Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a New Global Superorganism

Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism
by Gregory Stock

Simon & Schuster
0-671 -70723-X
Glossary; Index
C, T, GA **


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In this book, we are asked to look down from the moon at the night side of the earth and view "the thin planetary patina of humanity and its creations" as a living entity, a superorganism consisting of interdependent human and nonhuman elements. This superorganism has the fundamentals of life: It has specialization and integration of the various parts, it metabolizes and converts energy into activity, it has an integrated response to the environment, and it evolves, albeit by reshaping itself rather than reproducing. The way in which the superorganism evolves is illustrated fancifully by a story of automobiles in the distant future looking back and recounting their automotive history from their perspective. The story goes, "The earliest automobiles--frail and unremarkable descendants of animal-drawn vehicles--first appeared in Europe in the late l9th century." It goes on to say that wherever cars roamed, they found sustenance, and states that it is still something of a mystery how automobiles maintained the unwavering support of the human population. "One popular theory is that the vehicles succeeded in inserting themselves into human courtship rituals and male dominance displays" (p. 54). The book is written in an intelligent and entertaining manner, with numerous predictions of the future based on the interrelations among people and machines. Will machines become our rivals instead of our servants? Where does consciousness begin? What is the nature of consciousness? Examples of future technology, of which we presently see only hints, include genetically engineered plant viruses, massively parallel computing, and cochlear and other implants of machines into humans. This book is a fun read. There is optimism throughout. The author states that there is no further threat of global war because of our increasing interdependencies. It is also encouraging to note that we needn't transform human nature; the superorganism is able to accommodate various human deficiencies, since it is an overall entity. The ideas are impressive and well documented by over 100 pages of notes. It is not necessary to believe all the predictions in order to enjoy reading them. Particularly interesting is the chapter on ethics (Chapter 12: "Power and Choice: Challenges to Human Values"). Examples are given of unrealistic policies that we currently advocate, such as trying to achieve totally risk-free environments when, in so doing, we introduce other, perhaps worse, risks. Another example, which some might find offensive, is the policy of paying large amounts of money to treat very low-birthweight babies in intensive care when such care "is based on unwarranted assumptions" and the money might be better spent in other ways. This chapter leads one to think about the trade-offs between costs and benefits and how decisions about resource allocation are a form of "playing God." The book contains useful discussion topics for college courses in public policy, public health, economics, government, sociology, and computer science, among others. It could be used for discussion also in high school courses and for community book discussion groups. Possibly offensive to some persons is the treatment of evolution. There are people who are not convinced of the truth of inefficient Darwinian evolution. They may be persuaded concerning social evolution in the case of Metaman. Is the hand of a Creator present at all in the evolution of Metaman? The author, who holds a doctorate in biophysics, is well qualified to write books such as this.

--Reviewed by Sonja Johansen in Science Books and Films, 30/2 (March 1994), p. 40.