Articles by this Author
Second Nature: The Human Primate at the Borders of Organism and Mechanism
by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
So what's a warm, wet, furry creature like you doing in a place like this? Surrounded by cell phones, laptops, faxes and bar-code readers, we wise apes find ourselves wedged in the maw of a hectic technological revolution. Pierced and paged, wired and wireless, connected to streams of electrons and encased or enthralled by beating, bleating bits of metal, each of us is increasingly merged with devices of all kinds.
Benjamin Franklin, proud amateur of early explorations in electricity, might be at first incredulous, then fascinated, by the settlement of cyberspace and kindred developments. The futurists of the late nineteenth century could never in their wildest imaginations have extrapolated from that era to our own: Too much would-be magic has already been made commonplace.
The United States and Japan, not Europe and China as in Franklin's era, set the standards for human experience today. Phantasms become palpable, the surreal incarnate: The projections of yesteryear a landing pad on every suburban rooftop, a telephone in every Amazonian village falter before images of a fossil spacecraft gleaming on a bleak moonscape, or a New Guinea tribesman, penis-board aloft, orienting himself by handheld satellite receiver.
An uncompromising metal buzz, an impersonal plastic crackle, seem everywhere to replace the familiar voice, the parental hug and childish cuddle. Have we finally cut the cord, or at least permanently transmuted it into fiber-optic cable? Have we departed the fertile fields and green gardens of our forebears on a one-way trip to a gleaming new technological paradise or purgatory distinct from all previous nature?
No. The machinate world which appears so new and unprecedented, so quintessentially and exclusively H. sapiens, is really not that at all. The glittering webs of the new communications, transportation, and genetic technologies are not simply cast over us by greedy corporations forced to sell what they overproduce. On the contrary, these new human-fostered technologies are in a direct line with the old. All arose from precedents prehuman precedents in an evolutionary and ecological context. Technology is a part of the human survival strategy, a prerequisite for human reproduction and population expansion; it has extended our ability to sense and manipulate the environment that supports us. It has been with us from the time long before we were human beings that is, from before there even were any Homo sapiens.
For warm, wet, furry creatures like ourselves to bed down with electrical artifacts and electronic fabrications is, in short, entirely natural entirely in keeping with life's ancient tendencies to expand, pollute, and complexify. It is our second nature and the nature of all of our ancestors.
Here we explore four propositions. First, that technology the fabrication by living beings of useful objects and materials outside their bodies is far more ancient than its tenure with modern humanity. Second, that life as a whole, not just human life, naturally incorporates its inanimate environment as it evolves. Third, that what begins as pollution in a growing population of thriving living organisms becomes the raw material for change as a species matures. And fourth, that machines and electronic devices are natural products of evolution, and are co-evolving with us even as you read.
WELCOME TO THE TRIBE: Bone tools, fire-making flints, stone fishing weirs, and many other technological accoutrements co-evolved with human families and groups of families before the beginning of modern humanness. Our chimpish relatives the funny one Pan troglodytes and the sexy one Pan bonobo, who have more than 99.6% of their DNA in common with us fashion tools and communicate survival strategies amongst themselves. Any separation of humanness from technology is delusional: From before the beginning they were coupled. No technique, no tool, no machine, no sensing device was ever made by a single person alone. Technologies were invented, refined, honed, and communicated by family, tribal, and even larger groups. The technology of sticks and stones, of course, preceded history's bronze, iron, and silica machines.
About three million years ago Homo erectus, Homo ergaster and other extinct people roamed the savannas and paddled the coastlines of East Africa. As extended families and tribes, they absorbed deep knowledge of local settings. The details of vernal pond and spring source, the timing of flowering and seed-set, the course of fish migratory routes and the hiding habits of small rodents were their objects of study. Those who failed to learn or to share such knowledge died of starvation, thirst, or treachery. Men or women who could not instantly recognize natural entities for what they were to them (drinkable, dangerous, toxic, or edible) did not survive to see their children born and live to produce offspring. Mental dichotomization, already established in our mute predecessors, was a prerequisite for the survival of our jabbering Homo ancestors. Ecological minutiae and biological detail had nothing to do with getting into medical school or West Point; rather, memorization and comprehension of apparent trivia assured the supply of provisions including healing substances and arrow poisons upon which our ancestors' precarious lives depended. Very little was left to chance; abandonment of the necessary to the random meant death. As populations enlarged, those who best spoke and listened best imbibed the knowledge of the tribe.
