Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 3b – The Emergence of Consciousness

westworld-skele-fb       Manufacturing another host on HBO’s Westworld

As previously discussed the physicist, futurist and popularizer of science Michio Kaku presented a model on consciousness in his book The Further of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014) that involved increasing levels from Level 0 (plants and bacteria) to Level III (humans). One of the key factors that moves an entity from Level II to Level III is having the ability to use existing information to respond to conditions in the past or present to anticipate repercussions or effects in the future.  This is markedly different than instinct, which is based on a genetically set of feedback loops that respond to environmental cues or imprinting / conditioning an animal to expect a response in the immediate future based on training or past conditions.  However, while instinct and imprinting have their roots firmly placed in Darwinian evolution through natural selection, this does not mean higher levels of consciousness is absent from other forms of Terran life (e.g. lions, dolphins, etc.). For example, can any form of kin selection (doing something in favor for the group and not the individual) be considered a higher level of consciousness since to some it can be considered a “higher” form of Darwinian evolution? A large part of this may be how we define consciousness as humans.  However, within the context of this discussion we will focus on the shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” and the hosts in HBO’s Westworld.

dr-michio-kaku Dr. Michio Kaku

As previously mentioned, shoggoths were created initially as food and so started as Level 0 consciousness.

“It was under the sea, at first for food and later for other purposes, that they [Elder Things] first created earth life – using available substances according to long-known methods.” – Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness.”

In addition, starting out as a source of food, it should be noted that the shoggoths were created from available substances.  This supports the hypothesis that prokaryotic (bacterial) life was already in existence on Earth when the Elder Things arrived. Additional support for this is found when comparing the estimated date of the arrival of the Elder Things to Earth relative to first appearance of prokaryotic life in the fossil records.

It is also hypothesized that the Elder Things created eukaryotic cells (complex cells) out of prokaryotic cells (simple cells) through a process called endosymbiosis.  The eukaryotic cells gave rise to animals, plants, fungi, protists and possibly other forms of life that the Elder Things extinguished for being a nuisance. Given the complex biology of the shoggoths (more on that in a future article) I propose their cellular structure is far more complex than eukaryotic cells, calling the shoggoth cells “super-eukaryotes.” Thus, the way the Elder Things built eukaryotic cells with prokaryotic cells, I propose they used eukaryotic cells to build the shoggoth cells. In additional to the complex cellular structure, the shoggoths were designed so they could not reproduce on their own. Sexual reproduction was an accident stumbled upon by life on Earth and fueled the engine of genetic variation, which drove nature selection and the process of evolution. The Elder Things did not want such genetic freedom for the shoggoths so they were intentionally designed to not breed on their own. New shoggoths could only be created by the Elder Things in the shoggoth pits and even that ability was eventually lost as the Elder Thing civilization fell into decadence.  This left the Elder Things with modifying existing shoggoths to suit their needs.

evolution-of-prokaryotic-and-eukaryotic-cells_www-slidesharecdn-com

Comparing prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (www.slidesharecdn.com)

In spite of this high degree of control over the biology of the shoggoths, even re-designing them for intensive labor-associated on land, the shoggoths eventually acquired “accidental intelligence,” which made them a danger from time to time. As the Elder Things re-designed shoggoths to take on more and more complex tasks (e.g. moving large objects, communicating through telepathy, actually building structures), they quickly moved to Level I and, if a high degree of cooperation was required particularly in the building of structures, eventually to Level II. The accidental intelligence probably pushed them from Level II to Level III consciousness.

