Tag: darwin

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.

The dangers of Dualism

That our beliefs echo pre-Darwinian beliefs and values, or even Cartesian dualistic values, is evidenced by the amount of times we think of ourselves as being at the top of a hierarchy of living creatures, and how easily we slip into the language of ‘body’ and ‘mind’. So embedded is this hierarchical notion that challenging it elicits a violent response1: how can we even conceive of promoting a bacteria or a virus to an equal consideration with a Mozart or a Bach? The thinking that rejects this radical reshuffling of values is also the thinking that automatically assumes cognitive processing to be the prime example of intelligence, and homo sapiens to be the prime example of cognitive processing, (which is the ultimate in ‘ad hominem’ logic, if you’ll excuse the pun). Our success in altering the face of the Earth gives us ample confirmation that our species has had a qualitatively different impact from any other. Yet the accompanying assumption that this impact is somehow more positive than, say, the impact of a plague of locusts, does not stand up to scrutiny.

There is one other conceptual area in this context, to which we are often blind: the (Cartesian) fallacy of imagining the ‘self’ as a disembodied wraith located somewhere behind the eyes. Conceiving of an alternative – say, a series of electro-chemical reactions cumulatively extending until the self-conscious illusion of an ‘I’ is formed – is less familiar, and therefore less comfortable, as a means to describe our place in the world. This disembodied conception of ourselves allows all kinds of fracturing between any effort we might make to take material responsibility for the impact we have, as a species, on the rest of the biosphere, and our collective surrender to the myths and fantasies offered by religious faith – transubstantiation, the rewards of Heaven and the Rapture2.

1Those who call into question the wisdom of policies and practices which call for a rebalancing of human with non-human interests are sometimes called ‘human-hating’ (on the other hand, those who call for such a rebalancing are just as often themselves called ‘anti-human’) (see, for instance, Patrick Moore’s website online); Attfield finds it incomprehensible that we could view the complex cognitive capacities as anything but ‘higher’ processes, which are intrinsically more valuable than ‘lower’ processes like photosynthesis; and J. Baird Callicott recanted his own outspoken position on a rethinking of prioritising human over other interests for land use or animal husbandry in his Pallinode. To venture to question that human capacities are indeed at the apex of the evolutionary (Christmas) tree is seen as little less than heresy.

2The Rapture is widely accepted by a large proportion of the American population as a viable explanation of the state of the world as it is, and as a rationale for doing nothing to alter the destructiveness of our current behaviour, since the end of the world is more or less nigh. See…(website ref to ‘The Rapture’)