"Human and non-human beings relate as part of a planetary process. Since humans not only participate in, but depend on that process, their future is compromised by the problematic ways in which they currently relate."
"Because every species composes an interconnected ecosystem, the loss of one species directly affects other species."
"Imagine ChatGPT could be used to unlock the languages spoken by trees, animals, microbes, and other beings so that interspecies communication became truly possible."

Will we ever be post-human?

July 10, 2023

In the age of the Anthropocene, or the era in which the impact of human behavior has been shown to transform earth systems, humans are asked to rethink their position on Earth. This has recently given rise to post-humanist ideas. What is post-humanism? Is it the new way of dealing with the Anthropocene? Does it give us a solution to the problem of anthropocentrism?

I. What do we see?  

Movie-goers might have noticed the relative popularity of films featuring animals in the last few years: Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (2020), which followed the friendship between diver Craig Foster and a female octopus of the kelp forest in the South African seas, received a BAFTA award and an Oscar for best documentary. That same year, Viktor Kosakovskiy released Gunda (2020), a film which chronicles the daily life of a mother pig and a one-legged chicken in their familiar farming environment. Similarly engaging with the topic of animal struggle and sentience, Andrea Arnold followed the life of a dairy cow upon giving birth to its baby calf in Cow (2021). Spectators at Cannes were able to get a glimpse of a cow’s reality and acknowledge her consciousness, her capability of fostering relationships.

Critics appeared deeply touched by the feeling of having recovered a lost kinship, a connectedness they had grown too distant from. Furthermore, these films arrived - purposely or not - at a very key moment in which humans were experiencing a particular vulnerability: the pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic made many people, especially city-dwellers, turn inward and reflect on their (dis)connectedness from nature, and long for a deeper, more present affiliation with nature. This re-discovered feeling of inspiration by and love for nature has been researched as an innate tendency in every human being. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), Erich Fromm described it as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive”, and American biologist Edward Wilson hypothesized a genetic basis to the human urge to affiliate with non-human life forms, also emotionally. His hypothesis was termed, and consequently his book was titled, Biophilia (1984).

Possibly one of the brightest features of these movies is the emotional attachment they generate between human audiences and the animal characters on screen. Indeed, these films explore, identify and open up a channel of connection between humans and non-humans, cultivated through observation, and nurtured by care. Moreover, these films explore animal intelligence, animal sentience and the animal capacity to foster relationships of deep emotion. They portray very well how entangled each being is with its surroundings - whether living or non-living. Because of this entanglement, the animals are shown to suffer from the violent practices of human activities, most significantly those related to the agricultural industry. And because the animals are quite relatable, showing lost, nostalgic gazes that suggest feelings of longing and reminiscence, or emitting frightened, stressed screeches in situations in which, for instance, a child is being taken away from its mother, the public cannot help but empathize.

Although to some, it might sound like the most natural thing on Earth, empathizing with a non-human being is not a widespread practice in our Anthropocenic day and age. The threats posed by environmental degradation we are already experiencing call for a humbler way of being human in the world, one which is open to accepting more-than-human sentience and humans’ planetary entanglements with non-humans. Human and non-human beings relate as part of a planetary process. Since humans not only participate in, but depend on that process, their future is compromised by the problematic ways in which they currently relate. In Western modernity, the reduction of non-human beings to controllable objects that can be exploited for human ends is dominant. Such anthropocentric activity has led to the climate crisis, which affects all life forms. As humans and non-humans collapse under the burden of ecological crises, the fear of becoming outcompeted by technological agents is growing. Anthropocentrism, or the view of humans as autonomous, powerful independent subjects, is reaching its limits.

"Human and non-human beings relate as part of a planetary process. Since humans not only participate in, but depend on that process, their future is compromised by the problematic ways in which they currently relate."

A frequently voiced answer to 21st-century anthropocentrism is post-humanism. Departing from humanism, post-humanism rejects humans’ exceptional position vis-à-vis other species. Instead of considering humans binarily opposed to non-humans, it invites us to critically rethink the identity we have attributed to humans. Post-humanism highlights the entanglement of humans, animals, plants and other living and non-living beings. By embracing a relational ontology, in which the mutual relations between things constitute the things themselves, beings cannot be conceived of as individuals. Post-humanism thus de-emphasizes the agency of humans and draws attention to the role of non-human agents, placing the same value on all beings. As a result, placing humans at the top of a moral hierarchy stops making sense.

