Accelerate without humanity: Summary of Nick Land’s philosophy

I took note of the philoso­pher Nick Land from read­ing about posthu­man­ism on Wikipe­dia.

A more pes­simistic al­ter­na­tive to tran­shu­man­ism in which hu­mans will not be en­hanced, but rather even­tu­ally re­placed by ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gences. Some philoso­phers, in­clud­ing Nick Land, pro­mote the view that hu­mans should em­brace and ac­cept their even­tual demise. This is re­lated to the view of “cos­mism”, which sup­ports the build­ing of strong ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence even if it may en­tail the end of hu­man­ity, as in their view it “would be a cos­mic tragedy if hu­man­ity freezes evolu­tion at the puny hu­man level”.

I was in­trigued by such bold­ness, so I read more. And turns out Nick Land’s writ­ing is some­times easy to read but most of the times ex­tremely hard to read, and prob­a­bly garbage. I wrote this post so that you don’t have to waste time wad­ing through the garbage, look­ing for frag­ments of good po­etry.

Noth­ing hu­man makes it out of the near-fu­ture. -- Nick Land

First of all, Nick Land was ob­sessed with hat­ing Kant, lov­ing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Gu­at­tari and their philo­soph­i­cal style (called schizo­anal­y­sis, re­lated to schizophre­nia). He likes to think about the world from very non­hu­man view­points, such as other an­i­mals, robots, com­put­ers, ma­chines that hu­mans made, earth, the uni­verse, etc. He likes cap­i­tal­ism and tech­nolog­i­cal rev­olu­tion, as fast as pos­si­ble, with­out re­gard for its good­ness.

Re­cently there’s some main­stream re­ports on his philos­o­phy of Ne­o­re­ac­tion­ism (“Dark En­light­en­ment”), the idea that democ­racy sucks and monar­chy/​CEO-pres­i­dent works bet­ter. This philos­o­phy has gained a bit of fol­low­ing, but un­in­ter­est­ing to me, so we won’t re­view that. I’d sim­ply note that the phrase “Dark En­light­en­ment” re­ally should be “Delight­en­ment”. Really miss­ing out such a pun.

Schizoanalysis

The idea of schizo­anal­y­sis just means that there’s a lot of ways to make a the­ory about the world, and make philoso­phies, and there’s no one way to do it, and fur­ther, there could be gen­uine con­flicts that can­not be re­solved by ap­peal­ing to a higher stan­dard.

In math­e­mat­ics, there’s some fringe move­ment of this style. Most math­e­mat­i­ci­ans are in fa­vor of log­i­cal con­sis­tency, but some are okay with con­trol­led in­con­sis­tency (para­con­sis­tency). Most math­e­mat­i­ci­ans are in fa­vor of us­ing in­fini­ties, but some are fini­tists who think that in­fini­ties don’t ex­ist, and a few are ul­tra­fini­tists who think that there are finite large num­bers (such as e^{e^{10}}) that can be as­sumed to not ex­ist.

Coin­ci­den­tally, these fringe math­e­mat­i­ci­ans tend to be ob­nox­ious and ar­gu­men­ta­tive (Doron Zeilberger is a promi­nent ex­am­ple). Maybe there’s such a thing as an “ob­nox­ious fringe per­son­al­ity”...

Schizo­anal­y­sis uses an anal­ogy for how to think about the­o­ries: the rhi­zome. A rhi­zome is a bunch of un­der­ground roots, touch­ing each other in a messy net­work. This is in con­trast to a tree, from a big trunk go­ing up to lit­tle branches.

rhizome

Tra­di­tion­ally, sto­ries about the world are told like a tree: there’s a great prin­ci­ple of the world: be it God, Ex­is­ten­tial­ism, or Ab­sur­dism, and the story gets more and more de­tails as it ex­plains the smaller things like how to treat other peo­ple.

