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IEET > Security > SciTech > Rights > Personhood > Life > Innovation > Contributors > Phil Torres

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The Plastic Elastic Cyborg

Phil Torres
By Phil Torres
Ethical Technology

Posted: Apr 28, 2010

Modern humans use technology to constantly modify our morphology, physiology, and behavior in response to our environments—to increase our plasticity.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker describes the human ability to communicate using the “discrete combinatorial” system of natural language as simply one impressive act in “nature’s talent show.”

As Pinker states, “some kinds of bats home in on flying insects using Doppler sonar. Some kinds of migratory birds navigate thousands of miles by calibrating the positions of the constellations against the time of day and year.” I’d like to add another amazing creature to the list—namely, Synchlora frondaria—since my encounter with it months ago got me thinking (once again) about the many ways that we humans use technology to modify our minds and bodies.

The story goes as follows: I was working at my desk last summer when I noticed a flower that I’d picked from my front yard moving. After rubbing my eyes for several minutes and questioning (aloud, in a panicky voice!) my mental stability, I determined that the critter before me was not a hallucination but a roughly one inch long caterpillar—one whose physical appearance was virtually indistinguishable from the multicolored flower on which I found it. (Thus, according to Leibniz’s Law I had concluded that the caterpillar was the flower!)

Moreover, the wriggling organism appeared to actually be growing, on its dorsal side, the very same multicolored pedals as the flower! A gentle attempt to pluck these pedals was not met with success, which only amplified my perplexity and confoundment.

It turns out that I had (inadvertently) discovered an individual of the extraordinarily “talented” species S. frondaria. This unusual invention of nature has, apparently, mastered the art of “crypsis,” or the ability of an organism to blend into its surroundings (and thus avoid predation). In particular, S. frondaria both (i) modifies its body coloration—from light brown to dark red to golden yellow to whitish grey—depending on its environment’s color; and (ii) “decorates” itself with plant material found in this environment—pedals, leaves, etc.—by attaching such materials to its back with silk (see this journal article: PDF).

A video I shot of the specimen is here, and another shot by someone else is below.

What is most amazing about S. frondaria, in my opinion, is the plasticity of its phenotype: the features of S. frondaria‘s body (such as color) can be modified in response to the presence or absence of factors in the environment, on an “ontogenetic” timescale.

This stimulated reflection not just about how technology allows us to modify our own observable features, including our morphology, physiology and behavior, but how our artifactual creations enable us to temporarily and reversibly change such features depending on the circumstances. This ability has adaptive import when the milieu in which one lives is not homogeneous—that is, when it contains a number of different and distinct niches, each of which imposes its own “adaptational demands” on the individual. (Or, put differently, in niche A the individual may be fully adapted, but in niche B he or she may not.)

Consider Darwin’s comment in an 1881 letter to the ethologist Karl Semper: “I speculated whether a species very liable to repeated and great changes of conditions might not assume a fluctuating condition ready to be adapted to either condition.”

Now, it seems to me that the world in which modern Homo sapiens lives is a patchwork of various physical and social circumstances that each impose different “adaptational” demands on the individual. For example, people are expected to look and act a very particular way in formal settings like work and academia; once one emerges from such environments, though, these morphological and behavioral expectations are no longer (immediately) important.

The idea here is that no single human phenotype is optimally adapted to all of the many different and distinct niches through which the modern actor passes in a single lifetime, or year, or month, or day (etc.). Consequently, to maintain an adequate and comfortable degree of adaptive complementarity with our surroundings, we—as Darwin put it—“assume a fluctuating condition ready to be adapted to [all these conditions].” And technology is what enables us to do this.

In a previous article, I attempted to identify three kinds of techno-modification discussed in the literature: substitution, extension and enhancement. The idea at present is simply to shift the focus to the reversibility of such phenotypic alterations; and this shift yields a new technological version of phenotypic plasticity.

Consider the automobile, for example. Some philosophers have limned conveyances like the automobile as a kind of “exoskeleton” of the human being,* and several have carefully described its capacity to be “embodied” by the driver—that is, to feel like a “part of” our own bodies, from the phenomenological perspective.** (This occurs, e.g., when the “phenomenological focal point” of the driver shifts to the four points at which the car’s tires touching the road, rather than being any spot on the driver’s own innervated body.)


Furthermore, it is probably true that, while driving, the brain itself treats the automobile as an extended “part of” the driver’s physical self. (The pertinent experiments were done with monkeys using rakes to manipulate distal objects; specific “bimodal” neurons that usually fire when the monkey’s fingertips are touched eventually began to fire when the tip of the rake is touched, thus suggesting that the brain had “incorporated” the rake into its somatosensory “body schema.”)

The automobile may thus be understood as an enhancive extension of the driver’s own body, i.e., the driver-automobile “coupled system” yields a kind of cybernetic organism, albeit one that pushes to the limit our pre-theoretic intuitions about where the individual ends and the environment begins.

The point is that there exists, in our externality, a very specific and discretely-bound environment to which we must adapt in order to travel in our contemporary “human-built” world. This niche is the complex system of roads that stretches like a tangled net across virtually every land mass on the planet. And how do we adapt to this particular niche? Of course, we express (what might be called) the “automobilic phenotype.” This modification extends and enhances specific features of our bodies to more optimally complement the environmental factors peculiar to the road. And—crucially—such modifications are entirely temporary/reversible.

In this way, then, technology allows us to rapidly adapt to a specific environment, get to where we need to go, and then “undo” this adaptive modification (which is highly maladaptive in most other environments). The result is a technological kind of phenotypic plasticity—a phenomenon that, as far as I know, no theorist of technology has yet theorized about.

Obviously, the idea here is incipient at best. But one can, no doubt, adduce numerous additional examples to support the basic thesis. From the alcohol one sips at a party to the particular clothes worn at different social engagements, from the hammer one uses to manipulate the environment to the sleep aids ingested to get a good night’s sleep, modern humans are, I believe, constantly modifying their morphology, physiology and behavior with technology. And while some of this modification is more-or-less permanent (as in the case of plastic surgery, or germ line gene therapy), much of it is temporary and entirely undoable.

Technology has not only changed our observable features—through such processes as “cyborgization”—but enabled them to be far more plastic than ever before.


* See the article “Technofantasies and Embodiment” by Don Ihde, starting on page 153 of this PDF.

** For example, see page 47 of Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1991).

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