Notes on Extinction,
Emergence and Biochemical Design
Benjamin H. Bratton
At least in the popular imagination, our still primitive understanding of genomics is beholden to pre-scientific notions of animal taxonomy and great chains of being. By convention, species = discrete DNA, extinction = subtraction of species, so extinction = subtraction of discrete DNA. We are still Ark-makers; and yet, notwithstanding its epistemological stupidity, that project may prove to be valuable despite itself.
We know that extinction means systems-collapse more than the retirement of one character in the show, but counting species remains a good unit measure of that systems-collapse. Likewise, the systematic gathering and archiving of DNA in seed banks and in zoos may enable an eventual re-seeding of the planet. This would not be an inversion of extinction and a restoration of the Holocene, but the cultivation of alternative ecosystems from these genetic codes.
Precedents exist. Bacterial spores may return from stasis after hundreds of millions of years. For more complex organisms, a-2000-year old Date Palm seed has bloomed. ‘De-extinction’ is a hot investment vehicle for Silicon Valley riches looking for high-risk/high-reward intellectual property, in this case the DNA of Mammoths and Moa. It is not absurd to hope that DNA archives could retake a planet, but it is absurd to think that these Lazarus Taxa would do so in a way that replicates the ecosystems from which they were drawn. They will evolve differently and the organisms brought forth will thrive and fail one another in unprecedented ways. We and our daughter species may even help to design those uncertain ratios.
To do so will correspond with a different biophilosophy. Real biology doesn’t conform to clean divisions between organisms and species and landscapes. We can find a single fungus organism that covers 2384 acres. Under the sea we observe Siphonophores, creatures for which dozens of sub-component organisms combine into what functions as a single composite body, some individuals handling locomotion, others eating and breathing. In the backyard we encounter Nematophora, such as horsehair worms that take over insects and turn them into zombified prostheses. Everywhere, we are situated within economies of nested parasitism, that is, one species evolved to inhabit the body of another animal often in a necessary and symbiotic relationship. ‘Not unlike a set of Russian dolls, a host caterpillar may contain a parasitic wasp larva, which in turn contains another larva, which is home to yet another larva, and so on, so that the caterpillar carries five parasites in total.’ It is not an ‘it’; it is a ‘them’.
As for humans, we estimate more than 10,000 microbial species occupy the human ecosystem, and that inside your body well over 90% of the genes are non-human. You too are a ‘them’, an identity which may also challenge the neat coherency of ‘the human’ as a geological actor, in that our agency for the extinction of other species is actually a collaboration that we have undertaken with our Actinobacteria, Cyanobacteria and Proteobacteria. In the long run they may be the greater beneficiaries of Holocene ecological collapse; this will depend on whether we or they can better serve as nested parasites with the Post-Anthropocenic species that we are now constructing.
Still, it is a paradoxical accomplishment to survive a mass extinction event. The modern human species has the dubious distinction of not only observing and measuring mass extinction while it is happening, but also doing so with the understanding that it is one preeminent agents of that event. It does so, however, with the comfort that – one way or another – it too is unlikely to survive the bloody edge of the Anthropocene ‘intact’.
As so much departs, what arrives? Simultaneous with a collapse of biodiversity, we also see (at least the strong potential for) an explosion of new ‘species’ taking form through robotics, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence. We can’t see the latter as replacements for the former, and yet there they are.
Perhaps like the small mammals that took over after the Cretaceous-Paleocene extinction, these are just better suited to the very different punctuated equilibrium to come. They may enjoy successes that we cannot, leaving us behind and stranded in place.
Recall that the first Earthlings in space were not humans and that a low percentage of all Earthlings in space have been humans. Human biology is needy and fragile, and is poorly suited to space travel, largely because we have to bring an entire ecosystem with us, from oxygen to radiation filters to the microbial biome in our intestines that help digest our food. As currently configured humans, we cannot really leave Earth because we have to bring a miniature Earth with us when we go. This is not true in the same way for inorganic species which survive comparatively easily in space, such as metalloid robotics and perhaps also someday some kinds of synthetic biologies.
