Cognitive Ecology: The Hard-Wiring of Human/Natural Systems


How does the environment shape the ways an animal processes information and makes decisions? How do constraints imposed on nervous systems affect an animal’s activities?  My friend R. Scott Bakker of Three Pound Brain commenting on my post on Kevin Kelley mentioned Daniel Dennett’s recent critique of the dilemmas of the notion of Singularity at the Scott expounding on this said:

I think Dennett completely misses the point of the Singularity, but his view on the problems arising out of the proliferation of special AI strike me as sound.

Dennett’s never sat down to work out an understanding of cognitive ecology, so I think what he says suffers for want of clarity. But this is what he’s angling at, and to that extent I’m inclined to agree with him. His whole position (like mine) turns on evolution sculpting pre-established harmonies between biological systems. Now we’re in the process of demolishing those harmonies. His point is systematic, even if it doesn’t come across that way.

Habitat destruction is a useful analogue.

A ‘cognitive ecology’ consists of those environmental information structures prone to cue various heuristic systems, systems adapted (via evolution/learning) to solve on the cheap. Their economy derives from their selectivity, the fact they need only be sensitive to certain information, and can neglect everything else. They can neglect everything else, take it for granted, simply because, ancestrally at least, it always remained both sequestered and fixed.

This is why neuroscience and AI pose the myriad conundrums they do. And this is why a neuroscientifically rationalized world filled with AI will very likely scramble our ancestral heuristic regimes. All the lacunae and the continuities we evolved to take for granted can no longer be taken for granted.

What I take away from this is from Dennett is the fear that we are ceding too much authority to our external intelligence systems (from Dennett’s post):

What’s wrong with turning over the drudgery of thought to such high-tech marvels? Nothing, so long as (1) we don’t delude ourselves, and (2) we somehow manage to keep our own cognitive skills from atrophying.

(1) It is very, very hard to imagine (and keep in mind) the limitations of entities that can be such valued assistants, and the human tendency is always to over-endow them with understanding—as we have known since Joe Weizenbaum’s notorious Eliza program of the early 1970s. This is a huge risk, since we will always be tempted to ask more of them than they were designed to accomplish, and to trust the results when we shouldn’t.

(2) Use it or lose it. As we become ever more dependent on these cognitive prostheses, we risk becoming helpless if they ever shut down. The Internet is not an intelligent agent (well, in some ways it is) but we have nevertheless become so dependent on it that were it to crash, panic would set in and we could destroy society in a few days. That’s an event we should bend our efforts to averting now, because it could happen any day.

This first is the notion that we as humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize things, to give them a life and intelligence that they essentially do not have; to animate and humanize things, objects, and processes that are neither human nor remotely caring of what humans are or think about emotions, behaviors, intentions, etc. And, second, Dennett fears that if we forget how to use our brains as environmental adaptive systems that have been hard-wired over the eons to perform specific functions in regards to our working with the environment that we may lose those specific functions that are not hard-wired in the brain, but are rather culturally transmitted and learned through generational techniques of memory and performance (i.e., ritual and mimesis among other techniques).

What Scott is referring too is that we are severing ourselves from both of these conceptual relations with mind and learning, and replacing them with a dependence on technical mediators and machinic agents to do the work we once did ourselves (i.e., allowing the machines to do our thinking for us; as well as dismembering our need to use our brains for the menial environmental tasks of performative knowledge transmission: memory storage off-loaded into machines, rather than in our brains, etc.).

For Scott we are in the process of demolishing the pre-established harmonies between biological systems that have been part of the evolutionary heritage of millions of years of hard earned biological engineering we term the evolutionary process. And in our time we are relinquishing this natural heritage and entering into a new artificial heritage that is severing our roots in biological systems altogether.

But I wonder if this process is at all new? Haven’t we since developing language, writing, and other external storage systems: data storage devices from the use of clay, papyrus, paper, micro-film, disk-storage, up to current use of atomic inscription, etc. been slowly evolving external systems of mind and knowledge for thousands of years? Is this at all something new? Or, is it rather that end point of a curve that started millennia ago? I’d suggest that we are entering a final mutation and transformation that started thousands of years ago rather than something that has evolved into a sudden disruption of the artificial/natural divide. I would even wonder if we have ever truly been natural at all? Much rather haven’t we always been the one creature on this planet that has never had a harmonious presence in Nature? Haven’t we always been at odds with our environment due to our inadequate need for clothing and protection from the elements unlike most other natural organisms? Have we ever been natural?

