Evolution and the Internet: Toward A Networked Humanity?

February 26, 2001

Originally published February 26, 2001 on KurzweilAI.net.

The discussion regarding the fate of the human race, recently addressed in Bill Joy’s article in Wired has focused mainly on the question of technologies which might endanger that future. One specific threat which has been discussed is the danger posed to humans from a superior robot species. While the discussion itself is an important and relevant one, I would suggest that robotics and other technological developments may yet, should we avoid self-destruction, free us from worry about such threats, and instead present us with a future quite different from the common “humankind manages not to destroy itself and sets out to colonise the galaxy” scenario.

The drive for scientific and technological development during the last century, while indeed creating great dangers to our very existence, has brought us to the brink of a major change not only in the way we live, but in who we are–both individually and as a species. In this broad field of advanced technology, communications and information technology are unique in that they facilitate the advances in technology and push us toward the immense leap that we, as a species, are set to make.

A similar, if slightly less complex situation occurred on this planet a long time ago.


Many millions of years ago, the first living cells evolved. These ancient unicellular organisms, swimming about in the primordial soup, had a sole function–survival in order to reproduce. Their chances of survival could be jeopardised by the conditions in which they lived, parasites, or other cells competing with them for the same energy source.

Over millions of years, the evolving cells acquired increasingly sophisticated ways to cope with these threats. They developed biological mechanisms that could counter the damaging effect of their surroundings, offensive mechanisms and defensive counter-measures to cope with the competing organisms and, ultimately, co-operation between cells of the same species.

Offensive mechanisms could be used by these cells in order to achieve superiority over competing organisms, allowing the triumphant cells to reproduce and proliferate. These mechanisms are believed to have been the precursors for the much more complex systems that control cell death in higher organisms. Cell death processes, tweaked and refined during evolution, entered a new stage upon the emergence of Eukaryotes. These more highly evolved cells contained cellular bodies and compartments, in which more complex biological processes occur.

Over the eons during which these cells evolved, communication and co-operation between individual cells emerged as key factors in the struggle for survival under adverse conditions. Over millions of years, this co-operation increased to the point at which the cells combined to become multicellular organisms.

An Evolutionary Leap

The emergence of multicellular organisms can be viewed as a highly significant leap forward in the evolutionary process. It was the first time individual organisms had established a permanent connection with one another in order to collectively enhance their chances of survival. These primitive multicellular organisms developed complex intra- and inter-cellular signaling networks, some of which were aimed at regulating cell death. These increased their chances of survival by getting rid of the cells least likely to cope with the environment and thus minimising energy expenditure by the organism. Dead cells could also be used to shield the multicellular organisms from the environment. Some of these mechanisms, such as the protective dead outer layers of the skin, are still evident in humans.

Thus, programmed cell death (PCD), generally defined as a biological mechanism for the removal of superfluous, infected, or damaged cells by activation of an intrinsic suicide program, gives a cell population the “ability” to select its fittest cells. It also allows a cell population to adapt its numbers to a changing environment.

These terms “selection”, “adapt”, ” fit” are familiar to us from the theory of evolution. However, PCD and the theory of evolution may have more in common than mere terminology. PCD is a mechanism that is used extensively during an organism’s development, mainly for optimising connections between cells and killing potentially harmful or redundant cells. Thus, it allows the killing of those cells that have grown incorrectly and/or have been damaged. In other words, harmless cells that have developed in the appropriate circumstances (in which the cell’s microenvironment and neighboring cells supply the suitable conditions) will survive. In evolutionary terms, only the “fit” cells will survive. This “micro-evolution” during an organism’s growth makes it possible for the individual to achieve the best functional interconnected cell population, based upon the genetic blueprint for that organism.

Programmed Cell Death in Humans: Altering Evolution

Homo sapiens and other highly evolved species have a long life span, and as a consequence the rate of their evolution is very slow. This is clearly evident in comparison with bacteria, which mutate rapidly and can therefore cope with adverse conditions that would otherwise wipe out an entire population. A rapid mutation rate can lead to the emergence of an individual whose genetic makeup has changed enough to allow it to grow even in an unfavorable environment. This rapid evolution is the underlying cause of the appearance of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The slow pace of genetic mutation and selection in organisms higher on the evolutionary scale promoted the development of biological systems that would allow these organisms to cope with changes in the environment and attack by other living creatures in another way–not by genetic mutation and selection of the fittest organisms for survival, but by adaptation of the “selection” process into the organism, becoming a process that occurs within the organism during its lifetime.

