One of Buckminster Fuller‘s most interesting conceits was his dislike of specialization, which he likened to a kind of intellectual prison, restraining “bright” people from truly understanding the complex, and general, systems of which they were a part. After all, he argued, what causes extinction in the animal kingdom? Overspecialization. Of course, it’s logical, and it’s s problem we see over and over again in human history, from the Industrial Revolution displacing specialized factory workers to the often daunting gap of comprehension between the social and “hard” sciences. As soon as we become specialists in a single subject, we tend to lose interest in, or the capacity to cope with, other subjects, and in the greater whole. Tunnel vision, if you will.
As it turns out, this particular Bucky ramble has considerable scientific credibility now that the fields of complexity theory and biological evolution are coming head-to-head. Microbiologist Carl Woese, talking to Wired, put it this way: “Twentieth-century biology was structured according to a linear, Newtonian worldview. Linear thinking is not the kind of thinking that’s needed to study evolution. It doesn’t help you understand the nature of systems. ” In other words, evolution — the success and development of species — is not just a linear process, driven by specific biologically advantageous genetic traits, but a complex process, one ruled by yet-to-be-quantified rules of complexity and emergence. With emergence phenomena, evolution occurs not only in individuals, but in systems and groups; if we consider an ant or bee colony as a kind of “superorganism” that develops independently from its members, then the individual characteristics of a bee are only one part of a complex, evolutionary entity — the hive. And, as it turns out, increased levels of complexity do not slow or hinder the evolutionary process.
In suit, biologists now find it makes scientific sense to examine human beings as emergent systems — “superorganisms” of millions of molecules, much like bees in a hive. From there, It’s not much of a conceptual leap to apply that thinking to human groups; i.e. we are all involved with one another, on an evolutionary level, just as all our cells work together to cobble together the thing we call “life.” After all, we are one of the few species to evolve social systems.
In any case, Buckminster Fuller’s points about humans having “innate comprehensivity” and the human race being a giant system living on “Spaceship Earth” suddenly seem woozily prescient. Carl Woese again: “Man is the one who’s undergoing this incredible evolution now…the social processes by which man is evolving are creating a whole new level of organization.”
It begs the question: what are these social processes “by which man is evolving?” Dare we assume that Woese is referring, in part, to the Internet? It’s certainly tempting to compare the web’s self-navigating push-button organization with these “superorganisms” of the current biological discourse. If the social system in a colony of leafcutter ants can compel them to build magnificent chambered nests underground despite the fact that their individual ant brains don’t amount to much, what can our social systems do for us? Despite the oil-slick of drivel floating atop the quotidian Internet, look at what we have at our fingertips: instant self-publishing, the capacity to push information quickly to people across the globe, tools for mass organization, immediate answers to questions it would have taken our parents weeks to research. Our own version of the leafcutter’s underground castles doesn’t seem so far off.
Buckminster Fuller might have agreed.
“The computer as a superspecialist can persevere, day and night, day after day, in picking out the pink from the blue at superhumanly sustainable speeds. The computer can also operate in degrees of cold or heat at which man would perish. Man is going to be displaced altogether as a specialist by the computer. Man himself is being forced to reestablish, employ, and enjoy his innate ‘comprehensivity.’ Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us. Evolution is apparently intent that man fulfill a much greater destiny than that of being a simple muscle and reflex machine — a slave automaton — automation displaces the automaton.”
The saving grace of our species, the “evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity through specialization,” in Fuller’s view, was the computer: a machine (or machines) designed solely to follow specialized, technical pursuits to their logical ends. As soon as we no longer have to concern ourselves with the specific aspects of our fields of study, and we can outsource the menial tasks which tie up our minds, he argued, we can become generalists again. This may not be a matter of choice: as specialists, we’re nothing compared to computers. It’s essentially an evolutionary decision. Of course, talking about evolutionary emergence and widespread computer use in the same breath smacks a little of the technological singularity, but that’s a subject for another post.
Singularity aside, when we hand over the keys to the computers, we’re ostensibly left with the capacity to pursue real, comprehensive, systems-understanding intelligence. Which is our real strong suit — the intellectual style of a curious child before being socialized. And, if current complexity science is correct, it may be to humanity’s evolutionary advantage to stay this way: curious, general, and collaborative.