The history of the topic depends upon the history of four (in fact five) fields: dualism, Zen, evolutionary science and environmental ethics. The fifth area, the study of self respect, permeates each of these fields.
There are many contested definitions within this thesis that will need to be looked at and discussed, from basic ideas like environment, ecology, human and nature, to more novel ideas like naturally biodiverse clusters. Respect as opposed to reverence or even self realisation, and the idea of realisation as enlightenment, what it means to talk of the practice of philosophy, and the particular meaning of Zen (as well as things like memes) all need to be discussed as ideas. But meaning depends on context so much of the way that I use the different words will emerge as a result of describing how I see the context.
There have been lots of major debates in the different fields that I will have to touch on. Dualism is an entire debate in itself, from Plato’s forms and ideals versus impermanent matter, through the soul/body of JudeoChristianity to Descartes’ ghostly consciousness/mechanical flesh. Then there are the debates in Zen: instant realisation in Dogen contrasts with the idea of incremental stages of enlightenment in other traditions, whether Zen requires the complete dedication of monastic life or can be incorporated into lay existence, whether rituals and chanting bring one closer to enlightenment or whether pure realisation is possible through simply sitting, and finally, whether or not a guru is a necessary part of the process. Within evolutionary science there are debates around how species and individuals evolve, particularly characterised by Dawkins versus EO Wilson and the schools that have developed. Also between those who believe that evolution develops as a competitive or a cooperative process (my own view is that some mixture of the two drives the process, and I think the phrase used in the title of Frank Ryan’s book, Aggressive Symbiosis, sums this up. Environmental ethics has included debates about centres of value that are important to describe (anthropocentrism/zoocentrism(sentientism)/biocentrism/ecocentrism/allocentrism) but that lose their significance in this thesis because I want to focus on the non-moral approach. However, that in itself is a debate: can you have a theory of how to live based on pragmatism not morality? I’m going to argue yes and this brings in literature from evolutionary ethics and the work of Hans-Georg Moeller. The other debate between monism/pluralism in environmental ethics needs to be mentioned.
Self respect and respect and how they are understood have their own literature and I’ll mention this in more detail later.
The key theories, ideas and concepts are:
Within Dualism: non-dualism as an emergent state of consciousness
respect and self-respect as self-identical, given the collapse of the idea of the self (this is like the dropping away of mind and body that is central to Soto Zen)
the paradoxical requirement, nevertheless, that some sense of self-other boundary is maintained (this is also the recognition of the core element of survival as the individual’s DNA structure, even if this is cooperatively coevolved through the realisation attributable to RNA, etc) and therefore a key element of the thesis will be an attempt to find some approach that honours both this core division and at the same time acknowledges the non-dualism. Zen is the key to this: respect but not without losing self-respect. Pragmatism at the core. You do what you can. As long as a compassionate non attachment is developed, the potential conflict of interests can be avoided. There is no ideal. Only an opening of possibilities according to an assessment of current conditions.
zazen (sitting meditation)
practice is enlightenment
respect as practice
buddha nature as emptiness
the motivation to act based on the self-reflective awareness of the conditional response
Within Evolutionary biology: interdependency and co-evolution
symbiogenisis (lynn margulis)
energetic flows and matter cycles
self-reflective awareness creating a biofeedback system that allows an openness in the response to the current moment
Environmental Ethics: that we need to respond to the ecological crisis (but that the response needs to be an ethical one: this is not the case).
Within environmental ethics: the idea that there has to be either a stewardship approach or an allocentric approach. This idea can be shown to depend upon a dualistic perspective and therefore a different perspective, a non-dualistic one, will create the possibility of encompassing individual and human interests and personal interests of being of parallel consideration (does this work? This is a kind of win win idea, the idea that there don’t need to be losers, only participants)
The idea that there has to be either a monistic approach or a pluralistic approach. There doesn’t. There has to be an approach that works on a case by case basis. This is central to Zen and its central to the idea of the Tao. It’s also central to the idea of this approach.