What comes after Anthropocenic extinction? The only thing that we can know now about the Post-Anthropocene is that it is an era in which humans are no longer the dominant geological actor. These new Earthling ‘species’ may prove to be more fit, better at making the next evolutionary steps than humans are, and so for us to ‘survive’ we may have to become more like them and less like what we are now. In the longer view, humans’ role may be that of an enabling intermediary between early primates and as-yet-to-emerge phyla that blend organic and inorganic flesh and thinking.
This is the point of convergence between the Deep Ecologies of voluntary human extinction and artificial intelligence. Instead of disappearing, however, we survive by perforating the boundaries between animal, vegetable and mineral.
In this light, we see that pleas to make technology serve humans, and to suit human needs, desires, and requirements are misguided and even suicidal. Staring upon the abyss of mass extinction, a drearily common refrain, variously explicit or latent, is to identify ‘modern technology’ as the main culprit, and to conclude that the most fundamental solution is to de-technologise the planet and to re-humanise ourselves, one presupposing the other in measure. This is among the worst possible plans, both philosophically and practically. First, it is tragically deaf to the priceless Copernican trauma of the Anthropogenic precipice: that our status as the dominant geologic actor is fleeting and that in order to ‘survive’ we will have to become something that is not necessarily and recognisably ‘human’. Second, it props up a psychotic misrecognition of what humans, humanity and humanism actually are. We are the brain-eating apes with weaponised hydrogen atoms, who organize our societies according to Bronze Age poetry on human sacrifice and ritual purification. Among the last projects to support is re-humanisation, in any sense of a direct return to historical norms.
I think the other species would agree.
As it is now customarily posed in taxidermy, the Great Auk – a three-foot tall, penguin-like bird – stands upright on black webbed feet, with its wings, politely, reservedly, held by its side. The story of this creature complicates a wishful theory about avoiding extinction.
The wishful theory is one of those – one of many – that models the world in terms of information exchanges. Things and beings are understood in terms of their interplay with other things and beings, and this sort of information exchange potentially trumps that of ubiquitous digital media since the exchanges can happen between anything. As the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson argued, a man, a tree, and an axe is an information system. The presumption is that more exchanges in this information system – between properties, pencils, dogs, Great Auks, shipping containers, molecules people, etc. – make the pool of information more robust, resilient and intelligent. Everything in the world is – like the genetic material of a species – sturdier when it is mixed and crossed in garden-variety mongrels. In relaxed versions of the theory, information is not the atomised elementary particle of a comprehensive, universal whole – a cybernetic God or a fairy tale Gaia. Rather, there is a habit of mind or loose tendency to make counterbalancing moves that might stave off one or another planetary extinction. Isolation and isomorphism are stupid and dangerous. Interplay is smarter and more stable.
Yet against every principle of the intelligence-through-interplay theory, the Great Auk was marvellous not because of a tendency to interbreed with other sorts of birds. Isolating its genetic material by living and breeding on one of a few islands in the cold North Atlantic, it seemed to favour the enclave. It was like a human who saw no need to be a “joiner”. It would not have engaged in group therapy. It would not have lobbied in groups demanding recognition of its “identity”. It would not have married a dentist. It was a strange bird with the distinction of waiting on an island to mate with another strange bird. One admires the way the husband and wife Auk fussed over their doomed offspring. One is inspired to strain life into a potent consommé of thought and existence that can be finished off in one quick sip. It is as if one kind of isolation is stupid and another is beautiful – or at least something that looks like a Great Auk.
Further complicating the theory is the incredible success and resilience of other more aggressive, or predatory forms of stupidity and isolation. Seventeenth-century British explorers and travellers went out of their way to kill off Auks on the islands where they bred. They would put a couple of them to boil in a pot and then light a couple of them on fire underneath the pot because the bird’s oily bodies made good fuel. The explorers congratulated themselves for discovering something like geese mixed with cords of wood, both of which were easily herded into pens. One creature was weakened because its existence represented a shrinking pool of information. Another ugly, white, furless, featherless creature survived, even dominated, precisely because of its ability to shrink that information pool.
