Nature Is Not a Machine—We Treat It So at Our Peril


First published as “Nature Is a Jazz Band, Not a Machine” by Institute of Art and Ideas | News on July 30, 2021.


From genetic engineering to geoengineering, we treat nature as though it’s a machine. This view of nature is deeply embedded in Western thought, but it’s a fundamental misconception with potentially disastrous consequences.

Climate change, avers Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and erstwhile US Secretary of State,  “is an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” This brief statement encapsulates how the metaphor of the machine underlies the way our mainstream culture views the natural world. It also hints at the grievous dangers involved in perceiving nature in this way.

Rex Tillerson: a powerful and highly destructive proponent of treating nature as an engineering problem

This mechanistic worldview has deep roots in Western thought. The great pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, believed they were decoding “God’s book,” which was written in the language of mathematics. God was conceived as a great clockmaker, the “artificer” who constructed the intricate machine of nature so flawlessly that, once it was set in motion, there was nothing more to do (bar the occasional miracle) than let it run its course. “What is the heart, but a spring,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “and the nerves but so many strings?” Descartes flatly declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”

In recent decades, the mechanistic conception of nature has been updated for the computer age, with popularizers of science such as Richard Dawkins arguing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” and as a result, an animal such as a bat “is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects, as an unconscious guided missile homes in on an aeroplane.” This digital metaphor of nature pervades our culture and is used unreflectively by those in a position to direct our society’s future. According to Larry Page, co-founder of Google, for example, human DNA is just “600 megabytes compressed, so it’s smaller than any modern operating system . . .  So your program algorithms probably aren’t that complicated.”

But nature is not in fact a machine nor a computer—and it can’t be engineered or programmed like one. Thinking of it as such is a category error with ramifications that are both deluded and dangerous.

A four-billion-year reversal of entropy

Ultimately, this machine metaphor is based on a simplifying assumption, known as reductionism, which approaches nature as a collection of tiny parts to investigate. This methodology has been resoundingly effective in many fields of inquiry, leading to some of our greatest advances in science and technology. Without it, most of the benefits of our modern world would not exist—no electrical grids, no airplanes, no antibiotics, no internet. However, over the centuries, many scientists and engineers have been so swept up by the success of their enterprise that they have frequently mistaken this assumption for reality—even when advances in scientific research uncover its limitations.

When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the shape of the DNA molecule in 1953, they used metaphors from the burgeoning information revolution to describe their findings. The genotype was a “program” that determined the exact specifications of an organism, just like a computer program. DNA sequences formed the “master code” of a “blueprint” that contained a detailed set of “instructions” for building an individual. Prominent geneticist Walter Gilbert would begin his public lectures by pulling out a compact disk and proclaiming “This is you!”

Since then, however, further scientific research has revealed fundamental defects in this model. The “central dogma” of molecular biology, as coined by Crick and Watson, was that information could only flow one way: from the gene to the rest of the cell. Biologists now know that proteins act directly on the DNA of the cell, specifying which genes in the DNA should be activated. DNA can’t do anything by itself—it only functions when certain parts of it get switched on or off by the activities of different combinations of proteins, which were themselves formed by the instructions of DNA. This process is a vibrant, dynamic circular flow of interactivity.

This leads to a classic chicken-and-egg problem: if a cell is not determined solely by its genes, what ultimately causes it to “decide” what to do? Biologists who have researched this issue generally agree that the emergence of life on Earth was most likely a self-organized process known as autopoiesis—from the Greek words meaning self-generation—performed originally by non-living molecular structures.

These protocells essentially staged a temporary, local reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which describes how the universe is undergoing an irreversible process of entropy: order inevitably becomes disordered and heat always flows from hot regions to colder regions. We see entropy in our daily lives every time we stir cream into our coffee, or break an egg for an omelet. Once the egg is scrambled, no amount of work will ever get the yolk back together again. It’s a depressing law, especially when applied to the entire universe which, according to most physicists, will eventually dissipate into a bleak expanse of cold, dark nothingness. Those first protocells, however, learned to turn entropy into order by ingesting it in the form of energy and matter, breaking it apart, and reorganizing it into forms beneficial for their continued existence—the process we know as metabolism.

