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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Extended Biology10/17/2007 22:42:06
I've been scanning my way through Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, especially interested in the urgency with which she addresses the separation of human life from biology. But does it separate? The book begins with Sputnik, the Russian satellite then recently launched that vaulted human beings into the space age. She quotes the Russian scientists: "Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever." In doing, we cease to be the creatures of Earth we began as, but rather beings of our own making.
In the same way, her story goes, "man," the definition of the human, is precisely not nature. As so many have insisted before her: we are precisely what the beasts and the gods are not. Greek citizenship, and Aristotle's "good life," she observes, occurs the moment biological labors are overcome, when the person is among social peers: this is freedom. So the line is drawn.
Enter another option: the (now notorious) biologist Richard Dawkins made a big push for naturalness in his 1982 book, The Extended Phenotype. In biology, the phenotype is the body of an organism in all its manifestations: what is caused by the genotype. (If the cat's DNA contains its genotype, the cat itself is typically regarded as the phenotype.)
Dawkins argued that the idea of the phenotype should be taken further (i.e. "extended"). Not only the body of an organism, but all that it produces, all that its genes cause and allow it to do, should be included. Famously, that includes the massive dirt mounds created by some termites. And that includes human civilization.
The consequence is that, in principle, no human invention or activity is beyond naturalness, is beyond even the possibilities that are encoded in our biology. Building cities is a difference of degree, not kind, from building termite mounds or bird nests. Nothing is artificial, really, even going to the moon. What is more, you can't understand biology fully until you understand human civilization, just as you can't understand human civilization except in light of biology. Nor human action, which is Arendt's task.
The only qualifier, the only concern that makes me sympathetic to Arendt's desire to clearly distinguish freedom and "man" from biological nature, is possibility. Our grasp of biology can never be better than incomplete. And the dramatic changes in human civilization over the last 10,000 years or so (with roughly the same genotype) suggest that the future will make for some surprising phenotypic developments. In order to account for surprise, maybe we do need to draw some lines in the sand, to distinguish natural and artificial (though there is no real distinguishing) just to make sure we are truly open to the phenotypic possibilities of our naturalness.
re: Extended Biology - 10/17/2007 22:57:21