I begin with Immanuel Kant, for it was he who originally introduced the term (self-organization), and he did so as a way of characterizing what it was that so conspicu- ously singled out organisms from other subjects. For the next 150 years, the distinctiveness of organisms from machines held firm…. (T)he most dramatic mutation in this tradition came with the radical, and surprisingly rapid, breakdown of one of the founding divisions, namely the divide between organisms and machines, and this came with the rise of cybernetics in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The basic claim of cybernetics was that the relation between organisms and machines was not merely analogous, but homologous: organisms were machines, and at least some machines could be organisms. Accordingly, it ought to be possible to build machines with the same self-organizing capacities as organisms. —Evelyn Fox Keller, Organisms, Machines, and Thunderstorms: A History of Self-Organization, Part One.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 38, Number 1, pp. 45-75.

I’m just beginning to dive into Keller’s two-part essay on concepts of self-organization in science and technology, which already is proving to be magisterial. This introductory observation gets at the hear of what I’m interested in with the history of cybernetics: its entanglement in stories of animal being. There’s a syllogism that emerges in this moment, implicit in the discourse, which runs as follows:

  1. Animals are machines.
  2. We build machines.
  3. We can build machines that function as organisms.

The question-begging nature of the first proposition is clear, I think. And yet so much flows from it. I’ll be interested to see how Keller adumbrates the origins of the animal-as-machine (which she argues only begins in analogy, in Kantian and Cartesian formulations of animal being, with extensions beyond the analogical initially proscribed). Implied in this orginary cybernetic syllogism, I want to suggest, is a corollary formula regarding the nature of intelligence.

January 21, 2018