But maybe there are many sto­ries just messed up and knot­ted, with­out any way to unify them in a sin­gle prin­ci­ple. I make sto­ries about In­fini­ties and you about Ul­trafini­tism and there’s no way to unify us. Two pow­er­ful coun­tries with in­com­pat­i­ble philoso­phies go to war, un­able to unify their sto­ries.

Really ob­scure style

Kant is hard enough, Deleuze and Gu­at­tari’s books are un­read­able (I tried). Nick Land, be­ing im­mersed in such kinds of books, of­ten wrote in the same ex­treme ob­scure style. For ex­am­ple, Ma­chinic De­sire (1992):

The tran­scen­den­tal un­con­scious is the auto-con­struc­tion of the real, the pro­duc­tion of pro­duc­tion, so that for schizo­anal­y­sis there is the real ex­actly in so far as it is built. Pro­duc­tion is pro­duc­tion of the real, not merely of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and un­like Kan­tian pro­duc­tion, the de­siring pro­duc­tion of Deleuze/​Gu­at­tari is not qual­ified by hu­man­ity (it is not a mat­ter of what things are like for us)...

Don’t bother try­ing to un­der­stand that. A big part of read­ing philos­o­phy is to ig­nore real non­sense while still spend­ing time on ap­par­ent non­sense that is ac­tu­ally sen­si­ble.

Non-hu­man viewpoints

Rats

Nick Land uses schizo­anal­y­sis by con­sid­er­ing very non-hu­man view­points. For ex­am­ple, he once gave a talk about study­ing the Black Death from the per­spec­tive of rats:

“Put­ting the Rat back Into Ra­tion­al­ity”, in which he ar­gued that, rather than see­ing death as an event that hap­pened at a par­tic­u­lar time to an in­di­vi­d­ual, we should look at it from the per­spec­tives of the rats car­ry­ing the Black Death into Europe; that is, as a world-en­cir­cling swarm… An older pro­fes­sor tried to get his head round this idea: “How might we lo­cate this de­scrip­tion within hu­man ex­pe­rience?” he asked. Nick told him that hu­man ex­pe­rience was, of course, wor­thy of study, but only as much as, say, the ex­pe­rience of sea slugs: “I don’t see why it should re­ceive any spe­cial pri­or­ity.”

Earth

Another pa­per/​fic­tion, Barker Speaks, de­vel­ops the the­ory of “geo­trauma”, a story about how the Earth feels, and it feels end­less PAIN. This is my most fa­vorite story so far, just be­cause it’s easy to pic­ture (es­pe­cially if you know Gaia the­ory).

Deleuze and Gu­at­tari ask: Who does the Earth think it is?… dur­ing the Hadean epoch, the earth was kept in a state of su­per­heated molten slag [from as­ter­oid im­pacts]… the ter­res­trial sur­face cooled, due to the ra­di­a­tion of heat into space… Dur­ing the en­su­ing – Ar­chaen – epoch the molten core was buried within a crustal shell, pro­duc­ing an in­su­lated reser­voir of pri­mal ex­o­ge­neous trauma, the geo­cos­mic mo­tor of ter­res­trial trans­mu­ta­tion… It’s all there: anor­ganic mem­ory, plu­tonic loop­ing of ex­ter­nal col­li­sions into in­te­rior con­tent, im­per­sonal trauma as drive-mechanism.

Ba­si­cally, do psy­cho­anal­y­sis on ge­ol­ogy. The cen­ter of the earth is full of heat, and ten­sion, lef­tovers from its early pains of be­ing hit by as­ter­oids. This trauma is be­ing ex­pressed in ge­olog­i­cal phe­nom­ena like earth­quakes, vol­ca­noes, and con­ti­nen­tal drifts.

Fast for­ward seis­mol­ogy and you hear the earth scream.

