Tag: Dawkins

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.

The Goulden Rule (arousing compassion for self, respect for natural others)


Natural biodiversity has, to date, been valued only to the extent that it provides a ‘resource service’ to humans, in other words, entirely instrumentally. However, a reflection on this view quickly allows us to understand that clusters of organisms act to achieve their own flourishing within naturally biodiverse systems and that this is entirely independent of whether or not humans value them. What, then, has valuing got to do with biodiversity?

We need to begin to develop a sense of intense curiosity about how the complex interplay of interests within naturally biodiverse systems plays out. In doing this we may, even if through the artifice of culture, come to a point where it becomes natural for our cultural understanding of nature to include an appreciation that it has its own rules of engagement that are not reliant upon human intervention in any sense. In face, deeper reflection still will show, on the contrary, that the whole edifice of human consciousness and human understanding is dependent on the functioning of biodiverse clusters of other organisms, and not the other way around.

Ronnie Hawkins commented that there is an unhealthy dependency within current predominant cultural forces in the centres of power, mainly in the global ‘North’, on ‘our left-hemispheric specialization in the abstract and the linguistic, and the signs of right-hemisphere disease (or atrophy?): neglect of a large part of perceptual space (we can plainly see our human takeover of the planet, but we look away from it), anosognosia (we deny that there’s a problem at all), and confabulation (let’s talk about the stock market!)”.

Every living organism lives as though the world centred, if not on itself, at least on its species. One fundamental difference between the human condition and that of other clusters of organisms, then, is that human are extravagant, in the original Latin sense of having wandered from the path of a pursuit of our own needs, to pursuing potential needs, or experimenting with what could become needs, with what are, essentially, ‘wants’ (again, I’m reminded of Larkin: this extravagance is not, in itself, either good or bad. It is simply a matter of fact. Larkin wrote a poem called, Wants which contains the line, ‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.’ Quite apart from the wonderful rhythm of the line, the essence of what it expresses is the tension that is brought about by being in one situation, and having the urge to occupy another space (solitude, in this case). This tension is itself a kind of dualism, an awareness of there being other possibilities, and a natural curiosity, developing into a yearning, to be elsewhere.

Paradoxically, it is this very ability to occupy two spaces at once – the present and the conditional, the potential, that gives us the opportunity to practice just those activities that have allowed us to come to exploit or dominate other species. Wendell Berry gives the example of the restraint required when waiting for crops to ripen. This, in turn, gave us myths and legends to explain our place in the world (think, for instance, of the story of Persephone and Ceres as an explanation of winter, and also of the necessity of restraint: what if she had eaten twelve pomegranate pips?) It is the tension between being, as John O’Donohue describes it, and longing to be, or, be-longing, the longing to be a part of a bigger whole. We cannot join this larger unity because we ate the fruit of knowledge, we tell ourselves. The gap between this existence and the tension pulling us towards some unknown future that we can, nevertheless imagine (dream about, or dread) is the emergency: the stem of our ecological crisis. Emergent consciousness has created a distance from which to view the place we occupy in space but that very distance gives us a sense of alienation. We are strangers trapped forever in the possibility that there is something ‘other’ about ourselves. We have called this something a soul to give it an identity, or a mind because we cannot really understand how consciousness could occupy the same space as the physical realm we can quite clearly grasp, and this has allowed us the space to segregate our set of responsibilities, elevating the spirit and denigrating the flesh.

Now, however, it is time to deal with the emergency for what it is, a chimera, a ghost that is not alien at all, but simply the projected emergence of electrico-chemical activity brought about as a result of the kind of response to the web of conditions and relations we have evolved into. The closest practices that this practice parallels is the observational techniques used by Zen practitioners, specifically those described by Dogen Zenji when writing about the practice-enlightenment that comes about in sitting meditation.

What this practice allows is a space in which we can observe the relationship between perceptions and actions. We could call this, with Wendell Berry, “the middle ground” (after all, Buddhism is often called, “the middle way”). Berry outlines six elements that are realised when we take this reflective attitude:

  • We are tiny in relation to the wilderness in which we live.

