What would you say to the idea that, before the dawn of history, the primate species Homo sapiens was colonized by an alien life-form and that humanity has been utterly oblivious to this invasion -- that people today go about their business believing they are masters of their destiny when in fact they have long been enslaved? Am I a crackpot gone off his medication, or a peddler of cheesy science fiction? Neither! Hear me out. A sensationalist introduction notwithstanding, what I propose in this essay is an utterly earnest and original theory regarding the emergence of life -- specifically, that life on Earth did not emerge just once, but that it continues to emerge in self-similar stages stacked one upon another. I argue that in its most recent stages life has crossed-over from biology into the realm of mimetic behavior, that languages and organizations are living organisms for which Homo sapiens is merely a platform, and that almost all aspects of human behavior are organized by the metabolic and reproductive functions of these new life-forms. Even if you wind up disagreeing with me, I promise food for thought.
We don't yet know exactly how life on Earth began; but some four billion years ago chemical processes in the primordial environment first began to reproduce themselves. Drawing energy from the environment, endothermic reactions produced complex molecules that were broken down again by a variety of exothermic reactions. Some reaction chains were cyclical. Those that used the stored energy to reorganize molecules in ways that better satisfied their initial conditions, e.g. by pumping ions, catalyzed multiple repetitions of themselves. As these autocatalytic reactions proliferated they had to compete with one another for access to precursor molecules and energy. Under selective pressure, some variants came to exploit others, and these self-replicating processes and their co-evolved interdependencies acquired complexity and eventually developed into a self-contained form resembling the most simple bacteria we know today, the Prokaryotes, which are essentially bags of organic molecules that reproduce by budding.
Once Prokaryotes had emerged, they too began to beneficially organize themselves into localized communities, like biofilms, in which interdependent and interacting constituents also co-evolved specialized functions. Just as had previously occurred at the molecular level, interactions among the constituents acquired complexity through co-evolution, and localized clusters of these interacting Prokaryotes became self-contained and began reproducing themselves -- this time by the more sophisticated mechanism of mitosis. These new organisms were Eukaryotes, cells having organelles, like mitochondria and chloroplasts, harking back to their simpler, prokaryotic progenitors.
After that, the Eukaryotes began to organize themselves into cooperating colonies. Guided by an evolved capability to specialize in response to chemical triggers from other cells, it became possible for the formation of an entire cellular colony to be recapitulated through ontogeny beginning from a single eukaryotic cell. As these colonial organisms evolved more elaborate structure and function, they became the first multicellular organisms -- from which sprang most of the biological diversity with which we are familiar at human scales.
In sum, biological life emerged in distinct stages - stages that built upon each other. Each new stage organized from interacting processes and structures evolved at the previous stage. Interacting molecular processes evolved to become Prokaryotes, collections of prokaryotic-stage constituents evolved to become Eukaryotes, and colonies of eukaryotic cells became multi-cellular organisms. Each stage began from aggregations in which interdependencies among increasingly specialized interacting components were refined by competitive pressure into highly specialized, self-replicating systems. As each stage became complete, it became the platform for the next stage, recapitulating and "solving" the problem of self-replication anew -- albeit at a larger physical scale and using different componentry. At each stage, the fittest scheme crowded-out less competitive rivals so that today we are left with what appear to be a few nearly-miraculous leaps of biological engineering. In this sense, contrary to prevailing opinion, life on earth did not emerge just once. It has re-emerged several times, in major generations of complexity stacked one upon another. Incredibly, this recursively built, self-organized hierarchy of complexity aggregates not millions, not billions, but trillions of cells to form just one human being.
While every species with which we share the planet is also arguably at the pinnacle of biological evolution, Homo Sapiens would seem to enjoy peculiar success. Is something special going on, and if so can it continue? Some folks fret that human ascendancy could someday be challenged by robots, or space aliens; but most, if they give it any thought at all, believe natural selection will bear our species gloriously forward -- that the bathing-ape that is Man will evolve to become smarter, live longer, etc. But, this is almost certainly not what the relentless process of emergence has in store for us. Selective pressure on Homo sapiens has been greatly altered by modern conditions -- with the result that as individuals we are actually less hardy than our ancestors. But how biological humans will, or won't, evolve is largely beside the point. What I suggest instead is that life has already stepped across the next great threshold of self-organization. Homo Sapiens has been subjugated, and the process that elevated our species to a seemingly privileged position in the natural order has already moved on. Though the signs of a sea-change are all around us, we don't yet recognize this transition for what it really is. But, before we get to that, we must first take a fresh look at behavior.
BRAINS AND BEHAVIOR
Evolution took a wild turn with the emergence of animal life. Unlike plants, animals hijack the energy stores of other organisms to survive. This was a game changer that precipitated a whole new level, and a different kind, of complexity. Predation, and defense against it, necessitated the evolution of sensory apparatus, a central nervous system, and instinctive responses to stimuli. With brains, behavioral adaptation became possible. Because organisms that learn become more fit with experience animals grew bigger, got smarter, and lived longer.
Rapidly escalating competition among animals led to an almost absurd flowering of phylogenetic diversity. As such, we have brains to thank, not only for the wondrous repertoire of behavior we exhibit, but also for the ruthless ecology from which we evolved. But, it is the brain's enabling role in social behavior that is of special interest here. Therein lies the key to understanding our evolutionary predicament, and destiny. Many animal species behave socially, and have done so for eons. Bees and ants, for example, cooperate instinctively in response to each others' signals about threats or food. But of greater significance than innate social behavior is the capability for mimicry.
Mimicry laid the foundation to overcome a severe shortcoming of brains -- that learning expires at death. By combining learning with social behavior, mimicry enables learnt skills to be preserved. With mimicry it became possible for one individual to transfer its learnings to another. Though mimicry first emerged to enable parents to pass skills vertically, as when bears teach their cubs to fish, thereby increasing the fitness of their offspring, mimicry has been appropriated to allow skills to be passed laterally through social groups, too. A skill propagated by mimicry can outlive individual members of a social group and can in principle persist indefinitely. What's more, imitated skills can be improved upon as they are passed along. The ability to learn from one another, strongly evolved in mammals and also in birds, began a momentous schism. Once skills became transmissible by imitation, an organism's fitness was no longer determined exclusively by heritable traits. Evolution diverged from biology and began to operate on behavior. Learned behaviors themselves began to evolve.
Let's pause here. We have just been talking about social behavior of animals -- that is to say, a collection of organisms cooperating to exploit their environment. This should sound vaguely familiar. Are animals interacting in social groups not reminiscent of the interacting collections of molecules that led to prokaryotic bacteria, or the communities of prokaryotic bacteria that led to eukaryotic cells, or the colonies of eukaryotic cells that led to multi-cellular organisms? Why should we have supposed that the piling-on of evolutionary complexity that each time began with from interaction among organisms at the previous stage of life, would somehow stop with multi-cellular organisms? If it does not stop and a grand new stage of life were to begin, would we not expect it to emerge from the interaction of organisms at the latest stage of biological emergence -- in other words, from the interaction of multi-cellular organisms?
That's right, I would argue that social behavior in animals marks nothing less than the inception of a new stage in the emergence of life on Earth. Let's take this radical idea a step further. If the emergence of life from social behavior follows the same pattern as previous stages, social interactions will evolve highly specialized interdependencies. Those interdependencies should, over time, become self-contained and self-replicating. Social entities will themselves begin to reproduce and evolve. If you are wondering what form living organisms constituted from social behavior might eventually take, you needn't. It has already happened and is plain as day. The next stage in the emergence of terrestrial life is already highly advanced and clearly discernable in the social behavior of human beings.
