The ongoing coronavirus pandemic doesn’t seem like an obvious keyword for thinking about biological transcendence. But the strange thing is that in our response to this crisis we unwittingly participated in such an event.
The idea of transcendence goes back a long way, under different names and manifestations. In many religions it captures the idea of deities or phenomena that somehow exist independently of the physical universe and even beyond physical laws. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant modified aspects of this concept and created a label for things that are literally unknowable and exist outside of knowledge itself.
But lately transcendence has been associated with the idea that man goes beyond our standard form of consciousness; often fused with the mystical idea of ”ascension” into a higher form of existence – a trope eagerly adopted by countless not-really-trying-very-tough science fiction stories, films, and futurists. Most of the slightly more informed versions of this speculation see humans and machines merging into something new. Perhaps our consciousness and memories – our “selves” – could be uploaded into an immortal digital form, swirled around the internet, or into an almighty supercomputer.
These fantasies are quite tempting (and at this point they really are fantasies; we don’t understand consciousness or the full physical basis of memory and behavior, so the chances of getting “you” into a machine seem pretty slim). They’re also a great distraction from the surprising and very real examples of such transformations that are happening right under our noses.
Take the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov-2. Its genetic material is a single strand of RNA with 29,903 nucleotides (the “letters” of the genetic code common to all known living things on earth) that contain information for about 30 genes that make proteins. (A virus is “just bad news wrapped in protein,” in words attributed to biologists Peter and Jean Medawar.)
Whatever the exact origin of this particular type of coronavirus, the Information content Until the beginning of 2020, this RNA strand did not exist in the world in any form other than the polymerized nucleotides of biochemistry. Every single copy of SARS-Cov-2 was a bunch of molecules and nothing more. But then, almost overnight, it jumped onto an entirely new substrate.
Starting with the innards of PCR sequencing systems and technologies such as nanopore devices (which literally pull a strand of DNA or RNA through a molecular sensor that registers different electrical charges for different nucleotides), the viral RNA was converted into digital data; symbolic representations that are themselves encoded as tiny electrical or magnetic bits in silicon memory or hard drives. From here, the information content of the viral RNA was duplicated: via storage devices, via the Internet, in cloud servers, on laptops, cell phones, flash drives and sometimes in their brains, while trained researchers investigated the gene sequences and their associated molecular machinery.
However, this viral transcendence didn’t stop just with the replication of symbolic information. The same information is now interacting with the world in ways it couldn’t if it were encased in viral RNA. Now it affects human activity and behavior. We execute computer codes, we write scientific articles, we artificially build pieces of RNA in laboratories, and in the case of our mRNA vaccines, we make trillions, even quadrillions of duplicates of small pieces of the original RNA that encode the sonnets of the spike protein and around them Send world where they get into human flesh and cells and ribosomal machines.
The informational content of this one type of virus has spread on Earth in all these forms, electronic and artificial, to an extent that is even comparable to the terrifying efficiency of the original biological forms themselves. It has now also exerted its influence on the environment in which it is contained in a way that the original form could never have had. Electrical energy has flowed in every sequencing study and file download or protein structure prediction. Laboratory equipment and vaccine manufacturing facilities were being built or expanded, and people rushed to and fro while genomic information was argued and examined.
In the truest sense of the word, the coronavirus has uploaded itself into machine form and then beyond. Even if we eradicated its biological form from the world, it would live on as a digital species, perhaps largely dormant, but from the perspective of self-propagating information, time is somewhat irrelevant. If the digitized version of the virus isn’t studied for a century or two, it doesn’t matter, it still exists because it can, and wins the game of Darwinian evolution.
Just like our own “selfish genes”, the viral genes made up of nucleotides are really just a convenient implementation or instantiation of some type of information that describes their own reproductive processes (albeit in a condensed form). But it took the evolutionary development of a species like ours and our subsequent technological evolution to create the possibility of viral transcendence in an entirely non-biological form. This may be a lesson: we might want to think that once a day we can implement some version of our own transcendence, but maybe it will be something else that creates the opportunity and does it more or less whether we like it or not. We are not allowed to upload ourselves to machine forms; the machines can upload us just like we do with viruses.
The way information travels in the world is examined in much greater detail in my new book The rise of information (Riverhead, June 2021).
This is an opinion and analysis article.