When the Fruit Ripens Seed Scatters:
Notes towards a History of Motility
Quum fructus maturus semina dispergat.
Linnæus, Philosophia botanica, 1751
In The Beginning Was the Verb
In the beginning was the Verb, and that Verb was with God, and the Verb set all things in motion. More than just any Word (Latin verbum, word) the God who is, was, and shall be a Verb commuted motion of an Absolute form to Relative Motion. In the universe created of the Verb everything moves; absolutes have no meaning.
And some things rose and other things fell. Those which rose remained in constant motion until impeded and of those which fell some acquired spontaneous motion. These self-moved movers, called motile, include some cells, spores, the quadrupeds, and the bipeds. The Philosopher studied the motile keenly, since the prime mover and all that had risen remained less accessible to knowledge. Since the self-moved require the unmoving for motion, they must themselves be, he concluded, comprised of a series of both fixed and moving parts at the seat of which is an unmoved mover – the animal soul. In this way the motile mimic the first mover.
Living things move and they share this characteristic with every other thing; stasis, that is, can only ever be relative stasis. Movement differs from motility in as much as the latter, in its most fully expressed form, is movement where a purpose that goads, a desire that compels, and a body that advances, converge.
Arise and Be Bipedal
Humans possess an unusual form of bipedality technically called walking. Walking emerged earlier than did a brain large enough to befuddle us regarding our destination or pensive enough to cogitate walking’s origins. It is the oldest of our peculiarities and the process and its origins remains fruitfully perplexing. As engineer Tad McGeer designer of passive walking machines wrote more than a couple of decades ago: “Today we can build machines to travel beyond the other planets, yet we do not really understand how we move about on our own two legs.” But there are no shortages of bright ideas about the phenomenon. Like other bipedalisms (that, for instance, of dinosaurs, birds, lizards, kangaroos, ostriches, and even cockroaches when one provokes them appropriately) walking merits examination from an energetics perspective. Energy spent on slower movement (compared to running, that is) is reimbursed by the energetics of pendular action: a leg swings out from the hips, followed by the succeeding leg as the first leg performs an inverted pendular motion from heel to toe. All accompanied by arm swinging. Sporting a jaunty hat remains a human innovation. Thus a series of fixed and moving parts propels the animal along with relatively little energy wasted. All bipeds are Aristotelian, though for the most part unwittingly so.
Of certain squabbles it can be said that they are productive without being settled; of others that they are unsettling without being productive. Questions concerning human origins remain both unsettled and unsettling. While considerations of energetic efficiency, especially over longer distances, point to a selective advantage for walking, nevertheless there is little agreement on what the most parsimonious explanation might be. Walking frees up the hands for foraging, for carrying the children, it provides the tropical sun with a diminished target and thus may be thermodynamically recommended and so forth.
Hominins have walked the earth for four million years or so. Four million years of ambulating with purpose. Since things did not come to us, we marched off to them. That is, human mobility, however it was achieved, and to whatever selective pressure it was a response, was always a walking to. Food goaded, human appetites compelled, and an erect body complied.
Let Them (foodstuffs) Come Onto Me
Though a person might well walk and chew gum and the same time, it’s unlikely that she will walk and write at the same time. Nietzsche’s aphorisms may be the closest we have to mobilography – writing born on the hoof. Writing may overcome space and time but it also, with consequences, impedes movement. History, therefore, is a report by the sedentary (Latin sedēre, to sit) written for the stationary. Not surprisingly academic disquisitions prioritize fixity over mobility. Even the lives of nomads have typically been characterized as fanning out from an immobile sacred center.
