Show Less
Open access

Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia


Paweł Majewski

The subject of this book is the philosophy of Stanisław Lem. The first part contains an analysis and interpretation of one of his early works, The Dialogues. The author tries to show how Lem used the terminology of cybernetics to create a project of sociology and anthropology. The second part examines Lem’s essay Summa technologiae, which is considered as the project of human autoevolution. The term «autoevolution» is a neologism for the concept of humans taking control over their own biological evolution and form in order to improve the conditions of their being. In this interpretation, Summa is an example of a liberal utopia, based on the assumption that all human problems can be resolved by science. Various social theories, which can be linked to the project of autoevolution, are presented in the final part.

Show Summary Details
Open access

1 The Genesis and Growth of Cybernetics

1The Genesis and Growth of Cybernetics

The intellectual climate of the 21st century is not particularly favorable to the so-called “grand narratives” – intellectual approaches that aim to explain the entire reality available to human mind, or at least a large portion of it. It is commonly accepted that structuralism was the last such grand narrative, which seemed to serve as a metatheory of the humanities in the 1960s and 1970s. However, its predecessor in that regard – cybernetics – is rarely mentioned, even though it was even more prevalent between the end of the 1940s and mid-1960s.

Part One of this book is to be devoted to Dialogues – the one among Lem’s works in which his fascination with cybernetics is the strongest.6 In fact, Dialogues cannot be understood without referring to the swift career of the discipline. Therefore, before discussing cybernetics itself, I should outline briefly its history. This description of what cybernetics is will, however, come from an amateur. The mathematical tools and vocabulary used by the creators and proponents of cybernetics remain unavailable to me. I will be treating cybernetics as a phenomenon in the history of science and ideas, leaving mathematics in a sort of “black box,” which is not to be opened, but which is being observed focusing on its location and functioning. It is justifiable, as the cyberneticists never limited themselves to producing mathematical arguments. The founding father of cybernetics himself, Norbert Wiener showed the path here (I will return to it). In fact, some branches of cybernetics detached themselves completely from science. And these branches happened to wither the earliest.

Cybernetics is commonly described as “a scientific study of control and communication in complex systems” – this is how it was defined by its creator, Norbert Wiener.7 The general character of this description is quite significant, indicating not only a broad background and a variety of sources of the discipline, but also its broad scope. Wiener gave it a name derived from Greek.8 “Kybernetes” means ←15 | 16→“helmsman” and is derived from the verb “kybernao”, meaning “to steer.”9 The term “governor” has the same root.

Cybernetics was largely born from war-time needs and was related to technologies of building quick counting machines – in both cases the purpose was to facilitate calculating trajectories of missiles targeting bullets. In an introduction to his book Cybernetics, Second Edition: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine,10 which became the founding work of the entire discipline, Wiener describes in detail how the ideas of cybernetics were born during seminars he participated in at Harvard’s Vanderbilt Hall in 1941–1944 together with mathematicians (including von Neumann), engineers, biologists and doctors.11 This interdisciplinary gathering observed that there are numerous analogies between the functioning of new calculating machines and biological organisms when it comes to mechanisms of steering and control. It turned out some processes within calculating machines and human nervous systems can be described with the same mathematical formulae – that is, processes that include feedback and oscillations.12 Research continued after the end of the war was conducted simultaneously in engineering and biology. This duality of research directions is characteristic of the entire cybernetics, and it will be important for the argument that follows.

Wiener himself played a pivotal role in shaping the new discipline – he stood behind its laws and ideology. As a child this versatile scholar and intellectual was fascinated by nature, and traces of such interests are clear in his works, which combine mathematics with physiology. It must have tickled the imagination of a young physician Stanisław Lem, when he read his books in Mieczysław Choynowski’s seminar; learning English from them.13 Wiener was not only a ←16 | 17→mathematician, but also an engaged social critic, which can be best seen in his book The Human Use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society (1950), which is not a scientific work, but a collection of essays about science for a general public, oftentimes with a journalistic air to them. The fact that this particular book has become a popular guide to cybernetics shows that unlike other disciplines, cybernetics was tied to its social context from the very beginning – its creator himself has positioned it that way, and he did it on purpose. This was certainly aided by his powerful, authoritarian personality, which emanates from his determined arguments admitting no opposition and densely marking his texts, as well as from his very critical remarks about the postwar American society.14