Post-humanists, along with feminists, postcolonial, and queer theorists have decentralized the role of (hu)man and re-integrated humans into an entangled web of lifeforms and technological structures. Post-humanist scholar Rosi Braidotti sums it up in the following way: “The human subject is no longer a singular entity but a more complex ensemble… This implies that thinking and knowing are not exclusively the prerogatives of humans, but take place in the world, which is defined by the co-existence of multiple organic species and technological artifacts alongside each other”.

While post-humanism is currently receiving much attention, post-humanist thinking has long historical roots. In post-humanist fashion, the theories of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud have been called “major blows to man's narcissism”. The Copernican revolution showed us planet Earth was not the center of the universe; the Darwinian revolution taught us that we are part of the animal kingdom and a process of biological evolution; Freud showed us the limits of human rationality, arguing it was hidden thoughts and feelings, not rationality, that influence human behavior.

II. Why do we see this now?

Signs that suggest post-humanism is gaining ground are numerous and go beyond recent movies. Scientific evidence is piling up of the fact that non-human species also have culture, can feel pain, suffer emotionally, and behave morally, as the famous primatologist Frans de Waal reminds us with his research on primates. After sequencing human genes for the first time, the Human Genome Project showed us that human existence could no longer be understood in isolation from the rest of the living world. And as our understanding of the human gut gains clarity, we are slowly becoming aware of how the human body is an ecosystem of multispecies collaboration. Furthermore, the EAT-Lancet report on a global planetary health diet convincingly shows that a healthy diet for people is also a healthy diet for the planet.

In contrast to this strand of research, which paints a rather optimistic or inspiring picture for humans, is the very depressing, anxiety-inducing research that suggests we’re in the midst of a mass extinction process. The species extinction rate is about 1,000 times higher than it would be without human intervention in the evolutionary process. Rates this high threaten the stability of the climate, thereby altering precipitation patterns of frequency and intensity. Added to the exploitation of resources and the contamination of water, soil and air, climate change puts further pressure on entire ecosystems’ habitats, which are rendered inhospitable for certain species. Because every species is part of an interconnected ecosystem, the loss of one species directly affects other species. And because every ecosystem is interconnected in a planetary-scale equilibrium, the health of one biome affects that of others. The extinction crisis we are experiencing therefore poses a very existential, urgent threat to life as we know it.

"Because every species composes an interconnected ecosystem, the loss of one species directly affects other species."

Post-human considerations are being taken into account in new technologies, institutional policies and legal decision-making processes. For instance, while most design is human-centered, design approaches that explore and integrate a more-than-human or a multispecies angle are on the rise. On an institutional level, Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam has launched the Zoöp organizational model, which allows non-humans to play a part in organizational decision-making. On a political level, species and ecosystems are starting to be considered legal agents, e.g. the Ganges River was recently granted the legal status of personhood in an effort to combat pollution.

Where could these developments take us? Could we enter a post-human world? What tools would help us become post-human? Post-human enthusiasts have suggested technology can facilitate human/non-human interaction. Consider the developments of large language models. The fact that ChatGPT is capable of “understanding” humans enhances communication between humans and artificial beings by making this communication more intuitive and giving it a “natural” feeling. It can perform a certain level of “theory of mind tests”, as it can interact with us from a “subjective” standpoint and relate to us in such a way that it also understands us as subjects. However, while it helps machines talk to humans, and makes human language more accessible for machines, ChatGPT is still centered around the human language, therefore using a human standard. Imagine ChatGPT could be used to unlock the languages spoken by trees, animals, microbes, and other beings so that interspecies communication became truly possible.

"Imagine ChatGPT could be used to unlock the languages spoken by trees, animals, microbes, and other beings so that interspecies communication became truly possible."
III. Thinking post-humanly

In order to look at our current world through a post-human lens, we will discuss two books that exhibit today’s status and interpretation of the tradition. These are James Bridle’s Ways of Being and Laura Tripaldi’s Parallel Minds, both published in 2022.

The two authors place major emphasis on the need to recognize the intelligence of non-human beings. For too long, humans have been blind to the dynamic and sentient environment that our naked eye cannot capture. Indeed, the more-than-human (Bridle’s term) intelligences that surround us are very much there, albeit invisible to unmediated human vision. Yet, as with ultraviolet light or the frequency of electrons, technology can help decode these intensities, translating them into some form which is appreciable to human understanding.