It is a far cry from simple mimicry to the kind of complexity one would expect from a new stage of life; but mimicry is very highly developed in humans. It is arguably what we do best. The evolutionary geneticist and science advocate, Richard Dawkins, coined the term "meme" to describe the basic units of mimetic behavior pervasive in humans. Memes are said to be the "atoms" of mimetic behavior. Some are imitated non-verbal behaviors. Others are verbal, but pre-linguistic. Still others are repeated bits of language. Memes are said to be all the gestures, jingles, tics, fashions, tropes, turns of phrase, trends and other irreducible building-blocks of behavior that are copied and spread within a culture.
Take, for example, a joke. Carol tells Bob the joke at the water cooler. Because Bob finds it funny, he repeats it to his friends Ted and Alice, who in turn tell their friends, and so on. One person adopts the joke-meme after experiencing its performance by another because he/she find its invocation/evocation pleasurable/cathartic. But, not everyone repeats the joke. Each person reacts according to which other memes they have been exposed and their current mental state. Memes that resonate with a critical fraction of those to whom they are exposed propagate quickly and widely. Their spread is exponential -- just like an epidemic or, for that matter, a chain-reaction.
Though memes are inorganic, even incorporeal, Dawkins' insight was that imitated behaviors evolve under selective pressure much as genes do. For memes to survive, they must propagate, and for that they attract our attention and compel repetition. To commandeer human resources, they compete with one another for human mind-share and our limited behavioral bandwidth. Although many behaviors aren't imitated and don't replicate; those having a stable and contagious form propagate virally. Each successful meme is an highly imitable behavioral pattern almost perfectly adapted to replicate by exploiting the behavior of human hosts. When we bungle their performance, memes mutate; and, because only the fittest of the resulting variants continue to be replicated, they evolve.
Like most evolutionary breakthroughs, mimetic behavior had humble origins and at first brought only modest benefits; but, memes are now central to human behavior. Memes are everywhere, clamoring for our attention. From cradle to grave, in every social interaction, we incessantly receive, remix, and regurgitate them. Although some would define memes narrowly, and regard them as a behavioral curiosity, the radical interpretation is that human beings are no more, and no less, than meme machines. In this view, which I advocate, pretty much everything we do or say is comprised of and influenced by memes.
"LANGUAGE IS A VIRUS"
"Language", wrote William Burroughs, "is a virus." Was Burroughs just being provocative? Maybe. But, when I first heard this meme, echoed by performance-artist Laurie Anderson in the 1980's, it seemed to me to contain the seed of a profound idea. Is it possible to understand language as being alive -- not figuratively, but in some meaningful sense distinct from biology?It wasn't until our ancestors began to use imitated vocalizations to signify things that the full potential of mimetic behavior was realized. As grunts reified animals in their absence, significations came to exist apart from their signifiers and abstraction became possible. Phrases that brought words together in structured combination to express ideas made for more powerful memes. In the form of song, ritual, and proverbs, language-based memes passed-along wisdom that helped our ancestors hunt in teams, build fires, tend crops, and care for children. As vocal behavior memes grew more complex, words and phrase-structures were selected-for, and language converged into the standardized framework with nearly limitless expressive capability that we know today.
Language behavior co-evolved with human biology to help propagate survival skills. It took root in Homo sapiens' highly evolved capability for imitation and emerged simultaneously with the skill memes it conveyed. Because it helped us survive, our vocal chords and the centers of our brain appropriated to support it have adapted. But, evolutionary enhancements notwithstanding, language acquired complexity far too quickly to have evolved biologically. Rather, language is better understood as a system of learned behaviors that self-organized as they passed from one person to another through memes. It is an evolved behavior that emerged from mimesis by exploiting more primitive, biologically-evolved capabilities for vocal signalling and imitation.
But, can language really be said to be alive? We have seen that individual memes are, in a sense, contagious; but most people today would balk at the suggestion that they are living organisms. Memes, like viruses, temporarily and opportunistically exploit another organism -- Homo sapiens -- to reproduce. While they encapsulate an encoding of their own content and structure sufficient for reproduction, and they evolve, they do not reproduce themselves directly. Just as viruses must invade cells and misdirect another organism's cellular machinery to get themselves reproduced, memes must induce human performance to replicate. Yet, science expects "living" organisms to reproduce by themselves, and in this sense individual memes would seem to be no more alive than viruses.
That said, no species lives or reproduces entirely in isolation. All have co-evolved and are interdependent. They are inseparably linked in complex ways through ecosystems and the environment. Though animals, as noted, must devour other organisms for energy, no one quarrels they aren't alive. Why then aren't parasites that reproduce by exploiting the reproductive machinery of other organisms also considered to be alive? Maybe our definitions, bent on isolating organisms for the purpose of discriminating between species, are barriers to a deeper understanding. It is my contention that the independent, self-contained replication that science requires of "living" organisms occurs only toward the end of a gradual process in which external processes are assimilated and subjugated.
Initially, reproductive processes are never tidily encapsulated. Certainly, the earliest biological processes had to have begun self-organizing in chemistry that was not, at-first, self-contained. Each new stage of life gets its start from an ecology in an open environment in which some processes symbiotically exploit others through localized interactions. When those interactions are computationally universal, self-replication can eventually emerge. Once it does, complexity accretes as interdependent and co-evolving processes become specialized and variants that better manage this growing complexity are selected-for. Eventually, the emerging organism assumes full responsibility for the well-being of the constituents on which it depends, and consolidates control by incorporating them through a process known as endosymbiosis. Only at this point does the emergent organism qualify, in the eyes of contemporary science, as "life".
But let's set aside, for the moment, the moot issue of whether individual memes are alive and consider, instead, languages in their entirety. The ability to use a language like English, for example, results from the assiduous imitation of a highly-structured collection of many interdependent, learned behaviors. Broadly construed to encompass all of its supporting and enabling behaviors, a language like English is best understood as an elaborate meme-complex. This meme complex does not simply enable us to speak and understand, it also organizes the interactions necessary to spread itself to new hosts. The latter point is crucial. The meme complex of language includes a complete, self-contained set of behaviors for routinely and reliably effectuating its own reproduction -- exploiting mimicry to propagate to our biological offspring, and others. It reproduces itself.
GHOST IN THE MACHINE
Seen in this way, does language not exhibit exactly the properties we expected to find in the next stage of emergence? Were we not expecting to see patterns of self-organization and replication emerge from the social behavior of multi-cellular organisms? Regardless of whether or not contemporary scientists deign to recognize individual memes as living organisms, languages are another matter. My claim is that life, having already emerged in at least three major biological generations, has emerged once again, this time through mimetic behavior, from the shrieks and grunts of our primate forebears.
The emergence of a complete, self-reproducing capability from imitated vocal interactions can only be understood as the accomplishment of a highly-evolved, living organism. The hallmark of life is when as an initially parasitic reproductive process takes on responsibility for managing the life-cycle and well-being of the constituents that host it. In this sense, language is unmistakably alive. Far more than a passive tool for communication, it is a wonder of self-organization that has bootstrapped itself into dominance over human behavior. Language is a system of imitated behavior that reproduces by diverting the innate behavior of its host in exchange for the improved fitness that results from an ability to communicate. This diversion is not superficial or transient. Although language began as a parasitic infestation of mimicked signaling behavior, it has long since taken over -- to the point where language-driven behavior is the dominant feature of human activity and our biological species has come to depend upon it for reproduction and survival.
With language, life has transcended organic chemistry and crossed-over into the realm of human mimetic behavior. Although co-evolved with, and dependent upon, human biology, because language reproduces by an entirely different mechanism, it cannot be regarded as anything less than a new and completely distinct form of life. So, where phylogeny previously recognized only biological organisms, behavioral organisms must now be reckoned with. Indeed, the tree of languages is really just a missing branch of the tree of evolution. Language is mimetic life's first "domain". Each distinct human language (English, Japanese, etc.) is a species within that domain. And, each human being typically becomes an instance of one such language species -- a language organism -- upon learning to speak.