Ever since then, for roughly four billion years, the defining quality of life has been its purposive self-organization. There is no programmer writing a program; no architect drawing up a blueprint. The organism is the weaver of its own fabric, using DNA as an instrument of transmission. It sculpts itself according to its own inner sense of purpose, which it inherited ultimately—like all of us—from those first autocatalytic cells: the drive to resist entropy and generate a temporary vortex of self-created order in the universe. In the words of philosopher of biology Andreas Weber, “Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.”

The deep purpose of life is to reverse entropy and create more of itself

This implies that, rather than being an aggregation of unconscious machines, life is intrinsically purposive. In recent decades, carefully designed scientific studies have revealed the deep intelligence throughout the natural world employed by organisms as they fulfil their purpose of self-generation. The inner life of a plant, biologists have discovered, is a rich plethora of complex experience. Plants have their own versions of our five senses, as well as up to fifteen other ways of sensing their environment for which we don’t have analogues. Plants act intentionally and purposefully: they have memories and learn, they communicate with each other, and can even allocate resources as a community through what biologist Suzanne Simard calls the “wood-wide web” of mycorrhizal fungi linking their roots together underground.

Extensive studies now point to the profound realization that every animal with a nervous system is likely to have some sort of subjective experience driven by feelings that, at the deepest level, are shared by all of us. Bees have been shown to feel anxious when their hives are shaken. Fish will make trade-offs between hunger and pain, avoiding part of an aquarium where they’re likely to get an electric shock, even if that’s where the food is—until they get so hungry that they’re willing to take a risk. Octopuses, one of the earliest groups to evolve separately from other animals about 600 million years ago, live predominantly solitary lives, but just like humans, get cozy with others when given a dose of the “love-drug” MDMA.

The ideology of human supremacy

As we confront the existential crises of the twenty-first century, the mechanistic thinking that brought us to this place may be driving us headlong toward catastrophe. As each new global problem appears, attention gets focused on short-term, mechanistic solutions, rather than probing deeper systemic causation. In response to the worldwide collapse of butterfly and bee populations, for example, some researchers have designed tiny airborne drones to pollinate trees as artificial substitutes for their disappearing natural pollinators.

As the stakes get higher through this century, the dangers arising from this mechanistic metaphor of nature will only become more harrowing. Already, in response to the acceleration of climate breakdown, the techno-dystopian idea of geoengineering is becoming increasingly acceptable. Following Tillerson’s misconceived logic, rather than disrupt the fossil fuel-based growth economy, policymakers are beginning to seriously countenance treating the Earth as a gigantic machine that needs fixing, and developing massive engineering projects to tinker with the global climate.

Given the innumerable nonlinear feedback loops that generate our planet’s complex living systems, the law of unintended consequences looms menacingly large. The eerily named field of “solar radiation management”, for example, which has received significant financing from Bill Gates, envisages spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, such as causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world and exacerbating damage we’ve already done to the ozone layer. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would further increase ocean acidification; and would likely turn the blue sky into a perpetual white haze. These types of feedback effects, arising from the innumerable nonlinear dynamic interdependencies of Earth’s complex systems, get marginalized by a worldview that ultimately sees our planet as a machine requiring a quick fix.

Geoengineeering: one of the most terrifying entailments of treating nature as a machine

Further, there are deep moral issues that arise from confronting the inherent subjectivity of the natural world. Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the root metaphor of nature as a machine has infiltrated Western culture, inducing people to view the living Earth as a resource for humans to exploit without regard for its intrinsic value. Ecological philosopher Eileen Crist describes this as human supremacy, pointing out that seeing nature as a “resource” permits anything to be done to the Earth with no moral misgivings. Fish get reclassified as “fisheries,” and farm animals as “livestock”—living creatures become mere assets to be exploited for profit. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocropped wastelands, and trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves.

