Are we on the verge of a new type of writing that tries to capture the experience and perspective of the non-human? This is a long-read essay on why we need a literature of the non-human.
The arts and humanities have a theme, a preoccupation. Almost every novel, poem and play, almost all works of history, philosophy and sociology have at their core been concerned with one thing: people. What it means to be a person. How people ought to live. How people can live together. What people think and feel and do and talk about. Ethics and emotions, ideals and passions, meaning and minutiae. The clue is in the name: humanities.
Over the last month or so I’ve been immersed in books, articles and podcasts that make me wonder whether, in the near-future, we might start to see the end of this focus. The more measured way of looking at it might be to say that there’ll be a shift from an almost exclusive focus on the human to incorporate the non-human experience that has been neglected in almost all literature. The more dramatic might be to say that the tens of thousands of works or literature, art and film that try to understand the human condition might well become no more than historical documents, anachronisms even, that help those who come next grasp our obsessions, concerns and predillictions.
Whichever way you look at it, I wonder if soon we’ll start to see the dawning of new kinds of literature and art that attempt to represent, interrogate and understand the non-human experience from an non-human point of view; that attempt to limit anthropomorphism and express the non-human view. Of course it may always be partial, there may always be things we don’t know, but still, it will be a literature of the non-human.
There are a number of scientific and theoretical developments in particular that have taken place over the last decade or two that indicate why the non-human is and will be such as an important theme. They come from overlapping work in areas of study like AI, neuroscience, the philosophy of mind, the study of consciousness, evolutionary biology, physics and more.
AI and homo deus
The wide perspective on this comes from evolutionary biology and deep history, that see humans as an evolutionary adaption, a successful and often domineering one yes, but in the end just one species that is very far from the omnipresent one we often believe ourselves to be. It is summarised nicely by Yuval Noah Harari in his two connected books Sapiens and Homo Deus. He traces homo sapiens from their evolution from homo erectus around 200,000 years ago, through their eradication of other homo species and their gradual domination of the natural world, to the advances in the sciences today where we think we understand the world, the body and the brain so much that we will soon be able to adapt human-life in a way that will enable us to upgrade ourselves and ultimately replace ourselves.
In particular, he says, is that it won’t be long until our scientific advances will have led to us becoming something other than human – homo deus or ‘superhuman’ he calls it, and notes three ways this might happen:
1. Organic upgrades to humans that allow people to survive illnesses or perform tasks better. This could be anything from the medicines we have to the engineering of babies to transplants to new organic limbs that replace existing ones. The scientific developments are happening at such speed that we are already seeing people become less like the humans we’ve known for thousands of years, and the advances are coming thick and fast now.
2. Non-organic upgrades that allow people to survive illnesses and perform better. Just like organic upgrades, we have these already – pacemakers, body monitors, synthetic limbs. Again, these are developing at such speeds that our political institutions and ethical governance around them can’t keep up. Harari cites sci-fi-like synthetic examples of arms that can be controlled by the brain, a pancreas that can regulate blood sugar via a smartphone app. It won’t be long, he says, before human abilities far surpass those we have now.
3. Intelligent machines that gradually replace people. It sounds like a fantasy but it’s commonly accepted among many in the scientific and philosophical community that in time, not yet, but in the next two hundred years or so, we will have created machines that are so far beyond our ability that we will become superfluous. We see this already with so much: computers that can process data and make better decisions that we humans can, for example, which will gradually replace our jobs. At the very least these machines will start to play a tremendous part in our lives. But more than this, those computers might well begin to develop their ability to programme themselves, to operate independently. There’s a theory put out there by physicists that it’s likely that in the future we’ll have developed machines that are able to create artificial worlds, there’s likely to be far more of those worlds than there is the one we live in, and so it’s already more likely we’re part of an artificial world than living an actual ‘life’ as we understand it.
Consciousness and the non-human
At the same time, philosophers and and scientists are beginning to coalesce around certain ideas about the mind and the natural world. There has, since the dawn of the Enlightenment, been a view put forward by Descartes, that people have a physical body and a non-physical mind is a person’s self or essence. There’s no consensus but it’s now thought by many in the materialist tradition that people’s minds are in some ways physical entities too, or that the physical plays a far bigger role than the non-physical – it’s the millions of neurons that create the feelings, knowledge and memories that make a person think and act in the way they do. How this creates the apparently non-physical sense of self, what we call consciousness, is what’s called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness by David Chalmers.