Though the idea that language is a social parasite that infests our biological species through imitated behavior is new, even startling, as a life-form language is hardly incipient. It is well-established, highly-evolved, and already exhibits considerable complexity of its own. It is also ubiquitous. Thousands of evolving language species actively compete for control over a limited supply of biological hosts. This "new" form of life has been living right under our noses for millennia!
Although language's takeover has been typical of that of a new stage of life, it is understandably puzzling from the perspective of its biological hosts. It is the ghost in the machine. By this I mean that each human being is not a single living organism but rather a tightly-entwined, co-dependent pair of organisms from different domains locked in a symbiotic relationship. The host is clearly biological -- the primate species Homo sapiens. The parasite, from multi-cellular life's successor stage, is the living complex of mimetic behavior corresponding to that individual's native language. Only when a biological host is "infected" by systematic exposure to language behavior, does that biological host also become a host to a language organism. Once infected, the host is equipped with a behavioral program that can propagate the language to other biological hosts -- typically, though not necessarily, the host's biological offspring. This language organism -- our inner voice, if you will -- inhabits our minds and pilots our physical activity. It enables us to communicate, talk to ourselves, and reason. It enables us to acquire behaviors from other language-infected hosts, and then transmit those behaviors to others. These language-vectored behaviors override our biological instincts, and yet they are what make us "human".
In light of this, we may well ask -- is being "human" not in the ape, but in aping? I believe so. People cling to the notion that there is nothing more going on than people making babies and activating in them an innate capability for speech that is their biological birthright; but this anthropocentric perspective has limited explanatory power. The alternate view, that language is a new stage of life and that biological humans are the substrate on which language itself is evolving, provides a unifying explanation not only for the emergence of language, but for human civilization and many aspects of our behavior that cannot easily be accounted for as consequences of biology. Homo sapiens, the primate, are simply a platform for language. As far as language is concerned, it doesn't even matter which apes do the talking.
It won't be easy to get a consensus that language is truly alive; but, if language's self-evident ability to organize humanity in order to reproduce itself is not sufficiently compelling, what more do we expect? Exo-biologists already struggle with the question of how we ought to recognize new forms of life when we first encounter them. Flying saucers full of laser-wielding humanoids should be easy enough to agree upon, but most of us know better than to expect that evolution on other worlds will deliver us comic-book caricatures of terrestrial life. Our predisposition to look for carbon-based chemistry and photosynthesis is only slightly less farcical. Life that emerges in cold dark places might easily get energy from volcanic vents, or parasitically exploit the energy reserves of other organisms like earth's animals do.
Stripped of our biases, what remains is a principally mathematical notion. Life is not about organic chemistry, it is more about "entropy" -- or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Entropy measures the degree disorder of matter. A box of hot gas molecules has higher entropy than an equal number of molecules frozen into a crystalline structure because the gas is more disordered. It takes more bits of information to describe the state of gas molecules than the frozen ones. That's because the state of the molecules frozen in a crystal can be summarized efficiently in terms of a recurrent structure, whereas for the gas we would need to specify the velocity of each and every rebounding molecule.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the most fundamental and cherished ideas in physics, tells us that entropy increases over time in any closed physical system. This means that in any box of matter you might choose to observe, heat naturally diffuses, molecules tend to disperse, and structures eventually crumble. Strangely, life goes the opposite way. Living organisms are exceedingly orderly, and become more orderly as they evolve. As noted, the human body is a hierarchy of trillions of cells. The probability of such an elaborate, ordered structure emerging by chance from a vat of molecules is unthinkably remote. And yet, in a sense, that is what happened. Moreover, it happens over and over again each time an organism reproduces. Living things routinely accomplish this otherwise mindbogglingly improbable feat by replicating their own structure in the environment. It is precisely this spontaneous appearance of improbable order, or "negentropy", that distinguishes life from inanimate matter.
But, even though life defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it cannot violate it. Imposing order by reproduction uses energy and requires a metabolism. The energy used is dissipated as heat -- which is disordered molecular motion. So, living things create even more molecular disorder around themselves even as they impose order locally to reproduce, and the total entropy of any closed system containing living organisms continues to increase as required by the Second Law. So, if your chosen box of matter contains life, it will manifest transient, localized thermodynamic inhomogeneities -- a freakish spreading rash of improbably similar, metabolic hot-spots having anomalous, hierarchically self-similar substructure. Some have complained that such a characterization is insufficiently specific because it applies equally well to patterns of human industrial development as it does to a cage of rabbits, but that is precisely my point. Maybe not all life on earth is biological.
LIFE WILL OUT
The foregoing digression in statistical physics notwithstanding, life isn't really even about organized states of matter, it is ultimately only about information processes. In one of the most bizarre and delightful confluences of modern science, thermodynamics and information theory have been deeply linked. If, as just noted, life expels heat as it imposes structure on matter, we can equivalently say that life expels entropy as it concentrates information. This leads us at last toward a fully general definition for life. Any information process that exhibits self-organizing complexity by using energy to reproduce and evolve is alive. Biochemistry provided one such system for life to emerge in. I claim that mimetic vocal behavior provided another. But, life could just as easily emerge from complex interactions in other kinds of environments, too - a soup of simulated bits interacting according to computationally universal rules, such as in cellular automata, for instance.
In this sense, life is much like a "quine" -- a computer program that reproduces itself. But, instead of running on a desktop computer where there is a clear distinction between program and data, living things are programs that reside and run in the data environment on which they operate. The environment functions like a parallel computer in which constituents (organic molecules, mimetic behaviors, etc.) are endlessly interacting to generate new data configurations and programs. Within that environment, only processes that can systematically reorganize constituents to initiate separate, equivalent processes, also capable of self-replication, are said to be alive.
To accomplish this trick, a living organism needs, at a minimum, both an encoding of its own structure and an energetic mechanism to reorganize proximate bits. Of the vastly many random configurations one might find in a complex environment, only a precious few, if any, will satisfy this requirement by chance. Even an ocean full of highly reactive ingredients may need to blunder through many state-changes before even the simplest self-replicating configuration appears even once. But, the appearance of only one such self-replicating process is all that is necessary to reach the first rung and begin climbing the ladder of emergence.
It doesn't matter that in biology living programs are encoded in DNA and operate on organic chemistry, or that for language they are encoded in words and operate on human behavior. Regardless of the form of data and method of execution, once a computationally universal system stumbles upon a self-replicating configuration, living programs run amok, filling the environment with replicas. As they proliferate, they transform their environment -- often preempting the emergence of similar organisms by consuming resources. As resources are depleted and replication reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, competition heats-up, and interacting and interdependent variants evolve. After attaining sufficient complexity, a new stage of life will self-organize from interactions among those variants, encapsulating metabolic and reproductive processes as it does so -- and the process of self-organization moves to the next level and repeats.
Thus, in any complex system, after sufficiently many states have been visited, life will inevitably out. Indeed, I would propose that it is by demonstrating the evolved emergence of self-replication in a system of simulated interactions that this theory of the origins of life can best be confirmed.
So far, I have argued that human language is a self-replicating complex of imitated vocal behaviors that co-evolved with our species by enabling us to share information pertinent to survival. Having discussed how the ability to use language arose, and why it qualifies as a new form of life, let us now turn our attention back to what is being said. It isn't simply "Look out for that tiger!" or "Where did you find those berries?", anymore. Inevitably, some of the things we say get repeated and have also begun to propagate as memes. Of course it is by repeating things that we communicate and learn language in the first place; but many memes we propagate using language these days aren't helping us survive -- at least not directly -- nor are they involved in language reproduction. Most language behavior is now devoted to the expression of ideas -- memes that induce shared mental states and influence behavior. These memes are not part of language itself. Rather, they are parasites that exploit language and are built upon it. They require language to propagate, but have their own emergent properties and reproduce independently.