Once we recognize that other animals with a nervous system are not machines, as Descartes proposed, but likely experience subjective feelings similar to humans, we must also reckon with the unsettling moral implications of factory farming. The stark reality is that around the world, cows, chicken, and pigs are enslaved, tortured, and mercilessly slaughtered merely for human convenience. This systematic torment administered in the name of humanity to over 70 billion animals a year—each one a sentient creature with a nervous system as capable of registering excruciating pain as you or I—quite possibly represents the greatest cataclysm of suffering that life on Earth has ever experienced.

The “quantum jazz” of life

What, then, are metaphors of life that more accurately reflect the findings of biology—and might have the adaptive consequence of influencing our civilization to behave with more reverence toward our nonliving relatives on this beleaguered planet which is our only home?

Frequently, when cell biologists describe the mind-boggling complexity of their subject, they turn to music as a core metaphor. Denis Noble entitled his book on cellular biology The Music of Life, depicting it as “a symphony.” Ursula Goodenough describes patterns of gene expression as “melodies and harmonies.” While this metaphor rings truer than nature as a machine, it has its own limitations: a symphony is, after all, a piece of music written by a composer, with a conductor directing how each note should be played. The awesome quality of nature’s music arises from the fact that it is self-organized. There is no outside agent telling each cell what to do.

Perhaps a more illustrative metaphor would be a dance. Cell biologists increasingly refer to their findings in terms of “choreography,” and philosopher of biology Evan Thompson writes vividly how an organism and its environment relate to each other “like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements.”

Another compelling metaphor is an improvisational jazz ensemble, where a self-organized group of musicians spontaneously creates fresh melodies from a core harmonic theme, riffing off each other’s creativity in a similar way to how evolution generates complex ecosystems. Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as “quantum jazz,” describing it as “an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism . . . locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole.”

Life as “quantum jazz”. (Image by Tony Adamo) .

What might our world look if we saw ourselves as participating in a coherent ensemble with all sentient beings interweaving together to collectively reverse entropy on Earth? Perhaps we might begin to see humanity’s role, not to re-engineer a broken planet for further exploitation, but to attune with the rest of life’s abundance, and ensure that our own actions harmonize with the Earth’s ecological rhythms. In the profound words of 20th century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, “I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live.” How, we may ask, might our future trajectory change if we were to reconstruct our civilization on this basis?


Jeremy Lent is an author and speaker whose work investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis, and explores pathways toward a life-affirming future. This article contains excerpts from his recently published book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe.

12 thoughts on “Nature Is Not a Machine—We Treat It So at Our Peril

  1. Thanks Jeremy for sharing a thought provoking article.

    Science gave us to understand today that there is a continuity, between — organic chemistry — biology — culture — and society, that drives both the reproduction of species and their search for more complexity.

    Tribal animism already knew so much tens of thousands of years prior and it also understood the following :
    1– that species are driven by their yin-yang like polarities : the individual organisms and their grouping in “societies” or flocks or whatever one might want to call it. The dance between the polarities was understood to drive and regulate both the reproduction of their species and its search for more complexity.
    2– that mother-earth forms ” a coherent ensemble” in which all species and other entities are interconnected
    3– that mother-earth is a sub-system participating in whatever is the finality of “U” the One or the Whole.

    The implications of the sentence “all sentient beings are interweaving together to collectively reverse entropy” are far reaching indeed. It is a Late-Modern idea… and expressed in such general terms it is frightening.

    The way I see it this idea ascribes to life a mission akin to reversing the old animist idea of submitting to whatever is the finality of “U” the One or the Whole. That finality of the whole is what the ancient Chinese called the Dao… There is nothing fatalist to submit to reality. On the contrary it is a pragmatic attitude that avoids unnecessary suffering.

    Living species are open systems and human exceptionalism is not related to the physicality of its individual particles which is regulated by the second law of thermodynamics. Human exceptionalism is a societal construct. And all the aberrations, that converged to form our human predicament in Late-Modernity, are due mostly to the fact that power-societies under Modernity converted blindly to “the reason that is at work in the conversion of money into capital” which later gave us philosophic rationalism, science, and other Western societal ideologies.