Fur­ther, even biolog­i­cal crea­tures should be thought of as one kind of ge­olog­i­cal phe­nomenon. This isn’t com­plete non­sense, con­sid­er­ing that we have pos­si­ble clay-life ear­lier on Earth, and the fact that biolog­i­cal life­forms have shaped ge­olog­i­cal strata.

Geo­trauma is an on­go­ing pro­cess, whose ten­sion is con­tinu­ally ex­pressed – par­tially frozen – in biolog­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In this story, biolog­i­cal crea­tures are just one way for Earth to ex­press its trauma. We are the skin-crawls, man­i­fes­ta­tions of Earth’s in­ner suffer­ing.

Ma­chinic desires

Nick Land talks a lot about cy­borgs, AI, and ma­chinic de­sire/​de­siring ma­chines. The idea is that hu­mans, an­i­mals, any­thing that has de­sires, are ma­chines be­hav­ing as if they have true de­sires. It’s not nec­es­sary for there to be deep rea­sons be­hind want­ing to do some­thing. A crea­ture de­sires some­thing (like sugar) be­cause it’s con­structed to seek it.

Hu­mans, an­i­mals, com­put­ers, cy­borgs, they are all de­siring ma­chines. Some are bet­ter at achiev­ing their de­sires, but there’s no way to judge who has a su­pe­rior/​in­fe­rior de­sire.

Ac­cel­er­a­tion and capitalism

Nick Land is ob­sessed with progress and cap­i­tal­ism. Progress here seems to be defined by in­creas­ing com­plex­ity, in­creased num­ber of ma­chines, and num­bers go­ing up. I have some sym­pa­thies with this idea, but at the same time is also very un­com­fortable with it.

Idle game of the whole universe

The eas­iest way to sum­ma­rize ac­cel­er­a­tionism seems to be: The uni­verse should be con­sumed into an idle game.

Think of Cookie Clicker. You click to make a num­ber go up and en­slave grand­mas and build fac­to­ries to make more cook­ies, with which to buy more cookie mak­ers. It’s the purest form of cap­i­tal­ism: You never get to con­sume any cook­ies, and all that’s pro­duced is rein­vested to pro­duce more. You don’t have any friends, you con­sume the whole uni­verse to make cook­ies, and that’s all there is. The num­ber of cook­ies ac­cel­er­ates ex­po­nen­tially, and you feel happy and empty and can’t stop go­ing any­way.

Ac­cel­er­a­tionism sees an idle game uni­verse as good, or the least bad of all choices.

Pre­vi­ous work

The idea that cap­i­tal­ism is a great in­no­va­tive, de­struc­tive force is noth­ing new. Karl Marx’s Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo (1848) already states:

Con­stant rev­olu­tion­is­ing of pro­duc­tion, un­in­ter­rupted dis­tur­bance of all so­cial con­di­tions, ev­er­last­ing un­cer­tainty and ag­i­ta­tion dis­t­in­guish the bour­geois epoch from all ear­lier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen re­la­tions, with their train of an­cient and ven­er­a­ble prej­u­dices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones be­come an­tiquated be­fore they can os­sify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is pro­faned, and man is at last com­pel­led to face with sober senses his real con­di­tions of life, and his re­la­tions with his kind.

The need of a con­stantly ex­pand­ing mar­ket for its prod­ucts chases the bour­geoisie over the en­tire sur­face of the globe. It must nes­tle ev­ery­where, set­tle ev­ery­where, es­tab­lish con­nex­ions ev­ery­where.

The idea that things are chang­ing way too fast is not new ei­ther, Fu­ture Shock (1970), by Alvin and Heidi Toffler is one fa­mous book that ar­gues that the mod­ern area is chang­ing so fast that it’s caus­ing many kinds of psy­cholog­i­cal stress on peo­ple. The book is quite ac­cu­rate in its di­ag­no­sis, and its list of fea­tures of mod­ern so­ciety are so com­mon sense as to be ba­nal (I yawned).