Bridle argues for a role for AI in helping us connect to the intelligences of the more-than-human world. With this plea, he echoes Donna Haraway, who has argued that the increasingly blurring boundaries between us and technology will help us see ourselves as being interconnected with, rather than separate from non-human beings. This is not to say that we should just hang around and wait for technology to facilitate a conversation between us and non-humans. For even if technology achieves such facilitation, this effort will make little to no sense if humans as a species are not open to listening to what other beings have to say. Insofar as humans insist on maintaining their fixed anthropocentric standards as to what might be classified as “intelligent” or “alive”, we will not be able to recognize the existence and agency of more-than-human beings.

"Insofar as humans insist on maintaining their fixed anthropocentric standards as to what might be classified as “intelligent” or “alive”, we will not be able to recognize the existence and agency of more-than-human beings."

Consider the physarum polycephalum, a protist organism that looks a bit like yellow mold. The polycephalum is taken as an example in both Bridle’s and Tripaldi’s work because of its rather unique cellular structure and capacities. Made up of a vast number of cells all fused into a single membrane, the polycephalum is mainly composed of endoplasm, in which its nuclei float freely. Over recent years, it has caught scientists’ attention because of its behavior. The polycephalum has the ability to transform its body and form tentacles of sorts, which allow it to move and explore its surroundings. In 2010, scientists at the University of Hokkaido placed oat flakes at the nerve centers of a reproduction of Tokyo’s city map. They then placed polycephalum on the map and observed what happened: The polycephalum searched for food by expanding its body into the surroundings and retracting those body parts that were not providing nourishment. In the places where body parts had been retracted , it would leave behind a trace of slime, in order to signal to its body not to expand there again. In a short period of time, through a process that in computer science is known as morphological computation, the polycephalum was able to optimize a route system to all food nodes, creating a network surprisingly similar to Tokyo’s rail transport network.

Polycephalum in the lab
Polycephalum on a log

What makes polycephalum’s capacity to construct a spatial memory of its environment even more fascinating, is the fact that it lacks tissue or a nervous system. In other words, it lacks a control center. In dealing with a homogenous body of endoplasm, where can intelligence possibly come from? Polycephalum’s intelligence is not like that of mammals or computers. Its movement can do without centralized coordination. Instead, it is generated through a “continuous and delocalised dialogue between the organism and its environment”. The membrane that separates it from its environment is covered with receptors that bind to specific chemical substances, producing a chain reaction that transforms the organism’s protein structure, allowing for its expansion and contraction. Unusual as it is, the polycephalum is a living organism, and a very intelligent one.

A brain is not a necessary condition for the organization of thought in matter. This means, broadly, that intelligence need not be centralized. Cognition can be outsourced to other material structures, which are far more dynamic and sentient than we could ever imagine, with the capacity to trigger adaptive responses to the environment. Decentralized and entangled, intelligence becomes a relational affair.

Only by acknowledging this can we begin to decode the interactions within the more-than-human world and even the interactions between human and non-human agents. This is crucial for acquiring a more ecological view of our relationship with our environment, and a step forward in becoming post-human. Once we’ve accepted that intelligence arises from the interrelatedness of things, we might come to the realization that what we call “artificial intelligence” might not be artificial, but rather, ecological. Not “artificial intelligences” but non-human, digital beings. This insight could in turn inspire the further development of technology. As Bridle puts it: “The machines we need for making sense of this omnipresent, efflorescent and entangled world – where making sense is analogous, as Wittgenstein said of language, to joining in play – should not be more remote, more abstract, but more like the world.”

"Once we’ve accepted that intelligence arises from the interrelatedness of things, we might come to the realization that what we call 'artificial intelligence' might not be artificial, but rather, ecological."

While octopi, cows, pigs and even slime molds appear to us as living beings and we are thus able to relate to them at least a bit, Tripaldi goes a step further by opening our eyes to the intelligence and cognition of non-living materials. She calls on (material) scientists to “animate” non-living matter, to take materials seriously, and cooperate with their intelligence and sensibility in the construction of sentient automata, which has so far been met with fear. Spider silk, for instance, is capable of supercontraction, that is, dramatically shrinking its fibers when wetted. The stress generated within its structure allows it to withstand the weight of rain drops or dew. At the same time, spider silk is able to absorb water which dis-aligns its protein chains, allowing for its physicochemical interactions to be rearranged through the process of drying, which exhibits a self-repair mechanism. Even more astonishingly, spider silk can transform from liquid to solid in a matter of fractions of a second. Resting as a highly concentrated aqueous solution of protein in the spider’s glands, silk self-assembles into its fibrous structure whenever the appropriate environmental conditions are met. Spider silk holds incredible potential within its chemical structure, and its ability to transform itself without completely destroying this structure makes it a very smart material.

