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In Context #3 (Spring, 2000, pp. 3-4); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute

Toward a "Final Theory" of the Sloth?
Stephen L. Talbott
sloth in tree

Several months ago we published Craig Holdrege's characterization of the sloth ("What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?") in our online newsletter, NetFuture. While the piece was very well received, one perplexed reader responded, "I fail to see the point of the whole article." His problem? "Not once in the article did I see the sloth as the obvious result of an evolutionary process....To have become what it is now, it must have evolved to that point." Presumably, what this reader meant by the "obvious" result of an evolutionary process is a result given by random variation, environmental pressures, and natural selection.

Now, all truth is obvious once it is fully grasped and penetrated by our understanding. But getting from here to there—from a vaguely formulated question to a clean, deep understanding—can be the herculean work of a lifetime. It often puzzles me to run into evolutionary explanations whose obviousness seems easy to the point of vacuity. This is an obviousness drained of any depth, an obviousness requiring no hard-earned intimacy with the world that actually presents itself to our senses—an obviousness, in other words, that has contracted toward mere formal soundness without throwing any real light on the world, much as the muscular complexities of embodied truth contract toward mere formal validity on the pages of a logic textbook.

Think about it: Craig spends an entire article trying to help us see what, or who, the sloth is, and the response comes back, "What's the point? Give me the obvious mechanisms that explain this organism."

The Contraction of Science

The curious thing is that a researcher armed with ready-made explanations can all too easily lose interest in any full-textured characterization of what is being explained. Everything disappears from view except a few formal features that dovetail with the explanations. The world itself begins to disappear behind a veil of hypostatized, abstract concepts viewed as mechanisms. This is an odd development when you consider that modern science began as an appeal to the observational richness of the world of experience over against the increasingly abstract, metaphysical ruminations of the medieval schoolmen.

What we've been getting more and more is a science of wonderfully effective explanatory mechanisms that turns a blind eye to the phenomena it set out to explain. The effectiveness is the result of the blindness, just as the perfect validity of the propositions in a logic textbook is owing to their disengagement from the embodied presentation of the world.

All this suggests why we have been hearing recently about "the end of science." The contraction of science toward a kind of quantitative perfection—a formal completeness bought at the expense of qualitative content—has proceeded furthest in the "hard" sciences such as physics and cosmology. Not accidentally, these are also where you find the most vivid dreams of a "final theory."

And it's true: once you have distilled the world down to such beautifully clean abstractions that your theories no longer have much to do with the given world of sense experience—well, it's not terribly surprising that these theories come to seem relatively closed. There's not much room for radical reconceptualization of your subject matter when your concepts have been pared down to quantities. We would similarly have a hard time re-visioning a work of art—seeing new expressive dimensions of it—if we had to think in the reduced terms of a mathematical array of pixels. The pixels may give us a rock-solid, sure level of analysis that is, in its own terms, exhaustive and final. But this level doesn't help us a whole lot when our concern is the work of art as a work of art.

Disappearing Machines

To say that science has been contracting toward a kind of empty completeness that fails to engage the world of experience is to invite the immediate retort that science is clearly re-shaping the world in a radical way. That's what technology is all about.

But this overlooks the fact that the machine, too, is disengaging us from the world. We interact with the control panel, and hidden, precisely guided forces reconfigure the stuff of the world. We manipulate a few abstractions on a screen and the bomb is dropped somewhere out of sight, the livestock are fed, the strand of DNA is cut, the metal is shaped.

But it's not just the effects of the machine that are retreating beyond our experience. The machine itself is evolving toward formal emptiness. The computer, which looks like becoming the "archetypal" machine of our era, is the extreme example. The first computers were still primarily seen as machines in an earlier, "brute given" sense. Their sheer, material bulk made an impression. The necessary software was added almost as an afterthought by connecting a nest of wires; it was simply the final configuring of the hardware.

Today, by contrast, the software is almost everything. Even the hardware is reconceived as a kind of concretization of software. It is common to distinguish the true, software essence of the machine from its historically accidental "instantiation" in a particular hardware device. So the machine hovers as an unearthly abstraction with a vague and arbitrary relation to the world below.

A science philosophically committed to materialism is a science committed to abstractions and the mechanisms upon which these abstractions can be impressed. Increasingly, the mechanism is simply equated with the abstractions it bears. And, of course, every organism is conceived as one of these disappearing mechanisms. So it is that Christopher Langton, the founder of the discipline of artificial life, can surmise that "life isn't just like a computation, in the sense of being a property of the organization rather than the molecules. Life literally is a computation."

Recovering the World

If we want to rediscover a science rich in experiential qualities—and, by comparison, recognize the poverty of mechanical explanations—we have no choice but to immerse ourselves in the actual phenomena of our world. Only then can we see what is there. Of course, there is no forcing people to perceive things; like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo's telescope, we can always decline the invitation.

But the point of Craig's article was that if we do look at the sloth, and if we are willing to do the necessary inner work, we can begin to glimpse the sloth that speaks through every detail of its organism and behavior—the sloth presupposed by the various mechanisms we try to abstract from our observations.

That there is a coherent "idea" or integral being of the sloth is what you cannot force people to grasp. It requires a thoroughly qualitative looking, and the challenge of such a looking is what much of science rejected, starting at just about the same time those churchmen were brushing aside the telescope.

But once you do begin to look, you can't avoid the sense that all those evolutionary mechanisms, however valid or even self-evident they might be, explain precious little. How was it that the sequence of "random" variations and selections yielded the peculiar coherence, the integral wholeness, of this particular creature? How was it that the "sloth" quality came to be imprinted upon every detail of the organism—including those countless details that evolved in its ancestors (and carried, in those very different creatures, their imprint)? Is the sloth the result of its evolutionary history, or is its evolutionary history the result of the sloth?Before you pronounce this last question preposterous, remember Galileo's opponents and consider how inappropriate it is to dismiss as preposterous a possibility you have arbitrarily ruled out in advance—in this case by vowing (along with the founders of modern science) to ignore the world's qualitative and meaningful speech. Whatever is qualitative and meaningful is speech, and the question about the relation between the sloth and its evolutionary history is a question about who speaks through this history.

It is only when, enamored of our explanatory mechanisms, we turn a blind eye to the vivid, phenomenal presence of the organism in the world that this question begins to fade into apparent emptiness. Helping to revive the blind eye was, I think, the main point of Craig's article.


You can read "What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?" at The article was originally published in the Newsletter of the Society for the Evolution of Science, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1998.

Original source: In Context (Spring, 2000, pp. 3-4); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Toward a 'Final Theory' of the Sloth?

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