Beyond Cartesian metaphor

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A persuasive argument that technology must reflect the wisdom a deep study of nature provides

PULSE — How Nature is Inspiring the Technology of the 21st Century: Robert Frenay; Little, Brown, London. Distributed by Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 595.

In his classic Science and the Modern World (1925), the British philosopher Alfred Whitehead suggests that with the industrial revolution, “the mechanical explanation of nature finally hardened into a dogma of science.” Robert Frenay argues that this Cartesian “machine metaphor” has dominated thought on the Earth for the last 200 years. Since the world was a machine, the best way to understand it was to break it down into its constituent parts leading to a linear logic of cause and effect. Frenay accepts that these ideas provided a solid foundation for the enormous achievements of science and technology. He believes that “the machine age in its own time was an effort to use lessons learned from nature as a guide for human design.” But “the machine age is obsolete because it’s incomplete.” The last two centuries have also revealed the dark underside of technological advance. And as Albert Einstein once said, we can’t solve today’s problems with the kind of thinking that created them.

New biology

The machine age has made possible a different understanding of human life, which Frenay terms the “new biology”. This demands going well beyond the idea that nature works like a machine. Rather, “the new biology makes machines that work like living things.” It recognises the underlying patterns of nature—complex adaptive systems with fluid metabolism and feedback cycles, constant self-renewal, co-evolution and metamorphosis — each of which makes a mockery of the linear logic of Cartesian reductionism.

He is certainly not the first to make these arguments. Some of these can in fact be dated as far back as Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgment — a product of nature is both “an organised and self-organising being” (perhaps the first recorded use of “self-organising”, a keyword of the new biology). What is new about Pulse is that it uses biological concepts to explain a number of social failures, and chronicles many innovations in technology and organisation that utilise this new thinking — made possible by massive advances in computer technology.

No romantic

Frenay is no “back-to-nature” romantic. Nor does he have blind faith in the goodness of all technology. He believes in the power of technology but wants it to reflect the wisdom a deep study of nature provides. He is clear, for example, that plant genetic engineering, as currently practised, is a mistake because it is caught in a time warp, relying on a machine age conception of genetics. He cites the work of Nobel Laureates Barbara McClintock (on jumping genes) and Sydney Brenner (on messenger RNA) to argue for a fluid, dynamic, interactive view of the genome. One where rapid genome restructuring is guided by biological feedback networks. Where mutation rates vary within different regions of the genome. Thus, every gene is a component of an interacting system and not a standalone independent entity. Differences across species arise mainly because of the evolution of minor but critical variations in the base sequence of homologous genes and their variable regulation. For genomes are networks where regulatory regions govern how and when specific genes are expressed. This puts a serious question mark over attempts to cut and paste “genes” across species, quite unmindful of the fact that what a gene does, depends on the context in which it finds itself (much like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s understanding of a word). There arises a consequent danger of unexpected and unplanned, mutation-induced ripple effects, when “genes” are moved to unfamiliar territory (instances of which are already being reported).

Learning from nature

Frenay is not rejecting biotechnology. He is only warning against some antediluvian applications of it. He describes many technologies and practices that are truly learning from nature. Such as the work of the Forest Stewardship Council based in Mexico that sets world standards for ecological forestry. Or the Magnifica Communita di Fiemme in northern Italy, a forestry commune that has sustainably managed 50,000 acres since its founding in 1111 A.D. But he warns that though “nature does link everything into interacting webs of mutual support, that doesn’t make the natural world a communal peaceable kingdom. Nor is rampant competition the only rule. Life is a balancing act, shot though with competing tensions. All we can do is tip the balance a little, and for a time.”

Such an understanding is visible even in today’s corporate world. Dee Hock, Founder of Visa International (one of the world’s most successful bank card companies) describes its organisational design as “chaordic — a combination of chaos and order, competition and co-operation, centralisation and decentralisation.” Visa is a major step beyond the linear hierarchies of the machine age. Hock argues for viewing collapse or chaos “not as horrible disasters but as the only agents powerful enough to force open the door to change.”

The central lesson for Frenay is the manifold feedback loops that drive life forward on the Earth. He suggests we animate all our decision-making processes with this quality. Inadequate/incomplete feedback is the reason for rampant market failure or the inefficiency of large bureaucracies and corporations. Enshrining this feature is the key to effective democracy.

The Pulse approach

The best chapter of the book “Town and Country” describes the work of people like Leon Krier, who argue that by ignoring the ecological imperatives of context, diversity and intimate interaction, modern cities tend towards “monofunctional overexpansion”. Krier’s answer to urban sprawl is what he calls “the polycentric city”, a more organic kind of development (like the fractal patterns in nature), with diverse cities and towns giving rise to communities around them. Indian urban planners could benefit hugely by learning from this approach already visible in a few cities across the world.

The book provides enough evidence that the Pulse approach is being widely practised. But it is an exaggeration to suggest that this is dominant across the world. The contrary could be asserted with more weight. For instance, ecological economics and the pioneering work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen so powerfully described in chapter 11 of this book is still completely on the fringes of mainstream economic theory taught across the globe today.

The ideas in Pulse are echoed in many spiritual traditions. In western philosophy, they date back to Heraclitus (540 B.C.), leading up to Whitehead’s “philosophy of process” in the 20th century. But a fundamentalist overstatement of emulating everything nature does in everything humans do, weakens the deep insights the book otherwise contains.



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