The Perils of Coding Humanity: A Response to Transhumanism (IPAK-EDU, January)
This course, to start in January 2023, being taught by author Tori Alexander, will blow your mind.
Course Title: The Perils of Coding Humanity: A Response to Transhumanism
Instructor: VN Alexander, IPAK-EDU Faculty
Course Description (Subject to Change)
The September 12, 2022 White House Executive Order* pledges R&D funds to the biotech industry to enable it “to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way [emphasis added] in which we write software and program computers.” We may be glad of this implied admission that the biotech industry currently cannot “predictably program biology” nor effectively “write circuitry for cells,” as demonstrated by the abject failure of the Covid-19 injections. But we may also be concerned that technocrats—who believe that such advances will be possible once they “unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence”—will, therefore, continue to use us as lab monkeys as they pursue impossible goals.
Some see the ongoing crisis as a battle between pure mechanism and spiritualism. As long as we see the problem this way, it will remain irreconcilable. In this course, we will strive to use good science to overcome the impoverished reductionism that sees biology in terms of digital computing and ignores the possibilities—described by Chaos Theory, Complex Systems Sciences and Biosemiotics—for a myriad of physical interactions that can make living systems impossible to precisely control without risking unforeseeable side effects. Medicine is said to be an Art for good reason.
In this course, we will be countering biological reductionism with views from the Complexity Sciences, Biosemiotics, and the Philosophy of Creativity. Students in this course will explore the way living systems use chemical “signals” and genetic “codes” and develop signal pathways that function like wired circuits, but do so in ways that are significantly different from digital computing processes. Students will be introduced to the burgeoning field of Biosemiotics that investigates the immaterial, semiotic, qualitative interactions in (and among) living systems that can result in unpredictable adaptations and creativity. Such processes are ultimately behind the emergence of the capacity for human language.
Throughout the course we will observe how the aesthetic sense functions in non-reductive sciences, and science readings will be supplemented by literary works from writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon. Overall, we will try to overcome the dichotomous thinking that pits science against art, objective against subjective perspectives, and we will explore instead the ways in which the latter emerge out of (without being precisely determined by) the former.
*Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy, Section One: “We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale‑up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.”
List of Topics (Subject to Change)
Week 1 Descartes’ error
The divorce of the material from the immaterial (qualitative relationships) has been harmful to scientific inquiry. Descartes tried to escape subjectivity and error, without realizing the subjectivity is necessary for learning radically new things.
Reading: Don Favareau (2009) “Introduction” in Essential Readings in Biosemiotics (pp. 1-34)
Exercise: Tell me your reason for taking this class
Week 2 Code Biology
How DNA is like an encrypted code or a symbol. tRNAs function as physical adaptors—like an encryption device or a cypher—joining nucleotides codons to amino acids.
Reading: Marcello Barbieri (2008), “The Mechanisms of Evolution: Natural Selection and Natural Conventions” in The Codes of Life (pp. 15-34)
Exercise: Think of some adaptors that join two “separate worlds.”
Week 3 What is a sign?
We usually think of signs created and used by intelligent animals. But, as C.S. Peirce argued, sign-use (intelligence) must have had primitive precursors.
Video: What is biosemiotics?
Exercise: Identify the three parts of natural signs
Week 4 Biosemiotics
How Biological signs (and signaling) are different from programmed digital code
Reading: Jesper Hoffmeyer (2008), “Preface” and “Code Duality” in Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs (pp. xiii-xix, 71-109), reprinted in Essential Readings in Biosemiotics (pp. 587-628).
Exercise: Analog versus digital signs
Week 5 Machine Learning
What is the selectionist (trial and error) approach to learning? What are the alternatives?
Alan Turing, “Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory” (1951) in The Essential Turing (pp. 465-486) & “Can Digital Computers Think?”(1951) www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMxbSsRntv4 “Nature of Spirit” (1932) www.turingarchive.org/browse.php/C/29
Exercise: Adding randomness to flocking simulations
Week 6 Cybernetics
Instead of pre-programming for every unique situation, cyberneticists found it was better to make machines that can react to the environment in “intelligent” ways. What is the difference between automata and purposeful agents?
Norbert Wiener (1950), The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society.
Bruce Clarke (2009), “Heinz von Foerster’s Deamons” in Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays in Second-Order Systems Theory (pp. 34-61)
Demonstration: Autonomous vehicles vs. remote controlled robots
Week 7 Different Philosophies of Determinism
Discussion of Evelyn Fox Keller’s Century of the Gene and Milan Kundera, Immortality
Week 8 Teleology
A short history of teleology and the study of directionality in evolutionary processes.
Timothy Lenoir (1982), The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in Nineteenth Century German Biology (pp. 1-16, on von Baer 72-95, 112-115).
Week 9 Pattern Formation
Self-organization and neutral (non-utilitarian forms) in nature. Alan Turing’s morphogenesis.
Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth (1942), On Growth and Form, Intro and Chapter XVII Philip Ball (1999), The Self-Made Tapestry (pp. 1-15, 50-76)
Demonstration: The mathematics of nature and abstract art, exploring “meaningless” patterns
Week 10 Saltational versus Gradual Evolution
Instead of exemplifying the gradual tinkering of natural selection, the phenomenon of insect mimicry may be better understood in terms of saltational (rapid) evolution.
Video: Nabokov’s Theory of Insect Mimicry.
Week 11 Complexity Sciences and Self-Organization
Thomas Pynchon (1966), The Crying of Lot 49 ; Pierce, C. S., (1867). “A Guess at the Riddle” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings 1867-1893 (pp. 245-279) and “The Doctrine of Chance”
Challenge: Connecting the dots versus discovering the law
Week 12 Various Origins of Novelty
Besides random change of a single nucleotide, there a variety of sources of biological novelty, some of which may not be random with respect to the needs of the organism. Late Modernist writers like H. James, M. Amis, V. Nabokov rebel against neo-Darwinism.
Reading: Victoria Alexander and Stanley Salthe (2010), “Monstrous Fate: The Problem of Authorship and Evolution by Natural Selection,” Annals of Scholarship 19 (pp. 45-66).
Exercise: Modernist writers
Week 13 Chance and Creativity, Adaptation, and Learning
Vladimir Nabokov (1951), “The Vane Sisters”
Persi Diaconis and Fredrick Mosteller (1989), “Methods for Studying Coincidences,” Journal of American Statistical Association 84: 853-861.
Challenge: Real world strange coincidences that made a difference.
Week 14 Novelty and Emergence
Crutchfield, James P. (1994), “Is Anything Ever New? Considering Emergence,”
Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality. (pp. 479-497).
Games: Interpretation and misinterpretation.
Week 15 Review
What can we do with the information we have learned from this class to help improve our effectiveness in the world?
Looks like a great course. I know tech executives who would benefit.
This sounds amazing! It also sounds completely above my pay grade at the moment but I hope it finds the right audience!