Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject, 1792

As soon as we perceive the objects around us we consider them in relation to ourselves – and rightfully so. For our entire fate depends upon whether they please or displease, attract or repel, benefit or harm us. This completely natural way of considering and judging things seems as easy as it is necessary. But it also makes us susceptible to a thousand errors that can shame us and embitter our lives.

Those human beings undertake a much more difficult task whose desire for knowledge kindles a striving to observe the things of nature in and of themselves and in their relations to one another. We no longer have the standard that helped us when we looked at things in relation to ourselves. We lack the measure of pleasure and displeasure, attraction and repulsion, use and harm. We must renounce these and as quasi-divine beings seek and examine what is and not what pleases. True botanists should not be touched by the beauty or the utility of a plant. They should investigate the plant’s formation and its relation to the remaining plant kingdom. Just as the sun coaxes forth and shines on all plants, botanists should consider all plants with an even and quiet gaze and take the measure for knowledge – the data that form the basis for judgment—not out of themselves but out of the circle of what they observe.Lire la suite »

Bernd Rosslenbroich, On the Origin of Autonomy, 2014

Bernd Rosslenbroich

On the Origin of Autonomy

A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution

Springer, 2014.

This volume describes features of biological autonomy and integrates them into the recent discussion of factors in evolution. In recent years ideas about major transitions in evolution are undergoing a revolutionary change. They include questions about the origin of evolutionary innovation, their genetic and epigenetic background, the role of the phenotype, and of changes in ontogenetic pathways. In the present book, it is argued that it is likewise necessary to question the properties of these innovations and what was qualitatively generated during the macroevolutionary transitions.

The author states that a recurring central aspect of macroevolutionary innovations is an increase in individual organismal autonomy whereby it is emancipated from the environment with changes in its capacity for flexibility, self-regulation and self-control of behavior.

The first chapters define the concept of autonomy and examine its history and its epistemological context. Later chapters demonstrate how changes in autonomy took place during the major evolutionary transitions and investigate the generation of organs and physiological systems. They synthesize material from various disciplines including zoology, comparative physiology, morphology, molecular biology, neurobiology and ethology. It is argued that the concept is also relevant for understanding the relation of the biological evolution of man to his cultural abilities.

Finally the relation of autonomy to adaptation, niche construction, phenotypic plasticity and other factors and patterns in evolution is discussed. The text has a clear perspective from the context of systems biology, arguing that the generation of biological autonomy must be interpreted within an integrative systems approach.Lire la suite »

Review: M. Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1997

Mike Hawkins,

Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945

Nature as Model and Nature as Threat.

Cambridge University Press, 1997.


Hawkins provides a keen analysis of Social Darwinism in an important and thought-provoking work that will surely become the standard work on the subject for some time to come. It is a superb corrective to the fairly popular revisionist interpretation of Social Darwinism propagated by Robert C. Bannister and others. However, his interpretation is not simply a reiteration of the classic Richard Hofstadter thesis.

Unlike Hofstadter, who boiled down Social Darwinism to laissez-faire economics, racism, militarism, and imperialism, much recent scholarship on Social Darwinism has emphasized the varieties of Social Darwinism, since thinkers often applied Darwinism to social and political thought in contradictory ways–socialists and pacifists appealed to Darwinism for support as much as laissez faire proponents and militarists. The beauty of Hawkins’ analysis is that he takes account of the diversity of political and social views espoused by Darwinists, while bringing out the underlying commonalities. He does this by distinguishing between Social Darwinism as a fundamental world view and the political and social ideologies built on that world view. He defines Social Darwinism as a world view containing the following five beliefs: 1) biological laws govern all of nature, including humans, 2) Malthusian population pressure produces a struggle for existence, 3) physical and mental traits providing an advantage to individuals or species would spread, 4) selection and inheritance would produce new species and eliminate others, and 5) natural laws (including the four above) extend to human social existence, including morality and religion. Those embracing these fundamental points are Social Darwinists, whether they are militarists or pacifists, laissez-faire proponents or socialists.Lire la suite »

Allan Greer, Confusion on the Commons, 2014

At a time when the issue of intellectual property dominates the Internet, the struggle for control of the digital universe is increasingly known as the « second enclosure movement » – a misleading moniker, argues Allan Greer.

