sure that nothing ever changes'.

While Curtis is certainly on the right track here, there is some conflation of ideas, leading to a premature dismissal of holism, homeostasis and conceptions of the 'ecosystem'. Even if ants do us the favour of vandalising our utopian experiments instead of obediently running our factories, I would still like to temper such judgement, and explore instead the different story and vision of the world acted out by Beer. For now, let's call one version of this story closed holism, and the other open.

Biosphere 2 is a prototypical example of closed holism, as one presumes the Space Ark will be also. It performs a parable of what happens when the scientist or innovator assumes that they can build a picture of complete knowledge of a complex system, interacting with it in predictable ways. You seal off a portion of the world, replicate and represent what you think is necessary to the experiment, and try to intervene when things go wrong. Oxygen disappears, and you don't know where it's going. Humans suffer psychologically. Ants find their way in and you're helpless in dealing with their vast power in numbers. The gene you self-eugenically tamper with turns out to control for something you didn't expect. The world kicks back against this closure and its open complexity stymies every attempt at getting to grips with it.

Beer's pond brain, and his other experiments, on the other hand, skip this stage of closedness, predictability and complete knowledge; instead, theoretically, placing the human in much more firmly humbled position. It realises that humans aren't the only intelligence, let alone a transcendent or divine one, but instead this is a feature that pervades the world. As Pickering puts it, 'Beer and Pask realized that the world is, in effect, already full of [...] brains. Any adaptive biological system is precisely an adaptive brain in this sense.' And not just any brain, but a brain beyond straightforward human comprehension:

Biological systems can solve these problems that are beyond our cognitive capacity. They can adapt to unforeseeable fluctuations and changes. The pond survives. Our bodies maintain our temperatures close to constant whatever we eat, whatever we do, in all sorts of physical environments. It seems more than likely that if we were given conscious control over all the parameters that bear on our internal milieu, our cognitive abilities would not prove equal to the task of maintaining our essential variables within bounds and we would quickly die. This, then is the sense in which Beer thought that ecosystems are smarter than we are-not in their representational cognitive abilities, which one might think are nonexistent, but in their performative ability to solve problems that exceed our cognitive ones.

Such radically alternative ways of seeing the world undermine Fuller's false antinomy of precautionary and proactionary. You are neither presuming knowledge of likely outcomes and taking a complete precautionary step back from a world of flux, for pond brains are operative, changing, performative, intervening and learning all the time anyway. Nor are you attempting to escape involvement in the dirty, messy, Darwinian world by theoteknotic proactionary modernism.

Rather, you learn something more complex; that is to respect the reality of the nonhuman as entangled with the human, recognising itself in you and you in it, and neither in a position of dominance. We are part of the world's becoming, as Feminist Karen Barad puts it succinctly, and part of a universe that we are trying to understand. The world is not a closed jar, but an open ecosystem of intelligence, always changing as Curtis correctly noted, and we can neither control nor remove ourselves from this. This, after all, is the core of its beauty. So why would we even want to?

Part II: Whirlpools

If thou shouldst plant these things in thy firm understanding and contemplate them with good will and unclouded attention, they will stand by thee for ever every one, and thou shalt gain many other things from them; . . . for know that all things have wisdom and a portion of thought.


The first instalment of this two-part blog speculated that an alternative understanding, and worldly engagement, could be inspired by projects such as Stafford Beer's experimentation in harnessing pond brains, a form of intelligence inherent to natural systems. This, it held, could counter in some way the human chauvinistic projects of modern thought, which culminate in quixotic transhumanism, aspiring towards fulfilling our supposedly god-like potential and creating Humanity 2.0™. I concluded with the intuition that "the world is not a closed jar, but an open ecosystem of intelligence" and this second instalment tries to unfurl and expand that statement a bit, moving from critique to a more positive project.

Use of the term 'pond brain' across the two titles is, of course, intentionally provocative and metaphorical, but I stand by it in something of a stronger sense, for reasons hopefully made clear below. While the use of the term brain automatically implies something akin to that much-vaunted pinnacle of evolution - the human cerebral cortex - these ecosystems certainly do process complex information, and thus bring up a sticky question: what exactly it is that is unique about the computer which is said to be housed within the human skull?

The traditional answer of course, is, everything. The human mind is commonly referred to as the most complex instrument in the universe, with E.O. Wilson recently putting forward that 'Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world'.

As humans, the question of uniqueness is impossible to answer impartially, of course, and it's perhaps no surprise that psychology, the traditional 'objective' science of cognition, is in the throes of a pretty tumultuous crisis of identity. Recent writings by a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oslo, Jan Smedslund, for one, have highlighted a fundamental mismatch 'between current research methods and the nature of psychological phenomena.' Rather than being ruled by stable laws of cognition, as a classically 'scientific' approach would prefer, Smedslund posits that psychologists 'avoid thinking about [the] problem' that many, perhaps even most, psychological findings are not even nearly replicable. Inconveniently for psychology in general, not everyone is avoiding the problem, and the media recently picked up widely on the finding that over half of psychological studies appear to fail basic tests of replication.

Rather than being a unique supercomputer running according to set algorithms, Smedslund pictures the human psyche in a much less mechanistic way, more 'like whirls in a stream which are stable only as long as the total flow of water does not vary and the stones on the bottom maintain their positions.' This is powerful imagery, which we shall return to.

The shortcomings of dominant conceptions of human mind were also echoed recently in a remarkable paper in Biological Theory which highlighted the troubling questions raised by certain sufferers of hydrocephaly. These individuals lead normal lives and boast generally average IQs despite their skulls being found to be filled with liquid, containing only about 5% of the volume of normal brain tissue (see image). This situation, though not without its own heated debates and controversies, raises some profound questions, leading the author to speculate that perhaps:

Information relating to long-term memory is held within the brain in some extremely minute, subatomic, form, as yet unknown to biochemists and physiologists. Those who have witnessed in recent decades the vast increase in the power of computers to store large quantities of information in progressively smaller spaces should not be surprised if evidence for this alternative eventually emerges.