Zen, paradoxically, by the process of observing the nature of the boundaries between entities and considering them until they dissolve into relationships, concludes that we are not tiny at all: or rather, we are so tiny, that we do not have any meaningful identity at all, except as points of perception that shift and fluctuate in an ocean of arising and dissolving connections. So we are neither tiny, nor huge. We are simply froth on the surface, soon to be reabsorbed;

  • This wilderness is the universe. We depend on it, yet it will kill us at some point.

Yet this wilderness does not exist as a separate realm from us, as points of perception. We are involved in it completely and it is inside us as well as around us (the biomass of microorganisms that coexist within us make up more mass than the DNA of our nuclei which we consider to be the blueprint for our separate selves). It is true that we have a continuum of identity in this regard. I can only pass on my own DNA, or some of it, to another generation: yet the virally derived ancestral RNA that also occupies my genes shapes the primate-derived expression, and so even in this sense, I am not fully separable as a primate, and nor are my offspring, physical or, more complicatedly, the words or art that might postdate me. Can it kill me, then? Undoubtedly, this point of perception, mobile as it is during the course of my biological life, will disappear at the point of death (or as near as makes no difference, I hope). In that sense, I will die. What will kill me is the necessity for energy to disappate, a process that I am a part of as much as any other element in existence. So, yes, this point of view will disappear and the clusters of organisms that located, albeit in shimmering dynamism, never all the same cluster, and never in one place for more than a few microseconds, will fall apart. This point of perception will never exist as a continuum again. This is death, no doubt, and it is brought about by the unfolding of the universe, and so yes, the wilderness will kill me. But I hope that this rather more complex explanation shows that this is not a simple, “them and us” statement. There is more interchange than that. And Zen reflection gives us images and ideas through which we can conceive of the interchange centred on emptiness. The wilderness will also die, in the sense that all energy will eventually dissapate. Nothing about the universe is permanent. This does not create immortality for ourselves but it creates a more integrated sense of the unfolding as being a more intimate affair than if it were just about a struggle to accept death.

  • We cannot solve the ‘problem’ of our endangered state. It does not have a solution.

The acceptance of death is an enormous task. We are inclined to resist it as a matter of biological fact. Everything about it repels us. Zen practice is entirely engaged in reflecting on this repulsion, the urge to move away from its consideration. By gently pulling ourselves back to the centre of its awareness, we change the quality of our relationship with it: it becomes suitable matter for reflection. The whole illusion that we are permanent has become so pervasive that we have suppressed an engagement with acknowledgment of mortality. It is the most vital and vitalising force we can harness: the fear that threatens to overwhelm us is the very impetus that will drive us towards a more integrated relationship with ourselves and all around us while we have a point of perception.

  • But we can live in harmony, more or less, with our native wilderness. We cannot achieve this harmony simply or easily but it can become, indeed it is, our life’s work.

This follows, too, from Zen practice: there is no nihilism in the contemplation of death. Rather, it is the motivating factor that shows where and how the realm of action is defined. There is only this uncertain moment. No security for any kind of future. Only this space and place in which we can engage with whatever we can do to make the best of what there is. Reflecting on the kind of activity that is available to us within this space, we may come across the insight that there is little we could have done about the point that took us to where we are now. If we consider the image of emergence again, we can imagine ourselves as sleeping creatures, waking to consciousness, but not freed, by consciousness, from the chains of activity, the electro-chemical, the organic, reactions that are bound to operate according to natural laws and the chance encounters that send us on various tangents from the central aim: to keep away death as long as possible. We are not free in any traditional sense, then. That, fortunately or unfortunately, was an illusion (and this is another reason why an ethical approach demands too much of us: we simply don’t have that much freedom). Yet, as Zen itself has illustrated and as countless practitioners have experienced, the very act of reflection itself creates another layer of emergent possibility. The emergency holds within itself the potential for another layer of reflective emergence: the emergence of observation of the very processes that are acknowledged to be inevitable are loosened when we realise that the very act of observation itself creates space for possible responses to open in alternative ways. This process requires huge effort. It is fragile: there are more processes threatening to pull us back into strongly conditioned reactions than there are processes that support our experimenting with alternative responses. Yet these possibilities open with the realisation that reflection sheds light on our reactions to date, showing us how the chains of cause and effect have interacted. It is a fragile tool. Push observational effort too hard and it collapses back into frustration, envy, fear or any other conditioned realm. Fail to practice and the very possibilities are never given space for generation. But find that “middle ground”, and create a consistent effort, and the glimmerings of potential begin to appear.

