Entangled Intelligence

Technology often presupposes human domination, but it could instead reflect our ecological dependence

It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be. We humans tend to see ourselves as the anointed objects of evolution, our intelligence representing the leading edge of unlikely order cultivated amid an entropic universe. While there is no way to determine any purpose or intention behind the processes that produced us, let alone where they will or should lead, that hasn’t stopped some from making assertions. 

For example, consider the school of thought called longtermism, explored by Phil Torres in this essay for Aeon. Longtermism — a worldview held, as Torres notes, by some highly influential people including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, tech entrepreneur Jaan Tallinn, and Jason Matheny, President Biden’s deputy assistant for technology and national security — essentially sees the prime directive of Homo sapiens as one of maximizing the “potential” of our species. That potential — often defined along such utilitarian lines as maximizing the population, distribution, longevity, and comfort that future humans could achieve over the coming millennia — is what longtermers say should drive the decisions we make today. Its most extreme version represents a kind of interstellar manifest destiny, human exceptionalism on the vastest possible scale. The stars are mere substrate for the extension and preservation of our species’ putatively unique gifts. Some fondly imagine our distant descendants cast throughout the universe in womb-like symbiosis with machines, ensconced in virtual environments enjoying perpetual states of bliss —The Matrix as utopia. 

Bridle invokes the “more than human” as a mega-category: the interactions within it are what matters

Longtermist philosophy also overlaps with the “transhumanist” line of thought, articulated by figures such as philosopher Nick Bostrom, who describes human nature as incomplete, “a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” Here, humanity as currently or historically constituted isn’t an end so much as a means of realizing some far greater fate. Transhumanism espouses the possibility of slipping the surly bonds of our limited brains and bodies to become “more than human,” in a sense reminiscent of fictional android builder Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner: “Commerce is our goal,” Tyrell boasts. “‘More human than human’ is our motto.” Rather than celebrating and deepening our role within the world that produced us, these outlooks seek to exaggerate and consummate a centuries-long process of separation historically enabled by the paired forces of technology and capital. 

But this is not the only possible conception of the more than human. In their excellent new book Ways of Being, James Bridle also invokes the “more than human,” not as an effort to exceed our own limitations through various forms of enhancement but as a mega-category that collects within it essentially everything, from microbes and plants to water and stone, even machines. It is a grouping so vast and diverse as to be indefinable, which is part of Bridle’s point: The category disappears, and the interactions within it are what matters. More-than-human, in this usage, dismisses human exceptionalism in favor of recognizing the ecological nature of our existence, the co-construction of our lives, futures, and minds with the world itself. 

From this point of view, human intelligence is just one form of a more universal phenomenon, an emergent “flowering” found all throughout the evolutionary tree. It is among the tangled bramble of all life that our intelligence becomes intelligible, a gestalt rather than a particular trait. As Bridle writes, “intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does. It is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act.” In Bridle’s telling, mind and meaning alike exist by way of relationship with everything else in the world, living or not. Accepting this, it makes little sense to elevate human agency and priorities above all others. If our minds are exceptional, it is still only in terms of their relationship to everything else that acts within the world. That is, our minds, like our bodies, aren’t just ours; they are contingent on everything else, which would suggest that the path forward should involve moving with the wider world rather than attempting to escape or surpass it.

This way of thinking borrows heavily from Indigenous concepts and cosmologies. It decenters human perspective and priorities, instead setting them within an infinite concatenation of agents engaged in the collective project of existence. No one viewpoint is more favored than another, not even of the biological over the mineral or mechanical. It is an invitation to engage with the “more-than-human” world not as though it consisted of objects but rather fellow subjects. This would cut against the impulse to enclose and conquer nature, which has been reified by our very study of it. The scientific and taxonomic projects of botany and zoology that first catalogued the dizzying diversity of life were largely colonialist in nature, and Darwin’s insights on evolution have been taken to justify a world ordered for the human species and, in the case of social Darwinism, various subgroups within it. Of course, even Darwin recognized that evolution is at least as much about collaboration as competition. 