Survival by learning and its concomitant, the use of symbols became a central strategy of humankind. The summer band or winter camp fellowship was always large enough to bring down the gazelle, find the water-hole, deliver and tend the helpless infant, or navigate the crocodile-filled waters. No infant, adolescent, man, or woman, ever, in the history of mankind, lived in utter solitude; indeed, if isolated early enough we never become human at all. The mastery of technologies gave form to, and transmitted, knowledge: know-how. Flint-sparked fire followed the megafaunal hunt. Stone blades and clever traps brought down food-on-the-hoof for well-led groups of jogging hunters, who celebrated their success by generating infants with potential like their own. Chattering babies matured to generate more far more prattling prodigies. These communicative humans consumed resources with increasing alacrity; their fabricating, practicing, teaching, and love-making wove a fabric of survival, and its patterns persisted in time and extended themselves in space.
Between 12,000 and 6,000 years ago, increasing numbers of humans were able to remove themselves from the rigors of the savanna hunt or the coastal rapids fishery. Social behavior in settled communities began to determine fecundity. But "hands-on" natural history still counted. Shepherds, farmers, potters, and basket-weavers flourished even as stored grain allowed other means of making a livelihood to supplement ancient traditions of seed gathering and the chase. Religious ceremonies drum-beat and wail did just that: re-ligated, or tied once more, centrifugally dispersing bands into cohesive tribes, states, and nations.
O PIONEERS: The expansionist human species enjoys a population that has just now reached six billion souls. Humans dwell on every continent. At any given moment half a million people accompanied by pets, eyelash mites, and intestinal bacteria fly in airplanes overhead. Three million years after our origins, modern Homo sapiens continue to conform to the ecological type of the "pioneer species": Those who move rapidly into new areas and grow rampantly, producing vast quantities of spores, seeds, or eggs.
Such species may inadvertently wreak havoc. Far from enhancing their own survival, pioneer species often subvert it. Pioneer grasses dry out the hospitable humus and convert it to dust; pioneer lichens convert receptive stone to soil. Chitons, a kind of flat mollusk with iron-magnetite teeth, chew South Pacific limestone islands at the waterline until they topple over and collapse.
Short-sighted pioneer species tend to be followed by more stable ones. Hardwood trees such as oak and beech replace fast-growing pines. Cyanobacterial communities replete with filamentous photosyn-thesizers stabilize the shorelines of sandy tropical islands. The hardwood forests and the solid cyanobacterial shores, known to ecologists as examples of "climax communities," may persist for thousands of millennia. Life goes on, and life that recycles its resources goes on longer: While pioneer species may so drastically alter their own means of livelihood that they destroy themselves, the climax communities that succeed them and that may support whittled-down populations of the pioneers persist longer in time even as they steady their immediate surrounds. They are more complex, more interconnected, and generate greater rates of flow of more matter and energy; they are more "mature."
All species enjoy brief lifetimes, usually ten million years or fewer, relative to the vast stretch of geological time. For the most part disregardful of this truth, technological humankind continues to operate today as a pioneer species, moving through the habitats of others and converting nonhuman splendor to human convenience. Whether our fate will be the short life of a transient pioneer or a longer one as part of a planetary climax community is impossible to foretell. But short or long, pioneer or climax, the history of the human species will be inseparable from its technology.
Life all of today's interacting 30 million species naturally incorporates its inanimate environment. Life has fashioned, transported, made, and remade Earth's rocks, air, soil, and waters as it evolved from its bacterial origins over 3000 million years ago. No matter the details, all life requires energy, as either light or chemical reaction, and matter some form of hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen. Getting and spending this energy and matter, all beings alter their surroundings in species-specific ways.
