Interface of the Gods

Part I: Paradise Lost

“We stumble forward in hopeful chaos, trusting that the light on the horizon is the dawn and not the twilight.” — E.O Wilson

In Greek myth, it was the Titan Prometheus who was responsible for turning humanity from social primate to super-organism. By giving us fire stolen from the workshop of technology god Hephaestus, he awoke in us techne, the transformative superpower to turn plants and rocks into cities and civilisations. With this ability to consciously sculpt matter, we began to tame and subdue the natural world, a crime for which Zeus dished out a particularly cruel and unusual punishment; having the Titan chained to a mountain where his perpetually regenerating liver was devoured by an eagle for eternity.

Within this mythic wrapper are curious fundamental truths; firstly the Titan’s name translates as “forethought” while techne roughly translates as “craftsmanship”. For it is our ability to first imagine new worlds and bring them into being with our hands and tools that was the truly promethean force that was unleashed. And we know today that our capacity to manipulate fire, which our pre-human ancestors first did perhaps half a million years ago, is intimately tied to this higher ability.

With mastery of fire we unlocked extra calories in the flesh of our animal prey, transforming their bodies into our progressively larger, complex and energy hungry brains. Around fire we sat to exchange the first stories and songs with the first rudiments of language. With mastery of fire our stone age ancestors altered the environment through forest clearings, creating what we now think of as the wildernesses of places like the ecologically diminished Savannah. Over time, with the mastery of fire we created the furnace, the sword and the scythe, and began a geo-engineering project that continues to this day.

By the time of the early megacities in the third millennia BC, we were using this power of techne to redirect rivers and breed new types of lifeforms through botany and animal husbandry. As our dominance over nature became more belligerent, so too did the symbolism we employed. In iconic statues and reliefs of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal he is depicted hunting and wrestling the now extinct Asiatic lion, to demonstrate his mastery of nature to his subjects. What we did not know then was that by devastating populations of apex predators in such an ostentatious manner, wild grazing animals like deer and boars would have exploded, leading to the overgrazing of pastures and forests and the gradual deterioration and desertification of the old ecology.

King Ashurbanipal throttles a lion. British Museum. (7th century BCE)

But as we unleashed the toil of war and subsistence agriculture, we imagined Paradise, a word which has its origins in Old Persian pairidaēza, meaning “walled garden”. Picking up from the botanist traditions of the Assyrians, (who may have created the famous “Babylonian” hanging gardens) the walled garden is curious in that the wall itself helps create small micro-climate by shielding the plants and trees from the harsh winds of the outside world and was therefore our first deliberate attempt at climate engineering. A place that represented humanity getting not just comfortable but creative with her dominance over nature, where we could enjoy its bounties and pleasures having banished its many terrors.

The glorification of the human reassembly of nature, and the hostility towards the nonhuman world eventually found its way from the Assyrians and Persians into the Abrahamic religions, as stated explicitly in Genesis 1:28;

“God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth‘”

It is an attitude that can be seen in the trials of the Hebrews in the wilderness of the Sinai desert following the escape from Egypt; a place of godless heathens to be vanquished and conquered. While for Christians the wilderness was the place where a starving Jesus was tempted by Satan.

With the growth of Christianity across Europe and beyond over the next two thousand years, the dream of the reconfiguration and domination of the nature was exported with it; a holy war against demonic chaos. This was certainly the worldview of the first Pilgrims in North America, who viewed the new continent as the Hebrews did Sinai; “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men” according to the first governor of the Plymouth colony, William Bradford (it was certainly convenient to the landed elites0 whose material power rested on the conquest of the continent).

American Progress by John Gast (1872) depicts the conquest and domination of the North American continent by Christian settlers, and its human and animal inhabitants.

The worldview was clearly articulated by the 18th century French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Count of Buffon, writing that as the Lord of the Earth, humanity must establish “order, subordination, and harmony.”

“To nature herself he even gives embellishment, cultivation, extension and polish. He cuts down the thistle and the bramble, and he multiplies the vine and the rose. View those melancholy deserts where man has never resided. Over-run with briars, thorns, and trees which are deformed, broken, corrupted, the seeds that ought to renew and embellish the scene are choked and buried in the midst of rubbish and sterility. Nature, who, in other situations, assumes the splendour of youth, has here the appearance of old age and decrepitude.”

As religious thinking in Europe gave way to scientific secularism in the late 19th century, the idea of humanity’s starring role in the sculpting of nature did not perish along with it. Instead it grew again in scale and ambition. Shortly after the discovery of evolution, biologist Herbert Spencer described a future with human will at its epicentre. Writing at the height of the Second Industrial Revolution, he foresaw a time in which the entire planet was a garden tamed and tended by human hands. A prophecy of a time when the fire unleashed by Prometheus would engulf the whole world, and from the embers would emerge a global pairidaēza.

