by Bruce Clarke
--adapted from Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, 2020
James Lovelock’s Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, published earlier this year as he turns 100 years old, begins on an astrobiological note: “Not only would human extinction be bad news for humans, it would also be bad news for the cosmos. Assuming I am right and there are no intelligent aliens, then the end of life on Earth would mean the end of all knowing and understanding. The knowing cosmos would die” (23). Lovelock decides the astrobiological issue here, regarding the existence of intellect anywhere else in the universe, with his signature gesture of cosmic restraint. The cosmos lacks any intelligent life other than our own: “I am pretty sure that only Earth has incubated a creature capable of knowing the cosmos” (5). However, he recovers the notions of Gaia’s and humanity’s planetary singularity for their spiritual value. It is our glory as the supreme progeny of a unique Gaia to reflect the universe back to itself. At any rate, no other being is going to do it for us.
Astrobiology considers that a planetary system of Gaian type could occur wherever life might chance to take hold (see Grinspoon, and Frank). Nevertheless, as Lovelock would remind us, from what we can observe directly before us, our Gaia is a localized phenomenon pertaining to a single planet in a singular manner. The recent essay co-authored by French sociologist Bruno Latour and British Earth system scientist Tim Lenton, “Extending the Domain of Freedom, or Why Gaia Is So Hard to Understand,” begins with a version of this same premise. “Gaia . . . is a unique phenomenon—at least as long as we have no proof of another planet modified by life to provide some sort of baseline” (660). In this reading, Gaia’s likely uniqueness implicitly lowers expectations of abundant life elsewhere in the cosmos, in line with Lovelock’s overall approach to astrobiological matters in Novacene: “Our existence is a freakish one-off,” he writes, but for that very reason, “only we are the way in which the cosmos has awoken to self-knowledge” (4, 23). In Novacene, then, Gaia’s presumed uniqueness in the cosmos corresponds to a heightened affirmation of humanity’s singular role within Gaia, with particular regard to its recent and species-specific techniques for converting solar energy not just into other forms of useful energy but also into the evolutionary proliferation of useful information.
Consider a particularly rhapsodic passage of Novacene along these lines:
It is a cause for pride and joy that we can harvest sunlight and use its energy to capture and store information, which is also, as I shall explain later, a fundamental property of the universe. But it demands that we use the gift wisely. We must ensure the continued evolution of all life on Earth so that we can face the ever-increasing hazards that inevitably threaten us and Gaia, the great system comprising all life and the material parts of our planet. We alone, among all the species that have benefited from the flood of energy from the Sun, are the ones who evolved with the ability to transmute the flood of photons into bits of information gathered in a way that empowers evolution. Our reward is the opportunity to understand something of the universe and ourselves. (28)
Yet this hymn to the human is subdued by the twist in the argument telegraphed by the book’s subtitle: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. That is, the Novacene will be the epoch, arriving as we speak, in which organic life, in the form of human beings, yields its monopoly on “intelligence” and passes the evolutionary baton to “electronic life.” It will thus be “important for alien-hunters to distinguish planets regulated by organic life forms from those regulated by electronic life.” Be that as it may, he goes directly on, “That the latter will evolve from the former is the subject of this book” (9).
Lovelock calls these coming electronic beings “cyborgs.” Whether Lovelock was a reader of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” may be doubted. Haraway’s discursive cyborg was a mobile figure for the various real and imaginary incursions of informatic instrumentalities into organic systems. However, it seems quite likely that Lovelock would have attended to the original cyborg essay when it appeared at the very start of his own sojourns in the world of NASA exobiology. Lovelock cites this source, although he provides his own definition: “The term ‘cyborg’ was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960. It refers to a cybernetic organism: an organism as self-sufficient as one of us but made of engineered materials” (29). In fact, Clynes and Kline coined the cyborg idea in the context of the “man-machine systems” needed to outfit the human body with automatic cybernetic prostheses for the environmental challenges of space flight: “This self-regulation must function without the benefit of consciousness in order to cooperate with the body’s own autonomous homeostatic controls. For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term ‘Cyborg’” (27). There are certainly some interesting proto-Gaian aspects to this patently exobiological concept. However, Lovelock’s Novacene cyborg simply names a robotic or non-organic yet fully autonomous machine being, and Lovelock appears to be in earnest with regard to both the actuality and the inevitability of his new evolutionary scenario.
