The current coronavirus pandemic may not appear to be an apparent catalyst for contemplating biological transcendence. But the weird thing is that we’ve been inadvertent participants in exactly such an event in our response to this crisis.
The concept of transcendence has existed for a long time, under several names and guises. It captures the idea of deities or phenomena that exist independently of the physical cosmos and even beyond physical laws in many faiths. Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant tweaked the concept and used the term “unknowable” to describe things that exist outside of the realm of knowledge.
However, in recent years, transcendence has become associated with the idea of humans going beyond our default form of consciousness. It has conflated with the mystical idea of “ascendance” to a higher state of existence—a trope eagerly adopted by a slew of not-so-hard science fiction stories, films, and futurists. The majority of the more grounded versions of these theories depict people and robots merging into something new. Perhaps our memories and consciousnesses—our “self”—could be uploaded to immortal digital form and circulated on the internet or in some omnipotent supercomputer.
These ideas are highly appealing (and they are fantasies at this time; we don’t fully understand consciousness or the physical foundation of memory and behavior, so translating “you” onto a machine appears to be a long shot). However, they also a wonderful break from the remarkable and real-life examples of such upheavals in front of eyes.
Take the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus, for example. A single strand of RNA makes up its genetic material with 29,903 nucleotides (the “letters” of the genetic code shared by all known life on Earth) that encodes information for around 30 genes that produce proteins. (According to researchers Peter and Jean Medawar, a virus is “just a piece of bad news wrapped in protein.”)
Whatever the exact origin of this particular coronavirus. The informational content of strand RNA has never existed in any form other than the polymerized nucleotides of biochemistry until early 2020. So SARS-Cov-2 was little more than a collection of molecules in every copy. But suddenly, seemingly overnight, it shifted to a whole different substrate.
They start with the inner workings of PCR sequencing systems and technology such as nanopore devices (which pull a strand of DNA or RNA through a molecular sensor that registers different electrical charges for other nucleotides). Next, viral RNA converted into digital data, symbolic representations encoded as tiny electrical or magnetic bits in silicon memory or hard drives. Then, as trained researchers pore over the gene sequences and their associated molecular machinery, the informational content of the viral RNA was duplicated: across storage devices, through the internet, into cloud servers, onto people’s laptops, cell phones, flash drives, and to some extent into their brains.
This viral transcendence, on the other hand, isn’t limited to the replication of symbolic knowledge. That same data now interacts with the world in ways it couldn’t before because it locked it up in viral RNA. As a result, it now has an impact on human activities and behavior. We write computer programs, publish scientific papers, construct RNA in labs. In the case of our mRNA vaccines, generate trillions, even quadrillions, duplicates of small pieces of the original RNA, the sonnets of spike protein-coding, and ship them around the world, where they end up in human flesh, cells, and ribosomal machinery.
The informational content of this one sort of virus has spread over the globe in all these forms, electronic and artificial, to the degree that may even rival the terrible efficiency of the original biological conditions. It has also begun to impact the environment in ways that the original condition could never have. Every sequencing study, every file download, and every protein structure prediction has used electrical energy. As genomic information has been wrangled and examined, lab equipment and vaccine production facilities have been built or enlarged, and individuals have rushed this way and that.
The coronavirus, in a way, uploaded itself to machine form and then beyond. Even if we were to eliminate its biological form from the Earth, it would survive as a digital species, possibly entirely dormant, because time is immaterial in the context of self-propagating knowledge. It makes no difference whether the digital version of the virus goes uninspected for a century or two; it will continue to exist because it can, winning the Darwinian evolution game.
Like our own “selfish genes,” the viral genes made of nucleotides are merely a convenient implementation, or instantiation, of a sort of information that defines its propagation mechanisms (albeit in compressed form). However, it needed the evolution of a species like ours and our subsequent technological advancement to allow for viral transcendence into a nonbiological state. There could be a lesson here: we might like to believe that one day we will be able to implement some version of our transcendence, but it’s more likely that something else will offer the chance and more or less force it to happen whether we want it or not. We are not permitted to upload ourselves to machine forms; nevertheless, the machines may do so, just as we do for viruses.