But as our techne gave way to the scientific method between the 18th and 20th centuries, we learned more about the complexity, interconnectedness and inherent chaos of the natural world. And in doing so it gradually became clear our superpower of forethought was much more myopic that we had previously realised. And that our grandiose projects of turning the world into a vast garden had had significant unintended consequences.

The Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt was ahead of his time in the early 19th century when the saw the enormous plantations of the colonial era were leading to soil erosion and pollution, and massively impoverishing biodiversity. Where once had been complex webs of plants, insects and animals were cleared and turned into genetic monocultures of cotton, sugar and tobacco. Unfortunately, this process was unfolding across the world. What is know today as the “Columbian exchange” represented much more than just the early stirrings of Globalisation. Instead, what the age of sail initiated was the biggest ecological event in the last 120 million years.

Environments and organisms that had been largely separate since the supercontinent of Pangea split apart during the Triassic were smashed together in a geological instant, remixied and reconstructed in the transatlantic trade with the transfer of crops (cotton, tobacco, potato, sweet potato, sugar cane) animals (horses, rats, dogs, insects) and people (colonists, slaves) in a manner that devastated and impoverished ecologies in both fragments of the shattered continent. What came to Humboldt in near religious insight, but which has since been confirmed with two centuries of studies in complex systems, was that nature was not a garden in need of tending, but an organism in need of care. This slow hunch in some parts of the scientific world came at the same time as primordial fire was being unleashed into the biosphere.

Alexander von Humboldt synthesised knowledge on geology, biology and climate in stunning infographics that showed the interdependence of elements in the natural world.

While the machine age envisioned by our techne build more sophisticated means of manipulating of matter, it was fuelled by the ancient sunlight of the Carboniferous. The fossilised rainforests of 340 million years past; exhumed as hydrocarbons to hyper-accelerate the terraforming of the Earth. In doing so, we altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere through pollution and climate disruption, superpowering the round of extinctions we had begun in the Holocene, and accelerating whatever epochally transformative process we now comprise.

Occasionally species were hunted to extinction because of conscious effort, but often it was down to sheer indifference, as were the megafauna of Australia and North America during humanity’s first great expansion. In the 1980s, the political scientist Walter Truett Anderson wrote of the hungers of global society unconsciously driving the course of life on earth.

“There was a time — around the turn of the century — when a seed company’s catalog might contain six densely-spaced pages of varieties of beans. Such folksy inefficiency comes to an end when the companies are taken over my multinationals. Lists are culled, many varieties are dropped. Each such marketing decision, requiring only a few touches of the computer keyboard, is a small piece of directed evolution. As one observer puts it: ‘Whenever a variety is dropped from commercial availability — unless an individual or seed bank decides to make a concerted effort to keep it alive — it is on the road to extinction’.”

James Lovelock — originator of Gaia theory and one-time firebrand ecological apocalyptist — recently tried to ease our guilt at our culpability in this process. Instead of blaming us, he compares humanity’s sudden emergence as something akin to an evolutionary thunderstorm, which has none the less irreparably altered planetary processes.

“We humans have reached the stage where we are one of the truly important species of the Earth’s History and at least as significant as the photosynthesizers who eons ago invented the intricate process for harvesting sunlight for food and energy… The new evolutionary process is something quite different from all that went before it, and may mark the end of the primacy of evolution by natural selection which has carried us and Earth for the past 3 billion years at its slow, unhurried pace.”

But there is no going back “to the garden” of an imagined Eden. Even as we try to salvage what remains of nature, through conservation, de-extinction and geo-engineering — we replace another part of it. Our fear of the unknown compels us to understand it in order to navigate it. Collectively we rush to fill conceptual hollows like a gas into a vacuum. With each new understanding of fundamental physical processes we envision new ways to tame it; to exploit it. As we one redirected rivers to nourished the Persian walled garden, so now we channel the flow of nuclear forces to build and maintain evolving cities and structures, and extend our collective sensory systems with supercolliders and space telescopes.

Now we sit at a pivotal moment, a threshold both for the species and the trajectory of life on earth. The promethean fire of forethought, lit deep in our past, must now be truly mastered if we are to survive the coming centuries. In the words of the biologist E.O Wilson;

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

For this to occur, our techne must evolve into new means to visualise the complexity of the world, see the probable impact of our meddling is likely to be before we forever alter the flow of matter. To do this we must build new cathedrals of algorithm and interface to pilot humanity across the strange expanse of the deep future. And the planning and construction of such technologies must begin now.