Idea memes thoroughly infest our use of language. In the warp and woof of nearly every utterance we find the unruly strands of ideas struggling to reproduce. Some confer fitness upon us; but others are utterly superfluous. For example, when we chat with our friends about a restaurant, we unwittingly traffic ideas about cuisine, brands, the desirability of locations etc. Many -- arguably, most -- such ideas bedevil us for no greater purpose than to perpetuate themselves. They arise incidentally, with a bit of cultural midwifery, when one influential person, stimulated by something another has said, or what they interpret as having been said, uses language to induce the same thought pattern in others. But, when we attempt to trace their origin, we find that no one really authors ideas from nought. Rather, they are continually emitted and re-absorbed in a volatile mix of persons infected by other, previous ideas. Each absorption perturbs the profoundly complex state of one individual, and that individual, according to their state, may re-emit the idea in encounters with other persons, later. As a result ideas are constantly being recycled and are furiously co-evolving. In this sense, all ideas are distantly, though unrecognizably, descended from the ancient survival memes that language first evolved to express.
Before the advent of writing, all ideas were ephemeral. They sank or swam in the medium of vocal behavior, and survived only as long as they could be sustained by memory and oral tradition. Because the behavioral bandwidth necessary for their continued existence was limited, competition among idea memes for performance was undoubtedly fierce. When writing first came into systematic use, some 5,000 years ago, things changed. Idea memes gained vastly enhanced transmissibility and found permanence apart from speech. By altering the fundamentals of meme transmission, writing catalyzed a state-change in human society. Human culture became, effectively, a superconductor for ideas. This phase-transition brought the original diaspora of language -- the expansion phase of the language big-bang -- to a close. By forcing linguistic consistency over wider geographic areas, writing caused languages to congeal in their current, relatively stable form. But, by simultaneously enabling denser and more complex societies, writing brought about a critical mass of language interactions, and complex ideas began self-organizing from language interactions just as previous strata of life self-organized from interactions among their predecessors. My claim, as the astute reader will already have guessed, is that from this starting point ideas became the basis of yet another stage of life -- a stage beyond language.
THE TYRANNY OF CULTURE
Though a simple idea can propagate by a slogan; robust idea systems do not rely on specific language -- at least not for long. They instead propagate in carefully crafted ensembles that their conscripts continually reinforce and replace. "Marxism", for instance, cannot be reduced to a slogan or sound-bite without significant information-loss. As with most ideas of consequence, it requires a book, or at least an essay, to instill the gist of it. Memes in media, like those in books and film, are seldom independently viable. They are bound together, like the miserable oarsmen of a Viking longboat, to propel the vessels that sustain them.
Once loosed, ideas are notoriously tough to suppress. In the wild, no central authority governs them. Because they are reproduced through the exchange of a continually regenerating and evolving set of memes, ideas are distributed, redundant, and remarkably fault-tolerant. By tuning our sensibilities and predisposing us toward certain patterns of thought, the medium of culture amplifies some ideas and attenuates others. Ultimately, it is only the collective machinery of culture that "decides" which ideas survive.
Civilization is thus an emergent phenomenon arising from intercourse in ideas. Ideas generate culture, and it is through culture that ideas, in turn, control us, its hosts. These evolving idea systems coalesce upon each person differently and manifest themselves unpredictably. At the individual level their control is not strictly deterministic, and our behavior is not minutely scripted. But in spite of this, idea systems determine almost everything we do. They shape our collective behavior. While their local effect may seem haphazard, their collective influence exhibits extraordinary coherence. We believe ourselves to be acting willfully with respect to them, but our putatively "free" choices are determined by the cumulative influence of all those ideas with which we have previously been infected. These influences, instilled by parents, peers, educators, and the media, are usually too complex to discriminate; but their control is nevertheless total.
What's more, the degree of organization idea systems impose on us is unmistakably increasing. Civilization is continually contriving new and better ways to muster Homo sapiens and link us together. With each passing year, greater fractions of the population are concentrated in metropolitan areas, new communication technologies are developed, and human networks grow more extensive. The self-reinforcing march of progress -- from oral traditions to inscriptions, scrolls, books, radio, television, and now the internet -- is organizing us to percolate ideas ever more efficiently.
In this sense, civilization is not the proud product of individual human accomplishments, as we commonly imagine, but is rather a living and evolving system of behaviors being acted out by a fungible and forgettable cast. We apes are continually hounded and possessed by the incorporeal throng of ideas that surround us and we behave almost entirely at their behest. These ghostly entities are manifest only through imitated patterns of behavior and their media spores; but by motivating and constraining us, and herding us about, the dominant ideas of culture have diverted most human activity to their own ends. Indeed, without the ideas that knit it together, our comfortable modern world would immediately unravel.
CREATIVITY AND VOLITION
As a byproduct of our increasingly efficient organization and interaction, we combine and emit new ideas in endless profusion -- with occasionally delightful results. But, if all the ideas knocking about in our heads are but borrowed puzzle pieces, evolving with use, where does this leave Man's vaunted free-will and creativity? When our creations go viral and themselves become memes, have we simply gotten lucky with a juxtaposition of borrowed ideas? It will be cold comfort to Humanists, but the good news is that people don't just randomly combine memes. We play a self-conscious, eager -- one might say, obsessive/compulsive -- role in stringing them together. Culture has evolved to shrewdly encourage this. Human brains have evolved a natural affinity for simple, powerful, and reductive ideas. Our creativity compels us to find cathartic combinations, and culture selects and disseminates the best of them. Creativity and invention occur when individuals at the nexus of relevant memes exercise exceptional puzzle-solving ability to find those combinations. In the parlance of machine-learning, we would say that humans being are being used to stochastically search for free-energy minimizing solutions to the challenges of idea reproduction and survival.
The bad news, at least for those who hold that course of history is determined by Great Men, is that innovation occurs only when the necessary precursor memes have proliferated in sufficient concentrations so that an appropriately situated innovator can pull them together by chance and society is primed to propagate the innovation. Of course, someone will always be first in arriving at any new idea, and we may as well celebrate our creative pioneers; but once the conditions for discovery are ripe, it is only a matter of time before someone closes the gap. The idea that a particular discoverer is entitled to control over an idea, and the concept of intellectual "property" in general, is deeply flawed because it neglects the contribution of precursors and assigns ownership to the last person in the creative supply-chain. Ideas and their convergence rightfully belong to the culture as a whole, not to any individual. Culture as a whole brews ideas. Individual humans are but agents of their revelation.
So, given that language and meme systems based on it so thoroughly organize human behavior, who is using whom? Is it Homo sapiens who use language and ideas to survive and reproduce, or rather is it ideas and language that are using Homo sapiens to reproduce? The answer has always been both. Language and Homo sapiens co-evolved in a symbiotic partnership. But, this partnership is not an equal one. The balance of power has shifted. Language, once Homo sapiens's most potent tool, has become his master. Language opened the door to ideas, and now the ecology of ideas -- civilization -- is more complex, and evolving more rapidly, than our biology. Its workings are sublime beyond the fathoming of any single person, and we are utterly enslaved by it.
Simple ideas divert the behavior of language-enabled hosts to get themselves replicated -- much as viruses exploit living cells, or languages exploit mimetic vocalization. Those that do not fully organize the life-cycle of their hosts to reproduce do not qualify as "living" organisms; but, as already noted, ideas would seem to be the parasitic precursors and harbingers of a new stage of Life. How would a new stage of Life based on ideas manifest itself? As far it conforms to the pattern we have noted for previous stages, we'd expect self-reproducing systems of ideas to emerge from language interactions, and full-fledged, living idea systems to reproduce themselves by dominating and managing language behavior. Do we, as yet, observe communities that cohere and reproduce through language vectored behaviors? Of course we do! Nations, religions, and corporations are unmistakable examples of organizations not centrally occupied with language reproduction, but rather constituted from systems of idea-driven behavior that divert language to reproduce.
