The Biology of Avatar and the Future of Humanity
Avatar, a movie by James Cameron, has been heralded internationally as one of the best movies ever made. I must agree with this verdict as I loved the film, it is truly a masterpiece. If you have yet to see it, I advise that this article contains spoilers to the movie’s plot so I suggest watching it first. Many people have ranted and raved about Avatar, it seems to be what everyone is talking about. This article does not however intend to review the film, to comment on the acting, the story or even the amazing state of the art graphics. What this article does want to talk about is the biology in the film and why it represents some very important ideas. An important part of what makes avatar great, to me at least, is the intense detail they went into with the creation of the universe it is in. The Na’vi language is a real language created by Prof. Paul Frommer and the biology was developed at great lengths and with the advice of scientists. This makes it all the better to examine.
The Biology of Pandora
Avatar is set on Pandora, a moon of the fictional planet Polyphemus (located in Alpha Centauri A). Pandora is a lush world teeming with life of all kinds, much of which is phantasmagorical and brightly coloured. The humanoids of the planet are the tribal Na’vi. They have been designed to look similar to cats and have bright blue skin and large eyes – all of these features tailoring to human aesthetic tastes. The planet also has a huge amount of biodiversity at even the most minute level. You get the feeling that the plants have much more “animal” like attributes then plants on earth, for example the jellyfish-like seeds of the Tree of Souls.
Perhaps the most important and significant part of the entire planet is the existence of neural queues (or as the Na’vi call them: Tsahaylu ‘the bond between all things’) on all manner of organisms and plants. These neural connections allow organisms to communicate with each other on an extremely deep level. There also exists a similar connection between the roots of the trees all around the planet of Pandora, creating what is essentially a global consciousness the Na’vi call Eywa and treat as a deity. This connection is something I will come back to.
An interesting feature of Pandora is that much of its life is very similar to life on Earth. This resemblance to life on Earth makes logical sense given the fact that evolution tends to find “best solutions” to fill environmental niches in a process called convergent evolution (for example the environmental niche of a “mole” has been evolved independently from many different lineages – elephants, wolves, kangaroos, etc.). Notable differences between life on the two planets include their chemical make up and the increased size of things on Pandora (given that the planet has weaker gravity than earth this too is logical). But on the whole the entire planet is not too different from earth. This is an important point because I believe that what we see in Avatar is not “just” fiction but also an insight into our own world and the potential it contains.
A Biological Future for Humanity?
Many people interpret Avatar as a movie which represents what humanity has lost – a deeper connection with nature. After seeing the film these people feel angry at humans for being the bad guys – but I think this anger is misplaced. I believe the message you should get from Avatar is not that we have “lost” a connection with nature – but that we can rebuild a new connection with nature. In James Cameron’s words: “the Na’vi represent something that is our higher selves, or our aspirational selves”.
One of the most significant and probably least acknowledged lines in the movie is when Grace is protesting with the general. She tries to explain hurriedly that the trees are all connected in a neural network and that the planet itself has one giant brain. The significance of this is that the Na’vi do not believe the things they do based on “faith” or “spirituality” – the things they are talking about are distinct and concrete. When they talk about a connection of all things on the planet, they don’t mean it in a metaphorical or spiritual way like people on earth do – they literally mean there is a direct, physical, scientifically examinable connection. This leads to an interesting situation – the Na’vi have very strong religious beliefs, however their beliefs are not based on “faith” like religion on Earth. Everything the Na’vi believe in are abstractions of extremely powerful and beautiful neural connections happening in the planet itself.
So here is the big leap – could humanity create the same situation on earth? I would say not only that we can – but that this is exactly the direction we are already moving in. I already posted similar ideas about movement in this direction in my most popular post to date Could we and should we become the Zerg? but unlike the Zerg the Na’vi are aesthetically pleasing. People are shallow and when it comes down to it they like things which look pretty – so while these ideas are very similar ones I believe that the Na’vi will have a much greater influence on the way society perceives these things than the zerg will ever have.
