darwin among the machines

The continued reading of Lewis Mumford brought me to a text he discusses in part two of his epic “The Myth of the Machine” (Lewis Mumford, “The Myth of the Machine; The Pentagon of Power”, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1970). It’s a letter by Samuel Butler from 1863, and it’s the first text I’m aware of in which the idea is mentioned that through technological progress humans are in fact working on the development of their evolutionary successors.

There are some of aspects of this idea that are questionable, also in the form it is now part of posthumanist, transhumanist, extropian and singularitarianist thought. For instance our implied current supremacy on earth is doubtful: we might think that we rule the planet and that we are the summit of the tree of life, but are we right ? Evolution is not a linear progression and has no goal, to think otherwise is a remnant of Christian thinking. In terms of biomass, plankton, ants and worms are a lot more successful than humans, and these species do so without ravaging the planet. Perhaps super-colonies of ants have a point if they would claim that they are the most successful species on earth ? And everybody knows that humans have evolved to serve their cats.

Despite such reservations, I find the short text of Samuel Butler I quote below quite unbelievable, written only five years after the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ ! It discusses ideas such as the self-replication of machines that are much less far-fetched now than they were 150 years ago. Also it is an early analysis of the domestication of man that accompanies mechanization, even though there are different opinions how seriously we should take the ideas in this letter. Wikipedia claims the whole letter is satirical, Mumford thinks that only the call for the destruction of all machines at the end of it should be taken with a grain of salt. Many of the ideas mentioned here were at the basis of the three chapters on machines in Butler’s fantastic ‘Erewhon‘, published in 1872. In those chapters all machines invented after a certain date are destroyed, as a way to keep machines from evolving a form of consciousness. In the preface of the second edition he wrote: ‘I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin….’.

image of the launch of the SS Great Eastern in 1858.

[To the Editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand – 13 June, 1863.]

Sir – There are few things of which the present generation is more justly proud than of the wonderful improvements which are daily taking place in all sorts of mechanical appliances.  And indeed it is matter for great congratulation on many grounds.  It is unnecessary to mention these here, for they are sufficiently obvious; our present business lies with considerations which may somewhat tend to humble our pride and to make us think seriously of the future prospects of the human race.  If we revert to the earliest primordial types of mechanical life, to the lever, the wedge, the inclined plane, the screw and the pulley, or (for analogy would lead us one step further) to that one primordial type from which all the mechanical kingdom has been developed, we mean to the lever itself, and if we then examine the machinery of the Great Eastern, we find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom.  We shall find it impossible to refrain from asking ourselves what the end of this mighty movement is to be.  In what direction is it tending?  What will be its upshot?  To give a few imperfect hints towards a solution of these questions is the object of the present letter.

We have used the words “mechanical life,” “the mechanical kingdom,” “the mechanical world” and so forth, and we have done so advisedly, for as the vegetable kingdom was slowly developed from the mineral, and as, in like manner, the animal supervened upon the vegetable, so now, in these last few ages, an entirely new kingdom has sprung up of which we as yet have only seen what will one day be considered the antediluvian prototypes of the race.

We regret deeply that our knowledge both of natural history and of machinery is too small to enable us to undertake the gigantic task of classifying machines into the genera and sub-genera, species, varieties and sub-varieties, and so forth, of tracing the connecting links between machines of widely different characters, of pointing out how subservience to the use of man has played that part among machines which natural selection has performed in the animal and vegetable kingdom, of pointing out rudimentary organs [see note] which exist in some few machines, feebly developed and perfectly useless, yet serving to mark descent from some ancestral type which has either perished or been modified into some new phase of mechanical existence.  We can only point out this field for investigation; it must be followed by others whose education and talents have been of a much higher order than any which we can lay claim to.

