Friday, August 28, 2015

Of Ape and Apparatus

David Sloan Wilson has a fascinating discussion with Evolutionary Psychologist Debra Lieberman at This View of Life.  If you are interested in cutting edge discussions of evolution and biology as these areas of research focus on human concerns, this site belongs in your bookmarks. 
I had the honor of joining Debra at a couple of Liberty Fund colloquiums, during which we engaged with other scholars in long, wonderful conversations.  I can tell you that she is someone worth listening to. 
As I read the interview, I remembered one exchange between the two of us.  I remarked that chimpanzees were not machines and she asked me why I thought that this was so.  I don’t remember what I said in reply but I do remember (this is how emotions and memory works!) that I found my reply to be inadequate.  Just right now I will indulge in the temptation to say what I should have said then. 
Machines are material objects, substantiated (made real over time) by the persistence of the material.  They function to allow work to be done more efficiently (i.e. with less energy required).  To take a simple example, consider a ramp at the entrance to a parking garage.  The ramp allows cars to go up and down at an angle rather than vertically, just as stairs do or switchbacks on a trail.  Cars flow in even motion up and down the ramp and it is this flow that explains the existence of the ramp; however, the ramp remains materially the same over time.  If the owner were to replace the material of which the ramp is composed with new material he would say, perhaps with some pride, that the old ramp had been replaced.  He would be speaking accurately. 
A chimpanzee is the very opposite of a machine.  She is constantly recreating herself by exchanging material and energy with her environment.  This self-recreation or self-maintenance, is what substantiates her and all living organisms.  Aristotle would say, and I say with him, that her substance is a soul (or psyche).  The soul is what makes materials that are potentially alive into a real, living organism.  The soul is not a material thing but something (an activity?) that uses material to maintain itself.  To be sure, living organisms deploy a vast number of machines.  From the muscular pulley that works the forelimb down to the molecular conveyer belts that move material inside the cells, machines are indispensable. 
Machines in the most basic sense are not exclusive to human beings or even to organisms.  The formation of mountains as two plate push against one another or the generation of a tornado as a column of twisting air moving parallel to the ground begins to right itself, are good examples.  Organisms, however, can only be properly understood as astonishing processes that employ machines to maintain themselves.  There is no magic here.  The metabolism of the chimpanzee’s digestion is a distant cousin of the heat and moisture that berths the storm.  The ape, however, is trying to do something and the twister is not. 
To properly understand living organisms in general and human organisms in particular, one must steer between two temptations.  One is to view human beings as distinct and unrelated to inorganic, material and mechanical nature.  Just as we are distantly related to the chimpanzee so we are more distantly related to the purple mountain and the blazing stars.  The other is to view us mere machines, no different from dust swirling in the wind.  Nothing is physics or astronomy could allow one to predict an infant that clings to her mother’s breast and cries when they are separated. 

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