When machines accomplish extraordinary feats, it forces us to think a little harder about the characteristics that set living things apart. This was true in March when the computer AlphaGo defeated Go world champion Lee Sedol, and it was true 300 years ago when a marvelous mechanical duck in Paris appeared to eat kernels of grain and defecate the digested leftovers.
The duck, known as “Canard Digerateur,” or Digesting Duck, is an example of an automaton, a kind of machine that uses purely mechanical means to achieve lifelike interactions with the world. A new book, “The Restless Clock,” explores the popularity of these automata as far back as the 1600s and finds they had a big influence on the way leading thinkers of the time tried to understand what animates animal behavior.
“According to one model dominant in the 17th century, living things are like designed machines, built by a divine clockmaker,” says Jessica Riskin, a historian of science at Stanford University and author of the book.
Before they came to take on scientific significance, automata were built to entertain and impress. Besides the Digesting Duck (which was, in fact, a hoax — the feces came prepackaged), automata might spring from clocks on the hour with little people enacting battle scenes or spray visitors to a garden with water. They were common features of Catholic churches, where they might have been attached to clocks or organs, depicting key figures and themes from Christianity, and they were a favored decor of the ruling class.
“At the French royal palace, the grottoes were full of hydraulic automata that would enact scenes from Greek mythology. It was a display of virtuosity and power,” says Riskin.
It was also a display that influenced the 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes was interested in understanding what gave rise to the complex behaviors he observed in animals. He was certain animals did not have consciousness or free will — those were qualities that set human beings apart — but it was clear they still had some advanced means by which they interacted with the world.
“Almost everyone thought that animals didn’t have minds, but on the other hand, they had very sophisticated responses to all kinds of things, particularly dogs, so you couldn’t just treat them as inert matter,” says Stephen Gaukroger, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney.
Given this need to explain animals as less than human, but more than rocks, automata provided the perfect model. With complete knowledge of the inner workings of the automata, it became obvious these machines had no agency. Yet to an outside observer, they certainly seemed to be alive.
“Descartes first developed the idea that the natural world is all machinery, living bodies included, and therefore science should be like engineering,” says Riskin. “He was inspired by this machinery all around him.”
Riskin’s book begins with Descartes and automata and traces the development of ideas about what animates living things up to the present. Science long ago moved away from theories about a divine clockmaker, but Riskin says some of the ideas from that period persist in surprising form. In particular, she says, atheist philosophers and scientists who regard consciousness in purely mechanistic terms, are inadvertently borrowing a schematic that, in a different time, struck people as evidence of God.
“I think scientists often don’t know the origins of their own axioms,” she says. “Modern evolutionary biologists are clinging to this argument that was initially a theological argument and they’re clinging to it as an argument against creation.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.