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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.

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10 Evolutions


Nihilism? In my books? There might be something to it, you may be in on a secret here. I would call it – futility… it is careful about the décor, which denies it on the surface. Saying terrible things, quite innocently, as if in play…

Letter to Michael Kandel, July 1, 1972

ST starts with a description of analogy between two evolutions: biological and technological.115 Listing similarities and differences between them, Lem suggests that the Designer – the symbolic figure personifying the human technological potential – should consciously replicate the solutions unconsciously applied by Evolution. In ST the differences stemming from the targeted character of conscious actions of a temporal Designer and the undirected, impersonal process of Evolution lasting billions of years are subjected to a very detailed analysis. I am interested in something else though. The 19th- and 20th-century science, affected by the myth of the omnipotent non-Natural Reason, separated so much from its capacity to adopt bioevolutionary solutions in technology that the occasional suppositions about, for example, the perfection of spider nets (perfection from the point of view of human technological needs) were formulated as surprising and remarkable. More or less when Lem was writing ST, the theme of “peeking on nature” appeared in scientific and popularizing discourse. Its initially modest impact was a result of prevalence of the type of thinking, which prevented forming any kind of connections between Technology and Nature. ←85 | 86→Cybernetics, the history of which was outlined in the previous part, was one of the first attempts at a methodological synthesis of Nature and Technology. Before that these were two separate worlds, between which there was Science, studying Nature, on the one hand, and providing theories as bases for growth of Technology, on the other.116 This would be called “stealing Nature’s secrets” – of course in order to discover the truth about the world and subject it to humans, but not to use the rules of Nature in the products of Technology. When the Wright brothers were designing the first airplane, they did not connect the design of wings with an analysis of the dynamics of bird flight. When radar was invented, it was not associated with bats in any way. Positivism and scientism contributed greatly to solidifying this distinction. Even though the same laws of physics and chemistry describe the functioning of living organisms and technical machines, since La Mettrie no one ever thought that these two worlds could be linked with ties other than theoretical. This is when a distinction between an invention and a discovery became popular – the distinction which, I should emphasize strongly, has nearly lost its meaning, at least within the domain of biotechnology, but also in sciences such as molecular physics, where the objects of observation and discoveries are mostly constructed theoretically. The emergence of this distinction was of course connected to the model of man, popularized by the Enlightenment, as a creature independent from Nature, and endowed with a Reason independent from Nature. The remains of the Christian view of Man as the lord of creation went even deeper. In the 19th century in the collective imagination, shaped by the early mass media, “a discovery” was associated with an image of a fearless white pioneer, fighting his way through a wild jungle or an ice desert, whereas “an invention” would convey an image of an engineer or a scholar, working in the quiet of his studio or in an orderly lab. In the late 19th and early 20th century such figures of collective imagination included Henry Morton Stanley, Edward Peary or Nils Nordenskjöld as discoverers, and Thomas Alva Edison and the Wright brothers as inventors.117 They were presented as heroes of civilization, inspired by the project of progress and growth, which determined the shape of collective imagination of the Western civilization between the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 20th century. The epoch preferred discoveries and inventions that would bring immediate benefits to the society at large or that would strengthen the ←86 | 87→position of the European biggest political powers (the impact of the British imperialism on the dynamics of exploration in Africa cannot be overestimated). Perhaps this is the reason why the 19th-century discoverers of the fundamental laws of nature, such as Dmitri Mendeleev, never became great heroes of mass imagination. It was only changed by the discoveries made by Roentgen, and Skłodowska-Curie, who attracted large “media” attention. The fact that Albert Einstein became a pop icon has its roots in a completely different cultural context, and mostly in the processes of mass culture.