If extinctions often occur after protracted periods of tedium and brief periods of panic, the world’s persistent accumulations of urbanising development at the expense of the environment might provide the tedious part, while their resulting atmospheric changes have already modelled trends of panic. Exacerbating this condition, the most recent accelerating waves of development are often repeatable, almost infrastructural spatial products and free zone world cities designed to have more and more exemptions from environmental regulation. The wishful theory would regard these large quantities of isolated buildings and isomorphic enclaves as arrangements producing less information exchange and therefore less intelligence. And, learning from both Auks and humans, there is something about the very repeatability of these spaces that makes them less like the very particular Auk and more like the resiliently, insistently stupid human.
Yet, in the spreading matrix of repeatable development patterns, the very stupidity of the multipliers makes the wishful theory seem potentially viable. These spaces are full of multipliers that, if altered, might have viral population effects. Any new multiplier positioned in this population can become contagious. Any switch can rewire multiple relationships. Might small patterns of interplay become equally contagious? For instance, to dial up the interplay, rather than buying one house and sitting alone inside – happy with individual territory but worried about pending catastrophes – one would always buy more than one house. In other words, every house is attached to another offsetting house. In flood prone areas, two mortgages that together result in a movement from low to high ground are streamlined and given special rates that also lower everyone’s flood insurance costs. Or failed and foreclosed properties in distended ghost suburbs are linked to denser properties and have a share in each other’s enterprise. No property is ever worth nothing, or less than nothing as it often was in the financial crisis. A portfolio of spatial variables is traded in a market where risks and rewards are more tangible and stabilising. One could not only add buildings but also take them away – put the building machine in both forward and reverse. Rather than shocking crashes or perfect homeostasis, little machines of counterbalancing spatial variables can target, contract or reposition development. That is the wishful theory.
Satisfying as it might be to imagine the Auk fending off humans by evolving the perfect set of teeth to sink into his white ass, a more effective survival technique might, in the end, have been to carry a germ that made him sick. One can perhaps never hope to confront authoritarian concentrations of power armed only with righteous opposition (or teeth). One needs organisational germs that use the very structure of power as their carrier. But in addition, one needs a silver-tongued Auk with infectious stories to engage the human brain - narrative germs, like rumours and desires that, in a turnabout, begin to herd the human mind into a useful position. The stories of interplay must seem as magical and selfishly motivated as the cords of wood that transported themselves.
Otherwise something hungry will have you for a meal. And nothing will happen before or after you are eaten. No special music. The world will smell like it always does – like machine oil, skin and a hot TV at 3:30 in the afternoon. But you will not be able to smell it.
Capitalism is the first civilisation in the history of humanity which puts man and nature at risk of extinction. Over the last two centuries capitalism has been undoing that which has taken thousands of years to create.
Capital is a mode of production. By this classic definition of Marx and Marxists, capitalist production represents an advance in the history of humanity because it ensures the development of the productive forces. In order to fully realise its ‘liberating’ function, it becomes necessary on the one hand for it to accelerate, and on the other for it to take the reins from the hands of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Marxists embody the confidence in progress, technology and science that was typical of the 19th century, and which failed to take into account the ‘destructive’ nature of capital.
The 20th century and its two world wars would provide a bloody refutation of these ‘progressive hopes’, as it was precisely in war, when production coincides with destruction, that the apogee of capitalist production was reached. Anti-production is the other and in-exorable face of capital: each act of production is also simultaneously an act of destruction. During ‘total war’, the combined economic, social, scientific and technological forces are solicited and captured by ‘total mobilisation’ in another war, which plays out at the same time as ‘industrial war’. They reach their greatest productivity in the production of the means of destruction.
Ernst Jünger posited a terrible concept which describes well the nature of the two world wars: the image of war as an armed action blurs to allow a wider representation which conceives of it as a gigantic labour process.
