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Genesis redux essays on the history and philosophy of artificial life

Genesis Redux

Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life. Chicago University Press, 2007. Artificial life, understood in this classical sense, constitutes the focal point of the papers in this collection. In her extensive and informative introduction, Jessica Riskin warns readers that the volume is not intended to provide a comprehensive history of artificial life, but rather to highlight the philosophical continuities and discontinuities that become apparent upon a close examination of selected episodes of that history.

The emphasis, then, is as much on the transformations in our understanding of what life is and how it may be created, as it is on the continuities linking together the successive historical attempts to create artificial life. As a result, the book goes well beyond what may be expected from a standard historiography of artificial life. Following the classical interpretation of artificial life, the volume features historical case studies of particular efforts to engineer life-like automata in ancient Greece chapter 2the fifteenth century chapter 3the sixteenth century chapter 13the eighteenth century chapters 6 and 14 and the nineteenth century chapter 9.

  1. Because animals are nothing but machines, their mechanistic construction becomes con- ceivable. Since humans were deemed to have souls, there was always something in them that was not reducible to mechanism and which had to be accounted for in other terms.
  2. Though the idea appears promising in principle, the actual connections between the essays and the respective organizing themes is far from obvious and does little to convey the intellectual connections which could have otherwise been drawn between the different contributions. Following the classical interpretation of artificial life, the volume features historical case studies of particular efforts to engineer life-like automata in ancient Greece chapter 2 , the fifteenth century chapter 3 , the sixteenth century chapter 13 , the eighteenth century chapters 6 and 14 and the nineteenth century chapter 9.
  3. Schickore rehabilitates eighteenth-century microscopy, departing from earlier works that argued that the eighteenth-century microscope was a toy of little scientific importance. Historically, the examination of the relationship between inanimate matter and living matter is not well correlated with the examination of the relationship between inanimate matter and thinking matter.

However, other contributions interpret artificial life more broadly to encompass the field of artificial intelligence, and discuss several historical and philosophical themes in the quest to engineer sentient or intelligent machines chapters 10, 12, 16, and 17.

Surprisingly, only one contribution in the entire volume chapter 15 discusses the actual academic field of Artificial Life. Given that the papers in this collection touch on an extremely wide range of topics, I restrict the rest of this review to making some general evaluations of the volume.

It should have already become apparent from my dissection of the contents that the organization of the essays in the volume is unnecessarily complex. Though the idea appears promising in principle, the actual connections between the essays and the respective organizing themes is far from obvious and does little to convey the intellectual connections which could have otherwise been drawn between the different contributions. On the whole, this volume is probably best Downloaded By: One fairly salient omission of this volume is the neglect of how the contemporary research programme of Artificial Life relates both philosophically and historically to the older attempts at building automata.

Unfortunately, none of the chapters in the volume attempts to map out the intellectual threads linking the classic attempts at building life-like automata with the research in this contemporary field, nor do they suggest reasons for the philosophical discontinuities between classical and modern efforts at artificial life.

This seems like a missed opportunity, since the collection would in all likelihood have resulted far more attractive to scientific audiences had it endeavoured to include at least some contributions from present-day Artificial Life research. Although the adoption of a very loose conception of what constitutes artificial life is undoubtedly one of the main strengths of this volume, as it enables a remarkably diverse and multi-dimensional engagement with the subject, it is probably also one of its main weaknesses.

This is because the notion of artificial life which structures the essays in the volume is so broad that it juxtaposes approaches and traditions that have little to do with each other.

As a result, it becomes exceedingly difficult to draw many substantive philosophical lessons from the volume genesis redux essays on the history and philosophy of artificial life a whole. This problem is perhaps best exemplified by the inclusion of artificial intelligence as if it were a straightforward subset of the broader project of artificial life. Historically, the examination of the relationship between inanimate matter and living matter is not well correlated with the examination of the relationship between inanimate matter and thinking matter.

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Philosophically, the phenomena of life and mind cannot be lumped together in contradistinction to inanimate matter because they refer to fundamentally different problems for which different kinds of resolutions have been suggested.

The repercussions of this regrettable conflation are most visible in the introduction to the volume, where before proceeding to consider the intellectual contributions of each of the individual essays, Riskin ventures to offer a general conclusion drawn from the historical case studies in the collection: On the contrary, designers of synthetic creatures have generally assumed a role for something nonmechanical.

These endeavors have not reduced living creatures to brute matter. Rather they have continually Downloaded By: As Dennis des Chene notes in his contribution chapter 5the very idea of artificial life only becomes a genuine possibility with Descartes precisely because it is he who first makes explicit the reduction of the living body to machinery.

Because animals are nothing but machines, their mechanistic construction becomes con- ceivable. However, although life is reducible to mechanism, mind is not. As a result, the prospect of artificial intelligence, in contrast to that of artificial life, remains a logical impossibility. It would seem reasonable to argue that this is because the underlying presupposition informing the efforts of these engineers was that whereas life is within reach of mechanistic reduction and simulation, intelligence is not.

Landes notes in chapter 6, despite constructing several human automata, Vaucanson saw his artefacts as contributions only to the understanding of life and the bodily structure of humans, not of their intelligence. Riskin is correct in affirming that throughout the history of artificial life there has been an allowance for something nonmechanical, but she is probably incorrect in claiming that this mysterious irreducible factor was life itself. Since humans were deemed to have souls, there was always something in them that was not reducible to mechanism and which had to be accounted for in other terms.

Consequently, there has generally been a compromise between the reduction of life to mechanism on the one hand, and the maintenance of the soul as something that connects to the bodily mechanism on the other.

These two epistemic commitments are by Book Reviews 139 no means in conflict with one another.

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In fact, more often than not, the two have gone together. The depth of the historical analyses presented and the impressive range of topics covered are sufficient reasons to make this a highly commendable volume which deserves to be widely read by students and specialists alike. University of Chicago Press, 2007. Microscopy in the Enlightenment 2009.

The book is evenly divided into two parts, the first treating British microscopy, and the second, German. Schickore rehabilitates eighteenth-century microscopy, departing from earlier works that argued that the eighteenth-century microscope was a toy of little scientific importance. She does not deny that amusement was part of microscopy, but argues that microscopists also did important scientific research.

For example, microscopy was becoming integrated into anatomical studies both in Edinburgh and London. Practitioners considered the instrument a tool of improve- ment and were optimistic about the microscope and its users. Illustrative of this point is her discussion of anatomical research and the problem of optical deception focusing on the research on the structure of nerve tissue of Alexander Monro secundus, professor of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, and Felice Fontana, Director of the Cabinet of Natural History of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Although at first Monro thought he had discovered a structure fundamental to all matter, consisting of convoluted, solid fiber, other researchers challenged his findings, and he eventually recognized that what he had seen was an optical deception.

Ratcliff, The Quest for the Invisible: Microscopy in the Enlightenment Aldershot, UK, 2009.