Remember those old newsreel clips from the 1920s and '30s showing bizarre flying machines struggling in vain to get off the ground? Remember the one with the huge steel flapping wings that simply blew apart with the first insane flap? Well, according to Robert Frenay's new book, "Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 546 pages, $30), that failed effort to fly like a bird is the perfect metaphor for our present transition to the coming age of the New Biology from the Mechanical, Industrial Age.
Those guys with the plane had the right idea, Mr. Frenay, who is a former columnist for Audubon magazine, writes. They (and Leonardo before them) understood that birds had a marvelous flying system that they were just trying to imitate.The problem was that lacking an understanding of the real biomechanics of nature, they could only use the mechanical systems they were familiar with, and these could not possibly work in a biological way. Leonardo's mechanical flying machines failed for the same reasons. Living things are not machines.
This is where we are today, according to this ambitious and sweeping volume, which could bear the subtitle "The Massive Paradigm Shift To Come." We are poised on the cusp of a radical transformation of our most fundamental system of belief and behavior, according to Mr. Frenay, and he may well be right. For hundreds of years, since the extraordinary success of the Industrial Revolution, we have continued to apply linear, mechanical principles to solve almost all our problems. Our tremendous success in doing so is visible all around us every day in every corner of the globe - our cities, our farms, our very lives are based on our inherited mechanical, industrial model - and all of this is on the verge of collapse because our dysfunctional model is now obsolete.
The basic thesis of "Pulse"is that this outmoded, exhausted way of living and producing things must be replaced by a new, far-reaching synthesis based on our understanding of how the earth, evolution, and the New Biology actually work together, and how humanity can fit into this natural reality in a proper, symbiotic way.The solution to our woes, we are told, is at hand.
What are the sources of this New Biology paradigm and what would it look like? For one thing, Mr. Frenay has explored the implications of the important work emanating from the remarkable Santa Fe Institute, the home of Complexity Theory. Founded by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann (among others), SFI has included some very smart people, including the theoretical biologist Stuart Kaufman and Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog!).Using powerful computer modeling, the SFI group has pioneered the shift in emphasis to biosystems from classical physics as the key metaphor for understanding life's basic processes. As Mr. Gell-Mann puts it, natural selection and evolution give form and direction to life, but no certainty.That means we owe our existence to "the relentless operation of chance."
The critical function of complexity, then,is to enable "higher-level phenomena" to emerge from the interaction of simpler elements. Reductive physics, the old Mechanical paradigm, is thus being replaced by this new understanding of how life evolves from the constant push and pull of competing life forms taking place in the "sweet spot between order and chaos." Too much order, or too much chaos, and life ceases. Now that man is beginning to understand this, the "Pulse" hypothesis goes, he is better able to adjust his role in this fluxing, pulsing continuum. He must see himself as part of the great circle of life, not standing outside it and attempting to control it in a linear and industrial way. It may be, as the author proposes, that biological and human reality will thus find a new synthesis in the future. However, evolution itself may have quite different, and profoundly unpredictable, plans. There is always the chaos factor.
Nevertheless, Mr. Frenay's point of view is powerful and persuasive, and his most convincing argument is made when he applies these theories to one basic issue: food.
Simply stated, some 6 billion people now exist in the world thanks to the great success of the Western (mostly American) industrial system of agriculture based on monoculture, genetically modified crops, huge doses of herbicides, pesticides, and vanishing ground water. This, he points out, is "a kind of parlor trick that involves pulling the rug out from under our own feet." He further points out: "One of the hardest truths confronting us today is that the industrial methods we've used to create a doubling of world population in just 50 years won't last. They can't be sustained." And even when you factor in the idea called "demographic transition theory") that some population levels fall of their own accord (as in China and India today), a nasty population crisis will still occur. We just can't exceed the carrying capacity of the planet; we can't use more energy than is provided to the planet by (ultimately) the sun; we cannot destroy the very soil we use and expect to sustain ever greater populations. Thomas Malthus is not dead.
What to do? According to Mr. Frenay, we must reintegrate ourselves - our farms, our cities and suburbs, our systems of manufacturing, our way of living - back into the natural cycle and recycle matrix from whence we first emerged 10,000 years ago. This is what "Pulse" is saying, and this idea, like a half-remembered Garden of Eden, like a beautiful Arcadian dream from Claude Lorraine, arouses within us a deep upwelling of sympathy and intense longing. We are all believers. Why is our man-made environment so horribly ugly for no apparent reason? What possible excuse can there be for Burbank Boulevard?
We know there must be a better way, and this book - this new bible of the church of ecology - tells us that the right pathway is to be found in the spirit of the New Biology. With this guide, we will learn to live with nature, not on nature; we will learn to listen to the rhythms of bio-feedback (and "symbiogenesis") from the smallest atoms to the cosmos itself. How powerful and seductive this vision is!
And yet ... and yet. A small, dark cloud appears at the edge of this glorious canvas.There is something missing. Everything is so Scandinavian.Everyone mentioned in this book is mature, reasonable, logical, smart, and easy to deal with. The Santa Fe Institute itself is like a Zen monastery, serenely poised in a gorgeous mountain setting, filled with quiet-spoken brilliant scholars rationally dealing with the world's woes. There is a description in the book of a bucolic, ecologically sophisticated town in Denmark: "It's a post-card town of twenty thousand ... The kind of quiet, friendly setting where groups of laughing school kids whir from place to place on bikes."Yes, no doubt, but what about all those unreasonable, disagreeable, hostile, and downright mean people who also happen to live in Denmark, and a lot of other places besides? What are we going to do about them? Man, as well as nature, can be very violent and unpredictable indeed.
There is, finally, another nagging caveat to this moving and deeply optimistic program for man's survival on the planet. The basic premise of the book grows out of a sense of nostalgia for the time when man lived naturally with the biorhythms of the earth.There is throughout a willing acceptance of the finite limitations of both the earth and of man. These limits, "Pulse" repeats over and over, must not be exceeded. But what if this premise is false? Why should man be constrained by the amount of energy flowing to the planet from the sun? Why should he not create his own energy, in limitless quantities, by imitating the sun here on earth? And why should he not exceed his own nature by taking charge of his own evolution,expanding himself to fill the universe? These are not easy questions, but one thing is certain: We are not the "stewards" of the earth. What we do (out of hubris?) may indeed destroy many of us, but it will not make one whit of difference to the planet itself. Somewhere, a "sweet spot" between chaos and order will harbor and nurture new life as it has done for more than 4 billion years. This earth is a tough and durable place, and the pulsing of life will continue here unabated, regardless of global warming, soil erosion, or any other minor eco-disaster that might come this way.
Mr. Pettus last wrote for these pages about the Jason Project.