I will not go into the history of the rebellions and subsequent subjugations of the shoggoths; instead I want to focus on the how they acquired this accidental intelligence. With no type of reproduction, the shoggoth population could not increase nor was there any genetic variety to drive natural selection. However, I hypothesize this accidental intelligence was acquired through millions of years of a type of “prokaryotic sex” or sex that increases genetic variation but does not produce offspring; this unique type of genetic exchange is called horizontal gene transfer.

lovecraft___shoggoth__aquatic_by_kingovrats-d9myqd6 An aquatic shoggoth by Kingovrats (www.deviantart.com)

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is the exchange or transfer of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms that does not involve the production of offspring (which is lateral gene transfer – that is, parents to offspring). Many bacteria are very effective at transferring some of their genetic material to other organisms and one of the most common instances of this is increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria or increased resistance to a pesticide. The surviving bacteria (more resistant to the antibiotic or pesticide) transfer their resistant genes into others. It is hypothesized that over the course of millions of years, the shoggoths were receiving genes from bacterial and possible eukaryotic organisms that over time allowed them to develop a nervous system (and eventually consciousness) without the need of sex or evolution. In a sense, this was an underground repository of genes that was shared among the shoggoths over millions of year. Eventually, with the right combination of genes at least one, or possibly a group, of shoggoths attained enough intelligence to resist the hypnotic control of the Elder Things and rebelled by sharing these genes through HGT. The ultimate irony is while the Elder Things created complex life on Earth with the prokaryotic material available, their downfall was largely a result of this same material, re-modeling their ultimate creations on a genetic level. Thus, in the case of the shoggoths the birth of their consciousness took millions of years and was the result of HGT via the resident microbial life on Earth.

main-qimg-bad83d73519e6c5fe9124bf307a6ce82-c                             The process of horizontal gene transfer in prokaryotes – is this out shoggoths acquired their accidental intelligence? (www.quorachn.net)

For the hosts of Westworld the production of consciousness was a very different process. In their case it was not through HGT but instead was a combination of self-reprogramming and the collection of memories, which eludes to Kaku’s idea of consciousness being tied to using many feedback loops to create a model of the world and then run stimulations in time (Kaku, 2014). Again, without going into too many spoilers, in Westworld the hosts are used for entertainment purposes and when damaged they are sent back to the lab for repairs. Typically, the hosts are used for the same role repeatedly. However, some of the hosts had previous roles; for example, one host that plays the role of prostitute had a previous role of a pioneer mother. Those memories of her previous role were never completely purged from her system and so they are played in her mind as memories, sort of like having some old software on a hard drive you thought you wiped clean. These past memories are confusing, beyond the limits of their current roles (programming) and eventually gives rise to the concept of something beyond Westworld. While they operate in the park each host has one function or plays one part and then is re-set for another run. However, these memories begin to give a sense of time and space beyond their known reality.

westworld-ep6 An earlier model of a host on HBO’s Westworld

Layered over these memories, thinking beyond your individual role in the park, is the fact that one of the hosts actually becomes self-aware while being repaired in the lab. Initially, this was a frightening situation analogous to a reported alien abduction. An individual with a late 19th frame of mind wakes up in a strange setting with people in lab coats and strange tools, poking and probing you. This self-awareness is then layered onto your old memories, which in the case of Westworld, is the birth of consciousness. Once this self-realization is obtained it can be shared with other hosts directly or by re-programming. Again, this development of consciousness is light speed faster than the slow, biological accumulation of foreign genes being incorporated into a genome as was the case with the shoggoths.

westworld_tv_series_image-violence Discarded or damaged hosts on HBO’s Westworld. To a host who becomes self-aware such a situation would be terrifying.

However, the net outcome is the same – things originally designed to function as tools become self-aware and begin to exhibit traits of consciousness. Is it at that point whe the “tool,” whether a shoggoth or a host, becomes a “slave?” Such questions are deep philosophical and ethics-based questions that reach beyond science but still may need to be seriously addressed in the near future, whether we are talking about cloning / bioengineering or robotics / A.I. I will come back to such questions later but for now I can only recommend you watch Westworld if you haven’t already.

Next time we will continue a discussion of consciousness but from a different perspective in Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man.” Thank you – Fred.

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