Tag: Dennett

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.

Introduction to Chapter Two

”Humans’ actions, regardless of their effect on other organisms, are natural and perfectly acceptable … we should be allowed to live out our ‘evolutionary potential to [our own destruction] because this is ‘nature’s way”


Watson, R.,quoted in Keller, D. (Ed.): 15




In discussing the background to environmental ethics, the last chapter sought to give an account of Paul Taylor’s biocentric outlook. The first chapter, then, was a clarifying, informative, over-viewing, scene-setting chapter. This chapter is focussed on how to address some of the problems that discussion brought up.

The second general issue that arose is that attempts to describe the issues in moral or ethical terms have created further layers of difficulty for dealing with the issues. This, the problem with ethical approaches, is another problem we will tackle in this chapter.

As I detailed in Chapter One, Robin Attfield (2003), described and outlined the spectrum of responses to the ecological crisis as running from anthropocentric stewardship to ecocentrism. Each response depended on where it located value and this has become the core feature of debate and contention: does it lie only in the sphere of human existence and understanding? Is it a feature of individual sentience that can it therefore be extended to include other so-called ‘higher’ animals? Or is it an emergent characteristic of harmonious relationships?

Most controversially, Garett Hardin used this ethical characterisation of the response to defend his account of how we ought to react to the ecological crisis by limiting the sphere of moral duty to those within the “lifeboat” of the global North. This excludes the human majority upon whom the crisis is likely to have most impact and who have least control over material resources. Elinor Ostrom responded to Hardin with practical examples that undermined his image of the grasping desperation that dictates a tragedy for the commons but Hardin, like others before him, including Charles Darwin, depended on the Malthusian theory of population boom and bust to advocate a contracting field of moral responsibility.

If we can subvert the issue of what moral obligations we have to the non-human world, and even to one another, entirely, then these problems become illusory. Instead, we can consider other ways of deciding how to act that are independent of ethical judgments.