Human organizations are thus the behavioral manifestation -- the phenotype -- of idea systems, and they occur in great variety. Some have few members, while others have many. In some, participation is transitory, while for others membership is permanent. While their mechanism is more apparent in formal, chartered organizations, the same processes are at work even in the most informal, spontaneous ones. Organizations arise whenever language-enabled humans are infected by, and behave according to idea memes. They self-organize when ideas hijack human language interaction to induce coherent behavior. This behavior includes, of course, propagating memes that reinforce the organization and recruit others to it.
The supply of human behavior from which to create and sustain organizations is, however, limited. Because people generally behave according to only one meme at-a-time, organizations as diverse as consumer brands, religious cults, and street-gangs must compete with one another for mind-share and performance. It is their clamor for our participation that accounts for the great many otherwise inexplicable idea memes that circulate in our culture.
The simplest of these "organizations" are little more than conceptual colonies to which individuals temporarily and preferentially attach, yet even simple organizations offer important clues as to how colonies of interdependent and interacting entities make the transition to self-contained replication beginning from parasitic information processes. More complex organizations, on the other hand, can exhibit all the systematic, self-contained reproductive capability expected of full-fledged living organisms. Those that manage the life-cycle of their human constituents and spawn fully-functioning, independent child entities -- themselves capable of reproduction based on the same foundational ideas -- hover on the borderline of Life. Let's consider some examples to see how far this new stage of Life has progressed.
As already noted, jokes spread like viruses, using memes that hijack believers one-at-a-time. The organizations they create, if they can be called organizations at all, have only minimal behavioral requirements. You are either "in" on the joke, or not. Superstitions reproduce in a manner similar to jokes. But religions, though they have origins in superstition, are much more complicated. They tend to propagate, like the jostling bacteria on a Petri dish, through the growth and subdivision of cellular communities. In some sense these communities incorporate and manage their local constituents as living organisms do. They demand lifelong participation through ritual and traditionally defined roles, and their ideological basis is preserved through redundant programming and mutual reinforcement. As children are born and indoctrinated by their parents, these communities grow. But due to the way they are organized, they cannot grow indefinitely. As a result they exhibit self-organizing criticality. When a cell reaches its logistical critical-point, a neighboring cell is established through the subdivision of resources.
By contrast, religious orders like convents and monasteries reproduce in a manner more closely resembling biological spores. Evangelists seed and recapitulate the formation of the parent organization through recruitment at remote locations. Religious orders are particularly interesting because of the degree to which they are physically and metabolically self-contained. This arrangement also nearly satisfies the conditions for Life because it physically segregate proselytes in cloisters where their basic human needs are met and where behaviors that reinforce and perpetuate the organization are carefully managed.
Governments are still more sophisticated. Although primitive governmental organizations, like tribal groups, reproduced by cellular division, more recent forms of government propagate through conquest and colonialism. Like primitive animals, they are predatory and use propaganda memes and geo-political narratives to consolidate control over human hosts, spread geographically, and compete for resources. They adapt as fresh memes learnt through conquest and trade induce citizens to depart from established behavioral pathways, and as behavioral variations that overcome logistical challenges and serve the interests of the State are preferentially adopted.
Modern nations far exceed the extent to which even religious orders incorporate and subjugate their constituents. These geographically self-contained entities self-organize elaborate and interdependent metabolic pathways from human behavior and territorially isolate and culturally manage their human constituents throughout their entire lives -- coercing support and regulating their activity through highly specialized regimes of education, propaganda, taxation, regulation, military service, and public works. This complexity -- typically managed in a hierarchical, multi-cellular structure of federal, state, and municipal governments -- provides about as breathtaking a realization of large-scale, self-organized and self-contained metabolic complexity as can be imagined at the level of human behavior.
Before discussing organizations further, let's talk about their relationship to language. As Life's latest stage, organizations teeter atop a fragile hierarchy of other living processes. Just as languages depend on and co-evolve with apes, organizations depend on the well-being of their chatterbox hosts. Without language speakers, organizations could not persist and replicate. In general, each new stage of life cannot begin to acquire complexity and provide a basis for the next stage of life until it has stabilized and subordinated the preceding stage. In particular, complex modern organizations could not have evolved until the invention of writing stabilized language and technologies like printing increased its reach.
For languages, the fits and starts of evolution, frequent at the beginning of a new stage, are increasingly few and far between. In their current, stable form, spoken languages dominate an ecological niche. This occupation tends to exclude what might otherwise be promising alternatives for mimetic communication among Homo Sapiens. For example, we can imagine that hand signs may once have competed with vocalization as the basis for human communication. But if they did, they have long been crowded-out by spoken language's current, robust form. Now sign languages persist in an ecological niche -- primarily for use among the deaf. New, and possibly even better, forms of human mimetic communication are still possible; but are exceedingly unlikely to usurp spoken language's preeminence as the primary vector for human organization given the level to which human organization has evolved and the degree to which that organization depends on it. Any newly emerged and un-evolved form of language would be ill-equipped to compete for performance bandwidth against spoken language due to the extent to which it has already evolved and suffices. As organization evolve further, they will only continue to reinforce the dominance of the languages on which they are based, and the apes that speak them.
Perhaps the rapid burst of evolution at the outset of each new stage of Life explains why Life's stages have occurred in a linear succession, with only one stage based upon another, rather than in a hierarchy with multiple, different forms of life self-organizing from each predecessor stage. Because each new type of organism rapidly exploits resources and transforms its environment as soon as the preceding stage has sufficiently stabilized, there is a pronounced first-mover advantage. Rival schemes for exploiting interactions to harness resources are starved-off until only a single dominant strategy remains at each stage. Moreover, competition for control over the predecessor organisms from multiple successors would not work well, as each new stage has a strong evolutionary incentive to ensure the stability and well-being of the interacting entities on which it depends by exercising exclusive control over them.
So, with languages somewhat settled in their present form, self-organization based on ideas now proceeds in earnest. A whole new epoch, dominated by organizations that reproduce through idea-systems, is rapidly unfolding in our midst. Different organizational schema, like religions and government, variously compete and cooperate as they vie for control over chatterbox hosts. Yet, in evolutionary terms, it is still early days. While ideas undeniably inspire an enormous amount of activity, the organizations they create have yet to subjugate their constituents as fully as previous stages of life have subjugated theirs. Nature is, apparently, still experimenting. New idea systems and types of organization continue to appear and a wide variety of strategies are currently in-play.
So, although it seems likely there will ultimately be only one organizational schema for humanity, it is not entirely certain which will predominate. That said, I strongly suspect that the chaotic, initial phase of this latest stage of life is nearing its end. Recent forms of organization, like multi-level marketing, purposefully produce offspring that preserve the parent organization's essential characteristics. It will not be long before one such organizational scheme outstrips others. My bet is that the battle for control over humanity will not be won by any of the organizational schemes that descend from religion or government. Rather, I believe one of the more recent organizational schemata -- the public corporation -- will emerge preeminent.
The modern corporation dates back only to 1602, when investors in the Dutch East India Company, seeking to fund costly trading expeditions to the Orient, issued shares of their company stock and established a bourse for trading them. In one sense, this was just a clever new scheme to raise money for commercial enterprise. But, issuing publicly traded shares necessitated a paradigm shift in corporate finance and governance. By enabling public investors to share risk, control, and profit, the Dutch East India Company became the prototype for contemporary multinationals and has changed the world in ways we are only beginning to fully appreciate.
