There was a fly. Evolution, or its parents, or god, had equipped it with a neural system that commanded it to turn 30 degrees upon approaching an object. One imagines a despairing father bearing down on her as a baby fly when she neared a fence post.
“Dad! I don’t know what to do!”
“Think it through: land or turn?”
“I don’t know!”
“Use your eyes! Land or turn?!”
“Yes! 30 degrees! Turn!”
Father and daughter skipping over the fields, landing on cow pats, and turning away from the fence posts. But this education in strategy, transmitted to the fly I met in the bathroom, was not a success when pitted against four closed walls.
I’ve lived 180,000 hours so far. One of these was spent in the company of this fly: whose life will bless her with perhaps 600 hours. And during that hour she did nothing but repeat the same maneouvers. Ten times I watched her investigate the A-frame interior of a ‘caution: wet’ cleaning sign. She bounced off the yellow plastic, making her 30 degree deflections, only to come up against a wall and turn around — finding nothing. She worked her way around the four walls at shoe height, and again at eye height. Then she moved higher still: only to deflect from the ceiling and start again from the floor. She returned, time and again, to the draft beneath the door and to the window behind the toilet. Often, in her ambles between draft and window she would get distracted by the cleaning sign — giving another cursory investigation, just in case she missed anything the last ten times. Were I to be watched for a fortnight by some divine angel who had lived for, say, 54 million hours, I would look much the same to him as this fly appeared to me. The angel might laugh at how I complacently retraced my steps. He would see me think the same thoughts, sing the same songs, make the same mistakes. And he might pity me for how I had dispensed with the uneventful fortnight he had observed. He might wonder if my endless repetitions, my endless failures, were not tragic and upsetting. I found it upsetting to watch the fly. There is nothing more to what we are than patterns: drawn in space and time. The very essence of life is repetition.
I left the bathroom feeling wretched. My body unsettled and disturbed. A copy of Scientific American lay open at a page on which was printed a tawdry 500 word interview about the future of our species. A geologist wrote it. He proposed sapiocene as a name to be given to a new era of life on earth, characterised, he said, by life that is self-aware. He pointed out, aptly, the dramatic change in the history of the earth wrought by the population explosion of cyanobacteria two billion years ago. Their swollen population churned out enormous quantities of oxygen gas that would come to make possible all the subsequent developments to which we owe our existence. The geologist ended his little squib on a note of optimism: “perhaps the sapiocene will be the best eon yet!” This is not where my differences with him begin. I take issue with his notion that life on earth is at all self aware. There are over seven billion people. Each, taken individually, could be judged, under not too exacting a criterion, as ‘self aware’. But there is nothing self aware about our species, when taken as the coagulated mass of individuals that we are. Our species has no awareness of its behaviour. No one unit of seven billion can be expected to truly appreciate the global dynamics of which it is but a tiny mote. The ancestors of the cyanobacteria may have once congregated in a small line of settlements dotted along some tectonic boundary in the ocean floor. Two billion years later, having struck on a particularly fruitful mutation, their progeny managed to quickly spread throughout the oceans and pump their oxygen into their air. In like fashion, our ancestors were once tiny in number, only a few tens of thousands. Eighty thousand years later, members of our species are to be found on all our continents, on all our oceans, and in our skies. Where are the cyanobacteria now? We are the conquerors.
I feel compelled to take my point still further. Not only are individuals incapable of being aware of their species as a whole, the very circumstances which make possible our unregulated multiplication require that the individuals are kept in a state of non-awareness. Our system of resource consumption and management has emerged precisely by altering the status of individuals and, through vast and vulgar mechanisms, ensuring that they remain individually mindless and largely obedient (if not to their governments, at least to capitalism). The corporatisation, just as much as the television and food, of the late 20th century should be understood as yet another mutation in the chain that lead to our domination. The castration of the individual should be seen as the necessary switch required to make possible our senseless overpopulation. And the resulting boom in our population should be understood as part of the inevitable catastrophe entailed by our evolutionary success. We are not aware of this. Some people in some offices might say that they know what is going on because they write about it. But the existence of these people does not ensure that the course of life on this planet is any more self aware than it was during the proterozoic. Everything I see suggests the opposite.