NATURE: Fearful symmetry

In his poem, “The Tyger,” William Blake writes: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The impact of that unexpected adjective, fearful, modifying a noun that suggests a pleasing, harmonious quality, symmetry, strikes me every time I read the poem. It informs my own contrary reaction to some of nature’s most perfect forms, not least because I agree with Francis Bacon that “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in its proportions.”

I marvel at the structure of honeycombs, sunflowers, the undersides of mushrooms, at the extravagant beauty of a peacock feather. At the same time, however, I am filled with unease, a mild repulsion. In the case of the termite, distinguished from a flying ant by the equal size of its wings, straight antennae, and uniform body width, my aversion to its symmetry is readily understood. In the other instances mentioned, though, I have difficulty reconciling how something from nature appears to have been made by a machine.

Man has been imposing order on nature since time immemorial. Looking out an airplane window, I can’t help but admire the tidy geometry of farmlands that look like patchwork quilts and cities’ street grids. Good for us, I think. How industrious and intelligent and bold we are.

Until I see a silvery river meander and wind its way as it pleases through the landscape—and I can’t help but cheer. As I did when Ava, the man-made woman in the film, Ex Machina, destroys her creator, the all-too-mortal hand and eye that framed her fearful symmetry. As an experiment in artificial intelligence, she is both mechanical (machine) and intuitive (human). Through systematic planning and manipulation of the emotions of the young man selected to test the limits of her intelligence (who she also destroys), she achieves her goal: freedom, the most fundamental of human needs.

Ava is the meandering river, the machine run amok, venturing into the world with unfamiliar skin so she can walk a city street with fellow pedestrians. She is a compelling heroine to me because she embodies the tension between nature and machine—and nature wins (an enviable ability not to need sleep notwithstanding). Though I do worry how she will charge the batteries that power her (ever resourceful, she’ll probably figure out a way). And I wonder: as a machine who has chosen to be human, will she also choose to create? And, if so, what fearful symmetry will she frame?

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