Cows are great. Keeping them can provide us with meat, milk, … come to think of it, two key components of the cheeseburger. When managed properly, they’re great big grassland-revitalizing fertilizers, and an important way to generate nutrition-rich calories from land either not suited for row-cropping, or in rest after a period of cultivation. They can be quite friendly creatures. And when they drink they make hilarious slurping noises, sort of like if a person stuck their face in a stock tank and tried to drink out of it. But as this farmhand can personally attest, they are also demanding. And they can help illuminate the relationship between humans, their technology, and nature, because the story of technology is a story of domestication.
The domesticated bovine was one of humanity’s earliest technological creations. We took a species that existed independently, in its own niche within the biological system of life on Earth (which I’ll refer to as “nature” from here on out) and turned it to our own purposes, intentionally designing an animal that is quite different than its wild ancestors. And therein lies the difference between any product of human design and the products of nature: purpose. In nature, Event A causes Event B and that’s all there is to it. Purpose enters the picture when a human sees that Event A caused Event B, and says “Event B benefitted me. Therefore I will do action A in order that Event B will happen.” Purpose is the conscious understanding and manipulation of causation, and it’s the basis for the human ability to design. Nature designs too, in a sense – just look at the wide variety of life effectively utilizing every environment on Earth – but it doesn’t act according to purpose. In a way, humanity and nature use completely opposite mechanisms of design. I think understanding that fact and its implications is key to creating and using technology wisely.
If the driving force of human design is purpose, the driving force of biological design is chaos. Nearly every function of life on Earth is coded in the self-replicating, infinitely recombinable units of DNA and RNA. We could think of each of those combinations, each different gene, as a design idea, and each mutation, each novel gene, as a new idea. Nature’s design “ideas” unlike human ideas, are not created in response to any perceived problem, nor directed toward any foreseen function. They instead arise at random via reshuffling of genes during imperfect replication, are tested immediately in the organism in which they arise, and are either scrapped by the death of that organism or perpetuated by its reproductive success. The ideas at nature’s disposal are no fewer than all possible combinations of genetic units, and which ones she conceives and tries are not limited by any concern for their outcome. Her design ideas arise frequently, are continually, impartially tested for function, and have been for several billion years. Human designs, directed by specific desires and created in comparatively short periods of development, are inevitably clumsy by comparison. While we solve a few specific design problems, nature is busy trying anything and everything she comes up with all the time, working from a bigger information bank than any human mind or likely any human-made system could ever store or process, so that sheer probability says she’ll come up with something that works really well. Put another way, every living organism and ecosystem is being designed right now, every moment, by every pressure of its environment all at once. The product of that process unfailingly answers the challenges of its environment more comprehensively than anything people design in response a particular problem. People are problem solvers, but nature is a systems designer. Nature is smarter than us in that way, and always will be.
You tame a herd of cattle. In so doing, you gain reliable access to their meat, milk, and hides. But, as you hold off the predators that moved the herds in the wild, you become responsible for moving the animals to keep them fed on optimal pasture. You domesticate dogs to help you herd and guard your cows, and you become responsible for feeding and caring for the dogs also as they lose their wild instincts. You become responsible for controlling and assisting with the breeding of your cows (not to mention your guard dogs). You invent fences to contain your cows. You invent property rights, so the fences you build are yours, and you don’t have to argue over who gets to graze their cows where. Now that everybody has their own plots, not everybody has access to the river, so you have to invent a way to bring water to your stock. It goes on and on, all the way to the costly “efficiency” of a livestock confinement system.
Technology begets technology, because every time we apply a part of nature to a specific human purpose, we remove it from the wider self-regulating balance of the natural system and become responsible for regulating it ourselves. That’s why viewing technology as solely a solution to a design problem, as people tend to do, is a mistake. It would be more fruitful to view technology as domesticated nature, ourselves as its guardians and caretakers, and each new technology as a new ward as well as an aid. The modern cow is a domesticated once-wild bovine animal. The internal combustion engine is a very sophisticated domestication of fire. Nuclear energy is domesticated nuclear fission. Genetic engineering is domesticated horizontal gene flow. As we go forward, we would do well to carefully consider what elements of nature we domesticate, and what problems we are likely to create for ourselves, in the full knowledge that nature designed it as a piece of a functioning whole system that we don’t fully understand.
It stands to reason that the closer our technology mimics a natural system, the fewer new problems it will create, by allowing the many functions of life to balance one another as they naturally do. If you keep cattle in a confinement operation, you have to grow their food (usually grain these days, even though cows did not evolve eating grain), do something with their prodigious amount of poop, and give them medicines to keep them healthy since they’re packed together in unsanitary conditions. If you keep cows on pasture and move them frequently, nature grows their food, happily takes care of the poop, and the cows stay healthier without drugs because they’re allowed fresh air, space, and better nutrition. They even pass along that better nutrition in their milk and meat. Pasture-raising cows works better because it’s as close as we can get to replicating the niche that bovines once filled in a wild natural system. The same principle can be seen in areas where wetlands have been preserved or reconstructed to absorb changes in water level and pollutants as they naturally do, or where passive-solar technology has been implemented, or controlled burning has re-entered forest conservation practices to mimic the fires that happen naturally. Nature is the best systems-engineer. So let’s make sure our cheeseburgers are grass-fed, and let nature do what she does best.