The idea that there has to be an ethical approach. This is not the case. From evolutionary morality and the ideas that have been discussed there we get the idea that ethics is idiosyncratic and it’s better to understand things simply as responses to conditions and circumstances. That also involves the idea of looking at how patterns get stuck, or held, and the energy flow/matter cycle part of the approach shows that releasing these patterns allow a more fluid response. This is the work: it brings together Zen (how to live), environmental ethics (responding to the crisis), dualism (the point from which we’re perceiving what is going on, the paradigm), and evolutionary theory (scientific findings that support the possibility that we can shift our understanding of ourselves and of how we interrelate both as living creatures but also all the way down to the energy level).
Defining terms will take place during the description of the background. Some definitions will emerge from the context but I’ll make it clear what I mean by dualism, the particular aspect of Zen that I’m interested in, what I mean by evolutionary biology and what by environmental ethics. But I’ll have to go a bit further than that because all these definitions depend on others, and there are other terms that I need to define to draw lines, as it were, around what I’m talking about. Some of the main ones, again, chronologically, are respect and self-respect (I’ll probably have to have a subsection under dualism to show how these definitions have come about). For Zen, too, dualism is important and means something slightly different so I’ll have to compare the two meanings, and the meaning of respect in Zen with what we usually mean by respect, and self-respect, in the global North: I’ll have to show how these compare. There’s a huge mountain of literature on the nature/culture or human/nature divide. I’ll have to be careful (partly because I’ve read and written a lot about this already) to select what’s relevant. The same thing with agency. Actually, that brings us quite neatly on to evolutionary biology and agency, and I’ll show how definitions of agency change in a scientific context compared, for instance, with the idea in Zen, or even in Descartes (again, I have to be careful to be selective with this).
This brings us to words like environment, and ecology, and I dealt with that a bit in an earlier post, and they’re subsections of thinking about nature so maybe I need to put them in under that section, only because I’m dealing with things chronologically, and Environmental Ethics is the last section, I want to look at what the problem is with an environmental ethics approach. So I want to define both environment and ecology, on the one hand, and ethics and morality, on the other, and I want to show why what I’m doing is ecological pragmatism, not environmental ethics.
I don’t want to list the major debates and conflicts in each area, but I do want to show how the four areas intersect. From dualism we get the debate between Parmenides and other monists or relativists and Platonic Ideals or Forms contrasted with impermanent, imperfect matter. Then we can jump forward to the Judeo-Christian division, again hierarchical, between (pure) soul and (impure) matter, and also, of course, between humanity, that group that God is interested in, and everything else, that group that is there to serve humanity, or is not worth considering. This then gives us a background for Descartes’ ghostly consciousness/ mechanical flesh division, and we can pause there and begin to review Zen.
Zen debates have involved whether or not instant realisation or slow practice led to enlightenment, and since I’m focussing on Dogen, I’ll be putting in a plug for the practice-is-enlightenment end of the debate. Next, I’ll outline the debate between whether or not Zen had to be practiced by monks and others who made that their whole purpose, or whether or not it was possible to attain enlightenment as a layperson. I will put in a bit about Dogen’s view which does seem to highlight the benefits of a pure monastic existence over a lay existence but Dogen’s was also called Farmer Zen, so in a sense, he popularised the practice and made it available to everyone. Then there’s the debate about how to achieve enlightenment and the different practices and rituals from chanting and reading sutras to understand them, reading koans, meditating on koans, ascetic practices, and finally there’s zazen, sitting Zen, or sitting meditation, which is Dogen’s method but which I want to critique a bit since I think that we can adapt the practice so we’re not sitting all day long, and so it becomes part of a wider practice of self awareness. I don’t know whether to put the critique in here. I also think that I can link this with the last bit on dualism by pointing out that these debates showed that there was dualism in some of the practices. And another thing I want to point out, for both Zen and dualism, is the idea that we can’t help and indeed we need to be dualists in a sense, so it’s not that we are demanding of ourselves that we become entirely without identity (and I’ll have to see if I can explain this carefully because in a sense that’s exactly what’s happening), nor can we get out of the skinbag. And we don’t have to. We just have to see the skin bag as an illusion. I think that’s what Dogen’s saying so I think this might be the right place to put this.