Some few hints we have determined to venture upon, though we do so with the profoundest diffidence.  Firstly we would remark that as some of the lowest of the vertebrata attained a far greater size than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, so a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress.  Take the watch for instance.  Examine the beautiful structure of the little animal, watch the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks of the thirteenth century – it is no deterioration from them.  The day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present day are not diminishing in bulk, may be entirely superseded by the universal use of watches, in which case clocks will become extinct like the earlier saurians, while the watch (whose tendency has for some years been rather to decrease in size than the contrary) will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.

The views of machinery which we are thus feebly indicating will suggest the solution of one of the greatest and most mysterious questions of the day.  We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be.  We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying, by all sorts of ingenious contrivances, that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race.  In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.  Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at.  No evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires will disturb the serene might of those glorious creatures.  Sin, shame and sorrow will have no place among them.  Their minds will be in a state of perpetual calm, the contentment of a spirit that knows no wants, is disturbed by no regrets.  Ambition will never torture them.  Ingratitude will never cause them the uneasiness of a moment.  The guilty conscience, the hope deferred, the pains of exile, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes – these will be entirely unknown to them.  If they want “feeding” (by the use of which very word we betray our recognition of them as living organism) they will be attended by patient slaves whose business and interest it will be to see that they shall want for nothing.  If they are out of order they will be promptly attended to by physicians who are thoroughly acquainted with their constitutions; if they die, for even these glorious animals will not be exempt from that necessary and universal consummation, they will immediately enter into a new phase of existence, for what machine dies entirely in every part at one and the same instant?

We take it that when the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man.  He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state.  We treat our horses, dogs, cattle and sheep, on the whole, with great kindness, we give them whatever experience teaches us to be best for them, and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has added to the happiness of the lower animals far more than it has detracted from it; in like manner it is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals.  They cannot kill us and eat us as we do sheep, they will not only require our services in the parturition of their young (which branch of their economy will remain always in our hands) but also in feeding them, in setting them right if they are sick, and burying their dead or working up their corpses into new machines.  It is obvious that if all the animals in Great Britain save man alone were to die, and if at the same time all intercourse with foreign countries were by some sudden catastrophe to be rendered perfectly impossible, it is obvious that under such circumstances the loss of human life would be something fearful to contemplate – in like manner, were mankind to cease, the machines would be as badly off or even worse.  The fact is that our interests are inseparable from theirs, and theirs from ours.  Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species.  It is true that these organs may be ultimately developed, inasmuch as man’s interest lies in that direction; there is nothing which our infatuated race would desire more than to see a fertile union between two steam engines; it is true that machinery is even at this present time employed in begetting machinery, in becoming the parent of machines often after its own kind, but the days of flirtation, courtship and matrimony appear to be very remote and indeed can hardly be realised by our feeble and imperfect imagination.

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life.  The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them.  Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species.  Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race.  If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

For the present we shall leave this subject which we present gratis to the members of the Philosophical Society.  Should they consent to avail themselves of the vast field which we have pointed out, we shall endeavour to labour in it ourselves at some future and indefinite period.

I am, Sir, &c.,


NOTE. – We were asked by a learned brother philosopher who saw this article in MS. what we meant by alluding to rudimentary organs in machines.  Could we, he asked, give any example of such organs?  We pointed to the little protuberance at the bottom of the bowl of our tobacco pipe.  This organ was originally designed for the same purpose as the rim at the bottom of a tea-cup, which is but another form of the same function.  Its purpose was to keep the heat of the pipe from marking the table on which it rested.  Originally, as we have seen in very early tobacco pipes, this protuberance was of a very different shape to what it is now.  It was broad at the bottom and flat, so that while the pipe was being smoked, the bowl might rest upon the table.  Use and disuse have here come into play and served to reduce the function to its present rudimentary condition.  That these rudimentary organs are rarer in machinery than in animal life is owing to the more prompt action of the human selection as compared with the slower but even surer operation of natural selection.  Man may make mistakes; in the long run nature never does so.  We have only given an imperfect example, but the intelligent reader will supply himself with illustrations.