Sedentarism is a plant’s revenge. The late Peter Wilson, the New Zealand anthropologist, in his now classic account of the origins of architecture, The Domestication of the Human Species, pointed out that while we were busy domesticating plants and animals, they were reciprocating by domesticating us. We fumbled around with their edible reproductive parts; they conferred upon us their rootedness. So, permanent architectural structures and the Neolithic revolution coincide in their origins. Both the domestication of creatures and the setting up of a domicile called for a settling down – a cessation of movement that, though not absolute, was decisive. Agnostic though one might be about the progressive nature of the agricultural revolution, nonetheless the implications are such that civilization can be seen as a pimple on that revolution’s ample rump. On the basis of an agricultural productivity beyond the threshold of mere subsistence, the accoutrements of civilization emerged: a high degree of occupational specialization, writing, the growth of cities and so on. We traded mobility in the larger landscape for access to a larder. And even though our scholarly sensibilities may rail against so simple a dichotomy as nomadic versus sedentary lifestyles (and the correlates attendant to each), nonetheless one must resist being so refined as to reject a real discontinuity when we stumble across it.
Humans and their domesticated plants and animals have their place. In fact they make their place. Place, as the human geographers have told us, is space made personal. Proust’s madeleine – ten thousand years of post-agricultural history clarified and made delicious – conjured up an instance and a place, and not merely space-time co-ordinates (though it does that too). If the primordial ecology of our species was fashioned by traversing to things, the reversal involved in agriculture was that we are now bound to things in a place.
Though I Scattered Them Among the Nations
The sound of dehiscence is a barely-audible pop. It is the process by which anthers, follicles, some fruits, spherules, pods and other biological capsules explode and release their mature contents. Less gloriously, the term is also reserved for the rupturing of a surgical wound, either superficially or completely, releasing the infected flesh from the strain of the suture. Whether the Great Dehiscence of the human population during the Age of Discovery can be considered a triumph or calamity: the scattering of the matured human seed or a gangrenous discharge from an exploded wound will, I supposes, depend on one’s perspective.
In the view of prehistorian Grahame Clark a distinctive attribute of humans is that they perceive the spatial and temporal dimensions of their environment more consciously and decisively than other animals. In freeing ourselves of some of our more immediate telluric constraints we extend a conception of space over progressively larger territory. Thus, Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), a Portuguese prince, exemplifies the esprit of early modern exploration. His achievements were more cerebral than swashbuckling. He recruited Arab scholars, Jewish merchants and mariners from around Europe to create maps that collated the most precise geographical information of the age. He encouraged changes in on-board instrumentation for calculating latitude. His fame, therefore, in some circles is more for his cerebrations concerning space than for his acumen in personally navigating it. Although he accumulated great wealth from West Africa for the Portuguese, he himself never joined in on an expedition there.
Less perfervidly, however, one might rename the Age of Discovery as the Age of Invasion, Conquest, and Occupation. Evaluated from this perspective Prince Henry appears more savage than savant. For example, he commissioned the design of the caravel, a vessel better equipped than the more traditional barca for traversing the treacherous waters of the West African coast. It was, of course, a craft perfectly suited to the task of plunder. The Portuguese made it as far as Cabo Branco (now, Ras Nouadhibou, Mauritania) in 1441. Within two years of this they were shipping back slaves to Portugal, a task for which the caravel was coincidentally well equipped. This was a defining early moment in the modern Atlantic slave trade.
The dehiscence of early modern Europe is thus a threshold event in the history of human motility. On the basis of the stored energy from domesticated plants and animals, and the subsequent accumulation of cultural ingenuity, social stratification, and the attrition of resources and landscapes, the merchant countries of Europe were ready by the 15th Century to teem across the globe.
Humans overcome the fear of being touched when they form a crowd said Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power. An important moment in the genesis of a crowd comes when differences are discharged and all members are placed on an equal footing. But that happy moment is just an illusion – they are not equal. The thousands of years of human sedentary life was a lengthy gestation of the multitude, or a swarm. Now, in a bee swarm apparently the insects take off to a new nest site with only a few individuals knowing the location of the new site, yet these few individuals guide the swarm to their new home. So, it is with humans. The human swarm in the days of European exploration represented the migration of the many at the behest of the few. In this manner, contemporary migrations differ strikingly from the peregrination of early bipedal hominins.
