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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
From Murphy Hall
The Next Wave
How “Human” Are We?
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Fall 2004
How "Human" Are We?
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Over the past few years, however, scientists have chipped away at our belief that humans possess special properties. UCLA’s Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology, has discussed how humans are genetically and behaviorally so close to our primate relatives that we are properly regarded as The Third Chimpanzee, the title of his remarkable recent book. Similarly, the notion that humans alone exhibit consciousness is being challenged by experiments and observations that show other species are capable of learning and foresight.

Further revision in our understanding of ourselves has come from molecular biology, which considers each organism to be a huge chemical reaction, encapsulated within whatever bounds that organism. This reductionist view of humans is universally accepted among biologists.

Another view is emerging that, I think, will lead to yet another radically different notion of ourselves and our place in nature. It argues that living systems are best regarded essentially as processes, much like computer processes. Our society and our ecosystem are collections of concomitantly executing programs that take in material, process it and spit it out. Eventually each process, like computer processes in general, are doomed to end, but may well “fork out” new processes as “offspring.” For example, each of us consists of almost entirely different molecules than we did when we were first born; we look different, think differently and in almost all ways are different. Yet we regard ourselves as the same individual because we are the same process, extended in time.

One consequence of this view is that other forms of life are entirely possible — not only extraterrestrial life but also artificial life, which consist of processes that have the essential properties we attribute to living ones: metabolism, movement, reproduction, etc. Robots and computer viruses are only two possible examples. Computer viruses are complex and can move around, metabolize, self-organize and, in some instances, recombine with one another as in sexual reproduction. Life, then, is not about material continuity, but rather about self-organizing processes that take in, organize and may produce other processes. This functional approach is increasingly being accepted, and I believe most people will eventually come to accept it at some level.

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