The internet is not as new as you think

When Kant declared in Criticism of the power of judgment that there would never be a “Newton of a blade of grass”—that no one would explain the generation and growth of grass in terms of the blind, mechanical laws of nature the way Newton was able to do a century ago to planetary motions, tides, cannonballs, and other things that matter to mathematical physics He wasn’t simply writing about the state of research in the life sciences. Rather, as Kant postulated, we will always be epistemically limited, by the way our minds work, to understanding biological systems in a way that includes, rightly or wrongly, the idea of ​​end-oriented design, even if we can never get any of it. A positive idea – or, as Kant says, any specific concept – of what the ends are or to whom or what the design does. In other words, we are constrained to perceive organisms and living systems in a way that includes an analogy with the things that we humans design for our own ends – cedars, plows, smartphones, fiber optic networks – even if we can’t ultimately determine whether this analogy is just an unwarranted transfer of explanations. From a domain where they do not belong to a domain to which they do not belong.

Kant understood the problem as an intractable problem, arising simply from the structure of human cognition. However, this did not prevent later generations from taking doctrinal positions on one possible side of the debate regarding the boundary between the natural on the one hand and the artificial or cultural on the other. “Do male ducks rape female ducks?” It is a question that aroused and continued in heated and ultimately sterile debates in the late twentieth century. So-called social biologists, led by E. O. Wilson, took the matter straight, while their opponents, notably Stephen Jay Gould, insisted that rape is by definition a category of morally charged action, and thus also by definition a category related only to the human sphere. that it is thus an unjustified personification of ducks to assign the capacity for such an action to them; Moreover, it is dangerous to do so, because to argue that duck rape is to naturalize rape and thus open the possibility of considering human rape as morally neutral. If rape is so widespread even among ducks, the concern is gone, some might conclude that it is just a normal feature of the range of human actions and that there is no hope of trying to eradicate it. And social biologists will answer: Maybe, but just look at what the drake is doing, how the female is struggling to escape, and try to find a word that embodies what you see as better than “rape.”

The debate, again, has not been resolved for reasons that Kant would have foreseen. We can never fully know what it means to be a duck, and therefore we can’t tell whether what we see in nature is just an outward appearance of what would be rape if it occurred among humans, or whether it is really true duck rape. The same applies to cannibalism of ants, gay penguins, and many other animal behaviors that some people prefer to think of as distinctly human, either because they are so morally awful that extending them to other living creatures risks normalizing them by normalizing them, or Because they are so prized that our sense of our specialization among creatures requires us to see the appearance of these behaviors in other species as mere appearance, as mimicry, fake, or ape. The same is true of the mycorhizal networks that connect tree groves. Are these “communication networks” the same as the Internet, or is the “Wooden Wide Web” just a metaphor?

You should not be reckless or easily resigned to saying that design is our business, and that no other empirical investigation will tell us whether such comparison or assimilation interferes with some real truth about the world. The choice is up to us, though we would perhaps be better served not to make a choice at all, but instead, with Kant, to entertain the apparent resemblance between living order and resourcefulness with an appropriate critical comment. Our minds will keep returning to the analogy between nature and resourcefulness, between organism and machine, between living system and network. And the fact that our minds do this says something about who we are and how we understand the world around us. What we cannot help noticing anyway is that, like a network of roots laced with fungal hyphae, like a field of grass, the internet is also a growth, an outgrowth, and the emergence of a species-specific activity sane man.

If we are not bound by the idea that human creations are of an ontological character different from anything else in nature—in other words, human creations are not really in fact at all, but extracted from nature and then detached from—we might be in a better position to see human resourcefulness, Including the large-scale architecture of our cities and the delicate and intricate assembly of our technologies, as a suitable corollary to our species-specific activities. It is not about having cities and smartphones wherever there are humans, but cities and smartphones themselves are only the embodiment of a certain kind of natural activity that humans have been engaging in all along.

To see this, or at least appreciate it or take it seriously, is not to reduce humans to ants, or reduce love messages (or sexual messages) to pheromone cues. We can still love our species even as we seek to retrain it, at the end of thousands of years of oblivion, to feel at home in nature. And part of this must mean seeking to debunk the pretense that our products are more exceptional than what they actually do along with all that nature has produced.


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