This is being coupled with scientific research that tells us that non-humans also have minds of some kind, with feelings and emotions like ours – maybe not with such depth, but it’s there all the same, even if it’s hard for us to capture them. How far that goes is hard to say. Monkeys and pigs are quite like us, birds less so, flies even further away…. We don’t know what it’s like to be a bat or a fly, but we do think we know that there is something that it’s like to be a bat, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel puts it. In fact, when you think about developments in AI then there is a real sense that, if consciousness is not some special property reserved for humans, then it’s likely that intelligent machines will develop what we can only describe as consciousness.
A nice illustration of the view that physical entities outside of human minds have consciousness is the growing support for what’s known as panpsychism, an approach in philosophy of mind which says that yes there is only physical stuff in the world – no disembodied self – but the different elements that make up that physical mind all themselves have some level of consciousness on their own. The neutron, the quark, the molecule, the piece of dust, the rock, the fly, the bird, the ape, the human. Clearly all of these bits of matter have differing levels of consciousness, and certainly nothing like the self-awareness of humans, but nevertheless it doesn’t seem implausible to say that they experience things in different ways.
This materialist understanding of consciousness, mind and personhood implies two things. One is that it much of an entity’s actions – human or otherwise – are in may ways determined by a mix of genes, neutrons and much else, meaning that the freedom to choose and decide our lives, which is such a bedrock of our thinking about what it is to be human, is probably an exaggeration – humans are far more determined than that, which has big implications for literature which almost always presupposes a degree of freedom for the protagonists. The other is that non-humans have some level of consciousness, rendering humans far less unique to our world and making it important to recognise the experiences of non-humans.
And the point of all this is to say that our preoccupation with the human, with personhood, with our feelings and emotions and values, might eventually come to be seen as a distinct historical contingency, a grappling with the universal human condition and predicament that was specific to a short period in the history of the world when humans were a dominant species. Those amusing and astute analyses of relationships by Woody Allen: a very specific historical document about a particular time in the mid to late twentieth century West. Charlotte Bronte’s damning indictments of class and gender: a reminder of how people lived in the nineteenth century. Those writings by Jesus, well…
Writing about non-humans
To me all this poses the question of hen there will be a literature about the experiences of non-human entities – whether we’re talking about the next adaptions of the human through organic or non-organic upgrades, the intelligent machines that already play such a role in our lives, our the non-humans that experience the world differently from us.
One way of thinking about this is how humans write about the non-human. There are countless pieces of fiction that involve non-humans of different kinds, but what marks almost all of them is that they evaluate or interpret them from a human perspective and what they mean for us as humans. And there are countless, too, that anthropomorphise these non-human entities and imbue them with human feelings and decision-making processes. Even science fiction and speculative fiction, which tackles so many of these issues, tends to take a human focused view of them.
The important step, once we acknowledge that non-human entities exist, may become more prevalent and have some level of consciousness, is to ask how we can write from their perspective or experience. Is that even possible? Can we empathise or sympathise with them? Can we, through a mix of creativity and scientific understanding, begin to represent what they experience? They might not have human style desires and emotions, but what do they have? They might have more than us. Or less. Or something completely beyond our understanding. How do we write about this, fictionalise these experiences, without imposing a set of human qualities on what are non-human or semi-human beings? Can there be language or a literature of the non-human?
There are writers out there trying this. The incredible imagination of Jeff Vandermeer often tries to capture the experiences of the non-human. Think of the tunnel / tower in Annihilation, or the shapeshifting and ever-absorbing Borne in that book. China Mievelle writes of the non-human and adaptions of the human in books like Kraken and Perdido Street Station… But the reality is that most attempts to write from the perspective of machines or animals or things tend to imbue them with human feelings and qualities and desires, not try to grapple with what they, as distinct beings, experience. But there are writers, often but not always working in sci-fi, weird and fantasy fiction. And it will be interesting to watch over the coming years, as scientific developments become more prevalent, whether we start to see more pieces of work that can be characterised as a literature of the non-human.
The other way of thinking about this literature is if the creators are non-humans themselves. After all, as AI, robotics and the like continues apace, we might start to see a new kind of literature altogether emerge. We’ve already witnessed Deep Learning creating machines that can out-play the world’s best chess and Go players. We’ve seen machines go way past the Turing test and hold intelligent, self-adapting conversations with people. And algorithms have been used to generate pieces of fiction already. But at what point might machines start to create a literature of their own, a non-human expression of what they experience, without any human representation or mediation, so that non-humans themselves will in fact br writing their own literature?
So I guess we’re at a cross-roads where right now the literature of the non-human is non-existence, but as scientific understanding of non-human experience develops, as philosophical thinking about consciousness and AI shifts, and as new boundaries of scientific development are broken, there will be more attempts to write the experience of the non-human – whether by humans, or by even non-humans.