As Walter J. Ong said years ago: “In a writing or print culture, the text physically bonds whatever it contains and makes it possible to retrieve any kind of organization of thought as a whole. In primary oral cultures, where there is no text, the narrative serves to bond thought more massively and permanently than other genres.”1 We know that there are two forms in which cultures have transmitted their knowledge: 1) ritual and per formative art; and, writing or other graphic, iconic, or other material symbolic transmissions. This is nothing new.

We also know that various cultures have either produced open or closed forms of knowledge transmission, some based of elite and controlled transmission and others on more democratic and open forms. Books like Paul Connerton’s How Societies Remember the details of such systems.

In some ways it comes down to how we organize information in societies. At first glance, the universe seems hostile to order. Thermodynamics dictates that over time, order—or information—disappears. Yet, we’ve developed systems that allow effective systems to be built that fight the entropic dissolution of order or information depletion. We know that one of the central cores of civilization’s growth was the data storage device we all use: the Library or Archive. Such repositories extend back to various civilizations. And, as stated above, it always came down to how these civilizations used these repositories and organized the information in them that promoted this battle against disorder and entropy. As the Roman civilization crumbled the Catholic Church would accumulate and transmit the treatises it deemed worthy of inscription and transmission through its vase library storage systems. Yet, it used a system that was both elitist and secretive in most ways, containing knowledge in a dead language of Latin while the populace of the realms spoke in vernacular languages and did not learn of these works. Only later did certain of the Latin scholars working among themselves slowly uncover and begin to vernacularize such knowledge. I want go into details.

So in this sense the slow awakening and democratization of knowledge which was given to all the people opened the door onto learning and memory that had been closed off since the days of Rome and Greece during the Renaissance. In our time the age of print is coming to an end. With such libraries and institutions of physical storage themselves slowly fading away as new electronic and digital storage systems migrate the vast storehouse of information and texts from print to digitalization. Many in our culture see this as both a threat and an error. Humanists and old school liberal educators deplore the effects of this new medium of digitalization of life and memory.

 Plus we have barely discerned the need to understand this new medium and the glut of information into vast data-enclaves which humans no longer have much control over. This Big Data world will be prone to abuse at the hands of commercial and governmental organizations is just beginning to surface as we remember the Snowden Affair. Yet, my concern is that we have no back up source of information storage that might keep that knowledge more permanent and not depend on electricity. If the electric grids of the planet went down this new digital environment would be brought down in a short time and with it the accumulated knowledge of many civilizations. This to me is a global concern.

The other aspect is the per formative knowledge that can never be put into digital form: the ritual practices of various cultural memory that have never been part of the written or oral record, but have been maintained in mimetic and other physical forms across thousands of years of iterative practice. What of these?

In his recent book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human David Roden speaking of Stelarc’s notions of extending intelligence beyond the Earth he tells us these performances decouple the body from its ecology and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use-value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolescence:

The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain sub-population feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility.2

As Roden will remark the “basis of our interest in becoming posthuman is not our formal responsibility to current or future members of our species; any attempt to account for the posthuman is a necessarily irresponsible risk to the integrity of the species”. (ibid.) What he’s saying is much the same as Scott, that we are disconnecting the hard-wired biological systems that have governed our evolutionary heritage for thousands of years, the “integrity of the species” is at stake.

As we disconnect from both our biological systems and our capacity to know and learn, and allow either a migration into external artificial agents, else an external agent take-over of thought and reasoning, allowing these AI systems to make decisions for us ubiquitously one must ask: What are we giving up for such conveniences? Are we giving up our humanity? If we become so dependent on external memory systems and integral AI decisioning systems to do our thinking and selection for us what will we become? How is this effecting our own cognitive ecology? Will we devolve into systems of stupidity? We may still have the ability to use and retrieve data, but will we become more machine like in the process: more automaton than human, versed in the latest technologies of search and selection, but unable to reason on these processes? Will we follow the gradient curve of laziness, allow the machines to think for us and accept only what is given to us and trust its ability to make the call, the decisions that we are no longer willing or able any longer to make for ourselves? Will we give up our ability to think and reason altogether?