Apart from contemporary needs and an intellectual osmosis between biologists and engineers, for Wiener the sources of cybernetics lied primarily in the development of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics in the late 19th century. He had especially great respect for one of the men behind both these disciplines – Josiah Willard Gibbs, whose long underestimated works greatly enriched statistical interpretation of energy transmission processes.15 Information transmission is part of these processes, as Wiener and his colleagues remarked – and the information is treated as a physical quality here. In Cybernetics, Wiener provides basis for a mathematical description of information,16 which was then developed further by his disciple, Claude Shannon. This is where physics and biology meet: according to Wiener a biological organism is an energy and information processing system.

Later cyberneticists developed the discipline much further and found some much earlier antecedents for it. They saw all thinkers and engineers involved in combinatorics and building calculating or moving machines as early cyberneticists, from Ramon Llull and Jaquet-Droz to Pascal and Leibniz (Wiener presented the latter as the “patron saint of cybernetics”). Even cabalist mystics ←17 | 18→with their search for Golem were listed in that context.17 Mathematical roots of cybernetics were largely impacted by early game theory and von Neumann’s theory of automata,18 Turing’s works on computability and the probability theory, which was being developed at the time by thinkers such as Andrey Kolmogorov and Ronald Fisher (all these names come up both in Wiener’s and Lem’s texts).

It was soon observed that

certain kinds of machines and some living organisms – particularly the higher living organisms – can, as we have seen, modify their patterns of behavior on the basis of past experience so as to achieve specific antientropic ends. In these higher forms of communicative organisms the environment, considered as past experience of an individual, can modify the pattern of behavior into one which will in some sense or other will deal more effectively with the future environment.19

It was another step toward conceptually placing humans and machines on a par. A theory of “learning machines” started being developed, together with building such machines, initially quite primitive, and then increasingly complex.

In 1948 William Ross Ashby made the first Homeostat – “a physical model imitating the phenomenon of homeostasis [i.e. physiological balance in a variable environment] and the self-organizing capacities of the brain.”20 The Homeostat was in fact the first practical success of cybernetics. In the 1950s and 1960s cybernetics developed swiftly and had its big entry into such disciplines as biology, economy, technical sciences (including telecommunication), sociology, political science and other.21 The marriage of cybernetics and biology gave rise to a discipline sometimes called bionics (usually biocybernetics) – and this was when for the first time there were publications on systems that combine biological and mechanical components, based on thorough research on the functioning of human nervous system.22 I emphasize that so much, because such ←18 | 19→systems (cyborgs) will be one of the main topics of Part Three of this book. For some time it seemed like creating a structure that would combine features of a biological organism and a machine is close. Research in economical cybernetics looked promising. New subdisciplines were formed too, such as socio- and psychocybernetics and military, medical, pedagogical and linguistic cybernetics (the latter producing the first attempts at machine translations). Researching all types of steering processes, scholars focused on problems such as the impact of steering signals and feedback on the quality and stability of control, the impact of the structure of the systems on their reliability and the resistance of steering systems to interference. It needs to be emphasized, given the liberties with terminology taken by later epigones of cybernetics, that all these notions originally had precise mathematics determinants, formed on the basis of advanced fields of the science. In the 1970s it was further enriched by linking cybernetics to the general system theory,23 which made it possible to research complex steering systems, among other things.

While creating cybernetics, Norbert Wiener saw it not only as a new, revealing discipline of science but also as a remedy to the increasing atomization of sciences24 and as a major tool shaping social life.25 Very soon, however, in the 1960s it became clear that neither of these “metascientific” goals of cybernetics is or ←19 | 20→can be achieved. Instead of quickly becoming a mathesis universalis, it started dividing into subdisciplines, which were losing connection with one another. The attempts to apply cybernetics to social sciences, which were in fact undertaken against Wiener’s will,26 soon failed, as they turned cybernetic terminology from a precise vocabulary into a set of blurry metaphors with no heuristic value (I shall provide examples of that later). The purely technical fields of cybernetics, such as the theory of automata, of adaptive control systems and of optimal and hierarchical control, as well as the more specialized biocybernetical research, met the same fate as all other subdisciplines: this atomization and formal sophistication have made them completely inaccessible for those who specialize in slightly other fields (not to mention amateurs). What happened was exactly what Wiener was trying to save the science from.