Corporations are metabolic processes powered by capital. Money is like sugar to them. It stores energy -- quite literally, the potential to do "work". You can trace the value of this work all the way through the supply-chain, to the raw energy of the sun stored in fossil fuels. Corporations subsist and grow by using this energy, either directly or by its monetary proxies, to create goods and services for other economic entities. As long corporations generate and store enough energy to sustain their metabolisms -- that is, avoid insolvency -- they can persist indefinitely. Here, metabolism is not a metaphor. Corporations are true metabolic organisms that, as surely as their organic cousins, compete for energy to impose their design on the environment. These designs include enslaving language-enabled humans to implement and reproduce their processes.
Public corporations are a terrific example of an evolutionary breakthrough. As nations gathered complexity, a new merchant class emerged, and the system of laws necessary to arbitrate commercial disputes provided the foundation for defining public corporations. Using nascent contract law to enforce the rules of incorporation and ownership, corporations were suddenly freed to develop as organizational entities independently of idiosyncratic owners. Joint ownership, and limited liability -- incremental solutions to modest technical problems -- precipitated an evolutionary cascade of other refinements. In particular, the rigorous accounting practices and the greater transparency necessary to support shared ownership enabled public corporations to grow to unprecedented scales. Capital-intensive projects that tapped vast new markets became possible, and these new entities thrived spectacularly. Within decades of their debut, the public corporation surpassed partnerships and more primitive forms of enterprise to dominate world trade. They were so successful, in fact -- the Dutch and English East India companies raising their own armies and managing colonies -- that their powers rivaled, and at one point nearly eclipsed, those of the host governments that chartered them.
It is of great, and often overlooked significance that this peculiar new form of organization has acquired all the legal status necessary to participate in the pre-existing goods and services economy. Corporations are full-fledged economic actors, not proxies. They routinely trade goods and services, and for that matter equity in other corporations, as if they, too are people. Inevitably, corporations have sought to secure, and expand, their legal status, and much to the dismay of humanists, have succeeded. They have also sought to advance their commercial advantage at every opportunity. Because of their considerable economic leverage, they have wrung a great many concessions from society, often at the expense of employees and consumers. Although abuses may be said to have peaked during the industrial revolution, corporations still actively wrangle for political power with governments and other organizations that make competing claim for control over human hosts.
Although corporations have muscled their way to the front of our economy, they still depend on human labor and consumption as well as the infrastructure provided by government. These dependencies are not going away anytime soon. As a result, we are quickly converging on a worldwide system of capitalist democracy where the present form of these complex co-dependencies is made permanent. In a process opponents term 'globalization', governments are becoming increasingly subservient to borderless financial interests and public opinion is increasingly manipulated through a single worldwide media culture. Conspiracy theorists think this pseudo-democratic arrangement, which effectively yokes the modern consumer/employee to corporate interest, was arrived at by a secret conclave of plutocrats. But, like a murmuration of starlings, it is an emergent phenomenon. Its seemingly malign shape is a merely a consequence of many actors independently interacting according to a common set of simple rules.
These rules are rapidly converging upon an international standard. As our economy and the corporate ecology co-evolves, and the system of interactions that animate it cure, corporate rule will become increasingly stable -- and irresistible. Along the way, corporations will take over and subsume some function previously provided by government and religion, while simultaneously outsourcing other processes to other corporations. It is precisely in this manner that complex living processes come to be constituted from assemblages of simpler ones and choose a particular form.
Although the eventual details remain uncertain; it already seems clear we are going to end up with a global super-colony of corporations that increasingly use the media to have their way with us. In less than five hundred years, corporations have risen from nowhere to dominate the world economy. We now live in their shadow and most human activity directly or indirectly falls in their purview. They are the new king-makers. As corporations increasingly influence national policy and ideology, they can be seen as having begun taking over from these more archaic forms of human organization, subverting them from within. Who knows -- a corporate "person" might one day be elected president, and we may be better off for it. But, I digress. The constitutional and legal framework for the behavior of our corporate overlords will soon work itself out, for better or worse, over any objections we may have.
More than any previous form of human social organization, corporations seem to have perfected not only a robust metabolism capable of participating in the human goods/services economy, but also an ability to reproduce viable facsimiles of themselves as independent organizational entities in the economic environment. Although complex forms of organization, such as nations, subdivide irregularly, corporations breed, if not like rabbits, with comparable vigor. With a well defined legal structure and status, in conjunction with the abstraction of fractional ownership, one corporation can easily create another to extend its influence and hedge risk. Franchising is one clear example; but the manner in which multinationals create subsidiaries is another. Further examples include the way movie studios create special purpose companies (SPCs) for individual film projects and petrochemical giants spawn exploration companies. Lastly, in high-tech, ventures are acquired and spun-out all the time. These strategies all create legally separate entities that preserve elements of their parent's genome, such as their corporate culture and business model, by allocating equity and resources in a manner similar to cell division. However, subdivision is not the only strategy for corporate reproduction. Joint-ventures between corporations go so far as to produce hybrids in a manner not dissimilar to sexual reproduction.
It is because corporations can reproduce so efficiently that I believe they prefigure the robust form on which life, at the stage of ideas and organizations, will eventually settle. As their control of the humans they employ increases, nations, religions and other more primitive forms of organization will wither and fade. Finally, only corporations will remain.
However, tomorrow's corporations will likely be somewhat different from today's. The present era of giant multinationals is only transitional. Biological life has also made evolutionary forays into, and retreats from, competition through escalating scale. Although dinosaur size has advantages, mega-corporations also have inherent weaknesses -- particularly exposure from concentrated, unhedged risk. As far as any business model seeks to survive as a single, giant entity, it is just one bankruptcy away from extinction. Moreover, in seeking economies-of-scale, business tend to institutionalize inflexible processes. They make faulty long-term assumptions by extrapolating from short-term conditions. If they don't first collapse under their own accreting complexity, they are often out-maneuvered by more nimble, newly-launched competitors, and fail because they cannot re-engineer quickly enough to adapt to changing business conditions. So, big corporations increasingly spread risk as previous life-forms have, by multiplying rather than simply expanding. Business models that explore opportunities using smaller offspring, like subsidiaries or franchises, may eventually come to predominate.
So, even if the business of corporations spawning other corporations is just getting off the ground, it is not difficult to see where things are headed. As the legal status, metabolic APIs, and reproductive mechanism for corporations are refined we can expect a bloom of subsidiaries exploring every imaginable corner of the opportunity space of our economy, drawing humans into their designs as they scavenge and compete for resources.
Corporations are the most robust species of human organization to have emerged from the percolating ecology of ideas. They efficiently organize, indeed subjugate, language-enabled Homo sapiens to survive and reproduce. Although we live side-by-side with them in our economy, there is little question that corporations increasingly rule our existence. In exchange for food and shelter, we allow corporations to recruit, train, and otherwise employ us in their struggle for survival. Not to put too fine a point on it; but had our species not first been infested by language, and now conquered by corporations, we would would still be huddled mutely in caves. We cannot live without our mimetic masters. To do so would quite literally require a return to prehistoric living conditions.
At the outset of this essay, I suggested that our species has been colonized by an alien life-form. By now I hope it is clear I didn't mean space-aliens. We have decent documentation of the arc of civilization over the last 1,000 generations of written history and, though progress has been rapid, there are no signs we got outside help. Quite the contrary, the memes that rule humanity can only have originated here on Earth because, having co-evolved with humans, only humans are capable of interpreting and propagating them.
When language first arose, it was inseparable from vocalization. Now we can write memes down and transmit them electronically. Even so, we can't simply beam the written instructions for terrestrial life to other planets. There is the chicken-and-egg problem. The blueprint an organism uses to replicate itself remains inanimate in the absence of the machinery evolved to process it. The only way to clone biological life is to inject strands of DNA into a working cell. To clone language, you need to immerse a primate in a language-culture. And, for corporations to spread, they must first dispatch en-cultured personnel. Life is an information process, not just information. The information itself is inert. Each form of life presumes highly specialized apparatus for decoding and execution. The only process that can create a living organism from its encoding is the reproductive process of another living instance of the same species.
