About a century ago, the common belief that life was a
mysterious liquid that infused living things was refined into a modern
philosophy called vitalism. The position which vitalism held was not
very far from the meaning in the everyday phrase, "She lost her life."
We all imagine some invisible substance seeping away at death. The
vitalists took this vernacular meaning seriously. They held that while
the essential spirit stirring in creatures was not itself alive, neither
was it wholly an inanimate material or mechanism either. It was
something else: a vital impulse that existed outside of the creature it
My description of the aggressive character of life is not meant to be a
postmodern vitalism. It is true that defining life as "an emergent
property contingent upon the organization of inanimate parts but not
reducible to them" (the best that science can do right now), comes very
close to sounding like a metaphysical doctrine. But it is intended to be
I take the view that life is a nonspiritual, almost mathematical
property that can emerge from networklike arrangements of matter. It is
sort of like the laws of probability; if you get enough components
together, the system will behave like this, because the law of averages
dictates so. Life results when anything is organized according to laws
only now being uncovered; it follows rules as strict as those that light
This lawful process coincidentally clothes life in a spiritual looking
garb. One reason is that this organization must, by law, produce the
unpredictable and novel. Secondly, the result of organization must
replicate at every opportunity, giving it a sense of urgency and desire.
And thirdly, the result can easily loop around to protect its own
existence, and thus it acquires an emergent agenda. Altogether, these
principals might be called the "emergent" doctrine of life. This
doctrine is radical because it entails a revised notion of what laws of
nature mean: irregularity, circular logic, tautology, surprise.
Vitalism, like every wrong idea, contains a useful sliver of truth. Hans
Driesch, the arch twentieth-century vitalist, defined vitalism in 1914
as "the theory of the autonomy of the process of life," and in certain
respects he was right. Life in our dawning new view can be divorced from
both living bodies and mechanical matrix, and set apart as a real,
autonomous process. Life can be copied from living bodies as a delicate
structure of information (spirit or gene?) and implanted in new lifeless
bodies, whether they are of organic parts or machine parts.
In the history of ideas, we have progressively eliminated
discontinuities from our perception of our role as humans. Historian of
science David Channell summarizes this progression in his book The Vital
Machine: A Study of Technology and Organic Life.
First, Copernicus eliminated the discontinuity between the terrestrial
world and the rest of the physical universe. Next, Darwin eliminated the
discontinuity between human beings and the rest of the organic world.
And most recently, Freud eliminated the discontinuity between the
rational world of the ego and the irrational world of the unconscious.
But as [historian and psychologist Bruce] Mazlish has argued, there is
one discontinuity that faces us yet. This "fourth discontinuity" is
between human beings and the machine.
We are now crossing the fourth discontinuity. No longer do we have to
choose between the living or the mechanical because that distinction is
no longer meaningful. Indeed, the most meaningful discoveries in this
coming century are bound to those that celebrate, explore, and exploit
the unified quality of technology and life.
The bridge between the worlds of the born and the manufactured is the
perpetual force of radical disequilibrium -- a law called life. In the
future, the essence that both living creatures and machines will have in
common -- that which will distinguish them from all other matter in the
universe -- is that they both will have the dynamics of self-organized
We can now take the premise that life is a something in flux that is
obeying laws which humans can uncover and recognize, even if we can't
understand them fully. As a way to discover the commonalty between
machines and creatures in this book, I've found it useful to ask, What
does life want? I also consider evolution in the same way. What does
evolution want? Or to be more precise, What does the world look like
from life and evolution's point of view? If we consider life and
evolution as "autonomous processes," then what are their selfish goals?
Where are they headed? What are they becoming?
Gretel Ehrlich writes in her lyrical book Montana Spaces : "Wildness has
no conditions, no sure routes, no peaks or goals, no source that is not
instantly becoming something more than itself, then letting go of that,
always becoming. It cannot be stripped to its complexity by cat scan or
telescope. Rather, it is a many-pointed truth, almost a bluntness, a
sudden essence like the wild strawberries strung along the ground on
scarlet runners under my feet. Wildness is source and fruition at once,
as if every river circled round, the mouth eating the tail -- and the tail,
There is no purpose, other than itself, to wildness. It is both "source
and fruition," the mingling of cause and effect in circular logic. What
Ehrlich calls wildness, I call a network of vital life, an outpouring of
a nearly mechanic force that seeks only to enlarge itself, and that
pushes its disequilibrium into all matter, erupting in creatures and
Wildness/life is always becoming, Ehrlich says. Becoming what? Becoming
becoming. Life is on its way to further complications, further deepness
and mystery, further processes of becoming and change. Life is czircle
of becoming, an autocatalytic set, inflaming itself with its own sparks,
breeding upon itself more life and more wildness and more
"becomingness." Life has no conditions, no moments that are not
instantly becoming something more than life itself.
As Ehrlich hints, wild life resembles that strange loop of the Uroborus
biting its tail, consuming itself. But in truth, wild life is the far
stranger loop of a snake releasing itself from its own grip, unmouthing
an ever fattening tail tapering up to an ever increasingly larger mouth,
birthing an ever larger tail, filling the universe with this