And yet, when considering intelligence, most of us wouldn’t think of spider silk. Although through some rational or philosophical reflection we could arrive at the conclusion that spider silk is very smart (perhaps far smarter than we are), culturally, this idea is much more difficult to arrive at. Humans have long sustained a relationship of domination with non-human beings. Materials have always been perceived as means to our ends; to build our infrastructure, or to fuel our machines. The same has been the case for animals, which provide us with food or mobility, and plants, which we’ve cherished for their medicinal or even aesthetic value. As a result, we have created a paradigm in which the non-human realm is valued only insofar as it provides instrumental benefits to mankind. Understanding how arbitrary, imaginary, and toxic this hierarchy is, requires a vital yet scarce trait which might just be the key to becoming post-human: humility. As Bridle puts it, solidarity is needed to “acknowledge the radical differences between ourselves and other beings, while insisting on the possibility of mutual aid, care and growth.” There is still a long way to go when it comes to building a relationship of equals with the more-than-human realm, for even upon receiving the Oscar for Best Documentary, filmmakers Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed thanked everyone - their family, friends, partners and supporters, activists, the Academy, even Netflix! - but forgot to even mention the octopus.

Part of our humbling process starts with recognizing that the world will always remain to some extent unknowable and random to us. Appreciating randomness is a way of integrating the incomputable, the non-dominable, the non-controllable into our own ways of thinking and relating to the more-than-human world. The next step is simply caring, or “[providing] a constant attentiveness to the meaning and affect of our entanglement.” Could we ever, genuinely, do this?

'The only way out was to go within' (2018), © Kyra Sacks, KyraSacks.nl
IV. Will we ever be post-human?

Beyond our lived experiences, scholars have pointed at significant theoretical shortcomings of post-humanism. Can post-humanism really provide us with a representative and guiding perspective from which to understand humanity in these times? Understanding that human-non-human relations are always and already entangled in a complex ecology is necessary if we are to critique anthropocentric thinking. But post-humanism also has its limits.

By emphasizing the intertwined relations between people, animals, plants, microbes and machines, post-humanism eliminates the ability to speak of “something” or “someone”. In speaking of networks and relations, post-humanism does away with the idea of the self which humans have always counted on to understand their being in the world, acting in the world, and having a sense of responsibility for the world. Yes, Tripaldi is right in saying that “there are minds that function in a non-representative way, without any need to build a reflective image of [them]selves and the world”, but this is not the case for humans. As recognized by Bridle, some anthropomorphism is inevitable, for “We are anthropos, and we have no other means of addressing these worlds than through our own.” Humans can only think and speak from a human point of view.

By the same token, post-humanism’s overemphatic effort to level humans and non-humans on equal footing risks losing much analytic capacity and oversimplifying complex power dynamics and social relations. Power and agency cease to matter or even exist once they have been distributed amongst everyone, equally. Not recognizing power dynamics, post-humanism also undermines moral and political considerations that are key in our Anthropocenic day and age. There has to be some difference among the planet’s actors. For instance, Tripaldi assigns cognition, but not consciousness, to materials. Perhaps because of this (and contrary to animals or other non-human beings), humans have been able to differentiate and disentangle their own biology from material production in order to produce a wide array of different materials.

Lastly, post-humanism might just be the other end of a pendulum swing between human-centrism and the total decentering of humans. It is not necessary for us humans to engage with the more-than-human world in an absolutely symmetrical manner. The point of relating to other species and materials is precisely learning to love and respect their differences, not erase them altogether. Through technologies such as nanotech, which could potentially act on the same level as biological life, we can observe and learn from other species. But we should also not fetishize their differences. We are, as Bridle and Tripaldi argue, urged to remain open to the logic of other ways of being, always humbled by our incapacity of experiencing and acting in the world as something more-than-human. Perhaps the way to start discovering this equilibrium is by expanding a perennial method of building networks of care and compassion which has brought meaning to human life: friendship.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.
With a background in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a Master’s in History, Martine Dirkzwager Wu is intrigued by researching what the new conditions for the Humanities are in the age of the Anthropocene. In trying to understand a fundamentally unintelligible world, her thought process aims to be as critical as creative. She celebrates an era of post-truth in which knowledge can be traced through academic, but also natural and artistic networks.

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