The Bifurcation of Nature
(Synthetic) Organisms and Machines
An Ontological Analytic of the Organism
Jonas stresses the uniqueness of organismic being in the universe by characterising the living thing’s identity as a ‘performance’, ‘act’, and ‘process rather than structure’ [ 25]. 7 Ontologically speaking, the organism is because it does, which must not be confused with a being whose ‘is’ is distinct from the fact that it does things. The entrance of this mode of being on the cosmological stage therefore allows us to speak of life as an ‘ontological revolution’ [ 9]. 8In the process of its being, the parts of which the organism consists at a given instant are only temporary, transient contents whose joint material identity does not coincide with the identity of the whole which they enter and leave and which sustains its own identity by the very act of passage of foreign matter through its spatial system, the organic form. This whole is never the same materially and yet it persists as its same self – by not remaining the same matter [ 25].
Thus, purposive behaviour is tied to the demands of organismic being and primarily oriented toward staving-off inexistence, regardless of the complexity of the living being in question.In the single encounters this otherness has the quality of foreign body or influence which is either useful or harmful; in its entirety and as an enveloping horizon it has the character of ‘the external world’ confronting the organism’s overwhelming concern in its own life-process which has to assert itself within it and, so committed, is of constitutive egoism. [ 25].
Machine-Being and Synthetic Organisms
Full recognition of the fact that evolution is no intentional or agential force means we cannot speak of organisms as designed in any sense. The organism is instead an active participant in its own development and an agent in evolutionary history, responding to various pressures and succumbing to others. And with the collapse of the parallels Basl and Sandler drew between evolution and a designer and an organism and an artefact, synthetic organisms can indeed occupy the space in between the latter pairing, as I have suggested.The adaptations produced by evolution are not the result of an intentional preconceived plan by an external agent, but are rather the consequence of the differential survival and reproduction of organisms with heritable adaptive variations. It would be far more appropriate to assert that organisms are ‘fashioned’ or ‘shaped’ by selection pressures than to invoke design as an explanatory concept [ 44].
The Axiological Dimension of Teleology
Much like Taylor’s pile of sand, the machine lacks the necessary immanent teleology for instrumental (and a fortiori extrinsic) valuing and thereby cannot be said to have intrinsic value. It is for this reason that Basl and Sandler are wrong about the axiological status of artefacts: the only value a machine has is that which we find in it.Suppose […] that someone tells us that we can further the good of a pile of sand by, say, erecting a shelter over it so that it does not get wet in the rain. […] Perhaps we would interpret the statement to mean that, since wet sand is no good for a certain purpose, it should be kept dry. In that case it is not the sand’s own good that would be furthered, but the purpose for which it is to be used. […] Concerning the pile of sand itself, however, it is neither true nor false that keeping it dry furthers its good. The sand has no good of its own [ 47].
The Drive to Mastery and Giftedness of Life
The above rests on two notions that are contentious enough to require justification. Even if an attitude of mastery is readily understood, as I take it to be, what does it mean for an action or practice to represent it? And what, exactly, is the ‘giftedness’ of life, appreciation of which stands to be destroyed?The deeper danger is that they [human enhancement and genetic engineering] represent a kind of hyperagency, a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses, and may even destroy, is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing […]. It is also to recognize that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise. An appreciation of the giftedness of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility [ 56].
Bacon’s vision is much the same as those of the animal and plant breeders Lewens discusses, and uncannily like that of synthetic biologists today. But whether individuals subjectively aspire to mastery is just one factor—albeit a major one—in the ethical evaluation of their character. What also matters is the extent to which the practices they engage in embody the drive to mastery. This is the ethical difference between Bacon himself, who had no access to such technologies, and a contemporary synthetic biologist able to act upon the Baconian ideal.We make a number of kinds, of serpents, worms, flies, fishes, [out] of putrefaction, whereof some are advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures, like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we do this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and commixture, what kind of those creatures will arise [ 58].
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;Our meddling intellectMis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –We murder to dissect.Enough of Science and of Art;Close up those barren leaves;Come forth, and bring with you a heartThat watches and receives. [ 63]