April 27, 2014

Ecotone: Renegotiating boundaries between humans, animals and machines

Cover image from New York Times Magazine, by Alex Prager

He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest
In doubt to deem himself a god or beast
                         – Alexander Pope

The cover story in the New York Times Magazine today is an article by Charles Siebert on the campaign to win legal recognition of the rights of animals. The piece focuses on lawyer Steven Wise's efforts to establish precedents in court that would make it illegal to imprison and enslave chimpanzees and, eventually, other intelligent animals, including whales, dolphins and elephants.

I bring this up here because Wise’s law suit represents half of a pair of parallel phenomena in today’s culture that fascinate me. On the one hand we seem to feel a need to reassess and redefine our relationship with animals. On the other hand we're trying to figure out our relationship with machines.

Underlying both feelings is a recognition that human beings aren’t as unique as we’d previously believed. More and more we’re learning that the thinking and emotional lives of various animal species are far more sophisticated than had long been assumed; more and more we’re aware that at some point in the not-too-distant future our intelligence may be equaled or outpaced by various forms of artificial intelligence. Advances in biology and engineering are disassembling, brick by brick, the walls of particularity we’ve held in place for millennia to preserve the specialness of homo sapiens.

Poster image from the 1977 movie version of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau"

My own feeling is that the lengths many of us go to today to connect with animals — the attention lavished on dogs and cats, the whale-sighting tours, the resorts that let guests swim with dolphins — are manifestations of our desire to reestablish a vanishing bond with nature in an increasingly technological world. The problem isn’t only that we sense nature’s absence. On some intuitive level we also feel threatened by technology’s encroachment. The more lifelike our technologies become, the easier it is to see them as predators. For millennia we worried about becoming dinner; now we worry about becoming obsolete. Artificial intelligence enthusiasts joke that even when the machines take over, there will always be a place for us. As pets.

A concept that scholar Bruce Mazlish and others use to describe that uneasiness is called "The Fourth Discontinuity." It’s  based on a comment by Sigmund Freud. Through most of their history, Freud said, human beings were confident they were at the center of the universe. In the past 450 years, however, that cherished self-image has suffered three major blows. The first of these was the Copernican Revolution, when we learned that Earth is a satellite of the Sun, rather than the other way around. The second was Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which revealed that man was descended from apes. The third, Freud modestly contended, was his theory of psychoanalysis, which demonstrated that our thoughts and our behaviors are not entirely in our control, but instead are influenced by drives and conflicts hidden deep within our subconscious.

The Fourth Discontinuity is a recent addition to the list that takes into account how quickly machine intelligence has advanced in the past fifty years. Just as the second discontinuity acknowledged that we can no longer claim to be an order of nature distinct from and superior to animals, the fourth discontinuity holds that we can no longer claim to be an order of nature that is distinct from and superior to machines. The result is an ongoing identity crisis, one that may help explain why people seem so pervasively angry these days.

I talk about all this at more length in a chapter of my book called  “Ecotone.” The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines an ecotone as "a transitional zone between two ecological communities." The definition adds that each of the two overlapping ecological communities in an ecotone retains its own characteristics in addition to sharing certain characteristics with the other community. That speaks to our confusion about where the line between humans, animals and machines should be drawn. The etymology of "ecotone" implies as much: "tónos" is Greek for “tension."   

©Doug Hill, 2014

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