Evolution: shift from biology to technology

Beginning 70 years ago in 1954, McLuhan anticipated much of the contemporary (2024) discussion around A.I. :

modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. (The God-Making Machines of the Modern World, Commonweal, March 19, 1954) 

Technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 1954)

Today, a new technology of great delicacy and precision has created an image of ourselves which invites us to swallow nature. The gap between man and the world, [and between] art and nature, has been abolished. (Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded, 1955)

The old separation of art and nature we now see1 to have been based on an ignorance of nature. (New Media in Arts Education, 1956)

By the end of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution most of the physical organs had been given extension in metallic forms,2 and Samuel Butler could argue that the evolutionary process had been transferred from the biological to the mechanical plane.3 (Humpty Dumpty, Automation and TV, 1962)

The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution. (Understanding Media, 1964, 182)

Satellites = super human environment around planet = end of “Nature” (Notes in Alphabet: Number Thirteen, June, 1967)4

The evolutionary process no longer belongs to the biology of our bodies. Our bodies create these new environments, the extensions of our bodies, create these new environments like the electric one. And these are the location now of the evolutionary process.5 A new environment like TV, or computer, or telephone, or radio, can compress millions of years of evolution in seconds. What has been happening to us in the 20th century is that we have been going through many millions of years of evolution, biological evolution, psychological evolution, through the extension of our bodies to these new environments. The body doesn’t fit into an environment anymore, it makes the environment. It makes that space. (Fordham lecture, ‘Tribal Retrieval’, September 20, 1967)6

The extension of our own nervous system as a total environment of information is in a sense an extension of the evolutionary process. Instead of it taking place biologically over many thousands of years it is now possible — in fact it has happened to us in the last few decades — it is now possible to traverse many millions of years in seconds by putting evolutionary extensions of ourselves outside [of ourselves] as environments, as teaching machines. The man-made environments that are now planetary are, in terms of evolutionary development, a greater step than anything that ever happened to our biological lives in the whole biological past. (Fordham lecture, ‘Open Mind Surgery’, September 28, 1967)7

With Sputnik, nature ended. The Darwinian environment of evolutionary biology went inside a man-made environment. The evolutionary process shifted from biology to technology. (Noble Purpose but to What End?, 1968)8 

Darwin and Marx ignored the man-made environments in their theories of evolution and causality in favor of the eighteenth century and romantic idea of nature as environment. (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968)

The important thing is to realize that electric information systems are live environments in the full organic sense. They alter our feelings and sensibilities, especially when they are not attended to (…) This is a principle that applies to all technologies whatever, explaining the pathos and impercipience of historical man. Since the new information environments are direct extensions of our own nervous system, they have a much more profound relation to our human condition than the old “natural” environment. They are a form of clothing that can be programmed at will to produce any effect desired. Quite naturally, they take over the evolutionary work that Darwin had seen in the spontaneities of biology. (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968)

The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology (McLuhan to I.A. Richards, July 12, 1968, Letters 355)

The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology (McLuhan to Jacques Maritain, May 6, 1969, Letters 369)

The new extensions of man [tele-graph, tele-phone, tele-vision] and the environments they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process. (Playboy Interview. 1969)

The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. (Innovation is Obsolete, 1971)

Hiroshima and The Bomb (…)  returned men to sudden recognition of the precious significance of the human scale. The classic wisdom of nothing in excess was resurrected by this instant of hideous strength, when everything was in excess. The human scale that had been submerged during a century of industrial gigantism was instantly and unforgettably retrieved. Man-made Rim Spins Supplant Natural Cycles. Henceforth, the natural round of seasonal and biological cycles was supplanted by vehement new intensities of man-made “rim spins” demanding a new programming of the entire human enterprise. (Take Today, 1972, 150)

The moment of Sputnik extended the planet. Something happened to the stellar system at that moment. The possibility of “retuning the sky” was born. Previously, the “extensions of man” related to his body, anything from his skin (clothing) to his central nervous system (electric circuitry). Each and all of these extensions affected the transactions between men and their previous environment. The extension of the planet itself meant that the technology was not transported by individual or collective man but by his previous environment — the Earth. It became a totally new game with new ground rules. Our ground now was literally in the sky. (Take Today, 1972, 293-294)

The satellites (…) transform the planet into a work of art by placing it inside a man-made environment. (Take Today, 1972, 294)

The “revolution” of this age has been a new order in which nature has become the extension of man. The centuries-old pattern had been man as an echo vibrating in harmony with the “natural order”. Now nature must play man’s tune. (Take Today, 1972, 296)9

When the planet was suddenly enveloped by a man-made artifact, “Nature” flipped into art form. The moment of Sputnik was the moment of creating Spaceship Earth and/or the global theatre. Shakespeare at the Globe had seen all the world as a stage, but with Sputnik, the world literally became a global theatre with no more audiences, only actors. (The End of the Work Ethic, 1972)10

in both the industrial and electric age Nature is superseded by art. Thus the future of the book is nothing less than to be the means of surpassing Nature itself. The material world, as it were, is to be etherealized and encapsulated in a book whose characters will possess all the formulas for the knowledge and recreation of Being.11 (The Future of the Book, 1972)

  1. With quantum physics, for example.
  2. In telegraphy, photography and phonography, for example.
  3. The printed text of this passage has a typo, ‘revolutionary process’ instead of ‘evolutionary process’. Later in this same essay: “It was just at the point indicated by Samuel Butler’s observation concerning evolution and machinery that the entire mechanical world became enclosed in the seamless web of electro-magnetism, the extension of our central nervous system.”
  4. Transcribed by Andrew McLuhan at his Inscriptorium blog.
  5. War And Peace In The Global Village (1968): “biologists use two (…) categories that are helpful for perceiving (…) the end of nature today (…) They speak of ‘outbreeding’ and ‘inbreeding.’ As (Ernst) Mayr puts it (in Animal Species and Evolution, 1963), ‘Most animals are essentially outbreeders, most microorganisms inbreeders.’ With electricity, all this has changed totally. At present the entire mammalian world has become the micro-organismic. It is the (…) cultures of the world, linguistically and politically, that have become the (outbreeding) mammals, according to the old classifications of evolutionary hypothesis. It is the cultural habitat, in which we have long been accustomed to think that people were contained, that has now become the (outbreeding) mammal itself”.
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx2ed93_Lpc&t=1337s.
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFuZQxHynmY&t=525s. On November 25, just two months after this ‘Open Mind Surgery’ lecture, McLuhan underwent a day-long operation to remove a large tumor from his brain. ‘Open Mind Surgery’ — a fine example of second sight!
  8. Review of Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, in Book WorldNovember 10, 1968. The original title of McLuhan’s review seems to have been: ‘Ye Shall Be As Cogs’!
  9. It is thought-provoking that this suggestion was made by a Catholic convert! The heart of the matter lies in the question of “man’s tune”. What is this and how does it sound?
  10. Address to the Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972.
  11. See note 9 above. The great question is how McLuhan found this sort of future compatible with Catholicism. Put another way, McLuhan’s work centrally concerns the question, what is the ground of A.I.?