The Restless Clock
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The Restless Clock

A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick

Jessica Riskin

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eBook - ePub

The Restless Clock

A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick

Jessica Riskin

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About This Book

Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: we would not say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not say that plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science. The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the life sciences. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite idea: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, and Darwin, among many others. Mechanist science, Jessica Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a "divine engineer." Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean life in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities for what it means to engage in science—and even what it means to be alive.

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Machines in the Garden

Once upon a time, Sir Lancelot’s castle, Joyous Guard, was a cursed and miserable place known as Dolorous Guard. Lancelot changed its name after he captured it from the evil lord Brandin of the Isles, defeating three knights of copper. The first knight stood above the castle gate, “big and sturdy, in full armour and holding a great axe in his hands.” This knight, however, was easily dispatched: according to the enchantment that had placed him above the gate, he would crash to the ground when the one destined to conquer the castle first caught a glimpse of him. Lancelot gazed upon the copper knight, “big and strange,” and down he obligingly crashed.1
Further on, however, in the castle cemetery, Lancelot came upon two more copper knights who put up more of a fight. They guarded a door through which Lancelot had to pass to find the key to the castle’s enchantments. Holding heavy steel swords, they waited to clobber anyone attempting to pass through. Unafraid, Lancelot raised his shield and leapt between the knights. One smote him on the right shoulder, breaking his shield and piercing his hauberk “so cruelly that the red blood ran down his body,” but Lancelot persevered. Next, he encountered “a copper damsel, very finely cast” holding the key he sought. With it, Lancelot opened a copper chest from which thirty copper tubes emanated, releasing a whirlwind of devils. The copper damsel and knights collapsed to the ground: the enchantments were broken.2
The automaton knights and damsels of Arthurian legend were accompanied by gold, silver and copper children, satyrs, archers, musicians, oracles and giants.3 These fictional artificial beings had plenty of real counterparts. Actual mechanical people and animals thronged the landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe, and like the fictional beings, the real automata were responsive, engaging, and frequently given to attacking human trespassers, mostly in good fun.
Automata were familiar features of daily life, originating in churches and cathedrals, and spreading from there. Jesuit missionaries carried them to China as offerings to dramatize the power of Christian Europe. Wealthy estate owners installed automata in their palaces and gardens, where they became major tourist attractions for travelers from across Europe.
Our story begins with these lifelike machines. They provided the material context for the new scientific and philosophical model of living beings as machines that would emerge around the middle of the seventeenth century. If “mechanical” subsequently came to signify passive and rote, in the age of these earlier machines, it meant no such thing. On the contrary, the automata we are about to consider exhibited a vital and even a divine agency.

