Synergy and life

One of the reasons I love birds is because they prove, for anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, the limitations of mechanistic philosophy and the impoverishment of reductionist perspectives in science.

Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine
Paul Klee, “The Twittering Machine”
(Die Zwitschermaschine, 1922). Museum of Modern Art, New York.


“Like a flicker of light he had vanished with my eyes full on him, but without actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate. For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him. The light was too intense. Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down. I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing further up. Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.

I am older now, and sleep less, and have seen most of what there is to see and am not very much impressed anymore, I suppose, by anything. ‘What Next in the Attributes of Machines?’ my morning headline runs…. All over the city the cogs in the hard, bright mechanisms have begun to turn. Figures move through computers, names are spelled out, a thoughtful machine selects the fingerprints of a wanted criminal from an array of thousands. In the laboratory an electronic mouse runs swiftly through a maze toward the cheese it can neither taste nor enjoy. On the second run it does better than a living mouse.

On the other hand… Ah, my mind takes up, on the other hand the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off, over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away.”

– Loren Eiseley, “The Bird and the Machine” (in The Immense Journey)



Klee’s paintings move me profoundly, and have so ever since I first encountered “The Twittering Machine” in high school or junior high. A few years ago in Munich I spent an afternoon viewing Paul Klee pieces at the Lenbachhaus. In my early junior high years, I remember being deeply moved by the first Loren Eiseley short story I encountered. Of all his writings, “The Bird and the Machine” quickly became my favorite. Whenever I stumble upon reductionist perspectives in science, my thoughts constantly go back to this short story, juxtaposed with a mental image of Klee’s “Die Zwitschermaschine,” and I am not even remotely tempted.

One of my father’s favorite words, “synergy,” means “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Life is synergy. Life is like birds.


Below: an old science assignment from back when I taught high school near St. Louis:

Loren Eiseley, Paul Klee

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