The third set of debates is that of evolutionary biology. Since Darwin, the question of how natural selection takes place has had a number of responses. The most recent is the DNA idea that gives Dawkins his raging individualism with the selfish gene argument. This is in contrast with the ideas put forward by Hamilton and EO Wilson, for instance, about the possibility that we evolve both as individuals and as groups. This has been a huge debate recently about this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jun/24/battle-of-the-professors
The selfish gene view is the view that if you lose in the Darwinian race, it doesn’t matter, because the traits that made you altruistic will survive in the closely genetic connected lines of your close kin who you’ve acted altruistic towards. The other theory is that kin selection isn’t overarchingly important since the competition among groups of individuals combined with classical Darwinian selection gives a much better picture. All the members of the group help one another succeed. Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruists. But within groups, groups of altruists beat selfish groups. That means you have a conflicted individual. Individual welfare or selfishness cannot be expunged neither can altruism be expunged without the breakdown of the group and the breakdown of the individual.
(this is transcribed or paraphrased from E O Wilson himself in an interview at: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=150575003&m=150574996)
The kin theorists reacted with extreme antagonism to this proposition and appealed, for instance, to polls, or to authority, or to other arguments that might show that the idea was untenable. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to believe that EO Wilson’s theory does provide a profound challenge to the individual genes thesis. Apart from anything else, if a theory fits the facts, then it is doing its job. And Wilson’s theory fits the facts. Humanity, like any species, has a long and solid history of contravention, of one form of pressure pushing in one direction while another pushes in another. Altruistic group selection is not some panacaea that will create a utopia of human society if properly understood because it embodies the human characteristic of pitting group against group, one of the most dangerous and destructive forms of transaction and interaction that exists within any species. another. (One aspect of this is the Attitude Polarisation effect that we’ve become familiar with recently, when views of groups gel towards the more extreme end of the spectrum as part of the process of identifying with as far distant a set of values from the counter-group as possible). However, as Wilson points out, the best solution to finding answers to our problems lies in educating ourselves, and that means obtaining as much objectively (scientifically) falsifiable data on a situation as possible, and understanding more clearly what we are, again, through a method that allows disproof as well as proof, and that is, science.
Is it possible to know who we are? EO Wilson says yes. Where we come from and what are we are the two central questions of religion and philosophy. Different myths and different struggles have given us lots of possible answers but science has really pushed our understanding into a much more verifiable (or, as I said above, falsifiable) realm. We became the kinds of creatures we are precisely because of the sorts of pressures that played a dominant role during our evolution. What we know about evolution is that individualist selection took place first: we are individualists before we are cooperators. But one final step was taken by the groups that evolved as social species (for instance, humans and ants). That step involved group selection as a kind of meme overtaking or at least compromising individual selection. Human nature is described precisely by this mix of genes: the individualistic urge compromised by the urge to be a part of the group. And it is this latter urge that has turned us into altruists.
There is always pressure not to be an altruist. This is something that we must learn to live with. We cope with this by telling stories, dwelling on our group history, and learning to live with the often uncomfortable picture this gives us. A part of the evolution of our genes is towards altruism. Every decision therefore entails a competition between reflecting individual and group interests. The two forces play out agains one another. In the midst of this conflict, we have to find a decision that reflects some interaction of both. This, again, is an image at the heart of our dualistic understanding.
As globalisation becomes more important to our understanding of the world and ourselves (and the paradigms of the global North, including historical scientific understandings), it might be envisaged that the group would naturally expand to include the species. This does not happen without considerable reflection, however. It is not the biological imperative. If we want to succeed as a species, and success, in species terms, is survival, then we have to act altruistically, even if this requires a recognition that altruism is aggressive symbiosis, meeting other ideas about how to live head on and challenging them on this, the most global North of paradigms: scientific method. But one element of the global South has to meet and influence the blind neutrality of science, and that is an acknowledgment that, for humans as a species, survival is necessarily a good and important thing: from molecular genetics to the social sciences, we have to bring in wisdom, that most qualitative of elements. We have to decide not just to live, but how to live.
