Category: evolutionary theory and the scientific approach

Decentring the Human View

Rather than extending from human centred preferences on outward, what would happen if we decentred human interests and made them exactly equivalent and on the same level as all other interests, living and non-living?

In practice, we are at the centre of our own individual experiences, just as our DNA is at the centre of our evolutionary potential.

Yet, as I have shown, there are serious problems with considering ourselves as boundaried entities when a consideration of how we relate to, and even co-evolve with, other species shows that those boundaries are, at the very least, perceptual tricks of the light, edges against which we can pit our survival skills – but only if we also recognise that the boundaries themselves are somewhat illusory. This reminds me of the status of colour – an impossible phenomenon, in terms of physics, but as real and fundamental to our experience, and as essential to our own survival, as any other sensory feedback.

It’s unsettling to consider our interests as having no more inherent imporance than those of a virus, particularly when, emotionally, virii, cockroaches and other species we consider as competitors engender negative emotional reactions. Can we really achieve such a level of impartiality? Isn’t it counter to our very natures? Our very survival depends, surely, on outcompeting such monsters? How can we possibly consider them to have concerns which have the same status value as our own?

The paradox is that when we cultivate a more objective, less emotional response to microbes and other organisms around which we have, let’s face it, an evolved disgust, we can begin to observe and study without the accompanying horror, and that creates the space to understand them. With understanding comes the ability to consider their interests purely as systematically relational, and this, in turn, gives us the possibility to consider ways in which both interests may be served. This is not always going to be possible, of course. Yet the rapidly evolving HIV virus is, in a sense, an aggressive symbiote. Do I dare suggest that we might be able to see such a traditional enemy as such? Rather, for instance, than attempting to wipe out the ‘parasite’ that generates Malaria with increasingly aggressive and expensive drugs (to which the microbe, evolving faster than we can react, will always develop eventual resistance) we an think of the ecology of that lifeform, the pools that are required by mosquitos to breed: we can ensure that there are none near human settlements, we can ensure that nets to protect humans while they are sleeping are widely distributed, and most fundamentally, we can look into biological relationships between the microbe and other elements of the ecology.

Not so radical, after all, is it? Just basic common sense, instead of all out war.

Naturally Biodiverse Clusters are Social Constructs, too

‘Naturally Biodiverse Clusters’ are as much a social construct as any other culturally relative concept. They depend on the cultural history that has developed and allowed the flourishing of the scientific method, and ultimately, of the understandings of evolutionary biology. By recognising that we are reliant on the living energy systems beyond human culture for our own survival, we come to the realisation that it has been through suppression of the drives to excessive use and mindless self-satisfaction that we have come to have a culture, and therefore, in this sense, to cultivate, both ourselves and the naturally biodiverse clusters that are our source of identity.

Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud. “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”

The age of extravagance is, in this sense, over. ‘No!’ shout the NaySayers: we will go on adapting the physical world to our needs indefinitely. We have been to the Moon. We may be able to live in a space station, or on another planet. The Universe has more than enough physical material for our need into the most far imagined future.

But this attitude of continuing exploitation fails to take into account that we are, beneath the primate surface, NBCs. Perceiving the environment as a resource to be exploited, whether that environment be the planet, or some larger context, we lose sight of the interdependence of our identity with other species and with relationships to other, living and non-living, aspects of existence.

While it may be possible that some small percentage of the species could generate enough of an artificial environment to continue to exist elsewhere, the issue stands out starkly: at what cost to the cultural development of the species? By the very same token that we are reliant for our flourishing on an acknowledgement of the interdependencies we are enmeshed within.

It is an illusion that exploitation has allowed us all to flourish and succeed. There is evidence to show that exploitation only ever helped a few and, proportionately, a smaller few as time went on, not that it is the answer to the kinds of questions that the current emergency raises. While Garrett Hardin reaches the opposite conclusion through a dualistic approach, if we can accept the findings that modern evolutionary biology, we must also realise how inadequate attempts to restrict the sphere of consideration are going to be (not to mention the findings of Elinor Ostrom that directly contradict, using empirical data, the theoretical assumptions made by Hardin).

Biodiverse Clusters and Energy Flows

This is an effort to explain how ‘naturally biodiverse clusters’ might be understood. I know I’ve just written a post on entitled ‘NBCs’ but bear with me. There’s more to say before we can get into useful discussion (all writing is information exchange, after all, isn’t it?). Firstly, consider how naturally biodiverse clusters are in constant flux, cells altering and repairing, microbes entering, interacting, air, food, liquid, passing in, through, releasing energy (and toxins), information being exchanged, dissipation of energy through heat, activity, and so on. This is much more accurate than considering ourselves as solid and regularly ordered structures. There is order, in the sense that there are describable laws of nature which give some predictability to events (though this predictability is somewhat thrown to the winds of chance by quantum mechanics) and there is organisation. We could say that this organisation is stable, in the sense that some kind of equilibrium exists, rather in the same vein as, when we are running, we are in an almost permanent state of controlled falling.

