September 11, 2007
by: jovial_cynic
If you've ever paid close attention to the side-navigation of this blog, you'll notice that there's a "currently reading" section that lists the book that I'm reading. Most of my reading is done to and from work, on the vanpool that picks me up in front of my house and drops me off in the work parking lot. It's a short trip each day -- just a 12 mile drive, but the 20 minutes of drive-time each way is enough for me to crank out a chapter or two in whatever I'm reading, and it doesn't interfere with the rest of my life. If I could figure out how to work on my projects (car, motorcycle, CNC machine, welding, etc., etc.) on the way to work, I'd really get some things done.

The last book I read was Emberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which was probably the most intellectually engaging work of fiction I've ever read. Each chapter opened up a new saga, each new saga intertwined with a larger story of fate, conspiracy, mysticism, and all sorts of other literary buzzwords. The meat of the story was so thick, I had to stop reading after each chapter, just so I could digest what I had read. From start to finish, I think the book took me nearly a year to read, but my three-year old daughter is to blame for that; she misplaced it months ago and it remained hidden until a few weeks ago. It's a fascinating book, and the way the author strings so many ideas together without losing the you in the details is genius.

I'm now reading Kevin Kelly's Out of Control, which is subtitled, "The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World." The book was written in 1994, and it's becoming clear that much of today's technologies spawned from ideas that this book captured so elegantly. Kelly mentions distributed systems in the areas of robotics and tracking technology, closed-loop industrial systems that recycle their own waste or sell it to other industries, and the organic nature of technology as humans become more dependent on the tools we create to make our lives easier. It's creepy to see how much of what he wrote has come to pass.

The most interesting thing I've pulled from the book thus far is a new way to look at life. We western-thinking folk tend to view reality at the granular level, such that we look at individual components without seeing the bigger picture of the system in which those components exist. When it comes to defining life and that which is alive, we tend think in terms of organisms, and not in terms of relationships between organisms, and relationships between organisms and non-living things.

The monarch butterfly, as a caterpillar, depends solely on the milkweed plant, and as such, it develops a poison derived from the plant which makes the butterfly unpalatable. Through whatever evolutionary processes, the two have formed a relationship that grew over time and are now locked in orbit. Without the milkweed, there is no monarch butterfly; the definition of the insect is inseparable from the plant.

We see these kinds of relationships everywhere in the plant and animal kingdoms. It is well known that fruit-eating birds pass the seeds of fruit through their gizzards, and the seed coat is scarified, allowing the seed to germinate. Without the birds, those seeds wouldn't grow. On a grander scale, the mutually dependent relationship between animals and photosynthesizing plants (with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide) demonstrates a living system that encompasses every living organism. While we may look at a single organism individually and deem it alive, the more relevant perspective is that organisms form living systems, and it is those systems that more accurately define life; no organism is an island.

With two organisms, such a living system is easy to understand. But there are also dependent relationships between organisms and non-living things. Prairie flowers depend on fire; without it, their seeds will never germinate. The definition of those flowers is inseparably tied to the definition of fire, and together, they form a living system made of both living and non-living components. Going back to the gas exchange between plants and animals, those non-living gases are also a part of this system. Everything is connected... and that connectedness is the living system.

It's a fascinating concept, and when you consider that a single living organism is comprised largely of non-living things (whether bones or bark or water), it makes a lot of sense. Life is not a tangible thing - it is a system, or a force, and it brings individual elements together in chaotic and unpredictable unity.
np category: reading


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