In humans, this “selective” PCD process, especially during the development of the central nervous system (CNS), is one of the factors enabling the thinking process and intelligence. In the brain, the death of unnecessary cells means that only those cells with the best connections to their neighboring cells will survive, thus ensuring the optimal configuration and “wiring” of brain neurons. In illustrating this, researchers used a computer neural network model to examine the value of neuronal overproduction and the role of PCD in the development of the brain. They found that neuronal overproduction, with the subsequent deletion of neurons, allowed significantly greater learning ability (problem-solving ability) than that accomplished when starting out with only the necessary number of neurons. In more developed organisms PCD is an important factor in the creation of the networks, allowing complex brain functions.

Another important area in which PCD is utilized in humans is the immune system. A vast number of potentially harmful pathogens are present in our environment. These micro-organisms possess rapid rates of mutation, which lead to the emergence of strains capable of surviving natural human defense mechanisms or modern antibiotics. Humans and other advanced organisms take longer to evolve, as their genetic changes occur during much longer time periods, and thus must develop a mechanism to cope with this constant attack. In response to this need, the immune system_in which massive killing of unnecessary and potentially harmful cells occurs during early development–was developed and grew progressively more complex during evolution.

Thus, the development of both the immune and the central nervous systems can be viewed as the result of a change in the evolutionary process of selection, from a process that occurs within a population and is influenced by the surrounding environment to an internal developmental process that supplies humans with intelligence and consciousness (through development of a complex brain) and the ability to fend off attack from pathogens (through a defensive immune system).

Carrying this line of thought further, it can be argued that the development of intelligence and consciousness has enabled humans to begin “disconnecting” from the classical evolutionary selection process. Developed countries offer their citizens modern medicine, which means that in most cases people now survive the bacterial and viral infections that would have killed them during the first half of the 20th century, and instead die from heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and other aging-related, inherent dysfunctions of the human body, for which cures will probably be found in the future.

Furthermore, the way in which human genes are spread has changed. No longer are they transmitted according to the evolutionary maxim of “survival of the fittest.” Modern norms and perceptions have a stronger effect on the process of mating than choosing the strongest male in the tribe. Most individuals marry only once or twice and consequently do not spread their genes widely. The genetically and physically “weak” do not die, and thus weak genetic traits are passed on and do not disappear. It thus seems that the way in which the process of evolution occurs has changed; it is no longer a process involving the selection of the fittest organisms, but has turned into a neuronal developmental one. Occurring in the brain, it allows us to overcome the mainly physical factors which used to play such an important part in determining which individuals would survive and which wouldn’t; and it clearly influences the way genes are spread (geeks are now good prospects!).

Networked Humanity

Human culture and science advance by means of the pooling of information, whether acquired through meetings, correspondence, or literature. Thus, communication is the method by which human knowledge and technological ability continue to progress. Better means of communication allow the pooling of our knowledge in more efficient ways, giving rise to a more rapid pace of scientific and technological research and development. This in turn fuels accelerated communication, the result of which we can see today as an explosion in technological advancement.

What does this have to do with PCD and evolution? As proposed earlier, humanity has all but ceased to evolve in the way described by Darwin–by the incorporation and utilization of PCD as an evolutionary system, allowing intelligence (a process which occurred over millions of years). And intelligence itself, brought forth and refined by various mechanisms for the selection and connection of the fittest cells, has created the means to facilitate better communications between human beings. The latest step in this process is the Internet–which, to use a worn out cliché, “is bringing people closer together.”

This advancement in interpersonal communications is set to continue, the ultimate stage being the development of a totally integrated system of human communication, which is likely to be achieved by highly advanced human–computer interface systems. Preliminary research on this subject is already being done, for example in the implantation of artificial retinas, connected to the optic nerve, into eyes of blind people. As computers are already interconnected, the merging of humans into a super-high-bandwidth computer network will bring about the next level of human evolution: a human-computer meta-network.

Just as the merging of a large number of individual cells ultimately led to the development of consciousness, the merging of humans into an interconnected computer meta-network will eventually create a collective consciousness for all the individual participants. The forerunner of this “global” consciousness is already evident: our world is already described as a global village. Mass media, the Internet, and present-day communications make it possible for people with access to these services to know instantly what is going on in every part of the globe. Information is much more immediately accessible; withholding it from the public much more difficult. As a consequence, public opinion (stemming from the emerging global consciousness) has become such an important factor that the media has become a major fighting ground for governments.