Accelerationism

Cap­i­tal­ism has many crit­i­cisms, such as turn­ing peo­ple into prod­ucts, giv­ing prices to things that shouldn’t have a price, etc. The idea of ac­cel­er­a­tionism is that we should keep cap­i­tal­ism go­ing, keep tech­nol­ogy go­ing, go with the flow of tech­nol­ogy even if it de­stroys hu­man­ity and ev­ery­thing we love. After all, there’s no al­ter­na­tive. And why re­sist? It’s glo­ri­ous to burn up like a shoot­ing star, like the fuel of a rocket that ac­cel­er­ates into empty space.

Cap­i­tal­ism’s de­struc­tive force is picked up in the 1990s by the Bri­tish philoso­pher Nick Land. In a se­ries of in­cen­di­ary es­says, Land cel­e­brates ab­solute de­ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion as liber­a­tion—even (or above all) to the point of to­tal dis­in­te­gra­tion and death… He sees its ab­solute, vi­o­lently de­struc­tive speed as an alien force that should be wel­comed and cel­e­brated.

Or just like Face­book said:

Move fast and break things.

Note: some peo­ple use the word “ac­cel­er­a­tional­ism” in a differ­ent sense, that cap­i­tal­ism is bad, but the only way to es­cape cap­i­tal­ism is to make it go faster un­til it ar­rives at its bit­ter end, then we can es­cape. Kind of like div­ing into the cen­ter of a black hole and hop­ing that we’ll es­cape into a bet­ter uni­verse. I’m not in­ter­ested in this sense of ac­cel­er­a­tional­ism.

This is similar in spirit to cos­mism, as a philos­o­phy against hu­man­ism, de­tailed in The Ar­tilect War (2005), by Hugo de Garis. The ba­sic idea is sim­ple though. There are the Ter­rans, or the hu­man­ists, who pre­fer to keep hu­mans in con­trol, and there are the Cos­mists, who wants to keep the progress of in­tel­li­gence ex­pan­sion go­ing, and fulfill a kind of cos­mic des­tiny.

I think hu­man­ity should build these godlike su­per­crea­tures with in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­i­ties trillion of trillions of trillions times above our lev­els. I think it would be a cos­mic tragedy if hu­man­ity freezes evolu­tion at the puny hu­man level.

Tech­nolog­i­cal determinism

Tech­nol­ogy is not neu­tral. It’s a mere “tool”, but even tools have de­sires and ten­den­cies, con­trol­ling the very users who con­trols the tools. This is an an­cient idea, go­ing way back to Socrates’s crit­i­cism of writ­ing as af­fect­ing the mem­o­ries of its users. Kevin Kelly is a mod­ern thinker who wrote a book What Tech­nol­ogy Wants (2010), and his idea is that the tech­nolo­gies are very much not neu­tral, and can even be thought of as some­thing al­ive, with its own goals. The fu­ture of earth is very much de­ter­mined by how this ecosys­tem of tech­nolo­gies evolves.

The cars are me­chan­i­cal horses that wants you to build more roads so that it can go to more places. In or­der to en­courage you to make more roads, it al­lows you to sit in them and take you ev­ery­where. Thus proven it­self use­ful, the cars en­tice you to build more roads. And that’s how in just 100 years, there are sud­denly these thin, gray, flat con­crete things called “roads” ev­ery­where on earth. The In­ter­net want to ex­pand, en­tic­ing you to join by pro­vid­ing so much stuff there. Junk food wants to be eaten, and diet books want you to get fat. Books want you to make more print­ing ma­chines, and print­ing ma­chines want you to read more books.

This Texan ho­tel, for in­stance, was an en­tirely vir­tual con­struc­tion, ones and ze­ros em­bed­ded in a set of chips. And yet, the ho­tel di­rely wanted to ex­ist. It would be­come very beau­tiful, and it was already very smart. It could sweet-talk it­self into phys­i­cal ex­is­tence from ran­dom piles of raw ma­te­ri­als.