Will most of our intelligence be pre-processed for us outside our control by algorithmic agents and self-learning mechanisms, agents that will have control over the selection, sorting, retrieval, collation, and processing of archival knowledge we have access too; while making the decision whether we have the coded access to this level of information? What are the legal ramifications? Will knowledge be totally commercialized to the point that one will pay for research access through a corporate account? Will all knowledge and power be bound to certain corporate and governmental control? Will we no longer be free to investigate and learn on our own, but be depended on pre-selected information gathered, collated, analyzed, composed, and served up to us as knowledge without or consent or control? Will we become slaves of machinic intelligence by design and ubiquity without ever realizing that this is what is happening before it is too late? Will these non-intentional, not-conscious systems and algorithms become our agents of tyranny without even knowing their own role in this enslavement? Will the rule of Code become our next invisible dictatorship? Our lives coded and reprogrammed to serve these new ubiquitous commercial research and learning regimes? Will we become so enamored of our toys that we will give up our remaining freedoms to the systems of knowledge and power that we’ve invested so much desire in? Or, will our children become so normalized to this native world of artificiality that a cultural amnesia will set in when such institutions as Libraries and freedom to explore on our own becomes a relic of the past? Will our children and their children grow up in technological enclaves and not even realize that their parents once roamed the wild lands of knowledge?

If we are beginning to decouple our biological systems from the environment that has constrained our thinking and being from the beginning of our evolution what will this mean? Are we entering dangerous territory by dissolving the core relation between environment and knowledge? If the ubiquitous Infosphere becomes our new environment, an artificial environment based on knowledge systems that are hidden in every object so that our dependency on this environment mixes the signals that have been hard-wired into our biological systems what effect will this entail? When I read about AI, Smart Cities, Big Data, and all the other intelligent agents that are become so much a part of our economic, political, social, and spiritual heritage what does this mean for us if we disconnect from the natural in mold ourselves to this new artificial world? What if we wake up and our children have become so normalized to this new Infosphere of ubiquitous computing that they will never know that there was a natural order outside the realm of information? Or we ready for such a brave new world?

  1. Ong, Walter J. (2007-03-16). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New Accents) (p. 139). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.
  2. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Kindle Locations 4331-4334). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

20 thoughts on “Cognitive Ecology: The Hard-Wiring of Human/Natural Systems

  1. These are THE questions of our time, I think.

    All the historical derangements of our prehistorical environments, like writing, possessed immense ‘grace periods,’ time for us to adapt, to acculturate our way out of any heuristic binds that might arise. Not so now.

    Moreover, the power of the technologies are such that our heuristic shortcomings can be explicitly gamed. The ‘crash space’ (heuristic dysfunction) so often characterized as the ‘modern malaise’ in the 20th century is fast becoming a ‘cheat space,’ one every more designed to encourage and exploit heuristic dysfunction. The ‘internet of things’ is an excellent example: there will soon be a generation of kids who will never need stop ascribing intelligence to their environments. Like our ancestors, they will treat their surroundings as more people. But where anthropomorphizing environments arguably served our ancestors in orthogonal ways, it’s unclear how it could do anything other than dupe us now. We are, after all, talking about cognitive systems adapted to trouble-shoot other *people,* not navigate machinery explicitly designed to trigger those systems out of school.

    And here we see the nub of the problem (as well as a pillar of my techno-pessimism): plasticity, both environmental and internal. Intentional cognition allows us to both solve and to be stupid, to resolve systems we know next to nothing about, so long as those systems are ancestral. The less ancestral those systems become, the more stupid our strategic stupidity becomes. The more meaning dies.

    I literally can’t see any way out of this bind. The fact that technical environments defeat ancestral cognition could be taken as an argument for becoming technical, rewriting ancestral cognition. But the consequences of rewriting ancestral cognition cannot be anticipated in advance. Even worse, rewriting ancestral cognition once again profoundly changes the problem-ecology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So that like David Roden’s thesis our children may become wide humans and at some point disconnect from the tribal enclave of the biological pool of human memory and desire. A creature as unlike us as we are to our distant cousins the chimpanzees, except in this case we can’t even guarantee a morphological connection physically or mentally.

      What you’re really saying is: We fear the truth of evolution, which implies mutation and adaptation; or, else species death with all that entails? What we fear is to become other? To become something beyond what we are, instead we want to hold onto the last illusion of stasis: to remain these physical creatures of the liberal imagination forever.

      Yet, the truth is that we are already mutating and faster than we at once believed… the only difference now is that we are interceding in this natural process, reprogramming the code of our genetic heritage in ways we have no control over. Ultimately we fear our own transcendence, thinking that this actually entails the destruction of the human species. And, in a way it does: for if evolution is correct – and, I think it is, all species mutate and adapt or they go extinct (i.e., we know that 90% of all known species that have ever existed are now extinct).

      Now we have to ask the question: Who will be in charge of this Promethean Project of intervention into the genetic code? Government? Scientists? Corporations? An amalgam? Will it be democratic DIY? Will it be as Braudel tells us capitalism has always been: a combination of top-down and bottom-up entrepreneurialism of planners and street engineers. When we look back across the centuries we discover it was the unique individuals, the cranks, and eccentric inventors and entrepreneurs who constructed most of our great inventions, rather than the Institutions of Science etc. The tinkerers and street engineers: a Eli Whitney, a Bell, a Franklin, a Ford… Wright Brothers, etc.