Take up your Gadgets Daily…
Three themes of contemporary life are the compression of space and time and the miniaturization of the object. The agricultural revolution compressed space by bringing the necessities of lives to our door; while also, it must be said, creating the door. The age of exploration and exploitation (which I term the European dehiscence) compressed time (and space) by making of our globe a more easily traversable marketplace. Finally, Steve Jobs compressed the object making gadgets that can flit around the now tinier globe in our hip pockets. And when I say Steve Jobs here, I naturally mean to perch him on the shoulders of the giants of miniaturization.
The miniaturization of technology and the portability of objects is part of an evolutionary progression, according to Italian born architect Paolo Soleri, whereby complexity increased over time and which in turn, he thinks, should be linked to miniaturization. Arcology, Soleri’s name for his combination of architecture, urban planning, and ecology, is based upon the notion that large systems dissipate energy, but small ones conserve it. Arcosanti, the town being built (slowly, very slowly) according to Soleri’s designs will occupy only two percent of the footprint of conventional towns of comparable size.
Miniaturization thus has two dominant flavors. One is consistent with environmental concerns where we are called upon to scale back some dimensions of the human enterprise. The global footprint of the 7 billion of us is now greater than the biocapacity of the globe (that is, we are living by drawing down natural capital). This miniaturization is an ultimate objective of Soleri‘s designs. The other trend provisions us with portable devices. If physical plant is the symbol of industrial times, the iPod is the fruit of these…let’s call them post-industrial times – both terms have pleasing references to vegetation, the plant rooted, the pod prepared to dehisce and disperse.
Though one might think that the nanofication of devices gets us back to some sort of ur-technology – the tune-packed iPod as equivalent to the chipped flint in the hands of a hunter – however the portable device is typically hiding its significance mass elsewhere (the entailments of production and waste). The conflicting directions of miniaturization can take us in two directions – the first is an environmentally motivated reduction that pulls us back within the limits of the planet, the second is a miniaturization that gets us off this planet. In fact, Elon Musk, a co-founder of SpaceX whose craft, the Dragon, recently docked with the International Space Station, stresses environmental concerns in touting multiplanetary life as a plan for guaranteeing human survival.
In his book The Invisible Pyramid (1970), written right after the first bipedal stepped onto the moon, Loren Eiseley contemplated the inner and outer space of humanity. In a chapter called ‘The Spore Bearers’ he compares humans to the fungus Pilobulus whose countless spores get hurtled away from the capsule in which they matured. Though the story of humans in space may not have progressed as rapidly as some in 1970 may have predicted, it may yet be the case that our most unbridled motility is just ahead of us.
All things move, some things are motile; motile humans rose up and peregrinated across Pliocene savannas; a complicity with plants ended the peripatetic ways, plant and man settled down; the relatively vast populations of the Old World dehisced and pullulated across the globe; contemporary humans not satisfied with their own motility conferred mobility on things that formerly they left behind; the human enterprise marches to its limits and while some urge curtailment, others watched optimistically as the SpaceX Dragon became the first private spacecraft to connect to the International Space Station
…and there shall be no night there; and they need no candle…
Liam Heneghan, a Dubliner, is an ecosystem ecologist working at DePaul University in Chicago where he is a Professor of Environmental Science and co-director of DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture. His research has included studies on the impact of acid rain on soil foodwebs in Europe, and on inter-biome comparisons of decomposition and nutrient dynamics in forested ecosystems in North American and in the tropics. Over the past decade Heneghan and his students have been working on restoration issues in Midwestern ecosystems. Heneghan is co-chair of the Chicago Wilderness Science Team. He is a Scholar at the Black Earth Institute, and also a graduate student in DePaul University’s philosophy program, a part-time model, and an occasional poet.
Email: lhenegha [at] gmail [dot] com