  • It is not possible for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively: we cannot intend our own good, in the long run, without intending the good of the place

Berry seems in perfect accord with the Zen approach this time. Except that in Zen, it is not “good” that is intended. Compassion arises as a response to the realisation of the conditions we find ourselves in. Meditation on our condition develops the awareness that we are an element of biodiversity, just as biodiversity itself is an element of the energetic unfolding of the universe. Its unfolding is our unfolding. Recognising that we are a subsidiary of it is the agent’s step we must take in order to fulfil our own understanding, and in order to develop the impetus to act with enough richness of intent for the larger wholes: biodiversity, the ecology, Nature, community.

  • ‘To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently practical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world. Practice can only be local’.

The point that Berry makes here is that it is impossible to live without using energy. We are ourselves energetic processes and the requirement for our continuance is that we take in energy. However, the Zen practice of reflecting on cause and effect, of seeing the karmic chains of activity within which we are bound loosening as we watch them open into potentials, possibilities, shows that there are alternatives in how we act on this knowledge. We must eat, but even when the push towards utility is strong, reflection on our intricately bound relationships with what we eat can move us to consider the process of killing and eating as a practice of respect. Dogen writes of respecting even the tools used for eating. The food itself is not sacred in any religious sense, in the sense that it is imbued with any magical ‘otherworldly’ spirit. But it is as caught in the karmic web as we are ourselves, and this enlightened view arouses compassion. We can create the potential for compassion in how we grow and source and kill and prepare the food we eat, and we can extend this to how we relate to all our relationships.

Something else needs mentioning here: as I said above, the push to reduce potentials towards a single option is strong. One of the most severe constraints is judgment. However, there are many serious conditional constraints, for very many people, including hunger and extreme poverty. When these conditions constrain, judgments harden the options into narrower and narrower possibilities. As Caroline Lucas said, we have to find solutions individually and locally, and on a “case by case basis”. Again, without the prejudgments of ethical dictates, this is a more flexible, more fluid attitude. The effort required is all the effort we can give, no more or less. While this is not clear, in the sense that a rule is clear, nevertheless, it is very particular to our own conditions. The Golden Rule does not apply since your condition and mine are never parallel. Nevertheless the impetus remains to do as much as possible to create an enlarged frame of reference, as often as possible, and with a commitment to continue to practice the reflective, meditative state that creates the space for potential to open. We can adjust our activities as the balance shifts. Practice-enlightenment puts us in a position to realise our activities within the interconnections that contain and create us, using the lodestone of respect.

  • ‘If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.’

Neither human good nor natural good are ideals we can strive towards. Instead, practice-enlightenment extravagantly enlarges the space within which we can imagine ways of living that allow us to encompass the human within the natural world, as both unfold.

We may need to work to repair relationships. In particular, there are biodiverse ecosystems that require our respect and active reparation even if our reliance as a species on their continuance is not clear. Biodiversity itself is part of the condition of our existence and any instance of it, particularly where it has evolved independently of human interference, indicates that we are ignorant of our connections and relationships, and so ought to pay particular attention to respecting it.

We and it – wilderness, nature, the other, the community – are not separate, nor are we entirely separable. Our systems depend upon and nuture other systems. An appreciation of our naturalness is a necessary part of any cultivation of the necessary attitude towards the environment which will allow us to emerge from this emergency mature enough to take responsibility for our role in the demise of natural biodiversity.

Fundamentally, as Stephen Jay Gould recognises, what we need to arouse in ourselves is a sense of compassion, but for our own state, and also for the relational state we are in with other species, and finally, for the fragile state in which the biodiverse systems are that have been affected by our impact:

Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue—the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even […] the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts.

