The ideas and practices of Artificial Life research, and the interactions between these ideas and practices, are the topics of this thesis. How can the study of life, which ALife researchers see as pregiven by Darwinian evolution, be combined with the study of the artificial, which they see as “man made”? What implications do the combination of “artificial” and “life” have on how they practise their science? We will see that this combination makes Artificial Life a blend of a traditional naturalistic science and what they themselves sometimes call a postmodern science. (↑Risan 1997: ↑Introduction)
In their introduction Varela and Bourgine emphasise that Artificial Life is part of a longer line of thought. As many other ALife researchers do, they trace Artificial Life research back to the advent of ↑Cybernetics in the late 1940’s (1992:xi). Norbert Wiener defined Cybernetics as “control and communication in the animal and the machine.” (Wiener, 1948) Practitioners of cybernetics in the late 1940’s, as ALife researchers now, were occupied both with making life-like or intelligent computers and robots, and with understanding life and cognitive or mental phenomena. The emphasis that the ALifer in the story above placed on seeing cognition as embodied and embedded, that is, as an aspect of a larger system than the human brain, is something that he shares with many cyberneticians. Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist deeply involved in cybernetics, writes that “the mental characteristic of the system is immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole” (Bateson 1972:316). During the 1950’s the cybernetics movement fragmented. Some social scientists, with Bateson as a leading figure, started to apply the systemic perspective to social systems. This “social cybernetics” became particularly popular within family therapy (see for example Bateson et. al. 1956). Within engineering, cybernetics became a technique for making control systems (such as thermostats or goal seeking missiles). The discipline that combined the human/biological interest with the technical interest of the early cyberneticians became known as Artificial Intelligence (AI), today often referred to a bit ironically as GOFAI. The practitioners of this discipline distanced themselves from cybernetics. They rejected the holism of the systemic perspective and emphasised the formal and logical aspects of human cognition. The advent of Artificial Life research at places such as COGS is thus a reintroduction of the early cybernetical notions in contemporary artificial intelligence research.
ALife-researchers called themselves ALifers and, as a whole, the ALife community. The term “ALifer” was invented a bit as a joke at the first Santa Fe workshop in 1987. The term “ALife community” derives from the English designation of scientific communities (you also have the “anthropological community”). I first learned that Artificial Life existed from a book on the topic, written by the Danish biologist and philosopher of science, Claus Emmeche(2) (Emmeche 1991). (↑Risan 1997: ↑Introduction)
(2) What interested me most was the re-discovery of cybernetic ideas and practices, the holism and the systemic thinking within established and/or main stream scientific institutions (as Cybernetics, with the advent of AI, had been expelled to quite marginal pockets of science).
BATESON, GREGORY. 1956. “Toward a theory of schizophrenia,” in Bateson 1972.
BATESON, GREGORY. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
RISAN, LARS CHRISTIAN. 1997. ↓Artificial life: A technoscience leaving modernity? An anthropology of subjects and objects. TVM Skriftserie 23. Oslo: TMV-Senteret.
EMMECHE, CLAUS. 1991. Det levende spil: Biologisk form og kunstig liv. Munksgaard: Nysyn.
VARELA, F. J. AND PAUL BOURGINE. 1992. Toward a practice of autonomous systems. Proceedings of the first European Conference on Artificial Life. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
WIENER, NORBERT. 1948. Cybernetics. New York: John Wiley & Sons.