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Review of Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and

Review of Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and



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Book review
Review of Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, andthe Future of Human Intelligence, Andy Clark; OxfordUniversity Press, 2003, $26.00, 240 pp. ISBN: 0-1951-4866-5
Action editor: Stefan WermterLeslie Marsh
Centre for Research in Cognitive Science, Department of Informatics, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, UK 
Available online 5 July 2005
The notion of the cyborg has exercised the pop-ular imagination for almost two hundred years. Invery general terms the idea that a living entity canbe a hybrid of both organic matter and mechanicalparts, and for all intents and purposes beseamlessly functional and self-regulating, was pre-figured in literary works such as Shelly
(1816/18) and Samuel Butler
(1872). This notion of hybridism has been a stapletheme of 20th century science fiction writing, tele-vision programmes and the cinema. For the mostpart, these works trade on a deep sense of uneasewe have about our personal identity – how couldsome non-organic matter to which I have so littleconscious access count as a
bona fide
part of me?Cognitive scientist and philosopher, Andy Clark,picks up this general theme and presents an empir-ical and philosophical case for the following inex-tricably linked theses.1. The human mind is
disposed todevelop and incorporate tools.2. Humans have
been to a greater or lesserdegree cyborgs.These two theses give the informal derivation of the title:
Born Cyborgs. Clark
s appropri-ation of the image of the cyborg is in the service of these theses and has little to do with some futuristutopian manifesto or nightmarish ‘‘post-human’’scenario. His interest is in addressing a questioncentral to cybernetics: ‘‘How does human thoughtand reason emerge from looping interactions be-tween material brains and bodies, and complexcultural and technological environments?’’ In theservice of answering this question, Clark considersa diverse selection of technological props or aidsfrom the commonplace (the mobile phone) to dis-cussion of implants and collaborative filtering pro-gramming to the more unusual (the prostheticperformance artistry of Stelarc).Clark
s project is threefold with one primarytask and two derivative tasks. The primary task
1389-0417/$ - see front matter
2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2005.05.003
E-mail address:
l.marsh@sussex.ac.uk.Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409www.elsevier.com/locate/cogsys
is to dispel the fear generated by the sense of exot-icism typically attached to the notion of thecyborg. On closer examination the integration of technology (the artefactual) with the biological isso ubiquitous, it is in many respects banal: ‘‘It lieson a direct continuum with clothes, cooking,bricklaying, and writing.’’ (p. 174). Clark
s broadconception of technology (counterposed by hisoverlooking of biotechnology) raises questionsabout the concept
s extensional and intensionaladequacy. His inclusion of language, for example,seems to render it so broad as to be vacuous(Clark, 2004; Clark, 2005b; McKenzie, 2004).Clark
s second task is to emphasize the ‘‘capacityto creatively distribute labor between biologyand the designed environment is the very signatureof our species’’ (p. 174). And finally ‘‘
who we are
isin large part a function of the webs of surroundingstructure...’(p. 174). Discussion of these threethemes cut across the eight chapters that comprisethis book.Clark
s Cyborg metaphor turns on the con- joined idea that (a) cognitive processes extend intothe world and, (b) cognitive states extend into theworld whereby objects are the repositories of datathat can be accessed. Clark is a leading researcherin a loose anti-Cartesian non-representational coa-lition comprising dynamical-, embodied-, ex-tended-, distributed-, and situated-theories of cognition (DEEDS). DEEDS should be set in con-trast to the Cartesian inspired orthodox material-ist-computationalism which has been closely tiedto a representational theory of mind, the ideabeing that the fundamental relation of a personto the world consists in the relation of the contentof an individual mind to the world of objects,events, and states of affairs as represented by thatcontent. Implicit is the methodological suppositionthat cognition can be studied independently of anyconsideration of the brain, the body, and the phys-ical or social environment. Cartesian (metaphysicsand epistemology) is highly individualistic in thesense that it focuses on mental operations of cog-nitive agents in isolation or abstraction from otherpersons and contexts. The DEEDS literature holdsthat the most fundamental variety of humanaction consists in the apparently unthinking,skilled action that makes up much of our everydayactivities, and that does not require mental guid-ance or intervention for its successful accomplish-ment (p. 33). It should be noted that such acritique does not commit one to the wholesale dis-missal of representational theories of mind (Wil-son, 2004). The relationship of the Cartesianlegacy to cognitive science is often presented incaricatural form; for a nuanced assessment seeWheeler (2005). Of course, embodiment has beenamajorthemeinrobotics(seeBedau,2005;Ziemke,2002).As a DEEDS theorist, Clark understands thereto be a reciprocal relation between our conceptualcreativity and the environment (natural and arte-factual), to intimate, regulate and inform conceptsand action. Whatever the resistance to the notionof the cyborg, it does not turn upon the integrationof biological and artefactual as such but upon theperceived ‘‘transformative potential of this coali-tion’’ (p. 22). That there is a transformative poten-tial is precisely Clark
