Context #3 (Spring,
2000, pp. 3-4); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute
Toward a "Final Theory" of the Sloth?
Stephen L. Talbott
Several months ago we published Craig Holdrege's characterization
of the sloth ("What
Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?") in our online newsletter, NetFuture.
While the piece was very well received, one perplexed reader responded,
"I fail to see the point of the whole article." His problem? "Not once
in the article did I see the sloth as the obvious result of an evolutionary
process....To have become what it is now, it must have evolved to that
point." Presumably, what this reader meant by the "obvious" result of
an evolutionary process is a result given by random variation, environmental
pressures, and natural selection.
Now, all truth is obvious once it is fully grasped and penetrated by
our understanding. But getting from here to therefrom a vaguely
formulated question to a clean, deep understandingcan be the herculean
work of a lifetime. It often puzzles me to run into evolutionary explanations
whose obviousness seems easy to the point of vacuity. This is an obviousness
drained of any depth, an obviousness requiring no hard-earned intimacy
with the world that actually presents itself to our sensesan obviousness,
in other words, that has contracted toward mere formal soundness without
throwing any real light on the world, much as the muscular complexities
of embodied truth contract toward mere formal validity on the pages of
a logic textbook.
Think about it: Craig spends an entire article trying to help us see
what, or who, the sloth is, and the response comes back, "What's the point?
Give me the obvious mechanisms that explain this organism."
The Contraction of Science
The curious thing is that a researcher armed with ready-made explanations
can all too easily lose interest in any full-textured characterization
of what is being explained. Everything disappears from view except a few
formal features that dovetail with the explanations. The world itself
begins to disappear behind a veil of hypostatized, abstract concepts viewed
as mechanisms. This is an odd development when you consider that modern
science began as an appeal to the observational richness of the world
of experience over against the increasingly abstract, metaphysical ruminations
of the medieval schoolmen.
What we've been getting more and more is a science of wonderfully effective
explanatory mechanisms that turns a blind eye to the phenomena it set
out to explain. The effectiveness is the result of the blindness, just
as the perfect validity of the propositions in a logic textbook is owing
to their disengagement from the embodied presentation of the world.
All this suggests why we have been hearing recently about "the end of
science." The contraction of science toward a kind of quantitative perfectiona
formal completeness bought at the expense of qualitative contenthas
proceeded furthest in the "hard" sciences such as physics and cosmology.
Not accidentally, these are also where you find the most vivid dreams
of a "final theory."
And it's true: once you have distilled the world down to such beautifully
clean abstractions that your theories no longer have much to do with the
given world of sense experiencewell, it's not terribly surprising
that these theories come to seem relatively closed. There's not much room
for radical reconceptualization of your subject matter when your concepts
have been pared down to quantities. We would similarly have a hard time
re-visioning a work of artseeing new expressive dimensions of itif
we had to think in the reduced terms of a mathematical array of pixels.
The pixels may give us a rock-solid, sure level of analysis that is, in
its own terms, exhaustive and final. But this level doesn't help us a
whole lot when our concern is the work of art as a work of art.
To say that science has been contracting toward a kind of empty completeness
that fails to engage the world of experience is to invite the immediate
retort that science is clearly re-shaping the world in a radical way.
That's what technology is all about.
But this overlooks the fact that the machine, too,
is disengaging us from the world. We interact with the control panel,
and hidden, precisely guided forces reconfigure the stuff of the world.
We manipulate a few abstractions on a screen and the bomb is dropped somewhere
out of sight, the livestock are fed, the strand of DNA is cut, the metal
But it's not just the effects of the machine that are retreating beyond
our experience. The machine itself is evolving toward formal emptiness.
The computer, which looks like becoming the "archetypal" machine of our
era, is the extreme example. The first computers were still primarily
seen as machines in an earlier, "brute given" sense. Their sheer, material
bulk made an impression. The necessary software was added almost as an
afterthought by connecting a nest of wires; it was simply the final configuring
of the hardware.
Today, by contrast, the software is almost everything. Even the hardware
is reconceived as a kind of concretization of software. It is common to
distinguish the true, software essence of the machine from its historically
accidental "instantiation" in a particular hardware device. So the machine
hovers as an unearthly abstraction with a vague and arbitrary relation
to the world below.
A science philosophically committed to materialism is a science committed
to abstractions and the mechanisms upon which these abstractions can be
impressed. Increasingly, the mechanism is simply equated with the abstractions
it bears. And, of course, every organism is conceived as one of these
disappearing mechanisms. So it is that Christopher Langton, the founder
of the discipline of artificial life, can surmise that "life isn't just
like a computation, in the sense of being a property of the organization
rather than the molecules. Life literally is a computation."
Recovering the World
If we want to rediscover a science rich in experiential qualitiesand,
by comparison, recognize the poverty of mechanical explanationswe
have no choice but to immerse ourselves in the actual phenomena of our
world. Only then can we see what is there. Of course, there is no forcing
people to perceive things; like the churchmen who refused to look through
Galileo's telescope, we can always decline the invitation.
But the point of Craig's article was that if we do look at the sloth,
and if we are willing to do the necessary inner work, we can begin to
glimpse the sloth that speaks through every detail of its organism and
behaviorthe sloth presupposed by the various mechanisms we
try to abstract from our observations.
That there is a coherent "idea" or integral being of the sloth is what
you cannot force people to grasp. It requires a thoroughly qualitative
looking, and the challenge of such a looking is what much of science rejected,
starting at just about the same time those churchmen were brushing aside
But once you do begin to look, you can't avoid the sense that all those
evolutionary mechanisms, however valid or even self-evident they might
be, explain precious little. How was it that the sequence of "random"
variations and selections yielded the peculiar coherence, the integral
wholeness, of this particular creature? How was it that the "sloth" quality
came to be imprinted upon every detail of the organismincluding
those countless details that evolved in its ancestors (and carried, in
those very different creatures, their imprint)? Is the sloth the
result of its evolutionary history, or is its evolutionary history the
result of the sloth?Before you pronounce this last question preposterous,
remember Galileo's opponents and consider how inappropriate it is to dismiss
as preposterous a possibility you have arbitrarily ruled out in advancein
this case by vowing (along with the founders of modern science) to ignore
the world's qualitative and meaningful speech. Whatever is qualitative
and meaningful is speech, and the question about the relation between
the sloth and its evolutionary history is a question about who speaks
through this history.
It is only when, enamored of our explanatory mechanisms, we turn a blind
eye to the vivid, phenomenal presence of the organism in the world that
this question begins to fade into apparent emptiness. Helping to revive
the blind eye was, I think, the main point of Craig's article.
You can read "What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?" at http://www.netfuture.org/1999/Nov0399_97.html.
The article was originally published in the Newsletter of the Society
for the Evolution of Science, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1998.
Original source: In Context (Spring, 2000, pp. 3-4); copyright 2000
by The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott :: Toward a 'Final Theory' of the Sloth?