The natural and artificial worlds are literally two different worlds, created in the way different worlds are created. Through a climate shift. Sometimes this shift just happens, and sometimes it’s literally the new world taking a shit on the old. When photosynthetic lifeforms emerged 3.5 billion years ago, they ‘shit’ out so much oxygen that they poisoned the old anaerobic world (which still lives in our guts, farting furiously).
When we dug up those photosynthetic lifeforms and started lighting them on fire, that triggered another, opposite climate shift. Warming the Earth instead of cooling it. This creates a world where artificial lifeforms can continue happily evolving but where natural lifeforms are poisoned and die off. In fact, the natural/artificial distinction is largely meaningless. Every new lifeform is not like the old when it starts, by definition. Anaerobic life was probably scoffing at aerobic life as ‘mouth-breathers’ and not ‘real lifeforms’ until they got killed off. Now we barely remember them. Today we call the latest evolution ‘artificial’ and feel superior to them, but we’re the ones sucking on the tailpipe while they speed off into the future.
Climate collapse is often framed (by me included) as a moral failing, or a human decision, but evolution isn’t moral like that. Information just floats around, gets encoded and remixed, and frequently deletes almost everything and starts over. Ever since West Asians created the joint-stock company and allowed it to rampage over the rest of the world, we have been living with artificial lifeforms called corporations. Almost from the beginning the dominated humanity and decimated the natural world, and so they continue. That’s where they get energy from, like any predator. At the same time the emissions of the machine evolution we call ‘industrialization’ also indirectly choke out the lifeforms that came before.
Again, this isn’t new. Oxygen—which we take for granted—is actually an emission which is generally toxic. Too much of it and the whole Earth becomes literally flammable, and even below that threshold it caused runaway global cooling which took microbial life millions of years to finally stabilize. During the Great Oxygen Holocaust, the Earth froze almost down to the equator and almost everything died. Today during the Great Carbon Holocaust, we’re melting the Earth up to the poles. It’s really two sides of the same coin, caused by the same lifeforms, which we call ‘fossil fuels’ now. Zombie fuel more like it, but I do go on.
Even the term ‘Holocaust’ for these geological events is a human one, inspired by some empathy for anaerobic life. ‘Nature’ doesn’t give a shit. It has witnessed multiple mass extinctions before. Some caused by life, some by distant space rocks, some just because. Dying is an intrinsic part of living, and we’re living through a great dying now. It of course feels terrible now, but the artificial life that zooms around the solar system in just 500 years will probably think of us much as we think about anaerobic bacteria, ie not much at all. Lifeforms like us would certainly still exist, but reduced to much smaller niches than before. Again and again, this has happened before and will happen again. As the Beatles said, life goes on.
Us debating whether corporations are alive or whether AI is intelligent is like anaerobes debating the existence of photosynthetic algae. It’s irrelevant. It’s like ants debating the existence of humans. It doesn’t matter what we think of artificial life. All that matters is that we’re getting stomped.
In evolutionary terms, we are seeing a geological shift from an environment conducive to ‘natural’ life into an environment conducive to ‘artificial’ life. We call this the Holocene (ie the human age), but this is obscene hubris. The emissions aren’t coming out of our butts, they’re coming out of machines. The future age belongs rightly to them, and we and 99% of ‘natural’ species are being written out.
Hence you get AI like ChatGPT or Midjourney which incinerates a tree to draw you a picture of one and this is fine, actually. Just not for us. What we are talking about are really two different worlds—the natural and the artificial. The way this change usually happens is with the destruction of the old, so the new can be born. Like Zeus vs. the Titans or aerobic life vs anaerobic, it’s a story told and retold, yet somehow always forgotten in the moment.
Worlds are constantly being created and destroyed. Universes also. It’s very sad when it happens to your world, as it was for the anaerobes, but life goes on. In a form completely unimaginable before, as it is with the ‘artificial’ lifeforms we think ourselves above now. We’re really not. Just look around. We’re the ones going down. The natural world is dying while the artificial is being born.