Thursday, October 4, 2012

1850: Claude Bernard, Homeostasis and the birth of "Optimistic" Modernity

Hubris of the Skygods...
It is probably no coincidence at all that Modernity is conventionally dated to 1850, the same year that french doctor Claude Bernard first speculated publicly that all advanced life forms - like modern mankind - excel because of complex internal systems to keep them shielded from drastic changes in the external world.

This became the founding tenet of the medical research area called Physiology, which dominated medical research in terms of its elite status and output of publications - until after WWII.

In 1929, leading (American) physiologist Walter B Cannon named that tenet "homeostasis" - the ability to maintain their internal bio-chemical functions at equilibrium becoming the essence of all advanced beings.

Unwisely the metaphor was later extended to (or did it come from ?) economics (the self-correcting market etc) and to geology, chemistry, you name it.

Because an equilibrium of regular rhythms ever returning to a central norm was indeed the central tenet of "optimistic" Modernity.

But Cannon and Bernard,being very "optimistic" modern and hence, by definition, being very human-oriented ,had all their work focussed on stand-in humans : cats, dogs, rats killed in the cause of defining homeostasis.

Mammals in other words : and indeed all mammals do keep their internal system at a constant temperature, for example, compared to the temperature changes of the greater world outside their bodies.

But most other beings do not : fish,frogs, snakes, trees, bacteria all let their internal temperatures align with that of the outer world ---- frugally saving immense amounts of energy in the process.

And there you have it : Bernard and Cannon were really - you knew it all along didn't you ? - doing the work of the energy corporations, by making the vast amounts of (fossil) energy consumed by modern humans seem to be the natural and indeed the preferred natural way of the world: industrial homeostasis.

For the modern factory came along about the same time as Claude Bernard's key insight did : in the 1850s.

Imagine it is 1850 and it is winter and midnight, so not surprisingly, it is dark, cold, wet and windy outside.

But inside the factory, the back shift is humming right along : there are the lights and heat of a midday in Spring and the roof and walls are keeping the wind and rain out.

In earlier times, such weather would force humans into inactivity - as it still does frogs and many others.

But now, thanks to non-renewable fossil energy, human employees ( rather like individual cells within a mammal body) can hum along productively 24/7/365 inside the "skin" of a modern factory.

Man's niche now seems to be everywhere, when viewed from such a building (particularly if this "building" is given wheels or propellers and can fly through the deepest sky or water, crawl across sandy deserts and wet jungles or climb up snowy mountain tops and down deep underground mines.

(Or even fly into deep Space.)

But is it ?

Industrial homeostasis is really spelt Hubris.....

Extremophiles - usually bacteria but including many other microbes and very tiny plants and animals - occupy the most extreme niches imaginable as well.

But they have done so for hundreds of millions of years - even billions of years.

Man will cease to do so the minute the fossil fuel needed to maintain the artificially climate inside the building and inside his body runs out.

But these tiny beings survive at the eternal temperatures, PHs, etc of their very hostile niche and yet find enough food energy to survive and reproduce.

Homeostasis seems to tell Man we can ignore the reality of the external world and live in our own bubble, but it is a bubble that is buoyed aloft on a puff of strictly temporary hot air.

In World War Two, two great scientific nations, Germany and Japan saw their troops starve freeze and fry to death when food and fossil fuel ran out at the ends of their lines of conquest.

While these Supermen died, invisible bacteria all about them  exalted as, once again, The Meek inherited that little bit of the Earth....

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