Responding to the galloping advance of intellectual property (IP) and its increasing domination of the Internet, a movement has developed to resist the intrusion of corporate interests into every corner of cyberspace. Inspired by the potential of digital media to distribute data, images and texts, and to share these widely for the benefit of all, activists campaign for a neutral network and open access to the growing global storehouse of information and creative works. Sites such as Wikipedia and various open-access software systems, they note, depend upon the free collaboration of millions of contributors around the world and they provide benefits without charge to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Arrayed against this applied ethic of sharing, they see a phalanx of corporate giants determined to privatize the intellectual resources of a connected world for their own profit. This struggle for control of the digital universe might seem to be completely unprecedented, the product of technological advances of the past two decades, yet many internet activists are at pains to suggest links with struggles over land in earlier centuries. The legal scholar James Boyle calls the expansion of digital IP rights “the second enclosure movement,” referring to a well-known phase of English agrarian history when common lands were divided up and fenced in for private use. Others have adopted the same historical allusion, applying it not only to the internet, but to a variety of other spheres where corporations are laying claim to previously open or shared resources. Sometimes presented as a metaphor, sometimes as an analogy, the notion that we are experiencing an intellectual “enclosure of the commons” has gained considerable traction.Lire la suite »

Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, The Commons, Old and New, 2013

From Land Use to Information Sharing

The idea of the Commons prospers today as a powerful trope of twenty-first century sharing. To tell the story of how yesterday’s digging and grazing became today’s googling and sampling, we need to look more closely at the way the unique properties of the modern information landscape come into focus by reference to the old commons economy: through the concepts of user rights, openness and enclosure.

Openness and Enclosure

In her documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), Agnès Varda revisits the traditional practice of gleaning within present-day France. Her cross-country travels searching for waste and miscellaneous discarded items begin appropriately with the land and tons of potatoes not uniform enough for the supermarket. Rummaging through the far-from-perfect heap, she quickly finds the first of the heart-shaped spuds that were to become a symbol of the successful film and her 2002 follow-up Les glaneurs et la glaneuse: deux ans après. From grapes and apples to art, collages, and installations, Varda seamlessly juxtaposed our use of tangible resources with more intangible ones – including that which ‘falls in-between language,’ as the viticulturist/psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche poetically described his own work. In this text, I want to use Varda’s film as a starting point to explore the two parallel processes of enclosure and openness.Lire la suite »

Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons, 2008

Will shared resources always be misused and overused? Is community ownership of land, forests and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end Third World poverty? Most economists and development planners will answer “yes” — and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever written on those important questions.

Since its publication in Sciencein December 1968, “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. It is also one of the most-quoted: a recent Google search found “about 302,000” results for the phrase “tragedy of the commons.”

For 40 years it has been, in the words of a World Bank Discussion Paper, “the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues.” (Bromley and Cernea 1989: 6) It has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and much more.

Noted anthropologist Dr. G.N. Appell (1995) writes that the article “has been embraced as a sacred text by scholars and professionals in the practice of designing futures for others and imposing their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge.”

Like most sacred texts, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.Lire la suite »

Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Machine Breakers, 1952

It is perhaps time to reconsider the problem of machine-wrecking in the early industrial history of Britain and other countries. About this form of early working-class struggle misconceptions are still widely held, even by specialist historians. Thus an excellent work, published in 1950, can still describe Luddism simply as a “pointless, frenzied, industrial jacquerie, ” and an eminent authority, who has contributed more than most to our knowledge of it, passes over the endemic rioting of the 18th century with the suggestion that it was the overflow of excitement and high spirits 1. Such misconceptions are, I think, due to the persistence of views about the introduction of machinery elaborated in the early 19th century, and of views about labour and trade union history formulated in the late 19th century, chiefly by the Webbs and their Fabian followers. Perhaps we should distinguish views and assumptions. In much of the discussion of machine-breaking one can still detect the assumption of 19th century middle-class economic apologists, that the workers must be taught not to run their heads against economic truth, however unpalatable; of Fabians and Liberals, that strong-arm methods in labour action are less effective than peaceful negotiation; of both, that the early labour movement did not know what it was doing, but merely reacted, blindly and gropingly, to the pressure of misery, as animals in the laboratory react to electric currents. The conscious views of most students may be summed up as follows: the triumph of mechanisation was inevitable. We can understand, and sympathise with the long rear-guard action which all but a minority of favoured workers fought against the new system; but we must accept its pointlessness and its inevitable defeat.Lire la suite »

Norbert Wiener, Letter to UAW President Walter Reuther, 1949

Letter from a leading scientist to the head of the American auto workers union warning him about new technology and the negative impact it would have on manufacturing workers.

South Tamworth, August 13, 1949

Walter Reuther
Union of Automobile Workers
Detroit, Michigan

Dear Mr. Reuther,

First, I should like to explain who I am. I am Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I am the author of the recently published book, Cybernetics. As you will see, if you know of this book, I have been interested for a long time in the problem of automatic machinery and its social consequences. These consequences seem to me so great that I have made repeated attempts to get in touch with the Labor Union movement, and to try to acquaint them with what may be expected of automatic machinery in the near future. This situation has been brought to a head by the fact that I have been approached recently by one of the leading industrial corporations with the view to advising them as to whether to go into the problem of making servo-mechanisms, that is, artificial control mechanisms, as part of their extended program.Lire la suite »

Erwin Chargaff, Amphisbaena, 1963

To the memory of my teacher, Karl Kraus.

Chapter 11 [of Essays on Nucleic Acids, 1963] is a specimen of many conversations that I have participated in over the last few years; it is, of course, a composite of many such talks, a collage, as it were: no single person could be so dim.

There will be some, I am certain, that will find the application to scientific problems of the means of humor, of satire, and even of puns, these metaphysical hiccups of language, most unbecoming and frivolous. But there are many levels at which criticism ought to be exercised; and the critique of some of the concepts of modern science, and especially of its aberrations, has virtually disappeared at a time when it is more necessary than ever; at a time when the polarization of science has gone so far that one now “runs” for scientific awards as for a political office; that scientific lectures begin to sound like keynote speeches at political conventions; that scientific reporting has replaced the intimate gossip from Hollywood; that the persuasiveness of truth has been replaced by the strength of the acclamation; in other words, that cliques are surrounded by claques. The emergence of a Scientific Establishment, of a power elite, has given rise to a remarkable phenomenon: the appearance of what is called dogmas in biological thinking. Reason and judgment are inclined to abdicate when faced with a dogma; but they should not. Just as in political life, a stiff upper lip often conceals a soft underbelly. It is imperative that the most stringent criticism be applied to tentative scientific hypotheses that disguise themselves as dogmas. This criticism must come from within; but it can only come from an outsider at the inside.

If the title of the last chapter requires an explanation, I may quote Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “amphisbaena – a fabled serpent with a head at each end, moving either way”. Whether strand separation was observed in the Middle Ages, is not recorded.Lire la suite »

Bertrand Louart, Technology vs. Civilization, 1999

The Genesis of Technology

Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate’er it touches; and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame,
A mechanized automaton.”

From Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, 1813.

Technology was originally a word used to designate merely a particular technology; the term, “technology”, is an Anglicism that has been imposed to designate the most modern techniques: one speaks of a highly advanced aerospace technology for designing the manufacture and the use of rockets, but one would not speak of technology with regard to carpentry, plumbing or bricklaying except in reference to the tools or materials that are used as elements of these particular techniques (a computer, standardized parts or new materials, for example). We confirm this usage by the practice of using this word in the sense that would be appropriate for designating the industrial and technical complex characteristic of our time and the ideology of material progress that accompanies it.Lire la suite »