There are innumerable texts about cybernetics. Globally there are hundreds of monographs and dozens of thousands of articles. It is impossible to pin down the moment when all this production got relegated to the margins of real science, because naturally the cyberneticists themselves have never admitted it had happened. It can be said that the 1970s brought the final fading of classic cybernetics, even though it is also the moment when Heinz von Foerster announced the end of “first-order cybernetics” and the beginning of “second-order cybernetics” in a work titled Cybernetics of Cybernetics. He defined the former as cybernetics of observed systems, while the latter as cybernetics of observing systems (which means the discipline has not avoided the self-referentiality, which became overwhelming in social sciences and the humanities at the time). This “second-order cybernetics” is now represented by sociocybernetics, which investigates the so-called autopoietic – or self-reproducing – systems.27 The ←20 | 21→highly abstract character of these inquiries situates them beyond the main scope of sociology and social sciences, although such theories did have considerable impact on, for instance, biology of ecosystems for a while (there existed a branch called cybernetic ecology).

There still exist professional associations such as the American Society for Cybernetics (, the website includes numerous links to other sites of similar character), as well as journals, such as the monthly Biological Cybernetics.28 Today’s cybernetics is largely related to contemporary antireductionist theories, such as constructivism. The term includes attempts undertaken mostly by German scholars to encompass the entire human mental activity in one general theory, centered on the notion of “construction” (construction of reality in human cognitive apparatus) and employing the achievements of contemporary epistemology, system theory and system biology.

None of this means that cybernetics has not contributed anything to the mainstream world science after the period when it was one of the constituting disciplines. Fields such as IT, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) (which cyberneticists wrote about as early as in the 1950s), the theory of automata, organization theory, telecommunication and system engineering also owe a lot to cybernetics. Economic cybernetics contributed to the development of management theory (including managing “human resources”), optimizing theory and decision theory. The specialists in neural networks, which were the thing of the time in the 1980s and 1990s, are especially indebted to cybernetics. The problem of complexity, which was in fashion at the time, investigated by both physicists (such as Stuart Kaufmann) and biologists (such as Ilya Prigogine), has a lot in common with system theory combined with an indeterminist philosophical orientation.

A detailed investigation of the growth of cybernetics in specific countries would be very time consuming. Nevertheless, it is important to glance at what happened with it in Poland, which is, I believe, a good sample, illustrating in detail the process of degeneration, which I have outlined earlier.

6“This book […] comes from a captivation with cybernetics.” Stanisław Lem, “Przedmowa do drugiego wydania,” in: Dialogi, 3rd edition (Kraków: WL, 1984), 5. All translations from Dialogues, which have not been translated to English in full, have been made for this work by Olga Kaczmarek.

7Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT, 1965), 11.


9A Greek-English Lexicon compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (LSJ) ed. 1996 s.v. (s. 1004). Both words can be found in Homer (Il. 19, 43; Od. 9, 78; 3, 283). As early as Aeschylus (Suppliants 750, “shepherd of the ship”) and Plato (Phaedrus, 247 c, “charioteer”), the word “kybernetes” is used metaphorically.

10Idem, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948); all quotes and references from the 2nd edition (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961).

11Wiener, Cybernetics, 21 and following.

12Such processes include movement disorders in Parkinson’s disease.

13Stanisław Lem, Stanisław Bereś, Tako rzecze … Lem (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie 2001), 43. “Choynowski set up Science Seminar for Jagiellonian University Research Assistants and on behalf of the group he approached innumerable research institutions in Canada and United States requesting books for the starved Polish academia. Seeing all these treasures, unavailable to me because of the language, I sat down to learning English with utmost diligence. I cannot say this was typical science I studied, because it started with Wiener’s Cybernetics, which I read almost like Champollion deciphering the hieroglyphs […] slowly […] with dictionary in my hand.”