Os­car lugged the self-de­clared cor­ner­stone to the cor­ner of the south­ern wall. “I be­long here,” the cor­ner­stone de­clared. “Put mor­tar on me.”

Os­car picked up a trowel. “I’m the tool for the mor­tar,” the lit­tle trowel squeaked cheer­fully.

Dis­trac­tion (1998), by Bruce Ster­ling.

Nick Land takes this to an ex­treme.

Ma­chinic de­sire can seem a lit­tle in­hu­man, as it rips up poli­ti­cal cul­tures, deletes tra­di­tions, dis­solves sub­jec­tivi­ties, and hacks through se­cu­rity ap­para­tuses, track­ing a soul­less tropism to zero con­trol. This is be­cause what ap­pears to hu­man­ity as the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism is an in­va­sion from the fu­ture by an ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gent space that must as­sem­ble it­self en­tirely from its en­emy’s re­sources.

It means some­thing like this: our world, with its cars, fi­nances, AI, and other in­dus­trial tech­nolo­gies, has a clear goal of its own: a fu­ture dom­i­nated by more of up­graded ver­sions of these tech­nolo­gies, with hu­mans be­com­ing ex­tinct or ir­rele­vant. An in­evitable AI apoc­a­lypse. It’s called an in­va­sion from the fu­ture, be­cause this in­hu­man fu­ture is not yet here, but we already feel like we are be­ing pul­led to­wards it, as if some­one has sent agents back in time to en­sure hu­mans do not mess up this plan. It’s like the plot of Ter­mi­na­tor.

Ma­te­ri­al­is­tic nihilism

No one could ever ‘be’ a libid­i­nal ma­te­ri­al­ist. This is a ‘doc­trine’ that can only be suffered as an abom­i­na­tion, a jan­gling of the nerves, a com­bus­tion of ar­tic­u­late rea­son, and a nau­se­at­ing rage of thought. It is a hy­per­lepsy of the cen­tral ner­vous-sys­tem, ru­in­ing the body’s adap­tive regimes, and con­sum­ing its re­serves in rhyth­mic con­vul­sions that are not only fu­tile, but dev­as­tat­ing… An aged philoso­pher is ei­ther a mon­ster of stamina or a char­latan.

What mat­ters is the vi­o­lent im­pulse to es­cape that gives this book its ti­tle. The thirst for an­nihila­tion.

This sec­tion is based on his book The Thirst for An­nihila­tion (1992) that I have been read­ing on and off some­times. This book is a col­lec­tion of es­says on Ge­orge Bataille, a very weird writer that I en­coun­tered twice. The first time, I en­coun­tered him dur­ing my re­search on lingchi, as he wrote about it in a re­ally hard to read book (Tears of Eros) that sex­u­al­izes vi­o­lence.

The sec­ond time, it was in this book by Nick Land.

Ba­si­cally, Ge­orge Bataille wrote a lot, and his writ­ing about ma­te­ri­al­is­tic nihilism, death, shit, vomit, garbage, and all that’s ugly about life. (He also wrote a lot of sex­ual fetishes, but it’s not very in­ter­est­ing.)

He wrote about them repet­i­tively, not be­cause he wanted to re­peat him­self a lot, but be­cause to write was to howl in pain. We scream when we are burnt, no mat­ter how many times it hap­pens. Bataille wrote ugly de­spair when­ever ugly de­spair hit his brain like a tsunami.

The mean­ing of life is to waste energy

Bataille thought Life is evil and ugly and mean­ingless. Life doesn’t try to con­serve en­ergy, in­stead, life is about wast­ing en­ergy. The Sun is a gi­ant source of en­ergy, and all the ex­cess en­ergy has to be used up some­how… hence life! Life ap­pears when the blind ma­te­ri­als of earth be­come over­heated by all the en­ergy of the sun, and shaken into more and more com­pli­cated shapes, in or­der to con­sume all the ex­cess en­ergy.