This idea of some subatomic nature of mind is speculative, of course, yet hints towards one powerful answer to the question posed by environmental philosopher Freya Matthews (author of The Ecological Self), 'How can we sing back to life a world that has been so brutally silenced?'

Panpsychism is the consideration put forward by both Matthews and Professor David Skrbina at the University of Michigan (and contributor to Dark Mountain: Issue 8 [Techne]), an ancient concept in which mind, rather than being something exclusive to the brains of humans and higher animals, something emergent from dead matter, becomes instead distributed throughout the world, as a fundamental aspect of matter. This is not to say that any part of the world has mind, but rather that the universe is, at least in some rudimentary way, mind.

In the traditional language of panpsychism, mind has still been framed as a sort of hierarchy, with the consciousness of humans and great apes at the top, the sentience of other animals slightly below that, and so on until we have a kind of proto-mind in the basic constituents of matter. Keeping an unfortunate anthropocentrism, however, it would be more consistent to perhaps say that the aspects of mind are not superior or inferior, above or below, in any hierarchical sense, but merely different, and forever evolving.

As Skrbina has clarified:

Compare mind and another fundamental entity: gravity. Gravity is "everywhere," and it has always existed (at least, under most interpretations). Yet new gravitational fields emerge every time there is a new configuration of matter. The gravitational field of the Earth is a function of the planet's total mass and its distribution. Clearly a cubic Earth would produce a different gravitational field than a spherical one. Furthermore, technically speaking, even the present actual field of the Earth is continuously changing as the molten core circulates, continental plates shift, and human activity moves matter around. Thus, one could reasonably claim that the Earth's field, even now, is continuously emerging, continuously becoming in a sense new, while staying within certain rough bounds.

Despite eerie implications that there may be some aspect of mind in the wooden table on which I write this, or the glass out of which I drink, this is perhaps not as absurd as it sounds. Instead, it posits one elegant solution to many of the intractable problems set up in Enlightenment thought, and especially by Cartesian dualisms, with regard to how matter and mind 'interact'. Further reorienting panpsychism's seeming marginality, Alexander Wendt, a leading German scholar, has recently turned his attention to the issue in a book called Quantum Mind and Social Science, in which he puts forward the possibility that mind - or proto-subjectivity in the form of cognition, experience and will - is inherent in each proton and electron.

Wendt posits a quantum basis for human thought, arguing that consciousness (much of which is embodied and therefore cannot simply be reduced to the 'brain' as is often taken for granted in neuroscientific approaches) may be a quantum process. No longer is mind conceived of as some mechanistic binary computer, as it traditionally has been, but instead shows up as something closer to a quantum computer.

So let's return to Smedslund's whirlpool metaphor. The idea of consciousness as temporary whirlpools of mind in the flux of life maps beautifully onto work which sees humans and other organisms as similar temporary constructions in a universe mostly characterised by disorder and entropy. As Tim Requarth recently put it in Aeon, life is really just just an 'oasis of order' in a restless flux, and perhaps, so too is consciousness:

After the Big Bang, the Universe could have, in principle, expanded into an even distribution of matter and energy. If that were the case, nothing could have ever happened, and nothing - including life - could have ever formed. But instead, something happened. Quantum fluctuations in the structure of space, perhaps, disrupted the balanced distribution of matter and energy, and set into motion a cosmic accumulation of structure and organisation.

Requarth uses the example of a whirlpool in a bathtub to demonstrate this, noting that 'driven by gravity, the water molecules spontaneously swirl into a pattern that is more ordered than their previous haphazard collection...When energy can continuously flow through a system, interesting things begin to happen.'

So could mind be a whirlpool in a greater panpsychic whole? And where does such far out speculation on a mind-pervaded universe get us? Perhaps, in its abstractness, it takes us further away from humble groundedness in, and awareness of, an immersive present (a topic grappled with in the forthcoming Dark Mountain: Issue 9). Or, as my gut senses, it may set us down the road of, as Mathews puts it, 'singing life back into the world', considering our place in a more modest way than the theoteknotic peddlers of humanity 2.0 and humans-as-gods, of everlasting life and transcendence of the flesh, would like us to.

Philosopher Charles Bennett put this well when he wrote, 'put me in a world where all is in some sense (however obscure) spirit, and you embarrass me strangely. Now I no longer feel free to treat any part of the material world merely as means. The coal for the furnace, the stone that goes into our houses, the steel that goes into our machines-these are now, after some mysterious fashion, my own kith and kin. I must treat them differently now. But how?'

'How?' is indeed the vital question. Maybe, with this, we reflect on ourselves a little differently, as the world thinking itself; as an interesting, creative, but mostly unimportant, part of a minded infinite. Whirlpools of matter-mind in a larger pond brain, gravitating and falling apart, assembling and disassembling; surely this is a more continuous, more satisfying starting point than man-as-god, or homo sapiens as an angelic and distinctly divine being. Just maybe, we can begin the process of sensing the world a little differently.


Endnotes Part I

(i) See https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/may/22/stars-in-their-eyes-architects-scientists-ponder-designs-ark-space
(ii) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/may/29/adam-curtis-ecosystems-tansley-smuts
(iii) The account of cybernetics presented here draws strongly on papers and monographs by the sociologist of science Andrew Pickering, particularly his book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future
(iv) See Cariani's (1993) article To evolve an ear: epistemological implications of Gordon Pask's electrochemical devices in the journal Systems Research.