Deus qua Machina

A mechanical Christ on a crucifix, known as the Rood of Grace, drew flocks of pilgrims to Boxley Abbey in Kent during the fifteenth century (see figure 1.1). This Jesus, which operated at Easter and the Ascension, “was made to move the eyes and lipps by stringes of haire.”4 Moreover, the Rood was able
to bow down and lifte up it selfe, to shake and stirre the handes and feete, to nod the head, to rolle the eies, to wag the chaps, to bende the browes, and finally to represent to the eie, both the proper motion of each member of the body, and also a lively, expresse, and significant shew of a well contented or displeased minde: byting the lippe, and gathering a frowning, forward, and disdainful face, when it would pretend offence: and shewing a most milde, amiable, and smyling cheere and countenaunce, when it woulde seeme to be well pleased.5
Figure 1.1 Pilgrim souvenir of the Rood of Grace, fourteenth century, © Museum of London.
Before approaching the Rood for benediction, one had to undergo a test of purity administered by a remote-controlled saint:
Sainct Rumwald was the picture of a pretie Boy sainct of stone . . . of it selfe short, and not seeming to be heavie: but for as much as it was wrought out of a great and weightie stone . . . it was hardly to be lifted by the handes of the strongest man. Neverthelesse (such was the conveighance) by the helpe of an engine fixed to the backe thereof, it was easily prised up with the foote of him that was the keeper, and therefore, of no moment at all in the handes of such as had offered frankly: and contrariwise, by the meane of a pinne, running into a post . . . it was, to such as offered faintly, so fast and unmoveable, that no force of hande might once stirre it.6
Having proven your “cleane life and innocencie” at the hands of the rigged Saint Rumwald, you could proceed to the mechanized Jesus. Automaton Christs—muttering, blinking, grimacing on the Cross—were especially popular.7 A sixteenth-century Breton Jesus rolled his eyes and moved his lips while blood flowed from a wound in his side. At his feet, the Virgin and three attendant women gesticulated, while at the top of the Cross, a head symbolizing the Trinity glanced shiftily from side to side.8
Mechanical devils were rife. Poised in sacristies, they made dreadful faces, howled, and stuck out their tongues to instill fear in the hearts of sinners. The Satan machines rolled their eyes and flailed their arms and wings; some even had moveable horns and crowns (see plate 1). One sixteenth-century life-size wooden devil burst from its cage, “horrible, twisted, horned, rolling furious eyes, sticking out a blood-red tongue, seeming to throw itself upon the spectator, spitting in his face and letting out great howls,” while making an obscene gesture with its left hand. This devil was moved by a weight that also powered a set of bellows, forcing air and water through a copper tube in the neck and mouth, allowing the creature to howl and spit.9 A muscular, crank-operated devil with sharply pointed ears and wild eyes remains in residence at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (see plate 2).10
There were also automaton angels. In one Florentine festival, a host of these carried the soul of Saint Cecilia up to Heaven.11 For the feast of the Annunciation at San Felice, the fifteenth-century Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi sent the archangel Gabriel in the reverse direction in a mechanical “mandorla,” an almond-shaped symbol in which two merging circles represent Heaven and earth, matter and spirit. Brunelleschi, a master of holy mechanics, mechanized Heaven too. His mechanical Paradise was “truly marvellous . . . for on high a Heaven full of living and moving figures could be seen as well as countless lights, flashing on and off like lightning.”12
Brunelleschi was outdone in the second half of the century by Cecca (Francesco D’Angelo), who engineered Christ’s Ascension at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Here, where Christ was borne aloft on “a Mount very well made of wood” the “said Heaven was somewhat larger than that of S. Felice in Piazza.” The festival planners added a second Heaven over the chief tribune, with “certain great wheels” that “moved in most beautiful order ten circles standing for the ten Heavens.” These were filled with stars: little copper lamps suspended from pivots so that they would remain upright as the heavens turned. Two angels stood on a platform suspended from pulleys. They were arranged to come down and announce to Christ that he was to ascend into Heaven.13
The heavenly machinery was balanced below by elaborately engineered hells. The Passion play at Valenciennes in 1547 featured a hell with a monstrous mouth that gaped open and shut, revealing devils and tormented sinners.14 The mechanical infernos with moving gates were accompanied by rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning, and writhing automaton demons and dragons.15
A menagerie of mechanical beasts played roles in religious theater. A mechanical bear menaced David’s sheep.16 Daniel’s lions gnashed their teeth17 and more lions knelt before Saint Denis.18 Balaam’s ass balked and swerved before the angel of the Lord.19 The serpent twined itself round the trunk of the Tree of Knowledge to proffer its apple to Eve.20 A wild boar tracked by hunters, a leopard that sniffed Saint André, a dromedary that wagged its head, moved its lips, and stuck out its tongue, a host of dog-and wolf-shaped devils surging up from the underworld, and serpents and dragons spewing flames from their mouths, noses, eyes, and ears rewarded the devoted spectators at the forty-day performance of the Mystère des actes des apôtres in Bourges in 1537.21 The machines were commissioned from local artisans, usually clockmakers.22
Mechanical enactments of biblical events spread across the European landscape, during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.23 The holy machinery was not only to be found in cities. In May 1501, an engineer in the village of Rabastens, near Toulouse, was engaged to build an endless screw that could propel the Assumption of the Virgin. The following August, the Virgin rose heavenward, attended by rotating angels, and disappeared into Paradise, its entrance hidden in clouds. Meanwhile a golden, flaming sun also rotated, carrying more angels on its rays.24 Another mechanical Assumption of the Virgin took place annually in Toulouse, moving in alternate years between the Eglise Notre-Dame de la Daurade and the Eglise Saint-Etienne.25 At home, in the region around Toulouse, children built small replicas of the Virgin elevator for the Assumption in the same way that they arranged crèches at Christmas.26
The Eternal Father appeared in mechanical reenactments. In Dieppe, he loomed at the top of the Eglise Saint-Jacques, a “venerable old man” astride a cloud in an azure, star-sprinkled canopy of Heaven. Mechanical angels flew about him, flapping their wings and swinging their censers. Some played the Ave Maria in time to the organ on handbells and horns at the end of each office. After the service, the angels blew out the altar candles.27 At the feast of Whitsuntide, the Holy Ghost, in the form of a white dove, flew down from the main vault of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, breathing a “most pleasant Perfume” over the congregation.28
The earliest modern mechanical figures were found mostly in churches and cathedrals and exhibited religious themes. Many figures were connected to clocks, outgrowths of the Church’s drive to improve timekeeping for the sake of a reformed calendar and better prediction of feast days,29 or with organs. A mechanical man gripping a mallet to ring the hour became a familiar sight on clock towers across Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. He went by the name “Jack” in England; “Jean” in Flanders; “Jacquemart” in France; and “Hans” in Germany.30 Over the next century, the bell-ringer acquired company. On the clock in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, beginning in 1499, two giant shepherds struck the hour while an angel playing a horn emerged, followed by the three Magi (see figure 1.2). The Magi bowed before the Virgin and Child and removed the crowns from their heads with one hand while using the other to extend their gifts. They then stood, replaced their crowns, and exited through an automatic door.31 The scene of the Magi was a common motif on church clocks, which also often included calendars indicating feast days; the positions, oppositions, and conjunctions of the stars; the signs of the zodiac; the phases of the moon; and, as in the San Marco clock, astronomical models of a Ptolemaic cosmos.32
Figure 1.2 Automaton Magi on the Piazza San Marco clock, courtesy Fausto Maroder.
There were also roosters. Mechanical cocks crowed and flapped their wings on clocks across Europe from about the mid-fourteenth century.33 Perhaps the earliest, built around 1340, flapped and crowed on the hour at Cluny Abbey, near Macon. Meanwhile, an angel opened a door to bow before the Virgin; a white dove representing the Holy Spirit flew down and was blessed by the Eternal Father; and fantastic creatures emerged to stick out their tongues and roll their eyes before retreating inside the clock.34 Another rooster did its flapping and crowing on the town clock in Niort from about 1570. This bird presided over three separate scenes involving some forty figures. Care appeared in a window to exhort Servitude to come out and strike the hour. An automaton Gabriel enacted the Annunciation with a mechanical Mary, Holy Ghost, and Eternal Father. A mechanical choir of angels sang while their Kapellmeister, holding the music and ...

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