(S. J. Gould, Unenchanted Evening: 40).

I disagree with Gould about the Golden Rule, and I disagree that all depictions of nature, sentimentalised, anthropomorphised, treated with pornographic intimacy, on television programmes and in films, is either beneficial or justifiable or serves to create room for nature in human hearts that experience nature so vicariously. Yet the general point still stands: some sense of close connection of what we live within – the extraordinary abilities of plant roots to source nutrition in the soil, the lives of cells, the migratory patterns of birds – is the only impetus strong enough to motivate a change of heart. To hope that this could develop among human beings who are struggling for justice, against poverty, in slum conditions, where escapism through addiction or violence is the norm, may seem to be extraordinarily unrealistic. Yet, as I will propose below, the human animal is strongly predisposed to develop the capacity for love, of self or other, human and non-human. It is on this predisposition that the emergence from the ecological emergency can gain a foothold, given half a chance.

The problems with taking an ethical approach to the ecological crisis


The field of environmental ethics is focused at the moment on an attempt to decipher whether or not pragmatic or conceptual approaches can most usefully develop, engage with or explore the issues surrounding environmental issues. Thus it is concerned both with practical and metaethical frameworks. For instance, de Groot et al in a recent paper in the journal, Environmental Ethics, concerned themselves with the pragmatic issue of actual attitudes to the environment, discoverable through empirical research. These findings, they argued, demonstrated that ‘partnership’ was a common self perception amongst the individuals they interviewed. The traditional anthropocentric (Hegelian) “slave-master” arguments that are put forward by environmental ethicists are straw men, they claim, and don’t represent real positions taken by real people on the ground. So there’s a move in the field towards a more empirically-based approach to finding out about actual attitudes, in order to better come to an understanding of the normative concerns and values behind such descriptions. The arguments suggest that theoretical practice has lost sight of actual attitudinal change, which, in turn, comes about because of current environmental concerns. This itself, in turn, influences which metaethical questions are most relevant. Since the field of environmental ethics is so influenced by contemporaneous events, this three way interchange between description of attitudes, analysis of normative values, and engagement with metaethical concerns is fluid, to say the least.

The second major current concern for environmental ethics is the metaethical reassessment of non-anthropocentric theories. While these theories flourished for a while, up until as recently as two or three years ago, more recent work suggests that there is a return, certainly amongst some of the more established environmental ethicists of the age, to a reinvestigation of the prospects for anthropocentrism. In a sense, this is no more than a reflection of the findings of the likes of de Groot: that a guardianship approach to the environment includes and involves a perception of the combination of human and non-human interests into a common cause. Thus the work of Gary Varner appears to be returning to anthropocentrism. In fact, it has been hard for anyone working in the field to ignore the persuasive arguments for anthropocentrism put forward above all by Stephen J. Gould. And those philosophers whose ethical approaches are coloured by their own belief systems – Robin Attfield and Holmes Rolston III, for instance (both Christians, although Attfield, in a personal communication, claimed, interestingly, that his philosophical stance is not influenced by his Christian beliefs) – are more inclined to see the relationship between the human and the non-human in guardianship terms. Only James Sterba and, to a degree, J. Baird Callicott, amongst the ‘heavies’, remain committed to a form of non-anthropocentrism which opens itself up the the possibility of egalitarian valuing of all life.

Thirdly, the field of environmental ethics has become far more multidisciplinary in recent times. While, in a sense, this has always been true of environmental ethics, and in a sense the field only began to be ploughed, if you’ll excuse the pun, by philosophers, long after there was an established interest amongst biologists and geographers, political scientists and psychologists, more recently there has been a particular focus on the cultural ramifications and indices which give an idea of how the nature/culture boundary is seen, and which is included in which. This focus is evident, to a degree, in the work of Slavoj Žižek (although when he says things like, ‘All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself,’ – what? You neglect yourself by flying business class? Then it becomes difficult to take him seriously). More obviously, the nature-culture boundary is explored in the work of Timothy Morton, who edits the site, Thinking Nature. In that publication Ross Wolfe wrote a seminal paper on the interplay between nature and culture which I think demonstrates the massive disconnect that exists between those who relate to the non-human world with respect or compassion and those who see it as ‘monstrous’ or ‘alien’ (both of which are also true, but this is a topic I will return to, in particular, when talking of Zen).

