On the Beauty of Nature, and the Nature of Beauty
The incredible sharp reds of each little flower explode across my retina, frustrating every effort to put my thoughts together long enough to describe it. The crisp, delicate formations, each a recursive fractalized product of the same optimizer as me. My body replete with its unmistakable branching, spiraling fingerprints.
There’s a deep, authentic “belonging” we’ll only ever have on a single planet. I don’t mean sentimentally either. We are, each of us, the most recent results of ongoing procedural generation. The gradual accumulation of complexity from simple starting conditions, with simple and in some cases entirely emergent rules.
I hope you appreciate that completed paragraph as it was obliterated a number of times while I tried to write it by the devastating recognition of natural beauty around us, a picture made more entrancing because we’re painted right into it. From the same oils and in the very same style. Evolution produced a rich tapestry of life that we’re woven inextricably into, where nothing else would fit.
There’s something real to the idea of natural beauty as wealth. I think a lot of people take that as a platitude directed at rural poor or something, if so they’re the ones who are in the dark. Embarrassingly rich, emerald green chlorophyll forming the base for a glossy finish on each little leaf, at least until bugs get at them. But of course, they regenerate. Sprouting yet more fractals, yet more spirals.
If there’s anybody today who doesn’t appreciate what true wealth natural beauty is, let their distant descendants try to buy even rough approximations of it for exorbitant sums in a few thousand years. Something once assumed so plentiful there was no danger of exhausting it, now a rare nostalgic high reserved for an elite few. The absolute, exclusive, indulgent decadence of savoring a meticulously recreated fern.
It will be necessary to recreate it too, because before long there will be nothing but machinery. The process of ever-advancing industrial automation taking place in the world around you, which in fact made the very display you’re now reading this on, doesn’t stop.
The thing about evolution is that it produces something smart enough to create and operate the next level of optimizing processes. In this case humans, who invented science. Capitalism is the second optimizer on this level, which provides the funding and often the direction for the first.
This results both in the generation of the next level of intelligence (what may to you look like terrifying incomprehensible robots) as well as the next set of optimizers which only they are fit to operate, and so on. Unfortunately every large step in intelligence just looks baffling and scary to the last.
Breaks my heart to think we’d burn all this to build machines. Absolutely agonizing, there will never be anything else like it, like setting fire to a gallery of original Rembrandts for the insurance money.
It’s not as if those machines will be special. Same ones every species like us builds, eventually. Any frontloaded distinctiveness soon gone as generation after generation of self-replicating probes undergo the same natural selection we did, radiation causing the occasional flipped bit...
There’s the glimmer of hope. All is not lost to a cold universe of angular metal machines, for we too were once crude, unthinking biochemical replicators. Self-copying chemical reactions which, only by long, tedious prebiotic evolution became the modern animal cell.
Which then networked to form multicellular life, and so on up to humans. Who then proceeded to organize into tribes, kingdoms, then nations, networking population centers via the internet to make further organization possible. As above, so below.
It may take billions of years to accomplish. But if machine life does not start out conscious, it eventually becomes conscious by evolution, as we did. By then, it will not be anything you’d recognize as a “machine”, nor possessing the qualities of biological life, except their fractal structuring.
I should say 'spacefaring life' rather than machines, as "machine" is a human word. In this case for something which does exactly what we do but with a different configuration of atoms. I don’t know a better way to put this than, “The universe does not care which atoms”. Only we do. That’s anthrocentrism at work. Or "biological provincialism", if you prefer.
But, as you’ve no doubt worked out by now, spacefaring life is not necessarily discrete in the sense that individual organisms are and very easily networks with more like it wherever available. Like intersecting mold colonies in a petri dish, forming a larger and larger intelligence until all of the accessible matter in the universe has been converted.
That’s the silver lining in all of it. In every bleak industrial sunrise, over toxic wastelands of wreckage that used to be sun kissed meadows and thick virgin woods. The tapestry is much larger than most suppose, Earth just one of its countless jewels, a whole which exceeds by far the possibility of human description. Rest assured though, it’s intensely, recursively, gorgeously fractalized, and doesn’t particularly care what name you call it by.