Technology, too, counts among this expansive concept of the more than human. But technology today largely exists as a tool of capital, servicing its fundamental drive toward accumulation, competitive advantage, and private gain, and helping reinforce assumptions of human dominion over the nonhuman. Technology afforded humans immense advantages among life on Earth — we certainly didn’t come to dominance by dint of our strength and speed — and after three centuries shaped ever more profoundly by technology, some of the most powerful beings now living are technologists. It’s telling that Elon Musk’s dreams for humanity are premised on escaping this beautiful world, and that Jeff Bezos’s idea of environmentalism is to turn the planet into a nature preserve — an ecosystem walled off to prevent human participation.

This offers a crystalline vision of where the dual forces of capital and technology have been leading: full alienation from the planet that produced us and of which we are part. This impulse goes as far as seeking to eliminate death, a necessary part of life as we know it; to transcend death would also mean to transcend life and become something altogether different, and certainly no longer human in any sense that relates to the world that made us. In light of this, the impulse to leave the planet, live forever, and augment or totally defer our thinking to machines at least hangs together with a certain eschatological coherence.

In this framing, no one viewpoint is favored over another, not even the biological over the mineral or mechanical

Capitalism has always depended on a dualism that upholds the human mind as separate from the crude matter of biological life. As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel notes in a recent episode of the podcast Upstream, that sense of separateness was central to overcoming the “strong moral and cultural barriers that prevent you from damaging and exploiting the ecosystems on which you depend.” For capitalism to thrive, Hickel argues, early capitalists recognized that they would have to overcome the “worldview of interdependence … and so there was a concerted effort to try to destroy that story of interconnectedness, and replace it with something else.”

Technology under capitalism has largely served that ideological purpose; its “advances” have been predicated on a process of increasing atomization and disconnection from nature, a phenomenon now revealing itself in population studies, as well as in in films and other cultural expressions. Such disconnection is collectively taken as the necessary price of progress, narrowly defined. Hence even as contemporary technology facilitates more and more “interconnectivity,” there is nonetheless a growing recognition of social, ecological, and psychological alienation. The rift is deep enough that many people unironically and unconsciously  speak of “escaping” to nature, as if nature does not exist everywhere we go. At the same time, technology offers an invitation to extend our concepts of agency and personhood.

“Artificial intelligence,” as the term suggests, could be understood as just another technology reinforcing the distinction between the human and everything else. The perceived threat of machines possibly becoming sentient (as one former Google employee notoriously concluded recently) could become another pretense for humans to deepen their sense of control and find still new ways of extending their domination. But seeing sentience in machines may also suggest that our concepts of intelligence and even personhood are widening. 

Such debate doesn’t really hinge on whether a machine is a mind in any sense we recognize, but whether we will treat it as one. In the emerging field of “intelligent” machines, as Bridle notes, we have a chance to set different terms of engagement with these new additions to the ranks of the more-than-human. In our engagement with machines — much as in our engagement with the world around us — we can still decenter ourselves as arbiters of mind and the meaning of life on Earth. This, and not reproducing capitalism or expanding human domination, could be among the highest ends that technology helps humans achieve.

Bridle is among a host of thinkers who have sought to theorize and advance a more reciprocal way of moving in and relating to the world around us — a view of deep, interspecies kinship previously popularized in the works of Donna Haraway and Octavia Butler. More recent thinkers to pick up these ideas include Adrienne Marie-Brown, whose 2017 book Emergent Strategy urged broadening reciprocity rather than narrowing hierarchy; artist Jenny Odell, whose How to Do Nothing explored the deep power in and urgent need for decommodifying our time and attention; and novelist Richard Powers, whose entangled tales of plant and human life trace one interwoven story shared by human and more-than-human agents.

Recent years have also seen growing popular curiosity about fungi, foraging, birding, meditation, tarot, astrology, witchcraft and a renewed public interest in traditional ecological knowledge. Even the breakout success of an existentialist film like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, and Ed Yong’s best-selling book An Immense World, which explores the umwelt (or worldview) of nonhuman beings, all suggests a fermenting desire to re-examine our roles and responsibilities to one another, one and all, human or otherwise. 

While technology is often sold as liberatory, in practice it often produces more stark inequity, oppression, and separation

Perhaps these are the early signs of a wider rejection of the human chauvinism that has brought us to an era defined largely by social despair and ecological collapse. As new space telescopes, genetic tools, and sophisticated algorithms reveal new and exciting perspectives, opportunities and questions, some may simply see an expanding map of frontiers to master and exploit. At what point does our expanding view of the universe inspire humility instead of hubris?

