In The Robot’s Rebellion, Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich conducts a fascinating exploration of how we might transcend our role as replicators for “selfish” genes. If, as Richard Dawkins puts it, we’re “lumbering robots” deployed by DNA, then our dignity and autonomy might come from rebelling against the impersonal forces that created us. We can, in effect, tell our genes to go jump in the lake (as Steven Pinker suggests we do in How the Mind Works), and live for ourselves. Following Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, Stanovich points out that we also inadvertently serve selfish memes – beliefs and cultural practices which replicate in human brains, with sometimes disastrous results for the host (think ideologically motivated suicide bombers). We must take to the streets against both genes and memes, carving out our own interests. Seeing our fully natural status is the first step: what Dennett calls the “universal acid” of Darwinism dissolves the traditional supernatural notions of soul and free will. Then, we rationally critique our motives and behavior to discover which best serve our purposes, not the goals installed in us by genes and culture.
But what are our purposes, anyway, and can we really separate them from what we’ve been “designed” to want? For instance, the very desire for autonomy might be built into us, a trait derived from being descendents of those that won the competition for status, resources, and reproductive opportunities. Wanting to be your own man or woman, not a creature of the herd, is after all simply another description of being a leader: someone who, by virtue of derring do, ultimately gets more goods than her followers. Further, in our Western, radically individualist culture, personal autonomy is the Grand Meme par excellence: “Be all that you can be”, “I did it my way”, “God bless the child who’s got his own”, etc, etc. So it can be argued that the robot’s rebellion is just a further expression of genetic and memetic imperatives, playing themselves out in our doomed quest for independence.
No matter. According to Stanovich, the project of cognitive reform he recommends won’t necessarily reach a stable, satisfying conclusion. Rather, it’s the project of rational self-investigation itself that’s the point – our point – that which most distinguishes us reflective human beings from blind nature and culture. Once embarked on, we can call anything and everything into question, at the same time knowing that that the very desire to question is the outcome of factors that we, the products of genes and society, never consciously chose. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s knowing that we are not ultimately self-made or autonomous that paradoxically most gives us autonomy. Or if you don’t buy that, you might agree that knowing the truth about ourselves is at least a necessary precondition of authenticity.
The Robot’s Rebellion is a terrific, no-holds-barred grappling with the profound implications of seeing ourselves as completely natural creatures, and a call to become fully conscious of this truth about ourselves. It’s been widely reviewed, including a nice notice by Susan Blackmore, about whom see the reviews of her writings on consciousness.