Do you feel like a machine today? Probably you don't, unless maybe you're reading this on a Monday morning. But according to the conventional wisdom of modern biology, a machine is what you are. Richard Dawkins, a zoologist at Oxford University, has written that human beings are "machines for propagating genes," and that the "utility function" of living things is no more than "DNA survival." Harvard University entomologist E.O. Wilson employed the life-as-machine metaphor as a central element of his popular 1998 book "Consilience." "People, after all, are just extremely complicated machines," Wilson declared. The same for other living things: Every "organism is a machine." Other contemporary scientists and thinkers have said as much, emphasizing that life doesn't function by magic, but rather by complex mechanisms of chemicals, electricity, heat exchange and information management.
The we're-all-machines view seems to have developed partly as a way of helping scientists communicate to the public that natural foundations have been found for most (though not yet all) essential functions of life. Hard to argue with that, but also hard to see what is accomplished. Everyone, even the most zealous creationist, already believes that human beings are made up of lots of really complicated parts that do really complex things--there's no need to promote a machine metaphor to convince the public that Homo sapiens is physically intricate, or that our various parts must play mechanical roles.
There's a second level of the metaphor, which suggests that if we're all just machines, there is no supernatural, life has no higher purpose, life is just a meaningless "utility function." That's where the metaphor of people-as-machine becomes disquieting. Emphasizing that life is like a machine seems another way of saying that life lacks special value. The parking lot is full of cars, but they're all machines. Should we view ourselves this way too?
The notion that people should be taught to think of themselves as machines is taken on, disassembled and ultimately reduced to spare parts in a lovely, humane new short book, "Life Is a Miracle," by the naturalist and poet Wendell Berry. Berry's effort is mainly a rejoinder to Wilson's "Consilience," especially to Wilson's insistence that life is a deterministic mechanism. "Consilience" has many fans, mainly because it offers an eloquent defense of the Enlightenment ideal of objective truth, a notion currently in disrepute within the academy. And Wilson can hardly complain that a book has been written against his book: considerable sections of "Life Is a Miracle" won't be clear to you unless you first buy and read "Consilience." But even Wilson supporters will have to admit that Berry's book hits its target many times.
Berry's first big objection to the life-as-machine metaphor is that it robs us of wonder. Those cars in the parking lot--they may all have utility functions, but there's nothing majestic or transcendent about them. Surely life can't be the same. "We are alive within mystery, by miracle," Berry writes. "Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable," Berry quotes Erwin Chargaff as writing.
And when Berry says we are here "by miracle," he means just that. Though "Life Is a Miracle" is not explicitly religious--Berry himself comes down somewhere between theism and agnosticism--his work carries the flavor of the transcendent. "If you think creatures are machines, then you have no religion," he observes. Whether or not there exists a creator God, Berry thinks, our existence is still miraculous--first because science hasn't the slightest idea what caused the universe or how life began, second because even if our origins are wholly natural, we still should walk "alive within mystery," marveling at our own being.
Berry's second big objection to the people-as-machines metaphor is that it robs us of sacredness. If we're just machines, why not cast aside the ones that aren't working right? Nobody has moral objections to junking an old car. If we're just machines, where is the special uniqueness of every individual? All those cars in the parking lot are slightly different, but so what? And, Berry cautions, if Homo sapiens is just a mechanism without purpose or mystery, then if an artificial form of consciousness is ever invented, why should it feel any compunctions about switching us off? We certainly don't feel any pangs when we switch off our computers. They're just machines.
As the biologist Lawrence Reynolds has noted, somehow in today's intellectual climate, it's fine to suggest that DNA is mysterious and wonderful, but wrong to suggest this about the people that DNA makes possible. Substitute "purpose" for "utility function" when describing life, Reynolds has written, and suddenly your statement is inexcusable. Machine good, spirit bad seems to be the reigning intellectual assumption of our moment.
In "Life Is a Miracle," Wendell Berry offers splendid, cohesive arguments against this view, and against that form of reductionist science that "simply rules out or blots out whatever it can't explain or doesn't like." There's an awful lot about life that we can't explain, and Berry shows us that is a reason to celebrate.