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Introduction
& Prolog
Part 1.
Metabolic Metaphysics
Part 2.
Star Larvae
Part 3.
Space Brains
Addenda
Epilog

The Star Larvae HypothesisAstrotheology
Nature's Plan for Humankind
Part 1. Metabolic Metaphysics

Technology, or Niche Construction

Organisms become even harder to define when they extend their metabolisms through, and become dependent on, their own artifacts.




Metals, glass, concrete, ceramics, and silicon circuitry, along with polymers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and countless other products derived from petroleum, constitute much of the environment of the industrialized world.

The inhabitants of that world operate on a metabolic continuum with these materials, so integrated into modern life have the materials become. Implantable medical devices, now are approaching the nano-scale and undermine the distinction between metabolism and artifact. In a high-tech milieu, distinctions between organism and technology grow fuzzier by the moment.

La Mettrie's Man a Machine

Back in the eighteenth century, a bumper crop of new technologies fed radical philosophies of human nature. In this milieu, French philosopher Julien Offray de la Mettrie perceived structural and functional similarities between humans and their machines and, as had Rene Descartes previously, took the mechanistic mode to be nature’s default and the organic to be a special case.

La Mettrie extended Descartes' view and reduced even the mind to mechanical processes of the body. In 1748 he presented his mechanistic philosophy in Man a Machine. La Mettrie regarded animals of all types, including human beings, as complicated mechanical devices. Biological life seemed to him to be nothing more than a style of machinery—of a high order but nonetheless reducible to mechanics, hydraulics, pneumatics, and so forth. No metaphysical souls or Cartesian "mental substance" needed.

"Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body. The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb. Clothes and houses are extensions of man’s biological temperature-control mechanisms. Furniture takes the place of squatting and sitting on the ground. Power tools, glasses, TV, telephones, and books which carry the voice across both time and space are examples of material extensions. Money is a way of extending and storing labor. Our transportation networks now do what we used to do with our feet and backs. In fact, all man-made material things can be treated as extensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body."

— Edward T. Hall
The Silent Language

La Mettrie did not use the term intelligent design in the context of nature's machinery, but a positive implication for theology is there. La Mettrie looked in a different direction and as a result promoted an intellectual fashion that became hostile toward theological ideas. In the wake of the Enlightenment, mechanistic philosophy gained prominence. It accepted natural law as a first cause and extended its application to the biological world. In the intervening years this view has served not only as bedrock for the modern secular mindset and as fertile ground for behaviorism, but also as a mechanistic model of health and medicine, and as a wall between science and religion. But in its early years it provided freethinkers with a needed alternative to church dogma. It's cast humankind as natural machine, albeit a machine whose origins remained mysterious. Darwin later cemented the link between natural law and human origins.

McLuhan's Mechanical Bride

More recently, in the 1960s, La Mettrie's model got stood on its head. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan also intuited a continuum from bodies to machines. But he made the case that machines, properly understood, are imitations, or extensions, of capacities of the human body—not Man A Machine but Machine A Man. McLuhan’s book The Mechanical Bride is a kind of anti-sequel to La Mettrie's "Man A Machine."

The phrase mechanical bride refers to the libidinal appeal of machinery and commercial culture’s exploitation of that appeal. The postwar advertising culture that McLuhan analyzed embraced consumer gadgetry and appliances, and the family car was the star of the show. Advertisers hawked cars with an artful juxtaposing of engineering achievements and female anatomy. McLuhan points out that a perhaps less visible but nonetheless identifiable trend was the complementary tendency to use technological jargon and blueprint-type graphics to advertise intimate products, such as female undergarments. McLuhan had discovered a place in the modern unconscious that conflates sexual allure with the seductions of technology. The psychology seemed to him to be a natural adaptation to the evolving relationship between urbanites and their gadgets, the collections of extensions of bodies that constitute homes and cities. Electricity, in McLuhan's analysis, adds to the mechanical extensions of muscle and bone a psychical extension of mental faculties.

"The artificial purification of all milieus, atmospheres, and environments will supplant the failing internal immune systems. If these immune systems are breaking down it is because an irreversible tendency called progress pushes the human body and spirit into relinquishing its systems of defense and self-determination, only to replace them with technical artifacts. Divested of his defenses, man becomes eminently vulnerable to science."

