Will The Opposable Thumb Become The Appendix Of The Future?


Will The Opposable Thumb Become The Appendix Of The Future?

Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Addison-Wesley, New York, 1994.

The dethronement of learning is one of the most exciting intellectual frontiers we are now crossing.
The great secret which life has kept from us is that once born, life is immortal.

Kelly, p. 84, 103.

What happens when prediction, determinism and understanding are all decoupled? Science is defrocked and reconstructed. Simultaneously, that magnificent edifice, the university, like the wizard in the Emerald City, exposed by the notorious Toto, lies open through the innocent act of discovery.

What happens when the great gift of Newton, The Calculus, has, in its very success, built a platform for predictability which may be an illusion? And what happens when, in spite of the crush of data being brought to fix the breach in the Darwinian dike, Lamarck may have been right? The human species, like the spinning skater who has lost the fixed point used for balance and stability, is out of control. Rather than seeking another fixed point, a model of reality must be quickly erected which allows for a dynamic and moving mark which provides stability through change.

Complex dynamics, arising from the mathematics of Poincare, has evolved coextensively with the larger postmodern paradigm. Massaged by the systems theorists of the early 20th century, the idea did not really come into practice until the advent of cheap, massive computing power as manifested by the personal computer and the realization of low cost parallel and distributed processing. Its birth and development has spanned approximately 100 years and still might be considered to be in the early stages of the familiar “S” shaped growth curve. Yet it is this metaphor which gives strength and credibility to Kelly’s message in Out of Control.

In a dynamic world of change, stability and reorganization coexist. Nodes of knowledge, like lights randomly blinking on a giant board, can be identified; yet when one center disappears or a link in the web is broken, the Phoenix reappears, often transformed and the system has restructured as if nothing happened. Complex, diverse ecosystems, when severely disturbed, recover and even simple systems, such as those left in the aftermath of a volcanic episode, reestablish a complex dynamic system almost as if driven by some unseen hand.

We talk about diversity within the biosphere, yet we do not know how critical such a complex mix is to survival of life, even as we know it. Nor do we know how simple a system will sustain life or allow for complex systems to evolve. Diversity has developed many times from the beginning through many catastrophes. We cannot even be certain that the determining factors lie encrypted in the genetic codes or whether morphological fields guide change and development, like a puppet master.

Implicit in Kelly’s thesis is that the system pushes for its survival at the expense of the individual. Out of Control issues a direct challenge to the dominant western paradigm of the sacredness of the individual. Asimov’s Foundation series, as well as complex dynamic models of fisheries and social systems cogently point to the role of the individual in pushing a system to new stages of change. The shape and form of the changes are often surprising, unknown and unpredictable, but the system will survive in its new form whether or not individuals are able to make the transition. Descartes infamous “cogito ergo sum” may have validity only within its historical context.

Ant colonies, termites, and bee hives are often cited as systems which are dependent on individual decisions and capabilities; yet the whole seems to survive even though individuals are not necessarily conscious of all the inter-relationships which are dependent upon, or are changed by the actions of the individual. Bruce Sterling’s novelette, The Swarm, posits the need for cognition of the individual, or higher consciousness, only at select times in the development and evolution of a system. And Erwin Laszlo has suggested that human intelligence may not be a survival characteristic.

Dougal Dixon’s fanciful Man after Man anticipates what might succeed the evolutionary trend, homo -habilus, -erectus, -sapiens. One of his creations, homo-aquaticus, parallels Vonnegut’s whimsical conclusion in his novel Galapagos. All, including Kelly, might question whether or not humans have transcended the tool-making epoch with the rise of the information era. And, in the post-information era of interconnectedness, one might ask if evolution is proceeding in a more substantive and challenging direction.

During the 60’s and early 70’s there was a period of great techno-optimism. The liberal establishment saw waves of social change and there was a belief that science and technology could complete the circle by providing answers to the problems of human existence from a materialistic perspective. By the time the Viet Nam war became public knowledge and the world had its first energy crisis, the liberal left was essentially intellectually bankrupt. The era of equality for all and the ability to provide the good society had started to give way to the hedonistic world stylized by Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Western liberals were left in a policy or programmatic vacuum. In fact, there was a technological backlash which generated a rise in “rust belt” production/consumption mentalities worldwide.

Kelly’s book is part of the returning tide of this techno-optimism which is, in many ways, reactionary to the 80’s consumption frenzy and simultaneously opposed to the atavistic, “tree-hugging” ecology movement. As Kelly states, we have transcended the energy crisis. We know now how to do more with less. Whether we will or not is a separate question. We have transcended the material crisis. As a metaphor, nanotechnology implies that we can essentially make anything out of air, earth, fire and water. Now, the interconnectedness of the planet through the web of communications, at many levels, offers the opportunity to transcend the limitations of the individual as life potentially spreads across the universe.

Like David Rothenberg, in Hand’s End Kelly sees technology as an integrating factor which connects humans with nature rather than setting them apart either in a dominant or dominating position. Paul Thompson has said, “Our society may collapse because of shortsighted stupidity on the part of pro-growth – but the collapse will be tragic if it is the shortsightedness or ignorance on the part of environmentally and ethically concerned people that helps bring it about.”

One senses from Out of Control that homo habilis’ imperfect knowledge and opposable thumb provided the resources to build the transformational cocoon and unleash the materials and energy needed for the caterpillar to transform into the information driven butterfly. That bifurcation will be made. What this means for homo sapiens is not known, particularly with regards to the position of the individual within the purpose of the universe. Will society take that step into the void and, like Indiana Jones, find the presences of that invisible bridge under foot, or is it an illusion with homo sapiens going over the cliff, like the virtual lemming?

A chemist by training, Tom Abeles is president of Sagacity Learning Universe, a virtual University on the Internet. His primary interests focus on the development of socially and environmentally responsible public policy.