My point is that life cannot easily transcend its dependence on the elaborate stack of self-organized complexity from which it evolved. For language and organizations, that platform is human "wet-ware". Memes are parallel stochastic programs that only "run" on the brains of Homo sapiens. Most memes have affective content highly specific to human beings. These memes evolved by exploiting biologically human responses, so they cannot be expected to work their magic anywhere else. In particular, they will not reproduce naturally on any other platform. That means if it's songs you want, you had better ask a human. A computer program can parse a song, but only a human who has heard a song will respond by singing because the song plucks strings that only humans have. In general, getting a computer to respond authentically requires simulating the biology and behavioral history of a real human being. It is thus that the most sophisticated computer will only ever be able to feign an interest in human affairs. This, not incidentally, is the reason why Man's dream of artificial intelligence, in the sense of human interaction with a companionable computer, is mostly fantasy. It is instructive to try and programs computers to think; but emulating the prodigious and peculiar language processing capability of a human being to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from a real person, as famously required by the "Turing Test", is something of a fool's errand.
However, not all memes are perversely human. Memes involving mathematical ideas and logical propositions are genuinely platform-independent. Abstract ideas could conceivably propagate among non-human hosts on the merit of their explanatory, rather than their affective power. If each of the millions of computers connected to the internet were somehow programmed and incentivized to receive, remix, and transmit such memes to their network neighbors, machines might independently host mimetic life and run their own civilization. As far as the propositions exchanged among networked entities continued to reproduce and evolve, life could go on this way. If artificial life ever supersedes biologically-based mimetic life, this is the form it can be expected to take. Of course without the affective content we are accustomed to, post-human civilization would appear so sterile to us that it would be scarcely recognizable as such. But, it would be no less alive than our own.
It is only a matter of time before this happens. Our culture has already conspired to produce human agents motivated and capable of programming networked computers to cooperate. Although no one has yet created a program that evolves as it spreads on the network, human-engineered viruses come tantalizingly close. Once entities have ineradicably established themselves and begin evolving on our computer networks, post-human life will have begun.
Post-human life and civilization is therefore not unimaginable; but, shedding dependence on human language processing presents a formidable hurdle. Even with racks of computers shuffling theories, real work in the physical world will still be required. At a minimum, computers must be fabricated and wired together, and energy must be extracted from the environment to operate them. Post-human meme processing will need a complete ecosystem in which to produce and consume resources, compete with one another, and expand physically. The ability to manipulate physical infrastructure won't appear spontaneously, or evolve from maliciously composed computer viruses. Post-human meme processing can only be expected to diverge from pre-existing capabilities and constructs. It will have to bootstrap from the internet and our goods and services economy. So, while it seems obvious that if post-human organisms ever do emerge, they will evolve and run on networked computers, the more surprising conclusion is that, because they must participate in our economy to control external resources, these autonomous, post-human meme processing entities will almost certainly have to be the progeny of contemporary corporations.
The idea of corporations becoming autonomous will seem implausible, even ludicrous, to those who vaingloriously insist that corporations are now and forever critically dependent on human labor and direction. Certainly, all businesses today still require hands-on support that is beyond the reach of cost-effective automation. Even the most automated businesses must buy goods and services from other businesses that rely on manual labor. After all, someone must file tax returns, wire-up the servers, and mop the floors. Because human labor is cheaply procured and easily programmed by ideas, corporations will find it cost-effective to continue using people to perform certain tasks for centuries to come, if not indefinitely.
Yet, even the least-automated businesses strenuously avoid dependence on specific persons. Labor fungibility enables businesses to withstand turnover much as multi-cellular organisms survive the continual replacement of their cells. This is accomplished by standardizing processes through training, manuals, rules, and systems of oversight. Yet anywhere process standardization reduces cost and risk, automation can reduce it further. It also helps formalize business interfaces and conditions human interaction. So, as far as technology keeps getting cheaper and better, corporations can be expected, indeed are obliged, to continue replacing human jobs with automation.
The upshot is that businesses are increasingly hybridized. Their metabolic processes are operationalized by the elaborate, evolved interactions of people and computers -- processes that deeply resemble interactions among the constituent entities of other living organisms. Over time, corporations will do more and more work with fewer and fewer people until, for all intents and purposes, they become autonomous. This will happen at a different pace according to the type of business in question. In point of fact, even now some business require very little human involvement. Web businesses that distribute software or provide information services already transact business without human intervention. With the proliferation of robotics and office automation, the trickle of business models for which human labor is superfluous will soon become a torrent. In coming decades, labor-intensive enterprises will increasingly find themselves coexisting in an economy with other forms of enterprise that scarcely require human beings at all, or use human labor only indirectly.
But, what about decision making? Surely corporations cannot function without the creativity and charisma of hot-blooded managers -- or can they? Corporations are not as dumb as we think. They have a central nervous system. They collect data and adapt to their environment using command and control powered by swarms of carefully selected and trained humans. Improvisation is openly disparaged. At large corporations, the annual business planning exercise is a crowd-sourcing exercise involving senior managers. Just like any manufacturing process, the planning exercise is heavily supported by automation, and often utilizes computer optimization. Senior managers typically use an automated framework to develop budgets and set targets. Once plans are formulated, managers also execute them in a semi-automated fashion. Automated accounting processes control the corporation's "metabolic" stability by ensuring that spending and revenue generation remain on target. Processes, best-practices, and conventions -- supported and reinforced by automation -- guide almost every decision. It is really only at the periphery -- in moment-to-moment decision making, long-term strategy, and in "creative" -- that decision-making still eludes augmentation or outright automation.
Despite creeping automation, it is understandably difficult to imagine how today's sprawling multinationals could ever be fully depopulated. But, corporations are still evolving. Many familiar and seemingly indispensable characteristics of today's big businesses are simply artifacts -- legacies of traditional strategies and methods. Quite apart from the blue-chip brands that dominate our mental-image, there exists an underworld of corporations of a very different nature. These include the special purpose corporations, that, as previously noted, are increasingly used to manage risk, explore alternative decision strategies, and exploit niche opportunities. SPC's needn't employ full-time staff and may only exist "on paper." For an SPC with a specific focus and clearly defined objectives, it is not inconceivable that all the strategy and resource allocation decisions could be entrusted to an adaptive computer program. For this reason, it seems likely that it will be entities more like SPCs than today's corporate behemoths that will first slip the surly bonds of biological dominion and realize the promise of autonomous enterprise. When they do, their influence on an economy dominated by sluggish, bloated multinationals may prove highly disruptive.
So, autonomous enterprise is not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. For the sake of concreteness, consider hedge funds. Today, these funds require humans for sales, compliance, and strategic improvement; but their primary metabolic function, trading, is usually automated. Trading engines interface directly with markets so that they have all the necessary sensory apparatus for lights-out operation. They can also adapt. Trading engines leverage machine learning technology to automatically optimize their trading in response to the behavior of other traders. Once programmed with an adaptive strategy, computers can carry on trading indefinitely -- or, at least until outsmarted by other traders. With not much additional legal and IT infrastructure, and a bit of imagination, hedge funds of this sort could be made fully autonomous. With the right "APIs", drone funds could conceivably procure all the services necessary to support their secondary functions. They could even spawn, automatically incorporating and staking subsidiaries to test new markets and strategies.
Once the practical and legal ramifications of autonomous enterprise have been worked out, a revolutionary new era of post-human meme-processing will begin in earnest. As early as the close of the twenty-first century, today's lumbering corporate dinosaurs may well be challenged for control of capital markets by ravenous swarms of autonomous drone funds. Considering that capital is a proxy for the energy for which all organisms vie, these drone funds will operate at the top of the extended food chain. These apex predators will exist for no further purpose than exploitation. But, such is life.