Before I continue in explaining more specifically the type of advances I see humanity making in moving towards a world like Pandora – I first want to comment on the nature of complex communities and social interactions. Communities are tricky things as any game theorist or philosopher of morals will tell you. In a society you have concepts of “good moral behaviour” and “bad moral behaviour”. These behaviours exist because a community is a group of people working together for common benefit – something which can be undermined by “parasitic” individuals who abuse the system. On a much smaller scale we see the same situation occurring in all multi-cellular organisms. When multi-cellular organisms first evolved many theories suggest this happened due to communities becoming more and more closely interdependent. Today inside your body you have a whole host of cells who all exhibit “good” behaviour because their genetic offspring are all tied up in your success at surviving and reproducing. However these good cells are in fact the minority of the cells in your body – the larger proportion are bacteria cells who have much more free will. Many are helpful, even essential, to your survival but others choose to try and abuse the system – acting as parasites.
As we travel up or down the levels of abstraction we see the same patterns of communities which have good and bad members. A twist to the perspective is that the exclusively “good” members of society are actually in a situation without free will – they are in fact mindless zombies, whereas the ones which might not always be exclusively good are the ones which have free will. The reason I have gone to lengths to explain these ideas is that they are particularly relevant to looking at “how” we want a society to be.
Towards a Better Future
So I’ve said that humanity is moving towards a world that is similar to Pandora in some ways – what do I mean exactly when I say that? Furthermore how would such a transformation take place and why would we want it to?
Recent advances in computer science have revolutionised the world and hot on their heels are advances in genetics. The “Genetic Revolution” is upon us and the merging of technology and biology is something which is going to change the face of the earth forever. As our society develops the astounding power these advances will herald we will have to decide how they are used. The advances of globalism, free trade and the instant global communication through the internet are allowing us to see that we are in fact all in one community on earth and governments will be forced to follow this trend. Another important advance is our ever increasing quest for immortality through medicine – something which will advance significantly in the genetic revolution.
With all these technologies opening up to us we will see a new world emerging under our feet. As “static” technology is replaced with fully dynamic biotechnology which is completely connected to an internet/neural network we will essentially see the entire world obtain a global “consciousness” through the internet. This being will essentially be the Eywa of our world – an all encompassing mind which is made up of a network distributed across the entire planet. To return to the metaphor of the body this will be the neural system of the world’s body with each of us acting like the cells within it. The dynamic structures we build for infrastructure in this global community will be like the somatic cells in the body, they will all be “good”. On the other hand there will be free “agents” in the world (read: humans and AI) who will be like the bacteria in the body – many good, some bad.
Having agents with free will is important to us and it is a good thing – as it promotes diversity. Diversity not only makes the entire system more robust overall but it also increases the neural capacity it has as each agent can (and will) have different opinions on things. Another new technology will be the very important ability for us to connect our minds directly to the worldwide network/mind and to each other – very much like the neural queue we see on Pandora. From this we can see different opinions of those connected helping to round out the world mind’s decisions in a form of direct democracy. Some people say they wouldn’t want to live forever, perhaps that is the case for everyone once you get old enough. But rather than dying it would be possible with such neural connections established to rather incorporate your consciousness into ther global consciousness (similar to the way the Na’vi ancestors, and Grace, become part of Eywa).
This world would have huge advantages for everyone involved. Efficiency on a global scale would skyrocket, allowing us to completely control the world around us. Environmental diversity could be taken to entirely new levels with the exceedingly complex communities we could establish using our new genetic technology. The world could be made beautiful in our eyes like Pandora is to us and it would be a truly awe inspiring world. I am of the strong opinion that religion and mysteriousness can have very strong positive morale effects on people and by creating this system we could essentially establish a scientifically proven “religion” as such (though not by any length disproving or competing with current religions), something I feel would have great aesthetic value to humans.
This has been a very long list of things lightly touched on that could change in the world and I hope to go into specifics on each part of this huge system at a later point. But my aim so far has been to build a rough mental picture in your head, using the world of Avatar as a template, of a future which I believe is well within our grasp.