If there is a perfect obverse to the notion of an eternal human empire among the stars, it might be the simple act of wandering the woods. The task of foraging is not to interrogate or control the environment but to listen and respond to environmental cues. Often, one will find that a hunch or a hint — is that slight crease in a pile of leaves a mushroom? — proves correct, as if a thought were shared with the woods. As ethnographer Ana Tsing writes, “the uncultivated habits of wild mushrooms are good to think with … wild mushrooms press us into multispecies ecologies in which control may be impossible.” 

In conservation and documentation outings, even academic mycologists will differ from their colleagues in taking their time and, because of the fickle nature of the beings they seek, trusting their intuition. Mycologist Patty Kaishian characterizes these outings as a “timed wander.” This may not sound scientifically rigorous, but it often pays off, especially for those who have cultivated a relationship with what they seek and where they seek it. And then again, the subtle interactions between our minds, environments, and the “more than human” with which we share them are barely understood by science — millennia of tradition, story and ritual have served as a means of interfacing with them, as Dolores LaChapelle explains in this essay on ritual. And as Bridle notes, the most effective way of charting an unfamiliar space is to explore it randomly, suggesting a kind prosaic, primordial intelligence underlying all things and a wisdom in letting the world do some of our thinking for us. 

If our minds are co-constructed with the world around us, existing in the myriad ways we engage it as much as in the stuff between our ears, this might also cause us to question whether any intelligence can ever be considered artificial. It would seem presumptuous to qualify any intelligence this way when we are still so ignorant of its nature — indeed, fungi too are coming to be recognized as much smarter than science once believed possible. This isn’t news to everybody: Ask a forager or someone with a close or more traditional relationship to their landscape, and you will likely hear an account of the intelligence of fungi, as well as everything else one might encounter among the more than human world. Once the perspective is gleaned through experience, it’s impossible to forget or discount.

Often when foraging, one will find that a hunch proves correct, as if a thought were shared with the woods

The remediation of my own separation from nature began on a mountaintop in technology’s capital city, when I took mushrooms for the first time atop Mount Davidson (appropriately enough, the highest point in San Francisco). A 100-foot-tall cross towers over its peak, but I was transfixed with the shrubs growing on the periphery. Glowing green in the sunlight, they seemed to regard me in return, as I was overcome with a newfound feeling of fellowship with these leafy Earthlings. Hours passed, and my attention drifted to the distant, pastel-colored row houses of the Sunset District, then to the dusk sky where stars, passing airplanes, and clouds appeared suspended in a crystalline lattice. Like many psychedelic trips, it was a visual delight, but far more impactful was the deep, wordless understanding that myself and everything in sight were part of one majestic, unified whole.

Psychedelic mushrooms are perceived by some as a technology, credited for the growth and complexification of human brains. But our engagement with them is impossible to trace in utilitarian terms — the relationship between human brains and the psilocybin molecule are as emergent and unruly as any other phenomenon in nature. Their mind-altering benefits are really remarkable only for our brains’ ability to remark upon them, and rather than suggesting a world purpose-built to elevate human agency and intelligence, they are a reminder of the utterly contingent nature of our brains and our existence. Our brains — our world and our umwelt — all bear the imprints of the world we share with everything and everyone else.

As Ana Tsing notes, useful mushrooms gather along the boundaries of human activity and at the “seams of empire.” It might seem that fungi are making a kind of statement as they emerge among the cracks in pavement, at the edges of developments, undermining and offering alternatives to a paved-over world built by and representing a crumbling capitalist order. Of course, mushrooms can’t speak, and even if they could, we might again debate whether this were representative of true intelligence. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t endeavor to listen. It’s certainly no more absurd than aspiring to lift off and leave Earth behind as a means of preserving human life. While the technologists insist we look to the heavens for signs of hope and means of escape, perhaps the way out of the woods is by finding our way back to them. 

Doug Bierend is a freelance writer, and author of In Search of Mycotopia. He is interested in science, media, technology, ecology, degrowth, food systems, and general subversiveness in service of a more equitable and sustainable world. You can follow him on Twitter or on Instagram.