The way in which information technology is progressing shows that we are already quite far along this road. The simplicity of information distribution, be it sharing of music, ideas, or any other data, lies at the heart of the Internet. This sharing is set to develop as technology does, leading ultimately to a state in which information flows freely.

Computing power sharing on the Internet is another area that demonstrates the power of the network, and its importance is likely to increase. SETI@home is a good example of what can be done by pooling the vast amount of unused computing resources available through the Internet. Up to now, most computers have been used as end-terminals for information accessed through the net. The true capabilities and potential of an interconnected computer network, even in terms of raw processing power, are mind-boggling. Imagine what a network of fully interconnected humans, their mental abilities pooled and enhanced, will be like.

Questions and Thoughts

To the majority of observers, the development of modern technology must seem as a random, uncontrolled process. Metaphorically, we are seen as riding out of control on this mustang called technological development. The individuals who make this happen are motivated by various forces: some are in it for the money, some for the pure fascination of scientific discovery, and some want to make the world a better place. Consider, as an example, the currently booming technology of IT. The development of communications technology has goals that transcend the immediate aim of, say, enabling people to surf the net using a cellular phone. There is a tendency to look only at the immediate, everyday-life implications of this technology, rather than seeing what lies at the end of the path we are taking. Increasing the bandwidth more and more, pulling individuals closer and closer together, are steps in a process that will ultimately lead to the unification of the human race.

The high capacity of data transfer and high level of communications between individuals is the key to development of a unified total consciousness. Physically, though, individuals are likely to remain separate. This is a an important point, as even though the interconnected masses will operate for the advancement of the whole, a degree of individuality and autonomy, as the individual cells in our body possess, is vital. Furthermore, the flow of data between individuals will not be entirely unobstructed, as the single mind will not be able to cope with such vast amounts of information. Certain filters will have to be set up and maintained to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant data.

At some point after the integration of humans and machines, an additional step will have to be taken: incorporation of PCD, resulting in disconnection of the weaker links (or individual constituents) from the collective network. Only once PCD, or the principle underlying it, has been incorporated will it be possible to accomplish the leap to a higher state of consciousness and intelligence–an intelligence which is the sum of all the minds connected to the network, and which lies beyond what any of us can imagine.

A related aspect concerns loss of privacy. Will people want this to happen at all? Why would anyone voluntarily relinquish control of an independent consciousness, allowing personal thoughts, memories and consciousness to be shared, at a certain level, by the entire population? The answer, which may sound frightening, is that the obvious choice will be between acceptance of one’s integration into the network and consequent loss of individualism through joining the super-organism, or remaining separate, outside it. Those not joining will sentence themselves to being the lesser life forms of this planet, lower on the evolutionary scale. Ponder for one moment the difference between a human and a bacterium.

The pooling of human consciousness may begin with the transferral of all our knowledge to computers. This is already happening on the Internet. At a later stage of scientific advancement, a physical connection of humans to the matrix at higher and higher levels (via advances in nervous/computer interface technology) will be possible. Thereafter, with humans completely interconnected through a network, questions might arises as to the relevance of the physical world. Could we simply upload all our consciousness to this virtual world? Would we then create a comparable world inside the network?

As mentioned earlier, the creation of multicellular organisms can be viewed as an evolutionary leap. The same might be said about the integration of human and machine to create a wholly interconnected “organism”, composed of multitudes of individuals. It will be an immense leap for humanity, or for what it becomes. This idea has been put forward by scientists and by writers of science fiction. It may be seen as good (“enlightenment through computers”) or bad (will we become the Borg?)–the end of humanity as we know it, a utopia, or both.

It seems, though, that this is not an appropriate question: humanity will have to come to terms with the fact that it is but an insignificant part of the universe, and as such must conform to its physical and biological laws and their resulting processes, among them evolution. Whether we like it or not, the time has come when our evolution has brought us to a doorway, beyond which lies what we cannot grasp by means of our limited, single-brain-power thought. We cannot possibly fathom the thoughts and conscious scope of billions of linked minds, acting together.

This vision may seem horrifying to some, thrilling to others. It is the next major evolutionary step forward for humanity, and will eventually be taken. However we choose to view this scenario, the fact remains that this is the future toward which we are inevitably heading.

This is not about good or bad. It is about evolution. Humankind must evolve.