This thesis defends the proposition that respect and self-respect are identical, necessary and sufficient for a response to the ecological emergency
To begin at the beginning: in the global North, respect and self-respect have been treated as two separate attitudes. Respect has traditionally been attributed to persons. Immanuel Kant argued that respect was the pivotal attitude around which our moral activities revolved1 and that persons, that is, autonomous, rational agents, themselves generated that attitude (one which acknowledged that persons were ends in themselves, and not only instruments serving the ends of someone or something else). Self-respect, on the other hand, is the reflexive idea that an individual acknowledges that they, themselves, would generate that attitude among others. In other words, it is simply the acknowledgment that they themselves have interests that are as worthy of consideration as the next person. John Rawls used this idea of self-respect in his A Theory of Justice to show that the process of political justice relies on the individuals involved acknowledging their own worth before their participation in the democratic process could be assured2. Without self-respect, society’s members would not be inclined to weigh their interests as sufficiently significant to warrant representation, and would become less represented, and this, in turn, would impinge on their views of themselves. Self-respect, then, was, to Rawls, central to the realisation of a fair and participatorily just democracy.
Just as Rawls had extended Kant’s idea of respect to self-respect – the idea that persons as ends in themselves being extended to include the attitude towards the individual themselves – so Paul Taylor saw the possibility of extending respect outwards to include not just autonomous human agents but also any living organism, given that all organisms pursue their own ‘good’3. Taylor’s idea in his book, Respect for Nature, was to defend a thesis that limiting inclusion in consideration of interests to humans alone was problematic, since it failed to acknowledge the developments in modern scientific understanding that the difference between human and other organisms’ motivations and teleological drives had a common source: all were evolutionarily driven. Given this common ground, it no longer made sense to treat humans as a separate category of being from all others, even if humans were the only ones who had self-reflective consciousness (and therefore the capacity for self-respect). Instead, respect needed to be extended, according to Taylor, to include each and every organism, and thus his proposal was that we respect Nature rather than just respecting humanity as the solution to the problems we face, as a species, in light of anthropogenic impact on the ecology.
Respect in the tradition of the global North was extended further during the field of philosophy’s attempts to tackle the implications of anthropogenic ecological or environmental impact. I will use the term ‘ecological’ because the ‘ecology’ or ‘ecological systems’ refer to both living and non-living aspects of systems. That is, they include both species, and they focus on the relationships between them as much as the individuals within them, and they also include the non-living hydrological, geological, climatic and other conditions within which those species are interacting. The ecology is a term to describe the fluid dynamics of a system of interactions. The environment, on the other hand, describes the neighbourhood, the surroundings, and in a sense it is a more static term that only incidentally implies that the relationships between the organisms and species create the dynamic within which the perceiver is situatied. The ecology necessarily includes the perceiver, because, etymologically at least, ‘eco’ means ‘home’ and this necessarily locates the perceiver within the action of the ecology. The environment is segregated from the perceiver by that same etymological method: a neighbour cannot be oneself.
Respect and self-respect in the tradition of the global North4 were segregated primarily as a result of the historical development of ideas. The cradle of ideas for the global North was Greece, and although there was some struggle for a dominant paradigm, the overwhelming success of Platonic philosophy, with its emphasis on a clear dualism between the world of Forms, or Ideals, and the (grossly inferior) messy, ever-changing world of matter, became the standard against which all subsequent attempts to understand the world were measured. As a result, the understanding of religion, a meme that had taken hold and developed into the Judeo-Christian tradition, echoing this earlier division, posited an ideal, pure and immortal soul within the gross and ever-decaying physical body. In addition, religion divided the human realm from that of the rest of existence, including the rest of living existence, a move it justified with myths that told how the beasts (particularly the serpent) had betrayed us, and how the rest of creation had been designed specifically for human use. Rene Descartes’ thought experiment with the deluding demon proved, he argued, that consciousness, like the immaterial soul, was insubstantial and yet inhabited the physical, human form. Animals did not have souls and therefore could not suffer (they had no idea of time: this argument is still used to justify animal experimentation and factory farming). There were two realms for human existence. The material world, including the living world, was insentiate, mechanistic. Consciousness was the realm of the will, the spirit, and the possibilities for human advancement.
