Vaslav Smil in “The Diversity and Unification of the Engineered World” draws a parallel between the taxonomy of the domain of life and the taxonomy of man-made objects. He points out that in terms of “species” count, the diversity of man-made objects has already surpassed that of nature. One could argue that we don’t know if a “screw” should be compared to a species, a genus, a family, or even a class in the domain of life. But on the other hand, at least from a data-driven perspective, a quantitative comparison between the two seemingly disparate “domains” is not that much of an unfalsifiable claim. One could draw an analogy between the tree of life, and the accessibly digitalized taxonomy of Amazon products across all niches.
Thou shall not compare apples with oranges? Fair, but apples and apples, you can compare. Consider the diversity in the domain of man-made objects today to the recent past, and it has been on the rise. Meanwhile, the diversity of life has been declining. And if the two trends are not vis-à-vis mapped to one another, they are at least connected with a simple inference:
Diversity is moving from the tree of life to objects.
Does it mean that in terms of innovation our technological species has surpassed “nature”? No, we are a part of nature, and this is nature at play moving from a geological, to a biological, to a technological planet. And all of these are driven by a notion of evolution of the winner code against the selection pressures of an environment similar to, but beyond biology. Evolutionary sciences outside biology do exist sporadically but not as formalized and well-established as the theories of biological evolution which have been elaborated since Charles Darwin. Nevertheless from a more “Lovelockian” perspective, we should be able to zoom out of the conventional borders of sciences, and project the inferred rules of evolution beyond the 150-years-old tradition.
The competitive exclusion principle
According to the competitive exclusion principle (CEP) in ecology, two species competing over the same resource cannot coexist forever; One will eventually leave the scene to the other. We can see this in the economy with the establishment of a monopoly by the tech giants, taking up all the resources serving a specific aspect of human life. With a stretch, we can also generalize this principle in a different direction by classifying man-made objects into kingdoms and species just like plants and animals. In other words, we can look at both taxonomies, life and objects, as two terrestrial families competing over a single resource, our planet. It will appear that man-made objects are taking the playground from the organic life.
And with the transfer of resources, shifts also, diversity.
The modern explosion of manufactured objects whilst the decline of biodiversity should be viewed as the tale of a shift; Diversity has gradually moved from the tree of life to the product-space.
So far, this looks obvious. But there’s a catch! And it is about us, humans as the catalyst of this shift.
It appears that we humans can be seen as a domain which not only caused the forementioned shift but also hosted it for a short while. In short, we took it from life, had it to ourselves for a geological moment and are now giving it to objects, in an emergent process that may not even be in our control.
Shift of diversity from life to objects, via humans?
As buildings seize more lands from trees and drones will take more of the sky away from the birds, we need to pay attention that in between these two, animals and artifacts, there was an intermediate domain for hosting diversity which rose and fell: human culture, as the carrier of novelty.
A one-step more detailed story could go like this: One species out of millions unexpectedly dominated the earth and while pushing the rest to die or adapt, diversified itself. It gave rise to an explosion of isolated cultures, languages and lifestyles; A diversity unseen in any species beforehand. The cycle however did not stop there. Millennia later one or few of those many cultures – under the industrial civilization – eventually pushed all the rest aside and sucked the diversity into its own territory, producing physical artifacts. And this is where we are now.
Clearly, many of these cultures didn’t completely die but they were marginalized and can still, at least partially be found in some uncontacted tribes or in the corners of research institutes. But so are nearly extinct animals in zoos and labs. You get the point.
Now, why does keeping track of where novelty shifts matter? Well, because nature may as well repeat the cycle again. Let’s just extrapolate what would happen if evolution, in this era of novelty which is the age of man-made products, favours yet another front-runner and picks one or few of these numerous by-products and eventually rules out the rest from the “mainland” to marginalized “islands”. This will be similar to what we humans did to other species, by placing a handful of wild and not-domesticated animals in our zoos while driving the rest to extinction. And also similar to what modern cultures did to the old ones, killing them off or putting fractions of them on academic shelves or in museums. Each winner code seems to set a new agenda and eventually dictate the next primary carrier of diversity.
“Regimes” of life, based on the notion of diversity
Geologic timescale is conventionally divided in eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. The consensus does not yet allow concepts such as Anthropocene to have a formal place within this geologic timeline. It is, therefore, quite a stretch to redefine this timescale based on a single species. But what if we try an alternative [unconventional] concept, such as a geological “regime” – for the lack of a better term – based on the domain of diversity? This is beyond description as such a model could have some predictive power, as with the virtue of extrapolation it can possibly give some alternative understanding about the past and the future of this planet. So a basic induction can retell the story of terrestrial life based on the notion of diversity as following:
- The regime of mono-cell/biodiversity: What we call life, the explosion of life forms all based on eukaryote and prokaryote cell types, can be viewed as a geological regime of “mono-cells”. It is now suggested that prior to the Darwinian Threshold there must have been a diverse community of cells that survived and evolved as biological units. The Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA), although an already complex organism with a DNA-based genome, is not thought to be the first life on earth, but only one of many early organisms, all of their progeny having become extinct. This means that during the transition of the prebiotic earth to the time of LUCA there had existed a diverse pool of biological entities, at some point perhaps many different cell architectures, from which only two main types of them ended up colonizing the earth. The mono-cell regime took the diversity from all the other extinct cell types and throughout the Cambrian explosion handed it to species.
2. The regime of mono-species/cultural diversity: The age of mono-cell/biodiversity has witnessed several attempts of a single species rising to colonize the planet and eventually falling. Until now, however, it seems that homo sapiens as an ultimate colonizer has reached a certain breakthrough unprecedented in earlier species. Our ancestors and a handful of our domesticated species had for some time taken the diversity from other species. During this period, they had formed thousands of religions, languages, and isolated cultures.
3. The regime of mono-culture/product diversity: What we are experiencing now is the rise of a “monoculture” regime within the timeline of our civilization, that can be defined with the dominance of the industrial civilization which has marginalized the survived cultures, many of which have for long been extinct. In fact, we can view this phase of civilization as a stage of life on earth. This stage has served as a platform for the modern and diverse pool of man-made objects.
4. The regime of mono-artifact: And the point of all these speculations is the horizons it can show. What could come next? Let’s read the same old story once again.
Is it conceivable that one or few objects, out of the current myriad of man-made artifacts and products, dominates the existing technological diversity? In this very simplified story, after eukaryotic/prokaryotic cell types, human genome made of that particular cell type, the industrial civilization made by that particular genome, a certain greedy object takes the crown and redefines the future of Earth’s ecosystems? And then further, with the rise of that winner as the new platform, what would be the next territory that shall win nature’s focus to experiment with its innovation and host the future diversity?
This does not mean that we, as organic life, are going to end and give the playground to inorganic life. As we humans need forests and wildlife to sustain our biological life to maintain our domination, the winner object to run its greedy codes of reproduction, is likely to depend on our flesh, which depends on Earth’s life support systems, although modified. We may be transformed and brutally domesticated.
Yet another path pointing out to a potential and perhaps an inevitable take over of silicon chips, and AI.