14Cf. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), Chapters 2, 7 and 9; quoted from the edition: (London: Free Association Books, 1989); idem, Cybernetics and Communication…, Chapter 8.

15Ludwig Boltzmann is usually seen as the main creator of thermodynamics, but Wiener hardly ever mentions him. About Gibbs see The Human Use…, “Introduction,” 7–15; and Cybernetics…, chapter 2, “Groups and Statistical Mechanics,” 45–59.

16Cybernetics, chapter 3, “Time Series, Information and Communication,” 60–94.

17Henryk Greniewski (1903–1972), one of the Polish cyberneticists referred to the myth, labeling his own theory of machines imitating humans as “the Golems theory.”

18John von Neumann’s last unfinished work was titled The Computer and the Brain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958).

19The Human Use…, 48.

20Mały słownik cybernetyczny, ed. by M. Kempisty (Warszawa: WP, 1973), 147; it includes a detailed description of Ashby’s Homeostat.

21Cf. G. R. Boulanger, “Prologue: What is Cybernetics?,” in: Survey of Cybernetics. A Tribute to Dr Norbert Wiener, ed. by J. Rose (London: Illiffe Books Ltd.), 7–12. The text is one of the manifestos of the omnipotence of cybernetics.

22Cf. Michael A. Arbib, The Metaphorical Brain. An Introduction to Cybernetics as Artificial Intelligence and Brain Theory (New York-London-Sydney-Toronto: Wiley, 1972). Two parts of this book provide a detailed description of methodological and scientific implications of two views: the evolutionary one according to which humans are animals, and the cybernetic one, according to which they are mechanisms.

23It is a theory formed in 1930–1960 by an Austrian philosopher and biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972), who claimed that a biological organism is not a simple sum of components, but constitutes a system characterized by unity and integrality, coordinating functions and processes, the organization of which is an important feature of life. The theory was to be an alternative to mechanistic and vitalist approaches in biology. It became an important argument for those who opposed reductionism in philosophy of science.

24“For many years … I had shared the conviction that the most fruitful areas of the growth of the sciences were those which had been neglected as a no-man’s land between the various established fields. Since Leibniz there has perhaps been no man who has had a full command of all the intellectual activity of his day. Since that time, science has been increasingly the task of specialists, in fields, which show a tendency to grow progressively narrower. A century ago there may have been no Leibniz, but there was a Gauss, a Faraday, and a Darwin. Today there are a few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restriction. A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist.” (Cybernetics…, 2)

25Significant part of The Human Use of Human Beings is devoted to discussions of the implications of the cybernetics on social life; cf. particularly chapters 6–9, 112–162.

26“Drs. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead have urged me, in view of the intensely pressing nature of the sociological and economic problems of the present age of confusion, to devote a large part of my energies to the discussion of this side of cybernetics … the human sciences are very poor testing-grounds for a new mathematics technique: as poor as the statistical mechanics of gas would be to a being of the order of size of a molecule, to whom the fluctuations which we ignore form a larger standpoint would be precisely the matters of greatest interest.” (Cybernetics…, 24–25).

27The term was first introduced in the 1970s by two Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. It is a distant consequence of the notion of homeostasis and of learning machines, as well as of the general system theory. Niklas Luhmann incorporated it into his vocabulary. For more on sociocybernetics, see under “sociocybernetics” in: International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. by N. Smelser, P. B. Baltes (Amsterdam, New York: Elsevier, 2001), vol. 21, 14.549–14.554.

28The subtitle is Communication and Control in Organisms and Automata. The editorial team is international, mostly German, and the publisher is Springer-Verlag. The examples of titles from 2001 are: “Mathematical models of the eye movements in reading,” “Synergetic analysis of spatio-temporal EEG patterns: Alzheimer’s disease” and “Noise-inducted transition in excitable neuron models.” The profile of these articles suggests loyalty to Wiener’s methods and goals. ←21 | 22→←22 | 23→