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Posted: February 03, 2014

The futurist: Nature’s not all about us

Here's why that's important to remember

Thomas Frey

At a recent event I posed the question, “Is the intelligence of nature greater than the intelligence of humans?”

After pondering this question, the audience responded with a mixture of “There is no intelligence in nature,” and “Nature is not an entity with a singular intelligence.”

So exactly what is thing we call nature, and why do we hold it in such high regard? 

One of my pet peeves with the food industry has been the association of “all natural” with “good for you.”

Not everything found in nature is good for you. Things like poison ivy, hemlock, chrysanthemums and rhododendrons are poisonous. Weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and hailstorms can also be massively destructive. Even viruses and diseases can be considered “natural.”

Yes, we all know these things, but there remains a pervasive notion that nature has it right.

Nature didn’t have it right when it came to the woolly mammoth, the dodo bird, or the saber tooth tiger. Nor did it have it right for the Aztecs, Incas or the Anasazi. 

Nature is neither our friend nor our enemy.

If something is considered part of nature, it generally refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the cosmic.

But it’s critical to frame our thinking around the fact that nature is not human-centric. Here’s why that’s important

Looming Issues Ahead

Over the coming years, technology will begin to open one Pandora’s Box after another. We will find ourselves faced with countless dilemmas as our ability to extend human influence and control stretches far beyond anything possible today.

Here are just a few of the significant challenges that lie ahead: 

  • Colonizing other planets – Can the human race possibly survive if all humans only live on one planet? At the same time, do we know enough to recreate “nature” on other planets?
  • Controlling the weather – If we have the ability to put a damper on hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, isn’t that a positive step forward? At the same time, how can we possibly understand the unintended consequences of large-scale human intervention?
  • Artificial womb technology – Some will argue that eliminating human variables from the birthing process will result in superior offspring, but it may also detract from our humanness.
  • Cross-time communication – Will it ever be possible to communicate with people across time? More important than “can we” is the topic of “should we?”
  • Creating new forms of life – If we can create the perfect fish to add to our diet, is that an idea worth pursuing? Or perhaps we could engineer some friendly little creature ideal for cleaning up after people, eliminating menial labor tasks altogether? Where do we draw the line?
  • Terraforming other planets – Creating the oxygen rich environments necessary for plants and animals to thrive on other planets seems like an obvious first step to pre-colonizing a planet, but do we run the risk of making a fatal error and causing an entire planet to turn into the equivalent of a toxic waste dump?
  • Cyborgism – As we more closely align ourselves with the smart tools and devices of the future, at what point does human-side of the equation begin to lose out and the problems outweigh the benefits?
  • Downloading and preserving human brains – Some scientists have suggested it will soon be possible to download a person’s brain digitally and thereby preserve them in a virtual state indefinitely. If it’s possible, is it desirable, and what are the pitfalls?
  • Bioengineered humans – Will people with 3 legs, 6 fingers, and 4 arms still be considered human?
  • Human cloning – As we gain the ability to preselect human attributes and begin producing super babies, free from disease with superior physical and intellectual characteristics, how will these hybrid people fit in with the rest of society? Are cloned people still real people? 

Rethinking the Ethics of our Future

Early on in the filming of Star Trek Next Generation, Brent Spiner, the actor who played the sentient android Lieutenant Commander Data was growing tired of applying his makeup every day. So he asked Gene Roddenberry, “Don’t you think that by this time in history, they would’ve figured out how to make skin look like skin?”

Roddenberry replied, “What makes you think that what you have isn’t better than skin?”

Underlying Spiner’s question was the assumption that humans have already achieved the ultimate form.

So should we think about reengineering human skin, or designing bodies that never age, bio-hearts that never fail, or brains that function ten times faster?

Do questions like this begin to raise ethical red flags in your head? That’s precisely the point.

If we continue to use “nature” as our moral compass, we will invariably get it wrong. Nature doesn’t care. 

There are no ethics or morality in nature. Morality comes from our values and nature doesn’t concern itself with any human-centered tenets or beliefs.

“If we continue to use ‘nature’ as our moral compass,
we will invariably get it wrong. Nature doesn’t care.” 

Final Thoughts

As we begin to deal with the complex issues ahead, I find my role as a futurist changing At times I’m stepping into the role like philosopher, ethicist, and truth seeker even though “truth” has become such a murky issue in the increasingly squishy fields of science and physics.

Much like Schrodinger’s cat, truth is never there when you need it.

Understanding how the future unfolds will require accounting for difficult decisions along the way. These decisions become key turning points in human history. The ethics and morality of ages past will have little bearing on many issues we face in the future.

That said, I would love to hear your thoughts. Unlike most of the topics I cover, this has been more of a personal rant, so please feel free to help set the record straight.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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