Can animals be usefully described as clockwork machines? | Aeon Essays

I started listening to the Econtalk podcast, I think, partly as a way to broaden my ‘echo chamber’ – the Hoover Institution doesn’t exactly have an intuitive appeal to me! And it turns out to be one of the best, insightful, and nuanced podcasts, partly because Russ Roberts manages a perfect blend of inquiry/curiosity and advocacy, being both well aware and explicit about his preferences and prejudices, and genuinely intellectually interested.

EconTalk is a weekly economics podcast hosted by Russ Roberts. Roberts, formerly an economics professor at George Mason University, is a research fellow at Stanford University‘s Hoover Institution.[1][2] On the podcast, Roberts typically interviews a single guest—often professional economists—on topics in economics. The podcast is hosted by the Library of Economics and Liberty, an online library sponsored by Liberty Fund. On EconTalk Roberts has interviewed more than a dozen Nobel Prize laureates including Nobel Prize in Economics recipients Ronald CoaseMilton FriedmanGary Becker, and Joseph Stiglitz as well as Nobel Prize in Physics recipient Robert Laughlin.[3]


This episode with Jessica Riskin is a nuanced take on that unthinking trope of ‘the mechanical universe’, a great example of how polarisation obscures real thinking. It also name-checks cybernetics explicitly.


11 FEB ⋅ 1:04:51
Historian Jessica Riskin of Stanford University talks about her book The Restless Clock with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. What is the difference between human beings and machines? How has science thought about this distinction? When do we have agency and when are we constrained? Riskin discusses these issues and the implications for how we think about ourselves and the growth of artificial intelligence.


And here’s Jessica Riskin’s perspective on this in a nutshell:

Source: Can animals be usefully described as clockwork machines? | Aeon Essays

<excerpt only as it has a CAPITAL LETTERS thing saying ‘republishing not permitted’ – do go to Aeon – well worth reading!>

Alive and ticking

The idea that nature is a humming, complex, clockwork machine has been around for centuries. Is it due for a revival?

From Voyage to the South Pole and Oceania on the Corvettes Astrolabe and Zélée, during the years 1837-1840 by Jules Sébastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville. Photo by Getty Images

Jessica Riskin

is professor of history of science at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (2016).

Published in association with

The University of Chicago Press
an Aeon Strategic Partner

3,500 words

Edited by Sally Davies

The philosopher René Descartes, who lived for a time near the royal gardens of St Germain-en-Laye just outside Paris, was intrigued by the strange machines installed there. The grounds of the château were abuzz with water-powered automata that cavorted in grottoes, enacting scenes from Greek mythology and playfully splashing their visitors. If these intricate hydraulic mechanisms could perform the defining actions of living things – moving themselves, engaging, interacting – why shouldn’t living things and even human beings be a kind of machinery? ‘I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth,’ Descartes wrote in Treatise on Man (1633), where he invoked the ‘clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other such machines which, although only man-made, have the power to move of their own accord’.

At the time, Europe was humming with mechanical vitality. On the grounds of palaces and wealthy estates, 16th- and 17th-century Europeans built theme parks featuring puckish androids that chased after or hid from guests, sprayed them with water, flour or ash, made faces and sang songs. In churches and cathedrals, automaton angels sang and prayed; horrible devils rolled their eyes and flailed their wings; the Holy Father made gestures of benediction; and mechanical Christs grimaced on the cross as Virgins ascended Heavenwards.

The model of nature as a complex, clockwork mechanism has been central to modern science ever since the 17th century. It continues to appear regularly throughout the sciences, from quantum mechanics to evolutionary biology. But for Descartes and his contemporaries, ‘mechanism’ did not signify the sort of inert, regular, predictable functioning that the word connotes today. Instead, it often suggested the very opposite: responsiveness, engagement, caprice. Yet over the course of the 17th century, the idea of machinery narrowed into something passive, without agency or force of its own life. The earlier notion of active, responsive mechanism largely gave way to a new, brute mechanism.

A model of the Digesting Duck in the Museum of Automatons, Grenoble, France, originally created in 1739 by Jacques de Vaucanson

Brute mechanism first developed as part of the ‘argument from design’, in which theologians found evidence for the existence of God in the rational design of nature, and therefore began treating nature as an artefact…

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