      My only problem is that if the large combine multinationals control this process like Monsanto does with their monopoly of the seed genetics: using terminator seeds to control farmers in India and Africa, etc. Will this happen in biogenetics of human mutation and adaptation? Will such things be controlled for the benefit of the few (elites) rather than the many (masses)?


      • The steering wheel was never in hands of those creating and understanding the technology. I’m not even sure if that matters: Merkel used to be an atomic physicist. What is clear that our usage of technology and choice of its direction depends on ancestral cognition which is ill-suited to its complexities.

        There was an illusion of possible direction at the end of the 60’s but now the steering wheel has been taken from mankind and we are just drifting along with Brownian motion of the market (triggering chaotic bifurcations).

        Why were all those political engineering and technocratic movements in 20th century such failures that they didn’t even attempt to take power ? Would it matter if they did take power?


      • With Crispr now firmly out of Pandora’s box Monsanto’s future is sure to be an interesting one. The fact is, any old start-up can do what they can do, and more asides!

        To be honest, I don’t know which is more terrifying. And I think this is the moral. As this power of revision accumulates, so do the possibilities of breakdown.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Was reading about CAS9 on Forbes:

        The bacteria were keeping track of tell-tale bits of genetic code from viruses that might try to infect them, and, somehow, they were using these codes to kill those viruses when they attacked. CRISPR was a primitive immune system. Horvath recognized that this knowledge could be used to create bacteria that were more resistant to infection, which would be useful in making yogurt and perhaps in manufacturing drugs. But he was quick to realize something else: somehow the bacteria had the ability to target specific bits of genetic code. If scientists could harness that, they would have a new way to edit DNA.

        Bacteria, like human beings and almost every other living thing, keeps its genetic code in a library of DNA molecules. But to use that code, the organism copies the DNA into a related molecule called RNA. Cas9 can be paired with an RNA transcript to target a matching DNA sequence and cut it. That kills viruses, but scientists use it to cut DNA in exactly the place they want. The result is not so much like using a word processor as a biology lab version of what movie editors had to do back when they spliced together pieces of film.

        In the short term, Church says, the potential of cas9 is that it could be used to study genetics in a way that was heretofore impossible. Let’s say there are three changes in the DNA in or around a gene that might cause a disease. Right now, it’s hard to study them directly. But now, Church says, you could take a cell from a person who has already had their DNA sequenced, as he is doing with his Personal Genome Project. Then you’d create what’s known as an induced pluripotent stem cell, a cell that behaves much like one in an embryo. After that, you could use Cas9 to change each of those DNA spelling changes.

        Neanderthals, Mammoth’s, 20-30 years… a world of mutation at our fingertips… a road to disaster of transformation? Yea, there’s always the nano-goo factor to attend too… Drexler went from optimist to a complete pessimist in the end. Power corrupts and corrupts absolutely.

        What a wonderful world, right? 🙂

        Instead of capital accumulation, we have trash to the max… a sea of garbage DNA to salvage into revitalized worlds or nightmares!

        An Oxford article:

        Drawback: “Off-target mutations are one major concern about CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing. Compared with ZFNs and TALENs, CRISPR/Cas9 presents relative high risk of off-target mutations in human cells.”

        Wonderful, let’s create monsters… a future world of mutants coming our way! 🙂 haha

        NY Times:

        Most funny is the Patent Fight between the various scientists who have since created their own companies:

        The scientists have formed competing companies with rights to their patents and pending patents. Dr. Doudna co-founded Caribou Biosciences to work on research uses of Crispr-Cas9, and more recently, Intellia Therapeutics to work on disease treatments.

        Dr. Church and Dr. Zhang are co-founders of Editas Medicine, which Dr. Doudna also helped start but then withdrew from. Dr. Charpentier, who is now at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Germany, helped start Crispr Therapeutics. She and Dr. Doudna remain friends, but no longer collaborate on research.

        Even before the dust settles, researchers are moving ahead. While contending with the patents, Dr. Doudna began hearing reports that researchers were trying to use Crispr-Cas9 to make inheritable DNA changes in embryos. Genetically altered monkeys had already been created in China using the technique.

        “It’s very far afield from the kind of chemistry I think about and know about,” she said. Still, she felt it would be irresponsible to ignore the rumors.