But whither Gaia in this new age? Novacene tells us that “these inorganic beings will need us and the whole organic world to continue to regulate the climate . . . . We shall not descend into the kind of war between humans and machines that is so often described in science fiction because we need each other. Gaia will keep the peace” (30). Moreover, “whatever harm we have done to the Earth, we have, just in time, redeemed ourselves by acting simultaneously as parents and midwives to the cyborgs. They alone can guide Gaia through the astronomical crises now imminent” (86). And finally, “When the Novacene is fully grown and is regulating chemical and physical conditions to keep the Earth habitable for cyborgs, Gaia will be wearing a new inorganic coat. . . . Eventually, organic Gaia will probably die” (111). To begin with, then, the cyborgs will be a new part of Gaia along with us and the rest of the Earth system. Their well-being will be as contingent as ours is upon the continued efficacy of Gaian air conditioning. However, at some point, the cyborgs will “guide Gaia” in the direction of their own continuation. In time, which may not be all that long by human standards, the cyborgs will invent a new postbiological Gaia, an “IT Gaia” (111) that will no longer have any need of “organic Gaia,” which “will probably die.” While it is one thing to anticipate the death of Gaia in some fairly distant futurity as part of the life cycle of solar systems, it is quite another to contemplate the notion that the Gaia that sustains us right now would be put to death before too long by the decisions of non-organic beings for which this execution would be of no existential consequence.
Lovelock had already tried his hand at cyborg scenarios in previous decades. Veritable cyborgs also make an appearance in a “fable” at the end of The Ages of Gaia (1988). Its ostensible point is that, while these posthuman Earth dwellers 500 million years into the future are ignorant regarding the truth of their origins, this is irrelevant to their appreciation of the Gaian system of which they too partake:
In a small meadow near the shore, a group of philosophers is gathered for one of those civilized meetings hosted by a scientific society. . . . A participant has a theory that their form of life, so unlike that of many of the organisms in the sea and of the microorganisms, did not just evolve but was made artificially by a sentient life form living in the remote geological past. She bases her argument on the nature of the nervous system of the philosophers and of land animals generally. It operates by direct electrical conduction along organic polymer strands, whereas that of the ocean life operates by ionic conduction within elongated cells (which we, of course, would recognize as nerves). . . . Our philosopher argues that such a system could never have originated by chance but must have been manufactured at some time in the past. Not surprisingly, her theory is not well received. (221-22)
These particular imaginary characters really do seem like proper cyborgs, that is, hybrids of organic biochemistry and electronic engineering. However, unlike his Novacene scenario, here at least “organic Gaia” still houses them within its planetary functions.
It is interesting to note that the silicon beings at the end of The Ages of Gaia resonate with Lynn Margulis’s prior development of an autopoietic Gaia concept in which the machinic components extruded by a technological civilization are reincorporated within the boundaries of its final geobiological operations. Margulis and co-author Dorion Sagan first developed these themes in “Gaia and the Evolution of Machines,” a think piece published in Whole Earth Review in 1987. Their autopoietic description of Gaian operations adds the technosphere to its orbit: “Not only are members of the more than 10 million existing species components of the Gaian regulatory system but so are our machines. Here we argue that although not by themselves alive, like viruses and beehives, machines are capable of reproduction, mutation and evolution. That is, even though they are not autopoietic, machines do evolve” (15). Let us quickly recall some basic statements from “Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems” by Varela, Maturana, and Uribe: “reproduction and evolution are not constitutive features of the living organization . . . all biological phenomenology, including reproduction and evolution, is secondary to the establishment of this unitary organization,” that is, secondary to the establishment of the autopoietic organization (187). Sagan and Margulis place their argument on these same discursive tracks but repurpose Maturana and Varela’s logical architecture in order to add “allopoietic” machines to their autopoietic synthesis. They endorse the autopoietic organization as the prime criterion of living systems. Then they take the same history-bound and ontogenetic qualities of reproduction, genetic mutation, and natural selection that, according to the autopoietic critique, mainstream biology has misplaced as the prime criteria of life per se, and transfer them to the epiphenomenal and metabiotic realm of machines, of designed technological systems.