Over extended periods of time, NBCs (it’s a poor joke. Forgive me) tip from state to state. Tim Morton claims that living organisms are seeking equilbrium, and this accords with my interpretation: we are driven by thermodynamic laws to seek to return to the relative inertia of non-living existence. (This reminds me of a wonderful passage in the film, Withnail and I, when the incredible Withnail, attempting to dodge young female pedestrians, shouts, “they THROW themselves into the road!” But I digress…).

As the larger situation – the mean temperature, water quality and so on – shifts, foundational organisms – microbes and the like – that have survived so long precisely by being simple and thus adaptable, may manage to survive. Those parts of the cluster that are more complex and that cannot tolerate the shift in number or condition of their codependent microbial community are simply sloughed off. While it is unlikely that our species will become entirely extinct, the directional thrust is for the complex biodiversity that has sustained us to recede again into simplicity. If we choose to conceive of ourselves as the ultimate manipulators, then it is in our interests to consider what kind of manipulation this could be. If we must preserve a certain amount of organisation in order to preserve ourselves, we must discover what aspects of our NBCs benefit us, and what, in turn, benefit them. This is the ultimate update of the golden rule: ensure the continuance of the cluster in order for that our own continuance be sustained by it.

Since NBCs operate along variably stable parameters, some of which (absorption of carbon dioxide, generation of energy systems) benefit humans, it makes sense to protect those systems that are most fundamental to our own survival. We, as complex organisms, are in a precariously fragile position. We are latecomers to a population of living species very few of which are dependent on our survival for their own. Doing as we would be done by in relation to the rest of our NBC is a one-sided bargain, and entirely self-interested. Entirely self-interested acts are rarely describable as moral. This is not an ethic, then, but simple pragmatism.

If, as I have proposed in earlier writings, our degree of autonomy is not what we had thought, then the impact even of the biofeedback systems we generate when self-reflecting are certainly less predictable than we have led ourselves to believe to date. Even if we act to include the interests of naturally biodiverse clusters, there is no reason why humans, or indeed all living existence on the planet, might not nevertheless be shrugged off. If these acts are worth the effort we expend, then it is because we are open to the development of an attitude of respect that relies not on the outcome, but is enlightened practice.

Naturally Biodiverse Clusters

We exist as an intimately connected cluster of transient organisms which are so closely and mutually reliant on their cosurvival as to merit collective attention. Recognising this allows us to understand ourselves both as continuing identities, and as relationships, with a subset of conditions that consistently support, and many others that relocate, reorganise, or destroy, the cluster and its relationships. Although these clusters vary through time they still pursue the common goal of living continuance.

This is somewhat akin to a recognition of the cooperative element of biological existence. Individual living organisms must sometimes interdepend in order to evolve. With this recognition comes the realisation that the dual processes of competition and cooperation are both important elements in living existence. Charles Darwin’s account of evolution focused unnecessarily heavily on the competitive element at the cost of the cooperative. However, both drives exist in nature and it is upon the latter that the older, microbial world is most dependent.

An expansion of the locus of value from individual organisms to cooperating naturally ocurring, biologically diverse clusters works at the micro-level: within a single square centimetre of soil, organisms cannot be said to act, in many instances, as individuals, but act instead in groups of, depending on their size, tens, tens of thousands, or tens of millions. The actions undertaken can best be described as primarily cooperative at this scale. While individual organisms do not necessarily benefit, the local, intimate cluster does, through its continuance.

Of course, nothing about this picture suggests a peaceful, harmonious state of existence. My naturally biodiverse cluster includes both a human genome, the enculturated activities that have shaped my phenotype, and the microbial and non-organic “wilderness” that interacts and shapes reactions at the cellular and multicellular level of existence. This is nature within culture, the wild within the domestic. Of course, too, naturally biodiverse clusters are as much a social construct as any other culturally relative concept. Our cultural millieu dictates, to a huge degree, how we decide to live. But there are two questions we need to ask ourselves in relation to this deciding. First, we must ask whether or not we are approaching with sufficient humility the degree of ignorance we still have in relation to our understanding of the intricate relationships between, particularly, members of the microbial community. If we focused more on what Cockell calls “the small things”, the microbes in the soil, the bacteria in our own guts, and so on, we would perhaps be able to better frame the question of what to include when considering how to live.

Secondly, we need to ask whether or not we have sufficiently cultivated, or even enculturated the value of imagination in the direction of biological investigation, so that we can take ourselves beyond the current cultural conceptions of scale we ought to use to measure what to include in considering interests.

Recognising that we are reliant on the living energy systems beyond human culture for our own survival, we can begin to question what it is that has been suppressed of the drives to excessive use and mindless self-satisfaction that we cultivate both in ourselves and the environment. Considerable further imaginative engagement with this work on instincts is required if we are even to begin to approach an understanding of what has driven us to here, and what of us might be said to be making choices about where to go next.