The internet is not as new as you think

When Kant proclaimed in Critique of the power of judgement that there will never be a “Newton for the blade of grass”, i.e. that no one will explain the generation and growth of grass in terms of the blind mechanical laws of nature in the way Newton had managed to do a century earlier for motions of planets, tides, cannonballs and other objects of interest to mathematical physics – he was not simply reporting on the state of research in the life sciences. Rather, Kant surmised, we will always be cognitively constrained, simply given the way our minds work, to understand biological systems in a way that includes, rightly or wrongly, the idea of ​​goal-oriented design, even if it does not can we ever have any positive idea – or, as Kant would say, any definite concept – of what ends are or who or what designed them. In other words, we are forced to know living beings and living systems in a way that implies an analogy with the things we humans design for our own ends – hourglasses and plows, smartphones and fiber optic networks – though we can never ultimately determine whether this analogy is just an unwarranted transfer of explanations from a domain in which they belong to one in which they do not.

Kant understood the problem as an intractable problem, arising simply from the structure of human cognition. However, this has not prevented subsequent generations from assuming dogmatic positions on one of the two possible fronts of the debate on the boundary between the natural on the one hand and the artificial or cultural on the other. “Do male ducks rape female ducks?” is a question that sparked and sustained heated and ultimately futile debates in the late 20th century. The so-called sociobiologists, led by EO Wilson, took it as obvious that they were, while their opponents, notably Stephen Jay Gould, insisted that rape is by definition a morally charged category of action and therefore also by definition a category that concerns only to the human sphere; that it is therefore an unjustified anthropomorphisation of ducks to attribute to them the capacity for such an action; and that furthermore it is dangerous to do so, since to claim that rape of ducks is to naturalize rape and, in turn, open up the possibility of regarding human rape as morally neutral. If rape is so widespread that it is found even among ducks, the concern is gone, then one might conclude that it is simply a natural feature of the range of human actions and that it is futile to try to eliminate it. And sociobiologists would answer, maybe, but look at what that dragon is doing and how the female struggles to escape, and try to find a word that captures what you’re seeing better than “rape.”

The debate is, again, unresolved, for reasons Kant probably could have foreseen. We can never fully know what it’s like to be a duck, and therefore we can’t know if what we’re seeing in nature is a mere outward appearance of what rape would look like if it occurred among humans, or if it really, properly, duck rape. The same is true of ant cannibalism, gay penguins, and so many other animal behaviors that some people would prefer to think of as distinctly human, either because they are so morally atrocious that extending them to other living things risks normalizing them by naturalizing them, or because they are so prized that our sense of our uniqueness among creatures requires us to view the appearance of these behaviors in other species as mere appearance, such as simulation, forgery, or aping. And the same goes for the mycorrhizal networks that connect groves of trees. Are these “communication networks” in the same sense as the Internet or is the “Wood Wide Web” just a metaphor?

We must not be flippant or give up too easily on saying that it is up to us to make the decision and that no further empirical investigation will tell us whether such a comparison or assimilation draws on any real truth about the world. The choice is ours, although perhaps we had better not choose at all, but instead, with Kant, to entertain the evident similarity between the living system and the artifice with a suitable critical suspension. Our mind will only go back to the analogy between nature and artifice, between organism and machine, between living system and network. And the fact that our minds are doing this says something about who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. What we can’t help but notice, however, is that, like a network of roots soaked in fungal filaments, like a field of grass, the internet too is a growth, a growth, an excrescence of the species-specific activity of A wise man.

If we weren’t so attached to the idea that human creations have a character ontologically different from everything else in nature – that, in other words, human creations are not in nature at all, but extracted from nature and then separated from it – we might to be in a better position to see human artifice, including both the large-scale architecture of our cities and the fine and intricate fabrication of our technologies, as a properly natural outgrowth of our species-specific activity. It’s not that there are cities and smartphones wherever there are human beings, but cities and smartphones themselves are just the concretions of a certain type of natural activity in which human beings have always engaged.

To see this, or at least appreciate or take it seriously, is not to reduce human beings to ants, or reduce love letters (or even love letters) to pheromone signals. We can still love our own species even as we try to redevelop it, at the end of a few millennia of oblivion, to feel at home in nature. And part of that must mean trying to expose the fiction in the idea that our productions have a more exceptional character than they actually have next to everything nature has produced.