The Ancient Beast
“An ancient beast.”
This is what I called New York. This phrase, it could be called a lie by any measure. The city is approaching its 400th birthday, which perhaps makes it old by North American standards — but London and Seoul are around 2,000 years old. Beijing is 3,000, Quito and Madrid are 1,100, and Damascus… Damascus is truly ancient, with its more than 5,000 years of recorded history. By the measure of cities, New York can at best be called… pubescent. It is comparatively young, but it bears the scars of age. It has moles, it has other benign yet unsightly growths and tumors. It sags in places where young things should not sag, and its surface displays a beautiful mottle of cultures that normally takes millennia to accumulate. Unlike the truly old cities, it hasn’t accepted its age; it is in combat with itself, fighting its urban entropy with ferocious energy. As I walk along its always busy streets, the rain and sun are intermittently denied to me by a constantly shifting exoskeleton of scaffolding that shores up the wearings of time.
It is an old city, with an ugliness that makes it enrapturing. It is undergoing change, expulsing old cells and generating new ones, slowly transitioning to a new form. What it might look like is impossible to predict. Perhaps, as many fear, it will resemble some shiny recreational park for a small group who can afford to play here. Its rising rents and newfound cleanliness seems to indicate this, and this would surely be a sad state for a great city. If it happens, let us hope it is merely an adolescent phase.
So it looks old, but it is not. Can we call this city a beast?
Is it alive?
That word “living” carries with it a poetic license to describe anything pulsing and changing, and that is definitely the reason I evoked the notion when describing New York. However, perhaps the city, and the word, deserve a closer consideration. Maybe, just maybe, New York is truly alive in a sense that goes beyond poetry.
It’s not alive in the traditional sense of being alive, this cannot be denied. But the traditional sense of “alive” is — as all traditional senses are — limited. Constrained. Chained. It defines the living by a limited set of experiences: the fleshy and sweaty, the carbon-bound, the breathing. But there are other definitions, other extremely valid definitions.
NASA’s Exobiology Discipline Working Group developed a broader definition, one that could identify life no matter where it might be found and what it might look like. NASA defines life as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian Evolution.” Can a city be defined as “life” using this interpretation? Is it is definitely a chemical system — many, in fact. It can evolve, some cities adapt well to a changing environment, while others wither and die, unable to adjust to social, economic, or climatic upheavals. Perhaps determining whether it is truly alive depends on how we view its components. In other words, how we view ourselves.
Imagine an astronomer on a distant planet. This creature has found our precious home with its telescope and has observed it for eons. It has watched as cities have grown across it surface, beginning as tiny dots and swelling into greater size and definition, sending out tendrils and reproducing, communicating with each other, warring with each other. With no other information to go on other than what it can see, what does the astronomer think? This depends on its nature, on how its brain interprets the things it sees.
It is easy for us to imagine the this astronomer is like us, living in a city of its own. Seeing the the earth in its lens, we can imagine it saying, “Those are cities, habitats for creatures like me.” And it would be right.
But why should it be like us? What if this astronomer were completely different in just about every way imaginable? What if it’s a thousand mile-wide, sapient creature floating serenely among the clouds of a gas planet? What if its vascular system were like roaring subway tunnels, and its nervous system built up of thunderstorms? What if the lens of its telescope, instead of being made up of refined sand and the combined efforts of others just like it, was pooled together by its own will from the refractive masses of a billion droplets of rain? Would it see cities? Or perhaps something else? What would it say — if it spoke at all — as it watched Beijing, and Damascus, and Quito, and the toddler that it New York? It might just say, “These things are my kin, growing on another world… See how they thrive!”
And could it be right? What would that make us, New York’s inhabitants? Are we the colony members of some superorganism, or are we symbiotic creatures like gut fauna. Are we the city’s caretakers, its children? Are we its diet?
This is all silly, of course, and can’t be taken too seriously. I don’t think we can consider New York to be alive in the sense of NASA’s definition, or by any perspective other than the poet’s eye. But it is interesting to entertain the notion. It allows us think, think about what life could truly be. Our lives, the way they are structured, are but a tiny sample of an infinite realm of possibilities — many of which are probably very difficult for us to understand — and it is useful for us to take this into account. Because by asking the question “What does life look like?” and embracing the infinite potential definitions, it allows us to better understand our own lives.
It allows to develop the wisdom to find the answers to other questions without limiting ourselves to our own narrow experience.
It lets us ask, “What does a family look like?”