Designing a city for other life forms.
Designing a city for other life forms. Olson Kundig Architects and Sarah Bergmann

The thing I better grasped when reading for the third time James Shapiro's difficult but stimulating little book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century is that life is profoundly intelligent. Meaning, intelligence is not only found in the heads of humans, but also in the roots and leaves of trees, and the movements of microorganisms, and even the inner workings or the most basic units of life. One can go as far as to say that the key feature of life is conscious action. Put another way: life always makes decisions. And not just life as a form, but also its processes. "Life requires cognition at all levels," writes Shapiro.

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The biology of our times, which, according Shapiro, is being forced to abandon a mechanistic and gradualist concept of evolutionary development and innovation for an informatics one, is reviving and even making respectable a branch of philosophy that gets almost no respect from philosophers, panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe thinks. And it's not so much that mind is everywhere and every thing (strong panpsychism) but that thinking, like transparency, or hardness is one of the possible properties of matter (this idea is clearly worded in Addy Pross' What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology). Matter does not think, in the way matter does not see; but it can conduct thinking or transmit sun rays for the purposes of life.

Shapiro does not use the term panpsychism, but he does describe processes such as proofreading for DNA replication as thoughtful. These systems are very aware of what they are doing, and it could not be otherwise. But the reason why there is resistance to the obvious and tested facts of life's profound intelligence is because it risks confusing science with the ideas of those who want to bring the supernatural into the natural by way of intelligent design (ID). But there is a very important distinction between recognizing the intelligence of life and speculating on an intelligence that has designed life. The first operates in life (immanent); the second operates in a place that's not only outside of life but nature as we understand it (transcendental). If there is an intelligent designer, then it must be some kind of living form, and therefore something in life, and sharing all of the characteristics of a living entity. Only life designs things. To have a design is to have a goal in life. What exists is goal-oriented: we must eat, must fuck, must make copies of ourselves.

To get a better sense of living design, one can turn to the work of Sarah Bergmann, the founder of Pollinator Pathway and 2012 Genius Award winner for Art. She has an understanding of design that locates it within and not outside of the processes of life. For her, the use of honeybees for pollination services to farms is a part of the way humans have designed "a major and new ecosystem" or, put another way, designed "a landscape absent of biodiversity," or, put another way, designed an environment that over-serves humans. The honeybees (which, by the way, are not native to North America—they were brought here by Europeans and, as Bergmann explains, were called by some Native Americans the "white man's fly") are built into this kind of design; they are "trucked to a location, brought in to pollinate, then removed again." The intelligence behind this activity is certainly human, which has captured the intelligence of honeybees, which serves another purpose. And what humans want out of the arrangement is food that has a use value that can be exchanged on the world-connected market for money, which is a form of social power, a power that satisfies a wide variety of human wants.

The Pollinator Pathway presents a way to design pollinators to provide services not to just humans but to many other forms of life that also have needs. This makes sense because we now live in the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Our long-term survival depends on reintegrating human wants (and waste) with other life processes. Pollinator Pathway is designed to reverse what certain environmentally minded Marxists call metabolic rift.

Beavers also know a damn lot about intelligent design, and so do the trees they use.

But another way to think about this designer/designed business can be vividly (indeed fanatically) illustrated by an exchange that I heard not too long ago between a member of a local UFO organization and Peter Ward, the paleontologist who is famous for Medea hypothesis.

After Ward finished a lecture about life and the possibility that it might be rare in the universe, a pro-UFO person with bright red hair made a point that was scientific and then provided a conclusion for this point that was insane. Her scientific point: Because of tectonic plates, and its convection system, certain metals in the earth are made available to humans. A planet without tectonic plates (such as Mars), would lock up much of its mineral wealth in the ground. (This theory is actually discussed in Peter Ward's last and very good book A New History of Life: The radical new discoveries about the origins and evolution of life on Earth.) Now for her insane conclusion: We were placed on Earth by aliens to mine these much-needed metals, which are hard to find and access on other planets.

But even if this were true, if humans are here to be miners for some alien civilization, that would only mean we are like trees to the beaver or, more closely yet, those honeybees we use to pollinate our crops. We are in the design of, yes, an alien, but an alien that is, no matter how distant from Earth, in life; it is an alien that has needs (wants its belly full, wants to get laid, wants to live long), and is using us to satisfy them. Intelligent design could only be this and nothing else. When we speak of consciousness, we speak only of the living. And that is what separates science from the nonsense of ID.