Ways of Being

Ways of Being coverWays of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence
James Bridle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 21, 2022), 386 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.99

I first heard about Ways of Being when Krista Tippett wrote about it in her weekly On Being email, gushing about the book for multiple consecutive weeks. I admire Tippett’s work, so I downloaded the Kindle sample and read it. Author James Bridle is obsessed with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in the introduction provided in the Kindle sample, that’s what he discusses. I am fully aware of the ubiquity of AI these days and I don’t mean to be an ostrich with its head buried in the sand, but between the mainstream news media and social media I sometimes feel saturated with the topic. I put the sample aside and didn’t buy the book.

But then the marvelous Maria Popova wrote positively about the book in her Marginalian blog. I decided to revisit it and bought the book. Much to my annoyance the first chapter was all about AI as well. Bridle writes about his experiment in creating his own self-driving car with off-the-shelf parts. He was living in Greece at the time and tried it on the narrow road going up Mt. Parnassus. I was annoyed but I persisted. The book got better after that.

Bridle writes about how we might think about self-awareness in the animal kingdom. He discusses animals in captivity and their attempts to escape their cages or enclosures. He writes about experiments to determine whether animals had self-awareness by putting mirrors in their environments. Interestingly, different primates exhibited different behaviors. Dolphins, when presented with mirrors, engaged in frenzied sex.

The author devotes part of a chapter to a discussion of the octopus. Those animals are highly intelligent even though their makeup is radically different from mammals. The bulk of their intelligence is not in the central brain but rather in their multiple arms. Bridle describes the ingenious attempts one octopus made to escape its captivity. I wish he had devoted more space to the octopus.

Plants are part of the equation as well. Bridle describes how a tree can experience a threat and when that threat returns the tree will communicate the danger to its neighbors. Then there is the slime mold. Not properly classifiable as an animal or as a plant, the individual cell is extraordinarily simple, yet when working together the collective cells engage in intelligent behavior. This is not new knowledge: I read about the slime mold in Lewis Thomas’s enchanting Lives of a Cell back in the seventies.

Bridle also discusses other early human species. He describes how Neanderthals and Denisovans were just as capable and skilled as early humans. In fact, Bridle writes, “Neanderthals and Denisovans were pioneers in what were once considered extreme environments: their adaptations, their genetic legacy, helped our ancestors to outlive them.”

The author devotes considerable space to the computer, beginning with the mechanical precursors to the modern computer. This, of course, takes him back to AI. Bridle writes that the idea that we can program AI systems to be completely friendly and non-threatening is “both wildly optimistic and worryingly naive.” (Full disclosure: in the mid-1990s when I was a technical writer I worked for a company that developed “expert systems” for the banking and insurance industries, a term then preferred over AI.)

Bridle concludes the book by writing about solidarity, not only with other humans, but with “the more-than-human world.”

I’m glad I returned to Ways of Being and stuck with it. There is much to ponder here.

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