Analysing the work of science and the work of technology whilst ignoring their anti-productive nature is equally impossible. Science, which embodies the very idea of progress, has undergone vertiginous acceleration during the two wars. Ever more sophisticated devices were invented in order to destroy in ever more sophisticated ways. The process of mobilisation of science and researchers, which had begun during the First World War, ended during the second ‘total’ war with the creation of the atomic bomb. For the first time in history, man is confronted with the possibility of the extinction of his species.
The nuclear weapons that enabled the Cold War’s ‘military peace’ boast a capacity for destruction which knows no limits. Their impact power is capable of destroying several Earth-sized planets. The most unimaginable scientific progress (‘controlling’ atoms and their ‘behaviour’) coincides with a regression which risks becoming definitive; Günther Anders reminds us that militarised science and technology pose a threat of extinction which hovers over the earth and will continue to do so, even if the nuclear explosion does not come to pass. This possibility of an extinction in the potent concentration of an atomic bomb is diluted, in a no less formidable manner, through the deterioration and devastation that capitalism has performed on nature and on our habitat. We are thereby confronted with another kind of anti-production than that of war, however, the consequences are comparable.
The war economies of two global conflicts, with the total mobilisation of all the ‘productive forces’, which created full employment for the first and only time in the history of capitalism, served as models for the peace-time organisation of production, consumption, and employment. It is no surprise that the logic of extinction continues to make itself felt even in times of ‘total peace’.
It is now understood that the destructive nature of capital is not relative, but absolute. It does not only mean the destruction of the labour force, destruction of productive capa-cities, of techniques, of goods, of modes of consumption now deemed obsolete, in order to create new ones, as dictates Schumpeter’s logic of ‘creative destruction’. ‘Destruction’, rather than being creative, reveals itself to be only destructive as it involves the extinction of the planet and of its life-sustaining environment. It brings to completion the modern conception of nature. Once it has been stripped of the ‘spirits’ which animate it, it is reduced to a mere object for exploitation. The object shows itself to be alive in ways that are beyond the mechanistic conceptions which consider it inanimate and it revolts against the extinction that capitalism has prescribed it by unleashing a series of climatic disasters.
Production and anti-production are in-dissociable and in capitalism represent a Sisyphean task, an infinite task which sustains itself, but which is careering today towards the physical, biological and material extinction of life and of the planet. To avoid our extinction we must urgently organise the extinction of capitalism.
I’ve been Kicked
in the Biosphere
We live in a reality determined by a one-size-fits-all window of time, a window determined about 10 000 BC by some humans’ attempts to master anxieties about where their next meal was coming from. The logistics of this time window imply the idea that existing is better than any quality of existing. So it’s always better to have billions of people living near to misery, than even millions living in a state of permanent ecstasy. Because of this logistics, industrial machines were created.
The logistics has to do with a certain mode of agriculture.
The small rigid time tunnel we’ve created now engulfs a vast amount of Earth’s surface and is directly responsible for a lot of global warming. It’s a depressive solution to anxiety. Cone your attention down to about a year – maybe five years max if you really plan “ahead”. One of the most awful things about depression is that your time window collapses to a diameter of a few minutes into the past and a few minutes into the future. Your intellect is literally killing little you, by trying to survive. Like a violent allergic reaction. Or like spraying pesticides.
We live in a world of objectified depression. So do all the other lifeforms, who didn’t ask to be sucked into the grey concrete time tunnel.
No wonder then that we find mass extinction depressing and uncanny. We are shocked to find that other entities are being affected by our time tunnel.
Evolutionary time and geological time don’t work with one-to-five year time windows. It’s only uncanny because we are caught in our agricultural app, which seems to have gone viral. Let’s have more time tunnels, of different sizes. Let’s have lots and lots. Let’s not have a one-size-fits-all time tunnel. Let’s get a bit playful.
Which also means, let’s not have a one-size-fits-all politics. We need lots of different political systems. We need to think of them as toy-like: playful things that connect humans and nonhumans with one another. We can never get it perfect. There is no final, correct form that isn’t a toy.
