On Finding Human Humility

Greg Benedis-Grab
4 min readJul 17, 2023

There is a lot written these days about large language models and ChatGPT in particular. There is a quite a craze about this. People talk about computers and in particular the latest implementations of computers with exaggerated claims. I suppose the fact that we finally made a computer about as smart from a writing standpoint as a 5th grader is impressive given how incredibly difficult the road to get there has been. But are we losing perspective on things? Part of the problem, I would say is the shocking degree to which we seem to overvalue ourselves as a species. I guess this follows naturally from the story we tell ourselves being the only creatures who truly think and are masters of the planet. But do we deserve this credit? I mean here we are at the receiving end of a spectacular process of evolution that brought all this about and we want to claim bragging rights. Could we instead rightfully say that ChatGPT is but a phenotype of evolutions homunculus invention.

A phenotype is the physical expression of a trait such as green eyes, where the genotype refers to the genetic coding in the DNA for that trait. Phenotypes can be expressed or not depending on various conditions. Scientists have argued that a beavers dam is an example of a phenotype. Through the beavers genetically predisposed actions of downing trees the local ecosystem is sometimes altered and ultimately transformed. Where terrastrial flora and fauna prevailed there are now fish, algae and other water based life forms. And how lucky for the beavers who have generated a habitat to their liking. So the newly formed ecosystem can be considered the expression of the genes found in the beaver.

Now you might say that ChatGPT is a lot more than a dam of logs blocking a stream. It is an incredible feat of human ingenuity. But make no mistake this seeming miracle is small in the big scheme of evolutions tale.

I enjoy listening to the BBC podcast In Our Time. Recently there was an episode on Mitochondria. I enjoyed the way the selected scientists described the monumental point in the history of life when an archaea subsumed a purple non-sulphur bacteria inside its membrane. Instead of devouring it the two organisms learned to co-exist, endosymbiosis. This relationship forever shaped the future of multi-cellular life on our planet. In the episode the scientists alluded to how this interplay and the competition of these two living things may explain aspects of the structure of life that we are only starting to realize. As I listened to this powerful tale I thought about how our explorations with digital devices pale in comparison to this evolutionary inflection point. I have not even explored the myriad of steps that needed had to occur prior to this step in the origin of life. An inert mixture molecules was ultimate transformed into a complex set of processes of replication and persistence that have defined life as we know it on planet Earth

As it turns out plants have also come from a similar engulfing that gave rise to the chloroplast. Harnessing the power of the sun came about in that ingenious evolutionary invention. From photosynthesis these incredible organisms proceeded to produce large quantities of Oxygen poisoning the atmosphere for everyone else. But somehow life persisted and flourished and now Oxygen makes up a fifth of our atmosphere.

So why do we so quickly claim credit for our “accomplishments”. Sure ChatGPT is an impressive feat. But it is but meager part of long history of impressive invention. More than anything we need to find ways to find humility and recognize that we are just a small part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Now you can look out into the night sky, at the broad expanse of the starts that make up our Universe to feel your smallness and insignificance. Equally you can look at the long history of evolution, even just the limited aspects of it that we currently understand and feel just as small and insignificant.

And even if you want to remain impressed by the accomplishments of the human species just remember that it might be rightfully considered a phenotype in the incredible story of evolution on our planet. Perhaps with these insights we can respectfully find our humility and be in awe of what we are lucky enough to take part in.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge