“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Alien = Life = Object

Marx loved Darwin's work because he saw how anti-teleological it was. He sent Darwin a fan letter along with volume 1 of Capital—I'm not sure how Darwin would have reacted to this gift.

Science, unmoored from philosophy, drifts around in its explorations of the real, marred by implicit assumptions (“principles,” Heidegger) that it doesn't often question. Like paper boats floating on a lake. One science thinks reality is made of atoms (neuroscientists, strangely are the most crassly materialist in this respect at present). Another thinks it's some inconsistent kluge of quanta and spacetime (physicists). This means that despite its Darwinian inheritance there must be some teleological notions floating around in biology. Some kind of implicit direction. Like, “Life forms mustn't be able to take in certain chemicals. Those would destroy them. Life forms are based on the avoidance of certain chemicals and the utilization of others.”

So when in Mono Lake, Nevada a lifeform was discovered that metabolizes arsenic, some biologists were taken aback.

Doesn't this show us, though, that evolutionary science eats away at the life–nonlife boundary? And that there is no teleology in evolution?

Isn't it elementary, then, that what we have in this story is another example of lifeforms as strange strangers, uncanny beings that become more strange the more we know about them.

Mono Lake, by the way, is an excellent shoegazer band.


Cindy said...

After working as an oncology nurse for ten years, I returned to college to find rock solid answers about human morality- why some seem to have it and others don't; it's origin; and its use-value. I quickly learned how ridiculous that quest was, and after four years of studying philosophy, I now actively work to embrace the uncertainty of the world around me. Discoveries like this one of the arsenic metabolizing bacteria are the kinds of findings that give me hope- hope that what we think we know may be completely wrong; that the world is not what it looks like outside our windows; and that possibilities really are endless.

Paul Reid-Bowen said...


Given your championing of dark ecology and the content of this post, perhaps you are familiar with the concept of the shadow biosphere. This is largely based on the hypothesis that life may have begun more than once on earth and that there may still be microbial life around that is wholly unrelated to anything else on the current tree/bush of life (not eucarya, bacteria or archaea, but something alien). A lot of SETI people are interested in this possibility because it would indicate something rather signifcant about the likelihood of life arising elsewhere.

Cognosium said...

Firstly, there are no "two separate sciences", merely alternate descriptions appropriate at diffent levels. There is in fact a very high degree of overlap and interaction. Quantum chromodynamics, for instance, is the best interpretation we have of the whole of chemistry. It not only describes atoms and their properties but has proven predictive capability.

Equally well accepted is the mechanism of evolution of species by natural selection. But this is by no means a random process.
It is given its clearly observed locally dysentropic directionality by the prevailing conditions. What Stuart Kauffman calls "the adjacent possible".

This directionality is very reasonably interpreted as a limited form of teleology.

Importantly, though, no "creator", "designer" or initial or final conditions are implied by this way of thinking.

It merely reflects the workings of nature's much wider on-going evolutionary machinery.
More on this minimal assumption model to be found at:

Anonymous said...

there is a direction, but it is not teleological. It is thermodynamic.

Life inserts itself in an energy gradient and stores energy in order to do work later, which is the process of reproduction which metabolism exists to perform.

Therefore, it could be arsenic, cynanide, kryptonite, antimatter - whatever. There is no teleology, but there is a direction, thanks to 2nd law thermo.

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Troy--I don't believe in "life." The post made that fairly clear...

Timothy Morton said...

I mean, I believe in cane toads and tardigrades. But I don't believe in "life" storing things "for later"—neither does Darwin. His book should have been called The "Origin" of Species ;)

Timothy Morton said...

Peter--genetic mutation is random with respect to current need. Ducks have webbed feet; but coots don't. Coots exist. Thus evolution doesn't care about webbed feet. I'm not sure if I need say more.

Cognosium said...


Peter--"genetic mutation is random with respect to current need."

Absolutely! But, you see, "current need" is a property of prevailing conditions (The adjacent possible)

" Ducks have webbed feet; but coots don't. Coots exist. Thus evolution doesn't care about webbed feet."

I do not imply that nature "cares" about anything. Simply that this is the outcome of the way that we observe nature's machinery to work.

The problem that you, and most people have with such concepts hark back to our natural anthropocentricity.

It is so easy to fall into to fall into the trap of believing that, at any fundamental level our species is distinct from nature. That we "care" about things but nature doesn't. Or that we "design" things and nature doesn't. In reality an objective view of our world suggests that nature (including that part which happens to be our species) exhibits these characteristics.
Now, I really do say more, but you will find more detailed explanations in my books. One of which (Unusual Perspectives) is a free download

Ducks have webbed feet; but coots don't. Coots exist. Thus evolution doesn't care about webbed feet. I'm not sure if I need say more.

Cognosium said...

Correction to my last post:

In reality an objective view of our world suggests that nature (including that part which happens to be our species) exhibits, at root, neither of these characteristics.

Incidentally, Troy, your thermodynamics is muddled.

The overall life process is (locally) running in the opposite direction to that of the observed global increase. It is, if you will, an island of increasing complexity.

It is a very persistent pattern which manifests itself in many ways. Stellar nucleosynthesis, the evolution of earthly minerals and of technology, as well as genetic evolution are examples.

Perhaps what you are trying to say is that the contribution of life to the global entropy is positive.

Which, of course is quite correct.

Anonymous said...

Tim, liked your post, especially in its being 'against teleology'. Your comment on science's implicit assumptions/Heidegger's principles reminded me of Hegel on Newton not realising that he was dealing in Notions not facts (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hp/hpgrotiu.htm#hobbes
Biology and ecology are riddled with several sorts of teleology, though some theoretical ecologists see some varieties of teleology as expressing aspects of Aristotelian rather than Newtonian causality. Others see relations of form and function, or development and distribution, as teleological selection. Stan Salthe is good on all of this > http://www.nbi.dk/~natphil/salthe/; http://www.nbi.dk/~natphil/salthe/Purpose_In_Nature.pdf

Have some comments on comments (first comment here, not sure of netiquette, please edit if ooo)

First, the Delphic oracle had three main inscriptions (at least), one of which was 'in surety lies ruin'(this is my rather loose paraphrase of 'make a pledge and mischief is nigh' > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi#Dedication_to_Apollo. Uncertainty is really essential.

Second, anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, both strong and weak, constrain human experience: inevitably we experience whatever we encounter as/in forms shaped by anthropic perceptual/conceptual apparatus, archetypes, artefacts. We experience what we experience, in/as forms we are accustomed to so accustomised by experiencing.

Third, experiential position and so perspective gradually alter or shift (aka evolve) as/so 'new' experiences (aka entities) emerge to anthropic experience, parallax as paradox. In modelling anthropic experience(s) we may want to entrain consistency to entail coherence. Models of metabolism may seem as useful as models of metamorphism for integrating our experiences of how things seem to us to stay constant and/or change. This enables epigenetic experience at molecular scales and scapes to factor in uncertainty and entropy.

Fourth, emergences to experience might be seen as expansions into adjacent possibles, and/or also as itinerations as immediate outcomes of iterations, their inadvertent irruptions, and their inevitable interruptions of extant iterations but not ongoing iterativity.

Fifth and final, as we examine our experiences, more immediacy and intermediacy emerge to experience, as perceptual and conceptual entities, in existences of their own, as experienced by us. These include our emerging models and our extant epistemic commitments.

Thanks for your thought-provoking posts.