Aug 23 2011

Atavism: Old is the New “New”


Sometimes, going forward means going backward.  After five hundred years of trying to transcend the physical world, humankind has begun to appreciate the innate genius of evolution’s distributed intelligence and put it to use in our modern lives.

The name for this movement is “atavism,” the return to the ancestral.  It manifests in the local gardening movement; in the Weston Price’s Paleolithic diet; in Terence McKenna’s archaic revival; in the move toward home-birthing and naturopathic medicine.  Culturally, “neotribal” events like Burning Man and the Rainbow Gathering reflect our growing restlessness with the individual mentality encouraged by the modern world.  In psychology, Jung’s explorations of the unconscious foretold later discoveries that traditionally unconscious organisms like plants and fungi may actually possess a distinct and alien awareness.  Esteemed academics like Richard Tarnas argue convincingly for a sober re-appraisal of astrology and other long abandoned ancient ways of knowing.  And in today’s increasingly organic, biologically inspired design landscape, scientists and artists are turning back to nature for inspiration on everything from computer processors to sustainable energy sources.

Naturally, our separation from nature will end in a world with some characteristics we would recognize as ancient.  Nature itself is ancient, and we are ancient too, to the extent that we know it lives in us and as us, as intelligent evolved reactions like emotion and thought.

We were never really out of harmony with nature — but we can feel that way.  Maybe that is why we prefer gear that reminds us of our biological legacy —because on some level, it is easier for us to see ourselves in it.  (Why else would we all fawn over computers pretending to be fruit?)

All of this comes to a head when we consider how biological “designs” now find their way into accessories intended to feel “evolved.”  As our ideas are connected by internet technology, they grow, mutate, and reproduce faster than ever before.  It is more and more obvious that they have a life of their own…and so it seems intuitive to give them the traits of living creatures.  Fuzzy alarm clocks, chirping smart phones, and teddy bears that talk back all evince our innate desire to infuse the world around us with the life we have within us.

Many people — including revered scholars like media theorist Marshall McLuhan — regard augmenting ourselves with ever-more sophisticated gadgets as a kind of amputation.  We can’t remember how to get to the grocery store anymore without looking it up on Google Maps.  But ritual scarring and other bizarre body modifications are the rule, not the exception, in human history.  Bluetooth headsets don’t look all that strange next to bound feet and stretched necks.  If we’re going to experiment with our bodies in creative ways, gear that mimics the patterns we see in nature seems like a more honest and integrated “amputation” than those intended to set us apart from the living world.  With accessories openly acknowledged as prosthetics, we can translate existing evolutionary adaptations from the Great Outdoors to the Concrete Jungle.

(Or, look at it this way: biomimcry is like outsourcing through time instead of space, having the entire world come up with an answer for you.  Biomimicry works because of natural selection, and in that sense the designed world is really no different from the wild world.  Civilization is one more thing that nature is doing.)

The lesson of atavism, anyway, is that evolution never really leaves a good idea behind. Our entire history is written in our genomes — old traits silent but not absent — waiting to be appropriate again in a new environment.  We lost our tails long before we even learned to stand upright… but now that we have more gadgets than two hands can hold, an iPad with a tail that holds itself up for us seems like a great idea.  While some of us labor to create machines that feel and others pioneer fin-shaped tidal energy generators, one thing is clear:  old is the new “new.”