        She organized a meeting of leading biologists in Napa, Calif., in January. In a subsequent commentary published in Science, the group called for a moratorium on attempts to create altered babies, though they said basic research on inheritable changes should still be done.

        Dr. Doudna said it was not practical to prohibit basic research. “You can’t really put a lid on it, even if you wanted to,” she said. She and others are trying to organize a bigger international meeting with participants from companies and governments as well as universities, possibly to set new guidelines.

        So already certain governments are trying to alter the DNA of babies in experimental labs: the new eugenics?

        Liked by 1 person

      • That Forbes piece is actually dated, now (WTF, right? Try writing convincing SF nowadays!). It’s gone from basic research (2011) to exciting prospect (2013) to the basis of hundreds of startups (2015). Say what you will, but the ‘new economy’ is very adept at rationalizing resources around scientific discoveries.


      • The more I research this the better I like it for a sort of sf noir thriller: baby patents, designer moghuls in competition… corporate intrigue: stealing each others techniques…. black labs with monstrous military DNA experiments… haha 🙂


  2. Dennett’s warnings against technological destruction of human cognitive habitat seem like a distant echo of Mumford and the Myth of the Machine. There was an ample warning and a lot of Cassandras (Club of Rome for example) at the beginning of the 70’s. The situation is way worse now, we went from not believing to ignoring. It seems that industry of agnotology and think tanks have trampled every possibility.

    I suspect contemporary warnings against autonomous AI and war machines are as fruitless as those in the 70s. Too much … momentum. Of course, as you point out, it’s not at all clear that the machine will fly.

    “The beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, ‘trivial accessory to the machine.’ Technical surveillance and limitless data-collection—’an all-seeing eye’ (Panopticon)—would monitor every ‘individual on the planet. Ultimately, the totalitarian technocracy, centralizing and augmenting its ‘power-complex,’ ignoring the real needs and values of human life, might produce a world ‘fit only for machines to live in.

    Moreover—as we already observe now–people, losing “confidence in [their] own unaided capacities,” would become psychologically dependent on an array of ubiquitous devices, instruments, computers. Entirely indoctrinated in what may be called “techno-inevitabilism,” such “machine-addicts” would mindlessly accept the latest gadgets, surrendering “to these novelties unconditionally just because they are offered, without respect for their human consequences.” ‘”

    Liked by 1 person

      • It’s interesting how the Left (or green) ideas haven’t really managed to evolve since the 70’s. Resistance, for example:

        “Ultimately, Mumford advocated a negative revolt—resistance, refusal, withdrawal– whereby individuals may reclaim their autonomy and humanly-derived desires and choices. One might call this “dodging the Mega-System”: possibly fleeing the urban, market-driven “Patholopolis”—or at least, exercising one’s autonomous right to–Choose to Refuse! Technolatry—a failed religion which has denied and starved real human needs and aspirations—is already beginning to lose its acolytes and followers.”


  3. Capital is also a human technology. Ancestral human cognition seems to be unable to control (or at least understand) its mercurial power. As Nick Land says: ‘Capital is much more intelligent than monkeys, they don’t stand a chance’.

    Capital indeed seems to use ancestral stuff for its own development. Technological kings (like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk) are a passable example: personalize the complexity by assigning the property and merit to a single guy up high. So, is it really surprising that Nick went Moldbug ? Or that Moldbug goes back to caste system ? It may seem stupid on the surface, but there are chilling depths beneath once you break the ice


      • I don’t see it as antropomorphism but as inhumanism, saying that human beings are just beehives for Capital and that their agency is illusory. Capital is supposed to be something Outside human foibles, cunningly using human resources to embody itself and evolve into deterritorialized bots which eat the sun, then move on.

        Capitalism is indeed interwoven and coevolving with modern technology. (Yuval Harari makes a convincing case for that in Sapiens). Nick’s prophecy just takes this to the extreme.

        And the alternative ? Well, Promethean communism should really begin by divorcing Capital from technology (instead of asking for funding).

        But this seems hopeless. The hope seems to lie in chaotic good: Ethereum moving from money tokens to contracts and myDemocracy, Maidsafe ecology of technological commons, etc.


      • It may look like I’m channeling Land, but that’s just trying to understand the enemy by deep diving into his worldview, he seems to embody Capitalism very well (maybe he has even left behind the philosophical ambitions and became a product, who knows).

        I don’t see Capital as a teleological force, independent from humans, or even as a single thing. I see it as a emergent mixture of ancestral cognitive strategies. One way of pinning these down is by articulating Capital as external, eternal, Godlike and keeping track of the process. All strictly IMO, of course.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s