Living beings, without exception, are made of cells: soft, pliable, watery and vulnerable at their core. All take in nutrients of some kind and produce waste of a different sort. But the mode and speed of material transformation differs. From bacterium to shrub, from marine worm to social insect, life-forms reroute and reuse their waste. Their bodies chemically alter matter to produce hard substances: calcium ions from sea water, for example, combine with exhaled carbon dioxide to make the calcium-carbonate shells of the pearl oyster. Phosphoric substances combine with calcium in solution to form the calcium-phosphate tusks of the elephant. Excrement cemented with saliva constructs huge, air-conditioned and humidified chambers that house tens of millions of tropical termites. In each case, soft cell material is surrounded and supported by hard parts of the body's own making.
Such home- and body-making represents the earliest of all technologies, for the biological production of hard minerals preceded by far the origin of apes, including human ones. Indeed, fabrication of hard mineral substance by living beings was in full swing long before any animal or plant evolved. Bacteria swim toward the bottoms of lakes, rivers, and seashores oriented by strings of magnets of their own making inside their bodies. Some marine protists among agglutinator foraminifera huge but single-celled organisms that patch together their shells choose round, black grains of sand from the immediate vicinity to make protective body cover from them. Some even fabricate towers. The foram crawls out and stands on the summit to peruse the menacing sea bottom that surrounds its home-made home base.
So often, in the history of life, what began as cast-off shell or anal exudate as "excrement," "waste product," or "pollutant" in a growing population of thriving organisms becomes a resource for change and expansion. Processes of recycling and reuse become increasingly refined and complex. Pioneer species die out, migrate, or settle. Climax species move in or increase their share of habitat. Their members engage in stable practices; their bodies often become habitat for other forms of life. The giant redwood and the coastal solanaceous tree Lycium, the saguaro cactus and the Baja California boojum (Fouquieria or Idria) are not only individual trees in climax woodlands but food and shelter for birds, bats, rodents, flies, tree-hole algae, spiders, mites, termites, and basidiofungi. A legacy of life is to literally incorporate more and more of its environment into itself.
The longstanding tendency of life to co-opt its inanimate surroundings was documented in a most original way by the great Russian scientist Vladimir Ivan Vernadsky (1863-1945). Vernadsky recognized in his 1926 masterpiece Biosfera [The Biosphere] that the most important geological force is life. Two of the laws detailed by Vernadsky are that the number and kinds of chemical elements and compounds entering the cycling organization of living matter increase with time, and that as we move toward the present the pace of cycling increases.
Human technological development is simply a recent example of Vernadsky's laws. Silica, now part of the human technological repertoire of particular importance in our computers, was in vigorous use 300 million years ago by such marine protists as radiolarians and diatoms, who still make their shells of it. Synthetic isoprenoids, the rubber-like compounds now used in automobile tires, are but technological incarnations of the rubber ooze from Hevea trees in the Colombian Amazon. Physicists have expanded the list of chemical elements circulating on Earth by creating new heavy radioactive elements like plutonium and seaborgium.
Long before humans, more and more chemicals of the universe were being sucked into living, proliferating life and its surroundings. Pre-human technologies calcium shells, barium sulfate spines, phosphatic fecal pellets cemented into shelter exemplify this tendency. Human technologies, especially complex contemporary technologies, extend this trend of nature.
As sentient individuals, we dearly love our gadgets, at least as long as they work well for us. We feel good as the rate of flow of energy and material goods increases around us; we feel irritated as it decreases. We perceive slowdown and cessation of the flow brownout, system crash, meltdown as boredom, malaise, even panic.
Yet it is artless to decry technology. Technology is part of nature; as Michael Heim writes, "Our hearts beat in the machine." The lighting of fire, the binding of books, and the sewing of clothes are also forms of mechanical innovation, only by now such ancient features of the human landscape that they seem not machinate invaders but protective parts of ourselves. Whereas new technologies startle us, older ones such as flush toilets are so familiar they are only noticed by their absence.
Technology, in short, is an integral part of the ancient ecological cycles of procurement, removal, and reuse that appeared on Earth long before our ancestors turned human. And of course, human technologies change even more quickly than prehuman ones did: they miniaturize, complexify, and prevail. Printing presses, punch-card computers, water pumps, fire-alarm systems, computing machines, hurricane-monitoring satellites all instruments of design began intrusively, were large and cumbersome in their early incarnations. Their descendants, by virtue of proximity, miniaturization and pervasiveness, take on a more organic character.