    The prospect of “participating in a coherent ensemble with all sentient beings interweaving together” implies that humanity reverts to the First Principles of Life. But that is another subject…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As with so many comments of a similar nature the ones who most need to read and understand them are the last ones who will ever do so. I despair.
    There are certainly large numbers of people who feel affinity with “nature” and living things and seek to treat them well. But it is the big players who have the power and resources to do all the damage. Just how do you get through to such people ? Do they have no feeling of awe and wonderment as they regard the world about them. Or do they actually not regard it at all. It seems they are incapable of seeing a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.

    Young children with their innate curiosity, if raised well, will retain their wonderment, But far too many lose it in the humdrum business of what we humans call “life” – which is no life at all, really

    Liked by 2 people

  3. …but if nature isn’t a machine…. then that means machines, regardless of the outlook of the makers, are actually part of a life form…

    Like

    1. Certainly thought-provoking and potentially inspiring, although I am coming from a different perspective. Hope it’s OK to express this. I agree with the thrust of criticisms of anthropocentrism and of technofixes, but recoil from conceptions of life as ‘purposive’ or teleological. ‘Purpose’ may be a useful concept but is in reality based on deeper understanding. The purpose of Gaia as Lovelock describes it has some of the inevitability of mathematics, but implies we cannot know the future we are part of and there are risks in exceeding planetary boundaries. Existence of a mechanistic basis can be valid, without engendering a purely mechanistic and short-termist mindset. More on this below.

      I’d suggest a technofix typically has most of the following attributes:
      a) done on large scale by industry and government;
      b) requires little if any change in elite lifestyles or socioeconomic system;
      c) has side effects;
      d) creates dependency;
      e) plausibly is ‘fixing’ at a superficial level rather than deeper causes;
      f) doesn’t return the system to anything like its original state (and displaces ‘solutions’ that do);
      g) excuses extractivism and dispossession;
      h) engenders misunderstandings about system features like stock and flow.
      By the above outline, afforestation is a technofix, but renewables may not be.

      There are many attempts to define Principles of Life. An oversimplification of natural selection as solely competition for limited resources has led many astray, when multi-level selection and ecological stress on interdependency and joint effort is just as valid. Isaac Asimov decided a local reversal of entropy wasn’t such a great functional definition when he realised it applied to a refrigerator.

      But mentioning Entropy, that is a journal where major papers by Karl Friston appeared; his ‘free energy principle’ tries to apply classical mechanics to biological systems, and indeed explain why they even have nervous systems to map the outside world. A biological system, cell, organism or ecosystem has a defined boundary and range it has learned or evolved to preserve. Otherwise it probably wouldn’t be here. Here’s one (mathematical) overview of that principle:
      https://mundyreimer.github.io/blog/free-energy-principle

      I have unfortunately not yet read Weber but ‘wants more of life’ seems to me to be a result of this, just like teleological views of specific adaptations are criticised. I believe we could recognise homoeostasis more as a fundamental biological principle; in our own experience, variation of a biological variable from its adaptive range is experienced as pain, ultimately instability and death, and we could apply that to habitat destruction or releasing hydrocarbons from the Palaeozoic.

      In my opinion, it would be good to probe ‘deeper systemic causation’ both physically (eg the multi-million year carbon cycle) and culturally (institutions, norms, inequality, ideas of what constitutes progress and stability).

      One other possible nitpick: octopodes’ reaction to MDMA may not indicate a fellow feeling with humans (although we can have fellow feeling with them). Famously, Jordan Peterson made that mistake with lobsters.