All en­ergy must ul­ti­mately be spent pointlessly and un­re­servedly, the only ques­tions be­ing where, when, and in whose name… Bataille in­ter­prets all nat­u­ral and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment upon the earth to be side-effects of the evolu­tion of death, be­cause it is only in death that life be­comes an echo of the sun, re­al­iz­ing its in­evitable des­tiny, which is pure loss.

The Sun is the source of en­ergy. All the en­ergy ends up be­ing wasted, turned to “zero”, noth­ing. Life is a thin, frag­ile, and very com­plex mid­dle-layer be­tween the Sun and the zero.

Life is ejected from the en­ergy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mold upon death. This crust is also a maze—a com­plex exit back to the en­ergy base-line—and the com­plex­ity of the maze is life try­ing to es­cape from out of it­self… life is it­self the maze of its route to death...

Nick Land’s “maze” means some­thing like this: Life is re­ally sim­ple: it’s about wast­ing en­ergy. But life is any­thing but sim­ple, since life has de­vel­oped more and more com­pli­cated ways to waste en­ergy. In or­der to waste the max­i­mal amount of en­ergy, it’s nec­es­sary that life doesn’t start wast­ing en­ergy im­ma­turely (by, for ex­am­ple, com­mit­ting suicide), but ac­cu­mu­late and grow, be­fore it starts to mas­sively waste en­ergy (by, for ex­am­ple, mak­ing ba­bies, then dy­ing and turn­ing into a warm pool of rot­ten wasted en­ergy).

Para­dox­i­cally, in or­der to waste a lot of en­ergy, life must not waste en­ergy im­me­di­ately, and so it has to stay al­ive for quite a while. Thus, life has be­come more and more com­pli­cated, like a maze that keeps grow­ing, ap­par­ently wan­der­ing fur­ther and fur­ther away from death, even though it is sim­ply prepar­ing for even more mas­sive wast­ing of en­ergy later.

This is prob­a­bly the rea­son why peo­ple fear death, and also fear im­mor­tal­ity. They fear death, be­cause they need to ac­cu­mu­late en­ergy. They fear im­mor­tal­ity, be­cause they need to waste all the en­ergy at the end of life. An end­less life defeats the pur­pose of life: to waste a lot of en­ergy.

Per­haps a good illus­tra­tion of this idea is a time-lapse video of slime molds. They even look like mazes!

My com­ments on the the­ory of life as en­ergy-waster

Scien­tifi­cally, I think this is stupid. But it’s a good story, and has some ker­nels of truth.

When Dar­winism first be­came fa­mous, many peo­ple thought it was non­sense, be­cause it’s just so un­likely that life could emerge in the first place. Sure, once sim­ple life emerges, evolu­tion can start and al­low more com­pli­cated life­forms to ap­pear, but why did sim­ple life ap­pear from purely life­less mat­ter?

This think­ing has changed among some sci­en­tists. There are the­o­ries that say that life, far from be­ing a lucky ac­ci­dent, is in fact in­evitable by the laws of physics. Life is in fact “meant” to waste so­lar en­ergy. This was ex­plic­itly pro­posed in Life as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics (1994), by E.D.Sch­nei­der, J.J.Kay:

We ar­gue that as ecosys­tems grow and de­velop, they should in­crease their to­tal dis­si­pa­tion, de­velop more com­plex struc­tures with more en­ergy flow, in­crease their cy­cling ac­tivity, de­velop greater di­ver­sity and gen­er­ate more hi­er­ar­chi­cal lev­els, all to abet en­ergy degra­da­tion. Species which sur­vive in ecosys­tems are those that fun­nel en­ergy into their own pro­duc­tion and re­pro­duc­tion and con­tribute to au­to­cat­alytic pro­cesses which in­crease the to­tal dis­si­pa­tion of the ecosys­tem.