Butler's Razor: The genius of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) included his predilection for viewing humanity not as special and apart but as the product of a broader evolutionary process, and one that is still in progress. The intellectual legacy of Darwin allows us to perceive ourselves as a natural phenomenon, and the strength of his scientific worldview has proven extraordinarily powerful even as it deflates our historical self-image.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), called "Darwin's most able critic" by the contemporary anthropologist Gregory Bateson, was fascinated by the evolution not only of organisms but of the technologies they generate. The author of the Victorian classics Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh, Butler also published, under the penname "Cellarius," a sentence expressing with creative irony his ambiguous feelings toward the machine. "There is nothing," he wrote, "which our infatuated race would desire more than to see a fertile union between two steam engines." This extraordinary thinker also anticipated the Internet. In connection with the 19th century invention of the telegraph and while wryly predicting our enslavement by such mechanical servants Butler envisaged a day
" . . . when all men in all places without any loss of time are cognisant through their senses of all that they desire to be cognisant of in all other places, at a low rate of charge so that the back-country squatter may hear his wool sold in London and deal with the buyer himself may sit in his own chair in a back country hut and hear the performance of Israel in Egypt at Exeter Hall may taste an ice on the Rakaia [a New Zealand river] which he is paying for and receiving in the Italian opera house . . . [This is] the grand annihilation of time and place which we are all striving for and which in one small part we have been permitted to see actually realised."
The profound ability of the human primate (with our domesticated plants, animals, and microbes) to work together for our common ends has had enormous survival value (relative, for example, to the loner orangutans and the less social chimps). Butler noted that engines are more efficient than draft animals at converting raw materials into human benefit, and generally require less attention as well. Today, of course, the prowess of machines is greater by far than in Butler's time. Through us, machines manufacture more machines, which make possible increased populations of people who cherish, utilize, alter, and generate still more, and more sophisticated, machines. Moreover, machines that take the place of physical strength are being augmented by those that replace mental power.
From a biospheric point of view, machines are one of life's latest strategies for incorporating new elements and expanding life's role as a geological force. Like beehives, termite mounds, coral reefs, and other biological fabrications, machines nourished by humans, themselves nourished by rice, wheat, cattle, and chickens reproduce themselves. Agricultural contrivances such as tractors and harvesters produce food that encourages a vast and weedy growth of human populations; among these humans are agricultural engineers and entrepreneurs who design, develop, manufacture, and market yet more tractors and harvesters.
From the vantage point of the expansion of global life-forms, these machines are organelles little organs of a technological society. Just as the temperature- and humidity-regulated hives are crucial to the perpetuation of bees and termites, machines become now crucial to human survival. Indeed, the rate of evolution of machines today far exceeds that of people: Machines grow exponentially, change rapidly, and reproduce the changed form more quickly than do the bodies of Homo sapiens or those of our best friend, Canis familiaris.
AVANT-GARDE THINKING: We fondly label the large, recent, expanding population of mammals of which we are members "evolutionarily advanced." We tend to equate recent evolutionary appearance, rapid change, and aggressive patterns of population growth with advancement. By these measures, however, our machines are more evolutionarily advanced than we are. They change form far more rapidly than we do: witness the automobile, the telephone, the photocopier, and the personal computer. And machines as a group can survive more extreme environments than can humans or our food plants and animals.
No mammal species, for example, unless it has evolved for millions of years in a watery environment, can survive underwater outside of a machine; manned and unmanned submarines function optimally beneath the sea. As extensions of ourselves in the accelerating rush of space travel, machines have left Earth's atmosphere and remained beyond it far longer than any person. Machines outperform people in such information functions as calculation and written communication. Machines have a range of energy at their disposal, such as nuclear fission, combustion, and photoelectric power; life's energy needs, by contrast, require precise forms of sunlight and carbon-chemical reactions in water.
The love that we eager professors and students feel for our new laptops, software, color printers, web access, guitar synthesizers, speaker connections, CD burners, back-up disks, slide scanners, portable video projectors, and point-and-shoot cameras is a natural evolutionary impulse. So is the affection that our children feel for such devices: they love those recognizable aspects of their locale that feed, care for, and entertain them. The TV screen has tutored the current generation since infancy, and it is by machinate experience that today's students derive their connection to the material world. Surrounded as we are by the beige cases of electronic devices rather than the green and florid hues of plants, it is increasingly obvious that we, and especially our children, can no longer live what we take to be a civilized life without an elaborate tangle of electrically-powered machinery.
