I managed to get a good nights’ sleep, and though I still felt far from 100%, it seemed better to make some attempt to move on rather than remain rotting in our motel for the rest of our lives. So we gathered ourselves together, finally finished juggling our stuff back from backpacking to motorcycle configuration, and got underway around 11.
It was a cloudy day, which made the temperature pleasant, but the riding somehow gloomy. That the mountains were mostly thickly forested and came down close to the road didn’t help matters either. Everything felt closed-in and gray, kind of the opposite of how you’d expect to feel on a motorcycle trip out west, but it was so good to just be out on the road again we didn’t care.
And it didn’t even phaze us that much when we hit rain near Kalispell; we just switched our camping plan to a motel and rolled into town in our rain gear. Finally making progress east!
It was a little bit of a bummer to be in a city, which Kalispell basically was, after walking and riding through so much beautiful nature, but this would be basically the biggest one we’d hit until we’d gone basically another half-width across the continent. There really wasn’t a lot here at this latitude in the U.S. between Washington and New York.
But speaking of cities, this leads us back to the earlier discussion about evolution and the future of man. As I mentioned there, in the progression from chemistry to life, from single-cellular life to multicellular life, from there to intelligence and language, and from there to persistent culture, we’ve seen more and more complex interactive processes emerging at successively slower timescales. These emergences are happening more rapidly and based on the timing alone it seems we may be due for another. And in fact, one may have already happened.
Cities appear very much like multicellular organisms played out again at a higher level – great plants or immobile animals in which humans take the place of cells. We can see equivalents of nervous and circulatory systems in the telephone and internet networks, the roads, the water pipes, and so on. Some of these also extend out to other cities, serving as means of communication. Within the city we can observe all sorts of life-like processes. For example, if a large pothole develops on a street, or a power line is severed or water pipe broken, it will eventually be detected and a crew sent out to repair it, reminiscent of the mobilization of platelets and other specialized cell types in response to a wound. Zoning practices ensure that like functions remain nearby like, just as cells as organized into tissues in organisms. Immune-like functions exist to repel invaders (this has been weakening in recent centuries) and neutralize unruly elements (criminals, cf. cancer). Cities engage in cooperation and competition with one another for resources. And although cities incorporate many nonliving elements made of metal, concrete, etc., this does not differentiate them from multicellular organisms. The latter, too, incorporate nonliving components, such as hair, (part of) bone, xylem, shell, etc..
So are cities the next phase in the evolution of life? Or are they just something like beehives, ant colonies, or coral reefs, interesting aggregates of organisms and inorganic structures but not destined to play any grand role on life’s stage? To answer this we need to go beyond just pointing to emergence and look at the details of what has emerged.
In fact, if we look more closely at the past record, we see both emergence and refinement. Emergence: the origin of life; refinement: eukaryotic cells. Emergence: multicellular life, refinement: sexual reproduction. Emergence: intelligence; refinement: language. Emergence: culture; refinement: writing and diagrams. Emergence: electronic representation; refinement: ongoing. Very roughly, these refinements increase the integrity and robustness of the structures that emerge.
Eukaryotic cells have nuclei, separating the genetic and control structure making possible a greater variety of cellular functions. Sexual reproduction, by mixing genes each generation, allows longer-generationed multicellular organisms to keep up evolutionarily with their faster reproducing single-celled brethren. Language is a particularly interesting one which may serve similar functions in human minds to what RNA/DNA does in cells. Essentially, DNA provides a reliable, persistant, digital encoding of complex protein structures – a small change in the chemical environment will not corrupt the base pair sequence, so that the same proteins can be produced over and over. Without DNA, small changes in the cell’s chemical environment could easily accumulate over time and destroy the delicate balance of chemical reactions that makes it alive. It would also be difficult for cells to reproduce reliably, because again small differences in the two halves of dividing cells could accumulate. Analogously, language provides a means of encoding complex narratives and ideas, and communicating them to others. Language has allowed ideas to be clarified, built upon, and shared between people, enabling the tremendous development in human civilization and culture.
It’s clear that cities have undergone a number of refinements since the first ones. Water and waste systems have been considerably improved, the nervous system (electrical communications) and a kind of muscular system (electricity to begin with) have been added. There has also been a general increase in size. Do cities have anything like language or DNA though? They do make use of human language in libraries, construction records, engineering diagrams, and the like. It would even seem that a city could reproduce itself to an approximate extent based on this information. But it’s difficult to say whether these are as reliable a representation as DNA. It’s also clear that reproduction per se does not play as central a role in the evolution of cities as with multicellular organisms. Most change occurs through internal development as technologies improve, systems are upgraded, and styles evolve.
Without going into great length to cover the details, I would posit that cities fulfill just about every criterion for life and organism that come up with. That said, one could also look to nations or subcultures as larger or smaller alternative units of higher-order life, and perhaps be equally right. One is faced with the same boundary-drawing problem as when distinguishing between ecosystems, symbiotic pairs or groups, and organisms. While the lines are clearer in these biological cases, the principle of separating out independence from interdepence is the same.
And of course there are other places to look for the next step beyond humans in the story of life – for example artificial intelligence or bioengineered super-organisms. We will come to some of those topics later. But I wanted to point out that not all futures involve humans as conscious architects; we may equally well become (or be becoming!) unwitting participants in a higher order, no more aware of the fact than the cells in our bodies are that they are part of an organism, not just living in a local environment where a red-colored river fortunately carries nutrients by that they need.
One last point relating back to the talk of rockets and humans spreading into space. Supposing we don’t find a way around the speed of light, there are many who believe we might still colonize other worlds by sending very large space ships containing self-sustaining communities of individuals. The contents of the ship would be something very like a city. And while generations of humans would live and die on the journey before ultimate arrival at the target world, the city itself would make the journey whole and intact. We have seen that the timescales of each successive level of life organization are longer; it may be that the timecale and typical lifespans of the level above us will be better suited for going to the stars.