In short, ecosys­tems de­velop in ways which sys­tem­at­i­cally in­crease their abil­ity to de­grade the in­com­ing so­lar en­ergy.

This the­ory was given a more math­e­mat­i­cal treat­ment in Statis­ti­cal Physics of Self-Repli­ca­tion (2012) by Jeremy England, where it’s pro­posed that self-repli­ca­tion, which is the fun­da­men­tal part of life, is fueled by en­tropy. This pa­per has gen­er­ated a lot of pub­lic­ity, for it makes the ideas sketched above math­e­mat­i­cally pre­cise. As re­ported in First Sup­port for a Physics The­ory of Life (2017):

It’s not easy for a group of atoms to un­lock and burn chem­i­cal en­ergy. To perform this func­tion, the atoms must be ar­ranged in a highly un­usual form. Ac­cord­ing to England, the very ex­is­tence of a form-func­tion re­la­tion­ship “im­plies that there’s a challenge pre­sented by the en­vi­ron­ment that we see the struc­ture of the sys­tem as meet­ing.”

Think of what the hu­mans are do­ing as they dig up coals and oils and burn them? They are hav­ing fun, sure, but from a ther­mo­dy­namic point of view, they are turn­ing high-qual­ity, use­ful chem­i­cal en­ergy into low-qual­ity, use­less heat. If oil and coal are left buried, they would stay undis­turbed for mil­lions of years. With hu­man in­ter­ven­tion, all the use­ful en­ergy is turned into use­less en­ergy in a hun­dred years.

Hu­mans per­haps are the solu­tion to the prob­lem of con­sum­ing fos­sil en­ergy. And by anal­ogy, per­haps life is the solu­tion to the prob­lem of con­sum­ing so­lar en­ergy.

As an­other anal­ogy, think of a bot­tle of wa­ter with its cap un­screwed and turned up­side down. Water flows out, to turn its grav­i­ta­tional en­ergy into ki­netic en­ergy, and then turn into the use­less en­ergy of heat af­ter it splashes into the ground. A big vor­tex forms in the bot­tle, and with that vor­tex, wa­ter flows out that much faster.

The beau­tiful vor­texes of steam ris­ing from a cup of hot coffee are similar: or­dered struc­tures aris­ing to turn the use­ful tem­per­a­ture differ­ence (you can run a heat en­g­ine with that!) be­tween the coffee and the air, into a use­less tem­per­a­ture equal­ity, as fast as pos­si­ble.

A bac­terium is a lit­tle vor­tex for turn­ing sugar into heat.

But how and why do atoms ac­quire the par­tic­u­lar form and func­tion of a bac­terium, with its op­ti­mal con­figu­ra­tion for con­sum­ing chem­i­cal en­ergy? England hy­poth­e­sizes that it’s a nat­u­ral out­come of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics in far-from-equil­ibrium sys­tems.

Coffee cools down be­cause noth­ing is heat­ing it up, but England’s calcu­la­tions sug­gested that groups of atoms that are driven by ex­ter­nal en­ergy sources can be­have differ­ently: They tend to start tap­ping into those en­ergy sources, al­ign­ing and re­ar­rang­ing so as to bet­ter ab­sorb the en­ergy and dis­si­pate it as heat. He fur­ther showed that this statis­ti­cal ten­dency to dis­si­pate en­ergy might foster self-repli­ca­tion. (As he ex­plained it in 2014, “A great way of dis­si­pat­ing more is to make more copies of your­self.”) England sees life, and its ex­traor­di­nary con­fluence of form and func­tion, as the ul­ti­mate out­come of dis­si­pa­tion-driven adap­ta­tion and self-repli­ca­tion.

Per­haps pock­ets of low-en­tropy life emerged only to in­crease the en­tropy of the uni­verse at the fastest pos­si­ble rate.

Per­haps Bataille’s des­per­ate the­ory of life isn’t that in­sane, af­ter all.