Fourthly, recent work by Dale Jamieson indicates the politicisation of the issues with which environmental ethics concerns itself, most prominently in the work he has undertaken to understand climate change, and attitudes and resistance found there. Although Jamieson himself is seen very much as a philosopher, many of those working in association with him on these issues are political thinkers, or specialists from other areas and the findings take as an underlying assumption the selfishness of both states and individuals, a finding that is itself open to question in the field of philosophy, and even more so if this is explored from a non-dualistic perspective.

And finally, Paul Taylor, who is the author of the book, Respect for Nature, which led to my own research into shifting perspectives, has opened the way for the development of an intersecting of biological research with philosophical implications. So many of the papers to do with the ethical implications of an increasing understanding of the microbial world, combined with a re-analysis of the work of Lynn Margulis, working in the 1970s and 1980s on symbiogenesis and microbial contributions to evolution, have opened up the possibility of a closer reinvestigation into how we perceive entities and systems, and so to the kind and extent (if any) of human responsibility. This means including a consideration of the meaning of evolutionary theory and the debates around cooperation and competition, evolution through DNA mutations or evolution through multi-level selection, and other complications that have come about as a result of ongoing research into the process of evolution.

The work I rely on to develop my own ideas comes from a number of sources. I’m interested in pragmatism as an alternative to ethics, for the simple reason that ethics relies on ideologies and ideologies create dualism between ‘there’ and ‘here’. Pragmatism, on the other hand, merely reflects on what is at hand. In this respect, amongst many others, Ernest Partridge’s http://gadfly.igc.org/ work stands out. As far as the Nature/Culture interstice is concerned, I’ve been informed by Morton’s notion of matrices, and by Wolfe’s notion of the acculturation of nature. In terms of multidisciplinarianism, I’ve been informed by recent findings in microbiology and in the recent work taking place on evolutionary theory, particularly as this pertains to relationships between organisms. The notion that issues in environmental ethics have a pragmatic focus which links with political theory has led me to a reexamination of John Rawls, and to looking into the work of Robin Dillon and many others on respect as a concept. Finally, on Paul Taylor’s own recommendation, I’ve been drawn to the literature which relates concepts of respect for nature with an increasing understanding of microbial/ macrobial interrelations. It is this, then, that is the particular area I’ve chosen to use as the prism through which to investigate the prospects of a viable ‘respect for nature’ that correlates with respect for the self and respect for the human other. 

Amongst much other work, incidental but connected to the above, which also informs mine, is the work of Wendell Berry, Ronnie Hawkins and Graham Parkes (who also generously agreed to supervise my work after the untimely death of Dr Thomas Duddy, my previous supervisor). Each of these thinkers has published profound insights into an imaginative or transcendent understanding of the relationship of the (human) individual to the (natural, but also often enculturated) environment. This has led me to a deeper investigation of the varying cultural responses to this problem of ‘seeing’ nature, first through Callicott and Ames’ work, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, and finally, most significantly, to the work of Master Dōgen Zenji’s Shōbōgenzō. This is where I am at the moment, then: attempting to compare in ways that have been unexplored so far, the potential for Zen, and in particular, the practice-enlightenment that Dōgen talks about, to inform how we understand our place and relationship to self, other and the non-human, in the light of more recent evolutionary research into our origins and the systematic processes of which we are a part. The aim of this research is, therefore, a reiteration of the idea that we have an ability to respond to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in, and that spelling this out is urgent and important. I hope that what I add to the existing calls for action will be wide-ranging, pragmatic and achievable. None of the ideas are, in themselves, new. I am simply combining ideas in a way that has not yet, I think, been envisaged. This parallels the process of evolution itself, which is simply recombination, but out of recombination emerges new forms, and so what arises from my own research is a new perspective on both a very ancient problem – how to live – in the current context – an ecological crisis.