Certain ecologically stable species, such as some subterranean tropical termites, display more technological prowess than others. Heterotermes tenuis, an Ecuadorian wood-eater, makes mounds, tunnels, and channels from its own feces and saliva; the ancestors of this species, as they outgrew their ranges, replaced wood-eating roaches who lived in logs. Analogously, human populations that extensively use machines outgrow those less dependent on them. Perhaps, emulating termite colonies, future human-machine communities will diligently recycle their own dead bodies, menstruum, sweat, and other exudates. Almost certainly our descendants will feed and move rapidly in ways that involve even larger quantities of food and numbers of machines. Cultural "excretions" various discarded materials now labeled as sewage and pollution will, we suspect, in accordance with Vernadsky's ideas, be brought effectively into the enlarging recycling system.
Unable, as yet, to self-reproduce, machines without humans have no more evolutionary staying power than shells without snails. Yet the trend toward reliance on human-machines is obvious. Kidney-dialysis apparatus is a case in point. So is a dentures-wearing, pacemaker-equipped hominid whose overwintering survival depends on automobile access to refrigerated, processed, and mass-transported food. He is already a human-machine hybrid, flourishing at an evolutionary crossroads where the borders of organism and mechanism blur.
OUR MONITORS, OURSELVES: We begin to see ourselves and our technology more humbly within a universal schema of evolution of species with finite lifetimes. The leapfrogging spread of human-machine technologies over the global (perhaps eventually extraterrestrial) environment resembles the initial pandemonium of a pioneer species as it rushes across the tempting terrain of established climax communities. Aided by language and technological prowess and driven by our imperative to reproduce, we exploit new food and energy sources and create new exhalants, toxins, and population pressures.
But even as environmentalists lament the dehumanizing horrors of technology, even as naturalists pine for the green peace of virgin forests, human-fostered technology already reflects an evolutionary constraint. The rough-and-tumble mass production of the ocean- and atmosphere-contaminating industrial revolution already gives way to the smarter, subtler, more lifelike technologies of the information age. Life on Earth is an evolving, interconnected system more and more efficiently using the Sun's energy to recycle and recombine.
Mechanistic metaphor does life an injustice; all living beings, connected by common evolutionary history, are far more subtle and responsive than any machine. Life, unlike any clock or the motion of any planet, is no simple mechanical contraption: Live beings, after all, are the creative source of all technology. Intelligent machine technologies flow outward from intelligent, sunlight-utilizing life; they are extensions of life's creativity. As ecologist/philosopher/sleight-of-hand-magician David Abram shows in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, we humans have survived a period of haughty isolation in which we have allowed our ingenuity, alphabets, and linear thinking to alienate us from the natural world; but as Abram remarked to one of us in the 1980s, that period has also seen the "incubation" of our technologies. Perhaps our evolutionary destiny is to use them not for our pioneering selves alone but for the prodigious expansion of all Earth's life.
Imagine the successful colonization of Mars, which will require not only fueled rockets with heat-resistant re-entry tiles, sealed metallic containers, and human astronauts, but also many kinds of food plants, protists, fungi, bacteria, and other animals as makers, keepers, and recyclers of the environment. This mental exercise demonstrates the future prospects for current technology to perpetuate all kinds of biospheric life, not just urbanized machine-humans and our consumables.
As Butler insightfully observed, if and when a technology evolves long enough, it is no longer perceived as technology; it becomes integrated into the society of living organisms who use it, and of which it is now a part. Computer-orchestrated communities, sun-supported space-colonies, and underwater metropoli probably represent the frontiers for human-machine expansion. The arrogant habitat-holocaust of today may cease; in its wake may evolve technologically nurtured habitats that re-bind, re-integrate, and re-merge us with nature.
But not necessarily the nature our nostalgia proposes. Our ancestors were East African apes, who, if we saw them today, would be thought to have escaped from a zoo. Our human-machine children and their humanoid offspring are likely to inhabit a transformed, machinate woodland, savanna, and shore an Earth only superficially resembling the passing East African landscape and seacoast to which we long to return.