There is no one toy to rule them all. And toys aren’t exclusively human or for humans. Look at what the Best Party did in Iceland. It’s sort of like that. Introducing people, play and joy back into politics, in a serious— but is it serious? – but is it funny? – but is it… kind of a way.
Let’s not stay stuck in nihilism, which is always number one in the charts, along with its happy happy cousin, the motivation to turn meadows into parking lots, because there are no meadows, because nothing really exists.
Let’s go from happy nihilism to dark nihilism.
At first dark nihilism is depressing.
Then it’s mysteriously dark.
Then it’s dark and sweet like chocolate. You find the sweetness inside the depression. Don’t fight it. Find a way to tunnel down. Find a way to see how things sparkle all by themselves. It goes like this. We have guilt because we can have shame. We have shame because we can have horror. We have horror because we have depression. We have depression because we have sadness. We have sadness because we have yearning. We have yearning because we have joy.
Find the joy, without pushing away the depression.
It is truly depressing. I mean, 50% of animals have now gone extinct in the last forty years. Because of us. I didn’t even watch them go. It was just announced one fine day in September 2014.
I never personally signed on for this mission. Neither did you.
As one of the animals, I never signed on.
It’s easy to freak out about the concept of “species,” because it’s uncanny. Because we notice that we are collectively a zombie, just executing an algorithm.
It’s like the idea of the consumer. I person-ally never “demanded” vacuum sealed products encased in plastic. But I’m told that “the consumer” demanded it.
Uncanny is realising that something totally intimate is weirdly jutting into your world that was hidden, because taboo.
Of course in the Freudian manuals it’s your mum’s body (shock horror). And in the philosophy coming out of that uncanny horror it’s about juicing oneself with that horror experience. Taking a coke hit of the uncanny, over and over and over again.
Can someone say misogynistic?
But even John Carpenter’s misogynistic Thing isn’t captured totally in the horror fantasy of the viewers and those Antarctic researchers. The Thing makes sounds of just existing. Like moaning or just breathing. She sounds almost sad.
And if you really stay with it, underneath the sadness is the joy.
And your mum’s body – it’s not just a sign of the biosphere, it is the biosphere, in the form of her body.
And my stomach, that feels like it was just kicked really violently, isn’t my stomach. I’m not talking about little me suffering here. My stomach is also this biosphere. It implies all the not-me beings.
I’ve been kicked in the biosphere.
Go right ahead and call it narcissism. Why beat up on a physical good-enough energy feed-back between self and environment? Our only task is to include more and more beings within that circuit.
It’s really just being with the pain, without suffering. Tricky.
I’m an escape artist. I admire anyone whose first impulse, when this pain happens is, jump right into it and find the exit, inside it.
Let’s not stay frozen in horror. Now we know all this information we don’t have to keep juicing ourselves. Solutions like geoengineering are ways of not going further, but of being trapped in the horror tragedy.
Let’s make it down into the sadness, and proceed further down from there. I can only just hold it together emotionally when I think about this stuff.
Sometimes philosophy needs to cry.
Can the zombies have a crisis and form a support group, and start to laugh? Sometimes philosophy needs to laugh.
Walking on the Knife Edge
We are walking on the knife edge of crisis. As we have now become creatures that think quarter by quarter, that consider a year to be long-term, we see this crisis slowly blooming around our feet like blood in still water. Were we able to slow down and think in the deep time our civilization has lived in and will likely die in, we would instead see crisis as the shooting tendrils of a sudden and great explosion, a roiling fireball of black crude-oil smoke and acidic ocean water.
I’m 36. Under the more honest business-as-usual climate projections and barring some personal accident, it’s likely I will see three to five billion people starve to death or kill each other for scarce resources. If I’m not among them, there will be little I’d now recognize as globally-organized civilization after the fifty-odd years I may live.
For non-human life the numbers are grimmer. To the first approximation, there are no fish left alive (versus a century ago). Land animals are vanishing faster than we can catalog species. We are unlikely to extinguish all life – short of steering Earth into the sun – or even completely kill our species, but our civilization and the ecosystems we depend on are walking dead. The infrastructure we have built is actively suicidal.