Fitting the history of self-respect into this picture is delicate. The institutional shifts between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries meant that there was a shift in focus from an aristocratic defence of personal honour to more bourgeois one of personal dignity. The age of chivalry was overtaken by an age of rationality and the result was more reflection on the rights and dignities of individuals than on whether or not their honour had been upheld or defiled (although in southern Europe, as Peter Berger points out5, and in the gangs that accompany this culture elsewhere, the principles are still strongly held). As a result, the dualism of respect and self-respect developed around the rational humanism of a growing bourgeoisie and the appropriation of traditionally aristocratic virtues by the new industrial class. To respect was to hold up the worth of another individual on the basis that they were, literally in essence, worthy of equal consideration. While this was limited, in the nineteenth century, to white, male individuals, the core idea remained important even as the circle of considerability expanded. Alongside the development of the idea of respect grew the idea of self-respect, just as important a consideration since it encompassed, according to David Hume in his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), a ‘habit of surveying ourselves, as it were, in reflection … and begets in noble natures a certain reverence for themselves as well as others, which is the surest guardian of every virtue.’ This idea that self-respect was both a reflection on our public selves, and a means by which we might revere ourselves enough to act worthily, shows how the dualistic divide struggled to make sense of an increasingly conflicted dichotomy. Was the ‘self’ being created by the ‘other’, or vice versa?
Meanwhile, at least one tradition of the global South offered an alternative perspective on respect. Instead of this tension between attempts to shore up an identity worth maintaining, and the rationalised justification of universal consideration of individual interests, Master Eihei Dogen’s Shobogenzo illustrates how the practice of self-reflection empties the self of any substance whatsoever. The response to the realisation of emptiness is one of compassionate non-attachment, a practice-enlightenment that makes respect the central attitude around which all activity revolves. Since the concept of the self as a separate entity is foreign to the Soto Zen tradition, the problem of self-respect does not arise. Without the dualism that evolved in the historical tradition of the global North, none of the difficulties associated with an inflated idealised transcendent ‘I’ emerged. Instead, the contemplation of the boundaries of all things enabled the practitioners, with great effort, but eventually also with compassion and even with joy, to bring the activity of respect into every aspect of living existence, and just as importantly, into the acknowledgment of the temporary nature of this existence, and therefore into the cultivation of non-attachment. Therefore what is cultivated in Zen is not love, but compassion, a more measured frame of reference in which experience is held as a sphere of activity within which one’s own activity is simply a relational perspective, shifting as dynamically as day and night.
1He was wrong: our activities do revolve around attitudes, but these are not moral. I will explain this below.
2I wholeheartedly agree with Rawls, which is ironic, given that I am going to defend the proposition that respect and self-respect are identical. However, a little thought shows that those who participate least in the political process are those that respect the process least. This does not mean that those who participate least in the political process because they are disenchanted or disillusioned by the political possibilities on offer exhibit a lack of self-respect. Far from it: critical thinking is itself a mark of self-respect, since it indicates a willingness to value, and therefore use, the intellectual problem-solving skills at one’s disposal. Those who are not keen to participate, but who can give no indication why, exhibit a lack of self-respect, however, because they are not even willing to critically question the political possibilities on offer, or consider potential alternatives.
3The use of the term ‘good’ here is problematic. ‘Conditions that support their continuing flourishing’ is better, but unweildy. We will return later to a consideration of the language of morals because it is a central part of the problem created by dualistic thinking.
4I use the terms ‘global North’ and ‘global South’ to indicate the cultural exploitation and dominance of the former over the latter: the ‘global North’, as a result of the idiosyncracies of history (see, for instance, Jared Diamond’s explanation in Guns, Germs and Steel), including its reliance on dualism as an explanation and justification for differential treatment of different groups, has had a far greater influence on the kind and level of impact of the species on the ecology, both through the development of the scientific method to ensure technological advances, and through the economic model of capitalism.
5Berger, Peter, The Obsolescence of Honour, in Michel Sandel (ed), Liberalism and its Critics, 1984, pp 149-58.