      Maybe I would appreciate this article even more in context, but I admit I still have to tackle _The Patterning Instinct_ methodically (ie read from cover to cover).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really love most of this article, because this is central to what I have been exploring for year, and looking into mythology to also see how things have come to this. The myth we are oppressed under now is Computationalism which has moved from ‘machine’ to computer, and reducing human mind to algorithms. It is very clear when you listen to the wording involved with the current propaganda, and its ‘solutions’ it is all based on the concept of computers. They see, for example, their injections which they want to use on every human on planet Earth as implanting ‘software’. So I encourage you to also look into this!
    The part I need to critique is this:
    “Given the innumerable nonlinear feedback loops that generate our planet’s complex living systems, the law of unintended consequences looms menacingly large. The eerily named field of “solar radiation management”, for example, which has received significant financing from Bill Gates, envisages spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, such as causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world and exacerbating damage we’ve already done to the ozone layer. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would further increase ocean acidification; and would likely turn the blue sky into a perpetual white haze. These types of feedback effects, arising from the innumerable nonlinear dynamic interdependencies of Earth’s complex systems, get marginalized by a worldview that ultimately sees our planet as a machine requiring a quick fix.”
    From what I am learning, the whole climate change alarmism is as much of a hoax as is the Covid 19 scam demic! And the people behind the latter are also using the former in tandem with the latter, and yet there is no real science to support either claim, and that is why they censor ‘dissidents’–even scientists, doctors, and other qualified people who ask questions–which is what REAL science is all about, not paid-for-science! Of course there is ecological abuse, like the use of pesticides, 5G etc, but this is all being covered up by the carbon/global warming/change propaganda!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure if Julian is trying to be amusing, but “there is no real science to support either claim” (whatever the ‘claims’ are associated with climate change ‘alarmism’ or Covid 19 ‘scam demic’) is quite funny if you have just, as I have, been reading the Technical Summary of IPCC’s new AR6 WG1.

    Supporting science for the second includes things like thousands of RNA sequences and protein folding models; while for the physical basis of climate change it includes isotope analysis of shells and sediments, leaves and corals, ice cores, phenology, atmospheric sampling, thousands of weather stations and buoys reporting daily, balloon and satellite projects, nineteenth-century radiative physics, all tied together with literature reviews and mathematical and computational analysis to provide various degrees of certainty and probability. There are 14,000 references in this report. After just studying a few sections of the 3500 pages, you might be tempted to think that far from too little science, there’s too much.

    Now the report does consider, in the ‘policy-neutral’ way that has been requested technofix scenarios like temporary SRM until large scale carbon dioxide removal gets underway. However, it is also pretty explicit that SRM and CDR have major side-effects such as on food prices and biodiversity. It’s hard not to conclude the best course is simply to wind down polluting fossil fuels as fast as possible and maybe even consider a simpler life. For what it’s worth, I entirely agree with the passage of Jeremy’s article that Julian quotes.

    If there’s a lot of coverage of something in popular media and you don’t trust the media, then you can find out for yourself by reading sources rather than treating speculation as justified belief. And then you realise that the dissidents’ ‘questions’ are not censored by science. They’re answered. Also it’s quite odd how most ‘free thinkers’ believe almost exactly the same things on the flimsiest of bases: the UN is a secret cabal rather than a talking shop, vaccines cause autism or other unproven harms, 5G has health effects (it may have privacy problems). I think an understanding of science, how knowledge is constructed through curiosity is useful.

    To return to the IPCC, the metaphor that has been used over the last few days, rather than of a machine, is of fitting jigsaw pieces together to get a better picture. This is a model of your own knowledge. There is an increasing recognition of complexity and holism demanding interdisciplinary collaboration. No one has all the pieces.

    It seems science can help without restricting solutions to ‘engineering’. If you know the relationship of the agouti and the brazil, or the jay and the oak, you are less likely to make nature into a whited sepulchre. A set of pre-digested facts for policy-makers, however carefully assembled, might ignore the existential questions of what life is for and what is for life if EVs are in scope, but not bicycles. I notice Extinction Rebellion linked to this article, of course wanting something more radical than technofixes.

    I’d rather see the short-sighted mindset as the instrumentalism of the wealthy. As a CEO like Tillerson, you see something that threatens your interests and want to buy a solution so you can continue as before without looking any deeper. Treating nature as an object to be managed, a tool, may well go with treating other humans in a similar way. If we are all part of an ecological community, like Joanna Macy’s ‘Council of All Beings’, then what we want is Martin Bueber’s ‘I-Thou’ relationship rather than ‘I-It’.

    Whether you see nature as a machine, or have a more romantic notion, you can’t dismiss it or expect it to bend to your will simply because of your imaginary status among humans. Humility and curiosity go a long way.

    Liked by 2 people

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