The revolutionary character of Lem’s thought is becoming more readily apparent, I believe. Despite the metaphorical vagueness of the analogy between two types of evolution, the heuristic potential of the juxtaposition was huge. It was nothing less than questioning the very distinction between the Natural and the Artificial, Nature and Technology, discovery and invention – and the questioning was coming just when these oppositions seemed completely undoubtable. Lem rejects them – and the entire Summa Technologiae is built on this refutation.118

The thesis that bioevolution and technoevolution run parallel may imply that Lem is continuing the old Spencerian evolutionism. This would be utterly wrong though. Lem never used this metaphor to describe the structure and functioning of the society, which, as we remember, he preferred to describe in terms of cybernetics. His terminology might be vague, but he never adopts narrowly defined biological terms to science. And above all evolutionary metaphors are not related to progress and teleological growth in his thought – neither in biology, nor in technology. He never claims that autoevolution is the most perfect form of being, but only that it is an inevitable consequence of how humankind has been developing so far. If one wanted to look for fathers of this type of thinking, creatively combining biology and science, one should point to Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860–1948). The British mathematician, biologist and classicist is the author of a monumental work On Growth and Form (1st edition 1917, 2nd edition 1942), where, in a nearly Pythagorean manner, he describes, how the laws of physics and mathematics determine the morphogenesis and ontogenesis of living creatures.119 He answers such questions as (and who does not ask ←87 | 88→themselves that?): why the spirals on snail shells are so precisely drawn or where does the shape of pelvic bone come from in mammals.120 Lem never mentions Thompson’s name, but there are many passages in ST that resemble his style, when Lem discusses the impact of the shape of our body, or – on a lower level – of the cell metabolism, on our life and technology; and all this, as Lem does not fail to emphasize, depends on external physical conditions. Both authors are not only characterized by interdisciplinary thinking and a certain intellectual gigantism, but also enjoyed little popularity with their contemporaries and for the same reasons: Oxford humanists thought Thompson was a renegade (as he occupied himself with the unworthy field of biology!), while biologists and mathematicians took him for an odd amateur (he was the author of Glossary of Greek Birds, which combined philology with ornithology). Thompson’s intellectual biography could be an inspiration to think about the problem of “two cultures” – and we should remember both the term and all its consequences were originally born at British universities. Perhaps Lem’s intellectual biography could be an incentive to understand changes within “the third culture” better.121

115Małgorzata Szpakowska adds another one – evolution of culture, discussed in The Philosophy of Chance and Science Fiction and Futurology. From the point of view of this work that juxtaposition is not coherent, as ST does not discuss culture at all. Culture is not a part of the concept of autoevolution as Lem understands it. But autoevolution can be interpreted in cultural terms and this is what I will be interested in. Szpakowska makes one important remark: “in Stanisław Lem’s views two notions play a key role: evolution and accident” (Dyskusje…, 54). Dialogues and ST – both devoted to technology and science – are governed by the former of the two concepts, while The Philosophy of Chance and Science Fiction and Futurology – devoted to culture – are subordinate to the latter. This would mean that in the later stage of his philosophical development, Lem decided statistics is the model of cultural reality that none of the other fields of mathematics and natural sciences could provide.

116This generalization does not refer to the group of great discoverers and inventors without formal education (the most famous among them being Faraday and Edison).

117Pasteur takes a middle position in such a typology as a discoverer working in a lab.

118Jacques Monod also proposed rejecting the opposition between the natural and the artificial in his famous 1970 book Le Hasard et la Nécessité (Paris: Seuil, 1970, 17–18).

119Thompson’s thought remains outside the mainstream evolutionary biology, but the most eminent representatives of the discipline speak about him with highest regard. In his foreword to an abbreviated edition of On growth and Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, XXII+346), Stephen Jay Gould emphasizes the extraordinary erudition presented by Thompson, who quotes Leonardo da Vinci and Dante in the first sentence of his work. It is telling that Gould – shaped by the paradigm of specialized science – is amazed by the “renaissance” quality of Thompson’s thought.

120Turing’s works on morphogenesis was in some ways inspired by Thompson’s views. In the recent years Thompson’s way of thinking about nature has been returning in the ideas of Stephen Wolfram or Adrian Bejan, who build general models of mechanisms structuring complex biological forms basing them on contemporary laws of mathematical physics.

121This is the term used to describe the shift of culturally creative functions from the humanities to natural sciences, which has been popularized since the early 1990s, mostly by American scholars. Cf. The Third Culture, ed. by J. Brockman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995). ←88 | 89→