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.