— Jean Baudrillard
The Ecstasy of Communication

McLuhan and La Mettrie both perceived organic qualities inherent in technology, but each adopted a different view as to which was the original and which the knock-off—the organic or the technological. But in a feedback cycle starting points are arbitrary. Just as the nonliving hair that covers a human head can be said to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the organism from which it sprouts, and to which it presumably confers some adaptive advantage, technologies are symbiotic with the organisms from which they sprout and to which they confer adaptive advantage. The critter and its environment, including its constructed environment, are inextricably intertwined.

In the biological world, symbiosis can help organisms overcome physical circumstances and expand into new territories. Technologies deliver the same capacity. The orbital space around Earth, for example, gradually is opening up as an ecological niche for human habitation, as a result of human symbiosis with technology. Recently, this evolutionary mechanism has been called niche construction.

Locating technology in the context of symbiosis undermines the notion that human inventions are inherently antithetical or detrimental to nature—that they are unnatural. Inventions take on the character rather of extensions of the organism, ones to which the organism adapts, as McLuhan saw. And, as such, technologies are natural extensions of the metabolic processes of the human body and human society. McLuhan grasped this relationship, observing in Understanding Media,

"Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms."

Dawkins' Extended Phenotype

Biologist Richard Dawkins complements and extends McLuhan's thinking with his notion of "the extended phenotype." In the book of that title Dawkins examines various instances of animal industry, such as the dam building of beavers, nest building of birds, and pebble-house building of an insect called the caddis fly. Presumably—and this is clearest in the case of insects—these animals do not learn from instruction by experts how to go about building the various artifacts. Dawkins makes the case that animal-built structures enhance the adaptive advantage of the creatures that build them and, like McLuhan, characterizes the structures as functional extensions of the bodies of the builders. Dawkins comments in The Extended Phenotype,

"The house of a caddis strictly is not a part of its cellular body, but it does fit snugly round the body. If the body is regarded as a gene vehicle, or survival machine, it is easy to see the stone house as a kind of extra protective wall, in a functional sense the outer part of the vehicle. It just happens to be made of stone rather than chitin."

The metabolic extension just happens to be made of inorganic material, as are many of humankind's metabolic extensions. Its relationship to its builder transcends the distinction between the organic and the inorganic and challenges any neat delineation of the organism distinct from its environment (and it lends itself to artistic exploitation). Organism, artifact, and environment meld into a web of metabolic interweavings.

The family life of the beaver is adapted to an environment that beavers manufacture from sticks and mud and some rudimentary sense of architecture. Certain ants manage the environments of their underground "farms" in which they cultivate as crops certain fungi. Homo sapiens mines the Earth for ores and hydrocarbons and builds shopping malls and space stations. These species then adapt to the circumstances that their own handiwork imposes upon them. Technologies participate fundamentally in the dynamics of organic life and its evolution, because technologies bestow an adaptive advantage to the genes that guide the behaviors from which the technologies result. Technologies participate in feedback loops with their fabricators. The indivisible evolutionary unit of a technological species is the unit of organism-technology symbiosis. Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson rendered essentially the same concept in terms of "gene-culture coevolution."

Urban humanity live in a technological infrastructure that delivers countless adaptive adjuncts to the human organism: waste disposal, temperature control, antibiotics, processed foods, and so on. Domesticated urbanites have become inseparable from such artifacts, or anatomical and psychological extensions. So, with its industrial mass potentially straining Earth's resilience, where is encapsulated urban humanity headed?

Biology provides a set of concepts that recasts the problem in terms of a natural evolutionary juncture: Technology is humankind's symbiotic partner in managing a migration, a birth, and a metamorphosis. The human-technology symbiosis is preparing to shepherd a human migration, midwife a Gaian delivery, and complete the encapsulation process, which will provide biology's photoelectrochemical metabolism with a suitable environment within which to metamorphose, or mutate, into a gravitational-nuclear metabolism.

As if we had a choice.

NEXT > Coincidence and Creativity in Nature

The Star Larvae Hypothesis:

Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.

Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which

 

Social Media =
Social Mediocrity:


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