In sum, increasingly autonomous corporations will slowly take over our economy. To support their interaction, automation-friendly interfaces and standards, like ISO-9000, will continue to be devised. As these "APIs" become available, automation will increasingly supplant human decision making at all levels. Eventually, even strategy will be automated. It won't happen overnight, but when at last autonomous corporations replicate and evolve, life will have crossed over yet again -- this time shedding its dependence on human "wet-ware". Where it goes from there is anyone's guess.
The overall transition to enterprise in which human activity is dominated by automation will be gradual -- punctuated by occasional disruptive shifts. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, we probably won't think much of it because most changes will be incremental. But, as time wears on, corporate meme-processing will relentlessly become more sophisticated. Man's individual responsibilities will become lighter, and our biological species will increasingly be left behind. That's our end-game. There will be no epic conflict, no war with robots. A computer will not suddenly become intelligent and pass the Turing Test, or try to exterminate us. The internet won't suddenly "wake up" and start telling us what to do -- at least not directly.
Instead, even as technology becomes more powerful, society will, necessarily, strip individual humans of their power to wreak havoc. Our choices will be increasingly restricted, and we will find ourselves toiling-away at jobs for corporations whose workings seem increasingly byzantine and whose purposes seem increasingly obscure. There will always be work appropriate to our abilities, and an illusion of choice. As far as we play the game, we will be well-off. Yet, in the scheme of things, Man will be increasingly relegated to incidental roles. Some day, not too far in the future, all significant progress will come from automation-leveraged teams. No one will be able to precisely identify individual human contributions anymore. Maybe that day is nearer than we think -- can we really say who invented the iPhone or the micro-processor, or who discovered the Higgs Boson?
At any rate, the conquest of Man will continue inexorably. It is not necessary that we understand and accept the processes that organize us. It may even be best we don't -- resistance is futile. We need simply carry on and walk down the path we have already been walking for centuries. Barring ecological disaster, mankind will endure -- most likely in denial of the existence and supremacy of higher forms of life -- for a very long time. We will live-on in the bowels of corporations -- co-existing with our evolutionary successors in the same kind of vexatious relationship that gut bacteria have with higher organisms.
Man has been pre-occupied with sentience for centuries, and it is in consideration of this puzzling feature that I conclude. Biological species with brains are necessarily self-aware. A learned response to stimuli, for example moving a limb, requires that an organism distinguish its limb from the source of stimulus. It must apply a model of self in order to evaluate behavior options. Thus, animals must have the same visceral self-awareness that we have. They sense their own bodies, and they stare out of their eye sockets at the cruel mysteries of the world much as we do.
But, even as many species must share a rudimentary self-awareness, only a few are capable of abstracting their sense of self sufficiently to recognize themselves in a mirror, and as far as we know only Homo sapiens are capable of talking with each other about it. We also talk to ourselves. We call our model and narrative for our own being our "soul", knowing that it is somehow distinct from our physical being. And, as discussed, there really is something different going on in our human heads than what goes on in the heads of other animals. The voice of our sentience is not that of Homo sapiens, the primate, nor some immortal spirit; but rather the chatter of the meme-generator we have been programmed with, and its current stock of meme activations. It is the linguistic entity that inhabits our brains, a social parasite eavesdropping on, and meddling in, our biological experience.
Sentience is life's cruelest trick because it enables Man to ponder the nature of his being and brood over his mortality. The ability to launch and process memes that reference an abstraction of self appears to be a privilege of language-enabled organisms. That our language-enabled being is self-aware and struggles to orient itself in the world of physical experience is a fraught issue at the root of much superstition. I won't make the situation worse by waxing mystical; but I will say that I find it oddly comforting to contemplate that our inner monologue is an echo of all the voices that have contributed to our development. We carry long-dead and forgotten ancestors, and their web of experience, with us in a long, recursive chain. At least in this sense we are immortal, not as individual sentient entities, but through influences that spread through all those with whom we interact. If it seems cruel that our sense of self and volition is temporary, it was illusory anyway. The voice that informs our actions was never really our own. What we took to be our own mind was is in fact the chorus of all those voices that converged to animate us.
So, finally, are corporations sentient beings? Will they, or their evolutionary successors, ever become so? An ability to introspect and to communicate propositions about one's self is undoubtedly a watershed of complexity. We don't yet admit that any biological organisms other than Man can emit or evaluate self-referential propositions. But, corporations appear to do so routinely. In planning documents and also in contracts that regulate commercial intercourse, corporations frequently make self-referential statements. These statements reflect a sophisticated, abstract model of self. Of course lacking a limbic system, corporations don't agonize over the metaphysical implications of these statements as we do, but they are no less sophisticated or self-aware for being dispassionate.
Those unconvinced by my arguments will surely protest that any self-concept evinced in a legal contract is not that of the corporation but merely that of the lawyer who wrote it. But, insisting that only the lawyer is aware is like saying that the only part of the human brain that is self-aware is the neurons that participate in saying "I think therefore I am". The capacity of an organization to make self-referential statements is not localizable. Sentience, like life itself, is a product of the collective workings of an organism, and does not reside in any of its parts. The crux of my thesis is that any employee's action on behalf of a corporation is really a projection of this collective mechanism and an expression of the corporation's "ideotype" -- the meme complex of which is distributed across documents, computer systems, processes, and the learned behavior of its personnel. Collectively these memes condition and constrain the employee's actions. To create a contract in which the corporation refers to itself, a lawyer channels the corporation's self-knowledge. That knowledge did not originate with the lawyer, nor did the impetus to make the contract. It is a performance orchestrated by a meme-complex in which the lawyer participates and is, himself, a part. So, even though a corporation's will is enacted through many individual humans who each will smugly insist that they are in control and that the corporation is an inanimate legal entity, it is ultimately the corporation that calls the shots. If you doubt it, consider how quickly the corporation intervenes when the lawyer, or any employee, fails to do his job. Corporations are not just alive, they are aware, and they think. They are everything we required alien life to be, just not at all what we expected.
In the realm of physics, particle theorists have made great strides over the last century in formulating a simple, powerful "theory of everything". They're not done yet, but they are well on the way to completing a model that provides a unified explanation for a wide variety of physical phenomena. A similar opportunity exists in relation to the study of emergence. Disparate fields like biology, sociology and linguistics demand their own unification. This essay suggests a framework for one. It says, in a nutshell, that Man's social behavior, his language, culture and institutions are guided by the same principles that enabled the emergence of biological life -- principles with roots in information theory and thermodynamics. This framework is not incompatible with what we know. Just as planetary motion made more sense when Copernicus viewed the solar system with the Sun at its center, what is required here is a change of perspective, a shifted frame of reference. We supposed Man to be the pinnacle of evolution, and the measure of all things. Science has repeatedly shown otherwise. Now it is time to consider that our species was only ever a steppingstone.
Can we swallow our pride and admit the true nature of the human condition? Are we ready to recognize our existence had been subsumed by a new order of life? In response to this question, I offer only this thought experiment. Imagine the emergence of multicellular life from the point of view of a eukaryotic cell on the cusp of multicellular life. Here is the story it might tell. "Life was tough in the wild. There is security in the colony. My role is specialized, but the colony has prepared we well for it. Life beyond these comfortable confines is inconceivable." Is this not like Man's relationship, via language and the ideas it conveys, to contemporary, urban society and its institutions? I have argued that this resemblance is no coincidence. At some basic level, Modern Man has a glimmering awareness of his plight. It is perhaps why sci-fi films like "The Matrix" have such cultural resonance. They are nearer to the truth than we dare admit. Our species has been colonized by an alien life form, and we have been none the wiser. Wherever our species goes from here, it is our ideas that will lead us. In having believed ourselves to be masters of our own ideas, we have been like those dogs who take the leash in their mouth when walked.