This is most directly true of our infrastructure of governance. If as a species we bent our collective will toward rebuilding our industrial base in a survivable image, undoing the inequality of consumption driving this madness, and reconstructing our cultural infrastructure we could make out if not unscathed then with a minimal and tolerable level of harm. We could even do so within the twenty year window we have to save the future of our future.
Collectivity, even in the face of imminent death, requires us all to see our fates as linked and for us to accept the agency and humanity of our peers. As long as black men are shot on American streets or choked to death in British cells with impunity, as long as men treat women as toys to fuck or ignore at their whim, as long as the rich force the poor into body-destroying labor in pursuit of a really nice cup of coffee, we’ll be consigned to our collective sociocide. The global median wage is £2 a day. Equality means living under the same conditions as the people who grow our coffee and mine minerals for our electronics, good or bad.
The Internet, born of war and exploited labor, had the promise to be the site of global collectivity, as intended by some of its designers. It might have that promise again – to be the site of a truly free conversation about our future, just as the billions likely to die first come online. However, as the ties and cross-agencies of the globalizing world have become more legible and active in parallel with the spread of the network, the world has become more obviously unpredictable. When the engineers who built Skype began writing code, they didn’t intend to help drive international remittances from next to nothing to eight times the size of global foreign aid, but they did, blindsiding theorists of international development and helping knit together the world more tightly.
The existing powers of money and violence (the rich and the state) have reacted by scrabbling for control wherever they can. The surveillance network built by NSA and GCHQ in direct violation of international law is a reaction to not only the plummeting cost of surveillance but also the state’s existential fear of and inability to operate within uncertainty. The vast corruption of British and American governments, hidden under polite phrases like “lobbying”, “gerrymandering”, and “public-private partnerships” is, like surveillance, a similar desperate attempt at structural control. While telecommunication companies are attempting to steal billions in the network neutrality fight, those same companies are also attempting to permanently turn the liberatory Internet into a zombie dancing for their masturbatory pleasures – conveniently exactly what the state needs.
The rich and the violent do this from a shared fear that when our current order crashes crystal-like into the brick wall of our collective suicide they might not end up completely on top. They will destroy any padding our shared human agency can provide and kill our civilization to ensure they have the finest caves to themselves, to ensure they starve last – after all, it’s not like the poor are even human, is it?
If you’re reading this you’re almost certainly helping them.
Regardless of whether society survives or collapses, we as humans will need to re-orient ourselves to whatever comes after. Many of us may live and will have to come to terms with how easily people die, with how easily things fall apart, with whatever our survival cost – or, if we’re lucky enough to survive en masse, with the terms of our collective action. It is implausible, pretty as the pastoral imagination of rural England is when you can’t smell sheep shit or catch dysentery from some collapsed sewage system, that any way out lays in retreat to the pre-modern. If we survive, it’ll be by redefining the problem and becoming something new, as with every great challenge since the catastrophe that birthed our neuroplasticity. Either living or dying as a civilization will profoundly change survivors. This is normal. The continuity of our way of life, social scripts, and interaction structure is limited and overrated for us as a species and as individuals. What matters is not our way of being but what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – our performed humanity defined in no small part by our widest possible recognition of each other as kin.
As we rebuild our myths, our humanity, our tools of communication and collectivity beyond reach of state violence, and, with luck, the basic generative infrastructure of our society, we must above all else cultivate a long memory. That memory, aligned ecologically across the span of human development and historically across our struggles of liberation, is the critical and necessary foundation of successful collectivity. It provides the point of reflection for us to think in deep time. It is the thing that will let us keep our flame burning regardless of how the winds blow.
Although they now seem like insane children, the long memory teaches us that the rich and the violent do not yield power easily. No path to the survival of human society can tolerate rich playboys spending the wages of a thousand human lifetimes on pieces of painted canvas or the snooping pedophiles of the state killing anyone who says a word they dislike. Neither will willingly permit us to save them from their own extinction, but that is what we must do.