Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond

Princeton University Press
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What is life? What is water? What is sound? In Sounding the Limits of Life, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich investigates how contemporary scientists—biologists, oceanographers, and audio engineers—are redefining these crucial concepts. Life, water, and sound are phenomena at once empirical and abstract, material and formal, scientific and social. In the age of synthetic biology, rising sea levels, and new technologies of listening, these phenomena stretch toward their conceptual snapping points, breaching the boundaries between the natural, cultural, and virtual.

Through examinations of the computational life sciences, marine biology, astrobiology, acoustics, and more, Helmreich follows scientists to the limits of these categories. Along the way, he offers critical accounts of such other-than-human entities as digital life forms, microbes, coral reefs, whales, seawater, extraterrestrials, tsunamis, seashells, and bionic cochlea. He develops a new notion of "sounding"—as investigating, fathoming, listening—to describe the form of inquiry appropriate for tracking meanings and practices of the biological, aquatic, and sonic in a time of global change and climate crisis.

Sounding the Limits of Life shows that life, water, and sound no longer mean what they once did, and that what count as their essential natures are under dynamic revision.

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About the author

Stefan Helmreich is professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Alien Ocean and Silicon Second Nature.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Oct 27, 2015
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Pages
328
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ISBN
9781400873869
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Language
English
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Genres
Science / General
Science / Philosophy & Social Aspects
Social Science / Anthropology / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Silicon Second Nature takes us on an expedition into an extraordinary world where nature is made of bits and bytes and life is born from sequences of zeroes and ones. Artificial Life is the brainchild of scientists who view self-replicating computer programs—such as computer viruses—as new forms of life. Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich's look at the social and simulated worlds of Artificial Life—primarily at the Santa Fe Institute, a well-known center for studies in the sciences of complexity—introduces readers to the people and programs connected with this unusual hybrid of computer science and biology.

When biology becomes an information science, when DNA is downloaded into virtual reality, new ways of imagining "life" become possible. Through detailed dissections of the artifacts of Artifical Life, Helmreich explores how these novel visions of life are recombining with the most traditional tales told by Western culture. Because Artificial Life scientists tend to see themselves as masculine gods of their cyberspace creations, as digital Darwins exploring frontiers filled with primitive creatures, their programs reflect prevalent representations of gender, kinship, and race, and repeat origin stories most familiar from mythical and religious narratives.

But Artificial Life does not, Helmreich says, simply reproduce old stories in new software. Much like contemporary activities of cloning, cryonics, and transgenics, the practice of simulating and synthesizing life in silico challenges and multiplies the very definition of vitality. Are these models, as some would claim, actually another form of the real thing? Silicon Second Nature takes Artifical Life as a symptom and source of our mutating visions of life itself.
A prescient warning of a future we now inhabit, where fake news stories and Internet conspiracy theories play to a disaffected American populace

“A glorious book . . . A spirited defense of science . . . From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought.”—Los Angeles Times

How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions.

Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, in today's so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning with stories of alien abduction, channeling past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.

Praise for The Demon-Haunted World

“Powerful . . . A stirring defense of informed rationality. . . Rich in surprising information and beautiful writing.”—The Washington Post Book World

“Compelling.”—USA Today

“A clear vision of what good science means and why it makes a difference. . . . A testimonial to the power of science and a warning of the dangers of unrestrained credulity.”—The Sciences

“Passionate.”—San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle
Silicon Second Nature takes us on an expedition into an extraordinary world where nature is made of bits and bytes and life is born from sequences of zeroes and ones. Artificial Life is the brainchild of scientists who view self-replicating computer programs—such as computer viruses—as new forms of life. Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich's look at the social and simulated worlds of Artificial Life—primarily at the Santa Fe Institute, a well-known center for studies in the sciences of complexity—introduces readers to the people and programs connected with this unusual hybrid of computer science and biology.

When biology becomes an information science, when DNA is downloaded into virtual reality, new ways of imagining "life" become possible. Through detailed dissections of the artifacts of Artifical Life, Helmreich explores how these novel visions of life are recombining with the most traditional tales told by Western culture. Because Artificial Life scientists tend to see themselves as masculine gods of their cyberspace creations, as digital Darwins exploring frontiers filled with primitive creatures, their programs reflect prevalent representations of gender, kinship, and race, and repeat origin stories most familiar from mythical and religious narratives.

But Artificial Life does not, Helmreich says, simply reproduce old stories in new software. Much like contemporary activities of cloning, cryonics, and transgenics, the practice of simulating and synthesizing life in silico challenges and multiplies the very definition of vitality. Are these models, as some would claim, actually another form of the real thing? Silicon Second Nature takes Artifical Life as a symptom and source of our mutating visions of life itself.
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