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Out of Control

Nature has all along yielded her flesh to humans. First, we took nature's materials as food, fibers, and shelter. Then we learned to extract raw materials from her biosphere to create our own new synthetic materials. Now Bios is yielding us her mind - we are taking her logic.

Clockwork logic -- the logic of the machines -- will only build simple contraptions. Truly complex systems such as a cell, a meadow, an economy, or a brain (natural or artificial) require a rigorous nontechnological logic. We now see that no logic except bio-logic can assemble a thinking device, or even a workable system of any magnitude.

It is an astounding discovery that one can extract the logic of Bios out of biology and have something useful. Although many philosophers in the past have suspected one could abstract the laws of life and apply them elsewhere, it wasn't until the complexity of computers and human-made systems became as complicated as living things, that it was possible to prove this. It's eerie how much of life can be transferred. So far, some of the traits of the living that have successfully been transported to mechanical systems are: self-replication, self-governance, limited self-repair, mild evolution, and partial learning. We have reason to believe yet more can be synthesized and made into something new.

Yet at the same time that the logic of Bios is being imported into machines, the logic of Technos is being imported into life.

The root of bioengineering is the desire to control the organic long enough to improve it. Domesticated plants and animals are examples of technos -- logic applied to life. The wild aromatic root of the Queen Anne's lace weed has been fine-tuned over generations by selective herb gatherers until it has evolved into a sweet carrot of the garden; the udders of wild bovines have been selectively enlarged in a "unnatural" way to satisfy humans rather than calves. Milk cows and carrots, therefore, are human inventions as much as steam engines and gunpowder are. But milk cows and carrots are more indicative of the kind of inventions humans will make in the future: products that are grown rather than manufactured.

Genetic engineering is precisely what cattle breeders do when they select better strains of Holsteins, only bioengineers employ more precise and powerful control. While carrot and milk cow breeders had to rely on diffuse organic evolution, modern genetic engineers can use directed artificial evolution -- purposeful design -- which greatly accelerates improvements.

The overlap of the mechanical and the lifelike increases year by year. Part of this bionic convergence is a matter of words. The meanings of "mechanical" and "life" are both stretching until all complicated things can be perceived as machines, and all self-sustaining machines can be perceived as alive. Yet beyond semantics, two concrete trends are happening: (1) Human-made things are behaving more lifelike, and (2) Life is becoming more engineered. The apparent veil between the organic and the manufactured has crumpled to reveal that the two really are, and have always been, of one being. What should we call that common soul between the organic communities we know of as organisms and ecologies, and their manufactured counterparts of robots, corporations, economies, and computer circuits? I call those examples, both made and born, "vivisystems" for the lifelikeness each kind of system holds.

In the following chapters I survey this unified bionic frontier. Many of the vivisystems I report on are "artificial" -- artifices of human making -- but in almost every case they are also real -- experimentally implemented rather than mere theory. The artificial vivisystems I survey are all complex and grand: planetary telephone systems, computer virus incubators, robot prototypes, virtual reality worlds, synthetic animated characters, diverse artificial ecologies, and computer models of the whole Earth.

But the wildness of nature is the chief source for clarifying insights into vivisystems, and probably the paramount source of more insights to come. I report on new experimental work in ecosystem assembly, restoration biology, coral reef replicas, social insects (bees and ants), and complex closed systems such as the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, from wherein I write this prologue.

The vivisystems I examine in this book are nearly bottomless complications, vast in range, and gigantic in nuance. From these particular big systems I have appropriated unifying principles for all large vivisystems; I call them the laws of god, and they are the fundamentals shared by all self-sustaining, self-improving systems.

As we look at human efforts to create complex mechanical things, again and again we return to nature for directions. Nature is thus more than a diverse gene bank harboring undiscovered herbal cures for future diseases -- although it is certainly this. Nature is also a "meme bank," an idea factory. Vital, postindustrial paradigms are hidden in every jungly ant hill. The billion-footed beast of living bugs and weeds, and the aboriginal human cultures which have extracted meaning from this life, are worth protecting, if for no other reason than for the postmodern metaphors they still have not revealed. Destroying a prairie destroys not only a reservoir of genes but also a treasure of future metaphors, insight, and models for a neo-biological civilization.