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There are a lot of us questioning current approaches to the ecological crisis. None, so far, have succeeded in altering the trajectory towards climate chaos, biodiversity destruction and mass extinction, pollution and other symptoms of the crisis.
My own view is that externalising the problem is the problem. This thesis is therefore an attempt to show how we might understand philosophy as a personal practice, what that practice might involve, and how we might combine Zen and the scientific method to understand what we realise through the activity of practice.
Practice in this context is the active process of self-reflection, along with an objective consideration of ourselves as natural, evolved beings. This process of observation creates a feedback loop that can involve compassionate non attachment emerging as a response to the realisation of respect, interdependently with self-respect.
There is no soul beyond activity, soul is animus, movement is all we are and the activity of observation is also movement, the movement into reflection.
Self respect is the activity of becoming compassionate for the state we are in. Self respect is all the agency we have. It is the capacity to realise interdependencies, to understand them, and for layers of feedback to emerge.
Emergent information flows shift the possibilities for responding. We can be motivated to act, without attachment to the outcome, in observing our interactions. This is all we can do: observe and see how observation changes things. Our activities, taking place with this awareness, incline us towards compassion: we are pitifully entangled. So is everything.
It is a huge effort to step back, observe and allow the cycles of matter and energy that make up the biodiverse ecology of which we are a part to flow freely. It will bring us no glory. We cannot control what it will change. Yet it is all we can do to reduce suffering. Reducing suffering is responding to the ecological emergency. It is also responding to ourselves.
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.
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.
To understand ourselves and our potential to respond sufficiently intelligently so that the conscious decisions we make about how to live reflect our current understanding, we have to move beyond a dualistic account of ourselves as pitted against nature, at least in terms of our biology. Dealing with the interstice between our understanding of human agency and natural biodiversity requires that we focus instead on how we understand the relationship in cultural terms if we are to see whether alternatives are available. To do this, I will have to move beyond the cultures of the global North, and beyond dualism.
So far, then, I’ve attempted to describe how human agency both emerges from, and yet is firmly located within, nature, or, more accurately, natural biodiversity. I have attempted, too, to show that since decisions on how to live, while only gradually differentiating ourselves from the rest of natural biodiversity, nevertheless provide, through the medium of culture, a means of evaluating our decisions and responses.
We can only decide what makes sense for humans, since humans are the kinds of things we are. Nevertheless, our (cultural) ability to reflect on our intricately interwoven Naturalness de-centralises the notion that only humans deserve consideration. It is precisely because we are human artifices that we have developed the ability to displace ourselves and see that we are part of a larger unit of interest – non-human Nature – that we can also respond to when considering what kind of life to lead.
In a sense, Taylor was subject to the limitations of his own time: more recent work on the interactions between organisms (Foulkes’ recent paper is a case in point) suggest that the DNA-identified boundaries of living entities are somewhat porous. Indeed, on close examination, it’s clear that “individuals” within the environment, while they have the status of entities in Taylor’s sense of having “good”s of their own, nevertheless also have deeply intricate and intimate relationships between them which require acknowledgment. Thus each living cell is itself consistent of not only one, but, as Grahame Parkes points out, several sub-parts, including mitochondria, whose evolutionary ancestry can be traced back to their independent existence as proto-bacteria. Part of the problem with individualist biocentrism is that it relies on a “human-sized” conception of what matters.
Humans and organisms at human scale are, to human eyes at least, quite evidently individual. No such inevitability exists at the microscopic or microbial level. If a non-anthropocentric approach is to be viable, it must be flexible enough to take into account the very small. It must also take into account the characteristic transience of our experience.
Human agency requires an extravagant investment in imagination so that we can hold the dual conceptions both of human agency as a self-reflective awareness creating biofeedback systems, and the potential that this feedback offers in its empathetic application beyond the human. Individual living organisms don’t make good loci for conscious consideration. They are too transient, on the whole, and most are microscopic. If we are to include Nature within our sphere of consideration, then we can look for both a more contemporary understanding of non-human living entities that includes their relational character, and a more ancient one to compare it with, like the one painted in the metaphors and images of a particular view of Zen.