In other words, in granting living systems exclusive title to autopoietic self-production, Sagan and Margulis put the mechanistic side of modern biological theory back where it belongs, on the description of machines. Their Gaian formulations place machines in the planetary mix alongside an autopoietic schema for systemic interdependence that maintains the operational differentiation of abiotic, biotic, and metabiotic domains. In contrast, Lovelock emphatically bases his current scheme on the monistic view that “the bit is the fundamental particle from which the universe is formed” (89), in other words, that everything in the cosmos comes out of and returns to the form of information. As virtual bodies of information, the cyborgs will necessarily surpass us, we read, due to their superior capacity to turn matter and energy into the caches of information by which they subsist. However, as near as I can make out, under this cosmic regime of ultimate digital being, material or corporeal entities, organic and otherwise, would evanesce and disperse into informatic patterns, and along with everything else, Gaia comes unglued.
Lovelock’s vision of a postbiotic AI future in Novacene stands or falls on this cosmic reading of information. I will just observe that in its mundane applications, the object of information theory is not a substantial entity at any scale whatsoever but a statistical measure computed through a calculus of probabilities. The values of informatic parcels are determined according to the probabilities of message ensembles specific to the particular systems by which signals are constituted as meaningful, the points of location from which they are observed, and the channels through which they are sent (see Clarke, “Communication”). Moreover, the constitution of information is an effect of observation, a mathematical way of transcribing the world into code. The world itself is not the code, just as life itself is something other than the genetic codes that it uses to do its thing. Margulis gravitated to the formal but non-informatic concept of autopoiesis, I speculate, because the autopoietic conceptualization of living organization places a firewall between living autonomy and nonliving affordance, between the systemic form of living metabolism and the molecular structuring of its informatic cache.
Sagan and Margulis indicate in the coupling of non-autopoietic components to autopoietic operations the mutual dependence of contemporary humanity and its technosphere. Over and above the reproduction of Gaia’s living components, human life and machine reproduction are now interdependent.
The reproduction of technological societies and their components is part of the autopoiesis of the biosphere. . . . From a biospheric view, machines are one of DNA’s latest strategies for autopoiesis and expansion. The classification of machines as non-autopoietic and nonliving does not negate the fact that they reproduce, and reproduce with mutation, as avidly as viruses. Like beehives, termite mounds, coral reefs, and other products of the activity of life, machines--if indirectly through DNA and RNA--make more of themselves. Through us they make other machines. (19)
Margulis’s Gaia--the planetary system limned in “Gaia and the Evolution of Machines”--exhibits viable metabiotic couplings of living ecologies, geological formations, and technological systems across its planetary interface; mutual feedbacks of living and non-living processes that continuously remix the system; and deeply interfolded differential effects of Earth and life processes, including minds and societies. Gaia also wraps itself globally around technological as well as psychosocial processes and productions. In their Gaian discourse of the technosphere written a generation ago, even cyborgs will need to maintain their biospherical bona fides, their vocational credentials as parts of autopoietic systems. Nevertheless, even when read as parable rather than prediction, Lovelock’s Novacene captures just how precariously we are now balanced between bygone and forthcoming biospheres.
Clarke, Bruce. “Communication.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 131-44.
Clynes, Manfred E., and Nathan S. Kline. “Cyborgs and Space.” Astronautics (September 1960): 24-27, 74-76.
Frank, Adam. Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. New York: Norton, 2018.
Grinspoon, David. Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future. New York: Grand Central, 2016.
Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” 1985. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.
Latour, Bruno, and Timothy M. Lenton. “Extending the Domain of Freedom, or Why Gaia Is So Hard to Understand.” Critical Inquiry 45 (Spring 2019): 660.
Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth. New York: Norton, 1988.
------. Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019.
Sagan, Dorion, and Lynn Margulis. “Gaia and the Evolution of Machines.” Whole Earth Review 55 (Summer 1987): 15–21.
Varela, Francisco J., Humberto M. Maturana, and Ricardo Uribe, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, Its Characterization and a Model.” BioSystems 5 (1974): 187-96.