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The Runaway Humans: What can we do now?

At Sogetsu Hall, in the afternoon of November 3, the Japanese national holiday known as Culture Day, the Renaissance Generation '10 held its annual event, "The Future Body," hosted by the Kanazawa Institute of Technology with a panel discussion on "Can humans be reduced to XX?"

This group, under the direction of Shinsuke Shimojo, Professor, California Institute of Technology and psychologist and Noriyuki Tanaka, Art Director, has held this event since its start in 1997, making this the fourteenth to take place.

The day began with a dialogue between Shinsuke Shimojo and Noriyuki Tanaka on "Hopeless Humans." This was followed by three keynote presentations from Akiko Uchida, biological anthropologist, Professor, Waseda University, on "Humans are Runaway Animals"; Yasuo Kuniyoshi, cognitive systems information scientist, Professor, Tokyo University Graduate School, on "The human mind as a creation generated by the body and environment"; and Takeshi Utsumi, psychiatrist, Associate Professor, Health Care Service Center, Tokyo University of the Arts, on "Can the human mind be reduced to the brain?" This was followed by a video interview/lecture by Mr. Shimojo and Mr. Tanaka with Masahiro Morioka, philosopher, Professor, Osaka Prefecture University, on "The painless body of the future." The day concluded with a general discussion that included all participants on the question "Is human dignity being destroyed?" I listened to the lecture with intense interest and learned a lot. As Professor Uchida's lecture took up a subject of particular interest to me, I will focus on it here and present my own thoughts.

The title "Human beings as runaway animals," implied that humans were animals that had evolved uncontrollably, but I think this is because Dr. Uchida sees our current problems as stemming from human evolution that went out of control. But, as humans, we are both biological and social beings, and so we should understand that what has gone out of control is not just our biological side as the carrier of intra-body information, but also social side of human existence which is the carrier of extra-body information. And I would add that this runaway phase is not behind us, but continues today. If we consider that intra-body information is transmitted via genes, but extra-body information is conveyed in memes, we can see that the memes are indeed implicated in the current runaway situation. In fact, runaway memes may be faster and more serious in their effect.

The term "meme," coined by British scientist Richard Dawkins, refers to a unit of information that has been transmitted from person to person, generation to generation since the dawn of civilization. This information behaves as if it were a living organism; memes are transmitted, changed, and reproduced in response to programs of the mind, such as mental models and learning. In Japanese, meme has been translated in a number of ways.

The term "boso," used by Professor Uchida means "to run away," which can also mean "to escape" or "leave home," but here it refers to something gone awry and unmanageable as when a horse becomes uncontrollable, and in this sense, evolution has become a runaway process.

As one example of a runaway process, it is possible to point to preference in the selection of a mate, which is reinforced quickly through feedback, and the evolution of attributes that are not necessarily advantageous for survival. This is clear if we think of the peacock and its large, beautiful feathers, which play a role in partner choice, but hardly seem advantageous for survival. Among mammals, Irish Elks with magnificent horns can be seen as the product of a true runaway process, biologically speaking. Compared with its body with a shoulder height of 2 meters, the horns evolved to a span of 2.5 to 4 meters. This large size was, in fact, disadvantageous for its survival and deer became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

When we think of humans, we cannot, of course, consider only the biological dimension. The social dimension must also be considered, in particular, culture which constitutes the extra-body information. Moreover, like genetic information, culture is not only transmitted from generation to generation as cultural information, but it is also transmitted horizontally from person to person through memes, which can suddenly mutate, follow an evolutionary path, or become runaway. Certainly, phenomena related to war could be one example of this, as when advanced countries strive desperately to develop extremely powerful weapons capable of killing.

The social problems that we see happening around the world today can be considered in terms of a runaway process. Of course, the above example of war can be seen in this light, but we can also apply it to food production. Due to advances in food technology, cheap, nutritious food has become more readily available, but improved nutrition has also resulted in an increase in obesity and metabolic syndrome and lowered the age of menarche. Another example would be drastically improved hygiene due to changes in the lifestyle environment, advances in the treatment of infectious disease, and the over-sanitization of daily life accompanied by an increase in children with allergies.

Human evolution began 14 million years ago, and human and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor 7 million years ago. Moreover, some 2 million years ago, humans began to speak a form of proto-language, use stone utensils, and develop culture. At each juncture, humans continually used the programs of the mind such as reason and knowledge to resolve problems that confront in social life, which has resulted in our culture and civilization today. Of course, this is also because of the human brain and body which are the product of biological evolution.

However, anyone who considers the world situation today will feel apprehensive, for although we have reason and knowledge, including the programs of the mind, that can anticipate and solve these problems today, there are a myriad of intractable problems from the global to the personal scale. War, which we find all over our planet today, is a typical example of this. If nuclear weapons are used, the situation could end with human beings becoming extinct like Irish Elks. What can we do about this? What first comes to mind is that we need to raise the children around us to have the ability to control this runaway mind.
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