s point and this is to beembraced. To define ourselves in ‘‘brutal opposi-tion to the very world in which we live love andwork’’ (p. 142) is an incoherent notion. The historyof human-artefact integration one might say is alsoa history of the civilizing process. The pencil andpaper or the hammer are paradigm examples of transparent tools in that they are so functionallyeffective and finely attuned as to be invisible:‘‘[t]here is no merger so intimate as that which isbarely noticed’’ (p. 29). The artist
s iterated pro-cess of externalising and re-perceiving turns outto be integral to the process of artistic cognition it-self (p. 77). Clark here is emphasising the humancapacity to develop
(situational) intelli-gence, as opposed to the rigidity of brute (abstract)computational power – hence Clark
s famous slo-gan ‘‘Good at Frisbee, Bad at Logic’(Clark,2001, p. 133).Since Clark
s self-labelled position ‘‘activeexternalism’’ is a species of externalism, we brieflyhave to note the fault-line that divides internalismand externalism in recent philosophy of mind andlanguage. As there is a voluminous and confusingarray and conflation of several philosophicalpolarities (Millikan, 2004, p. 228), I make no apol-ogies for the crude outline. Externalism is the viewthat the content of a mental state is in part
Book review / Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409
determined by elements of the external world. Bycontrast, internalism is the view that the contentof mental states is determined by features of theconscious subject without recourse to environmen-tal conditions. It should be noted that externalistsare not committed to the claim that mental statesare somewhere other than in the head, and individ-ualists do not think that what is outside the headhas nothing to do with what ends up in the head.There is a great deal of resistance to what seemslike counter-intuitive aspects to Clark
s ‘‘activeexternalism’’, in particular to the idea that cogni-tive states extend into the world.Sterelny (2004)takes issue with Clark (and Chalmer
s) apparentover-reliance on a functional similarity betweeninternal and external memory, or to put it anotherway, the difference between cognitive
(Dartnall, 2004).Can we accept that a state of believing is
out there? (Dartnall, 2005, p. 142). Clark
sresponse is that his and Chalmers
concern is withthe
dispositional state
of believing. So, for exampleone might believe some propositional fact such as‘‘Madrid is in Spain’’ even if this knowledge is notin use (Clark, 2004). The proposition might beshared by two or more agents even if the
as distinct from the content is in one case bothinternal and biological and in the other case exter-nal and non-biological. What this means is that it just does not matter whether the data are storedsomewhere inside the biological organism orstored in the external world. What matters ishow information is poised for retrieval. In otherwords ‘‘it is not knowing so much as knowinghow to find out’’ (p. 67). Our sense of location isnot simply a function of our beliefs about the loca-tion of our body (p. 91): it is the two-way flowbetween brain, body, and world that matters.Another grade of integration is exemplified bymicrochipped pets, implants such as an auditoryprosthesis, the pacemaker, artificial heart trans-plantation and implantable neural biomimeticelectronics (Berger & Glanzman, 2005). But it isthe example of Kevin Warwick that seems to cap-ture the cyborg of the popular imagination: War-wick has had neuro-surgical implants placed intothe median nerves of his arm linking his nervoussystem directly to a computer. These examplesserve to illustrate that whether the technology isexternal, invisible or is deeply embedded in thebiological being, is neither here nor there: the markof human intelligence and experience is, and hasalways been, a coalition with the artefactual. Of course, there are more ‘‘opaque technologies’’,technologies that are visible in that the requiredskills and capacities are not yet sufficiently devel-oped. But this does not detract from Clark
s point:such technology should contribute nothing to thecomplexity of the tasks they support – ‘‘complexityshould reside in that of the task, not the tool’’ (p.45).These examples have mereological import tosome and it is here the tricky topic of personalidentity comes into play. This topic has, at best,been very cursorily treated by most DEEDS theo-rists; at worst, totally ignored. Though there areproblems in the presentation of this topic in
, it offers the most sustained treatmentyet. There is a voluminous literature in the analyticphilosophical tradition going back to Locke thatconsiders the notion of personal identity ab-stracted from any socio-cultural context. Lockeantheories take psychological continuity to be thecriterion of personal identity. Clark takes the viewthat we are not just a kind of rational or intellec-tual presence but a conglomeration of ongoinggoals, projects and commitments that cannot arbi-trarily be changed. One recognises oneself in partby keeping track of this flow of projects and com-mitments; others recognise me not only by myphysicality but also by some distinctive nexus of projects and activities. It is Descartes
notion of acentralised controller, some central cognitive andconscious essence that makes me who and what Iam (p. 138) thatDennett (1991)and Clark taketo task. InClark (2004)he explicitly says that atroot he is offering a kind of no-self theory. Thishas strong resonance withDerek Parfit
s (1991: 423)Buddhist-like conclu-sions. Parfit deploys science fiction inspiredthought experiments to test our intuitions aboutself identity. Parfit distinguishes two views aboutthe nature of persons, one the Non-Reductionist,the other the Reductionist. The former is theCartesian Ego whereby a person is distinct fromhis brain, body and experiences. The latter, Parfit
Book review / Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409

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