Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria

Okay, well, as is obvious, I haven’t yet put into practice my proposal to stop using Tuesdays for writing IoZ posts; there are just too many subjects I want to address.  Skimming through my notes on those subjects this morning, as I considered writing something, I found so many of the ideas grabbing my attention that I had a hard time choosing what not to write.  Given that passion, I’ve succumbed to temptation and just picked a post.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Today I’ll address an issue of which the most irritating example (to me) occurs in a speech by Agent Smith in The Matrix.  In the film, Morpheus has been captured by the machines, and Agent Smith speaks to him while “interrogating” him to obtain the access codes for the Zion mainframe.  During that interaction, Agent Smith expresses a sentiment—shared by many environmentalists, and I suspect by many ordinary people who haven’t thought very deeply about the situation—that humans are like a virus, a disease of the ecosystem.  Whether or not it might be useful to characterize the global effects of humanity as such, one statement Smith makes during this speech is so fundamentally erroneous, and it represents such a common but uselessly misanthropic notion, that I absolutely must address it.

I don’t have the exact quote before me, but Smith says words to the effect that all other types of creatures besides humans achieve a natural equilibrium with their environment, in which their populations and their impacts, stay neither too large nor too small.

This impression is simply false, as a matter of general biology.  The equilibria seen in the natural world, the balance between predators and prey, between herbivores and plants, are products of long-standing arms races, of “nature red in tooth and claw,” of Hobbes’s “war of all against all.”  Over evolutionary time, herbivores may become faster runners, and their predators may then develop either greater speed still, to catch them, or greater stalking and hiding skills to surprise them.  Each advantage is selected for, at a small scale, but every advantage comes at a relative cost, so sudden, massive advantages rarely occur.  Over the long run, an ecological balance—the details of which are constantly in motion—is maintained…up to a point.  But there is no natural law requiring such balances to continue; imbalances of immense and catastrophic character can and do happen in nature.

The fact that Earth has an oxygen-rich atmosphere is the product of one of these “sudden,” very early, apocalyptic advantages.  A particular group of microorganisms in the early world stumbled upon the ability to photosynthesize, to derive energy from abundant sunlight, and thus to expand rapidly and precipitously in the ecosystem.  This was a calamity for most other organisms on the planet, which had hitherto survived anaerobically.  Photosynthesis released free oxygen into the atmosphere in copious quantities, and oxygen, being highly reactive, was (and is) toxic to many forms of life.  In addition, the highly successful new photosynthesizers massively out-competed their fellows for space and other resources because of their greater competence in the new environment.  I don’t know if we have good numbers on the character and percentage of the mass extinction that this event triggered, but it would probably make the Cretaceous/Tertiary event look like a modest blip by comparison.

Similarly, the evolution of mobility, and of mouth parts, at the time of the Cambrian explosion led to serious mass extinctions among immobile, osmosis-feeding organisms that lived on the ocean floors.

The Matrix, and similar accounts of human population growth and environmental impact, takes a moralistic attitude about human success, implying that we are somehow unnaturally selfish in our drive to spread and to succeed, but this is absurd.  It is, in fact—ironically—a highly anthropocentric view.

Morality is a human invention, or discovery, if you prefer.  It doesn’t exist in the non-human world, and to describe the behavior of living creatures in such terms can be misleading.  What makes humanity dangerous—to ourselves and to everything else—in not any special degree of aggressive fecundity or selfishness.  These attributes are shared by every successful organism on the planet, by default.  An organism without a drive to survive and reproduce, as well as it possibly can, will be rapidly out-competed by those organisms that have such drives.  So, all extant organisms possess powerful, central impulses to thrive and to reproduce as much as they can.

If you were to use a magic wand and grant deer, for instance—that proverbially-oh-so-innocent species—the ability to evade predators flawlessly, or some other degree of increased competence (or if you were simply to eliminate all predation and disease that normally shortens deer lifespans and reproductive success) the deer population would rapidly expand at the maximum possible rate, until it reach the Malthusian endpoint of complete destruction of all available resources.  This process might very well drive to extinction numerous other species of plants and animals, and—unlike humans—deer would not give a second’s thought to the morality of their actions, nor would they be able to anticipate the harms.

Our danger to ourselves and to the world doesn’t come from any especially aggressive, ruthless, or opportunistic character, for these are attributes shared by all successful lifeforms.  Our great danger comes from the fact that our gigantic brains give us vastly increased competence relative to our fellow creatures.  Like the microbes that first discovered photosynthesis, we have a power that is different in character from every other organism alive.  That power makes us a danger because we can have effects on the natural world to which it is not evolved to respond.

Unlike those photosynthesizers, though, our new and revolutionary consciousness gives us foresight, however imperfect, something that never existed in nature before.  We have the capacity to imagine—as did the writers of The Matrix—the potential outcomes of our actions, to alter our behaviors and try to avoid results we find undesirable.  We are even able to care about the safety, well-being, thriving, and suffering of other creatures, in and of themselves, for their own sakes, which is something utterly alien to the world of nature.

It is possible—it has almost certainly happened—for organisms to evolve themselves right out of existence.  So, it could be said, from certain metaphorical points of view, that humans are a danger to the ecosystem, one that could even be characterized as a “disease”—climate change, at least, makes such a case arguable—but this is not because we are evil, or because we are unusually aggressive, nor that we revel in and relish the destruction of other life.  Quite the contrary, our ability to reflect upon and alter our actions is a new degree of competence that even prior, ultra-competent organisms didn’t have.  It could reasonably be argued that humanity is or could be a disease in the natural world.  But our ability to recognize this fact, and to understand its character as a natural process, means we are also capable of being the cure.

It’s disappointing that a fictional artificial intelligence as advanced as that portrayed as Agent Smith could make such a simple but profound mistake.  But I guess you should never send a machine to do a human’s job.

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