Tag: evolutionary theory

This is a place for my thesis

I began research at NUI, Galway, in April 2010, under the supervision of Dr Thomas Duddy. After writing three initial draft chapters, presenting work on three different occasions, producing a chapter for a book on a related subject (‘Collapse or no collapse: why we need respect to survive’ in FEASTA’s Fleeing Vesuvius), in November 2011, Dr Duddy received medical information which made it impossible for him to continue in a supervisory role. From that point on, I began to consider alternative ways of proceeding and it was on that basis that, at the beginning of February 2012, I approached Professor Parkes with a request that he consider becoming my supervisor on an amended version of the project. After extensive discussion and email correspondence, Professor Parkes agreed to do so.

Given what had been undertaken to date, it made sense to consider keeping roughly to the original estimate for completion by July 2014 (extended from April 2014). Very briefly, the trajectory looks something like this:

  1. My initial outline proposed to consider how the ‘old questions’ (about how to live) might be assessed in the light of evolutionary theory. I had intended to focus on evolutionary morality and the problems posed by the ecological crisis.
  2. Dr Duddy had me read Paul Taylor’s book, Respect for Nature, and encouraged me to work on complicating a position based on his biocentric perspective. Taylor acknowledged the biological basis of human interests and agency, a commonality that led him to propose a shift in perspective from an anthropocentric to a biocentric view. I worked on this from December 2010 to December 2011.
  3. From January 2012 to June 2012, I continued to examine non-anthropocentric perspectives from which an environmental ethic might be defended, but I had, by April, also started reading Warwick Fox and other non-dualists and some short papers by Professor Parkes and other scholars. I obtained a copy of the Shōbōgenzō by Master Eihei Dōgen. Professor Parkes suggested I turn my project into a comparative study of Taylor (as a non-anthropocentrist concerned with how to live with respect for Nature) and Dōgen. In May I gave a paper in London.
  4. From June 2012 to the present, I worked to show how a non-dualistic approach is a more fruitful line of comparison, and how the development of an understanding of organisms as systems or relationships, rather than individual entities, yields a better understanding of the kinds of obligations and responses available to humans within the wider eco-system.

I envisage a thesis of seven chapters. The first two chapters are largely amended versions of previous work; I will draft fuller versions of these, and the third and fourth chapters, before January 2013. I will also work on drafting a fuller outline of the project by December 2012. This leaves me 18 months to write up the project, along with undertaking any further reading, presentation, and shorter publication requirements. If people, academics or others, have questions they want to ask me about the project, I’ll be more than happy to discuss it. That’s the idea of this blog: to put the whole thing in the public forum. Glasnost. Although, of course, this work remains both a work in progress and original thought (in as much as anything is) and I will expect my copywright to be honoured. 

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.

Moving beyond the cultures of the global North: Zen

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.


Agency and Responsibility: a shift in perspective

Is human agency, in some qualitative sense, different from the agency of other organisms? If it is, can we view the relationship between humans and other living systems from the perspective of agency? If we can, do we need to take more than one perspective, and also be prepared to view the relationship from the perspective of humans as living things, or even as simple elements (or relationships, energy flows, matter cycles) of a larger, more comprehensive whole (the universe, the planet, the ecosphere)?

Secondly, what kind of degree of agency might we, humans (or rather, persons), be said to have? How might we be said to be able to respond to the situation within which we find ourselves? We can wonder what we might be doing in three weeks’ time (and this seems a capacity unique to the species, or at least some members of it) and we feel as though we might be able to decide, to some degree, what we might do in three weeks time. However, can we really weigh up between plans? In anticipating, can we avoid?

Linked to this degree of agency is the notion that we have a certain amount of responsibility for our situation. If we have avoided the demise of our own species, for instance, it has been at the cost of biodiversity loss, pollution, species extinction, climate change and other human-induced changes to the biosphere. Yet much of this destruction has come about through either ignorance, or through an attitude which justified the exploitation of the environment as ‘other’.

What would it mean to respond from within a different framework to the one we now operate in? What would it mean to act in acknowledgement both of the constraints under which we operate (the realisation that natural laws apply to us just as firmly as they do to all other forms of existence) and of the ability we have to reflectively consider our situation, to the degree that this consideration itself emerges as a feedback process that influences which possibilities open as potential actions?

Paul Taylor’s thesis is a clear example of a fundamental quest for a re-examination1 of the origins of our attitudes. He addresses a major problem that continues to haunt the predominant cultural attitudes of the global North and, by extension, that dominates as an impetus for action globally: the vast majority of the values and beliefs held by human individuals still echo pre-Darwinian understandings of ourselves and our relationships with other living existence. Considering ourselves as agents whose agency lies in our self-awareness requires us radically to expand the framework of the scientific revolution, the ‘paradigm … of discrete, individual events obeying absolute, universal laws.’ (Alexander: 373)

Interestingly, the notion that we are agents in this way is, empirical evidence suggests, more enabling of that concept than the notion that there is no such thing as agency2. Moreover, accepting just this degree of freedom in action implies accepting a corresponding degree of responsibility for that action. The rational argument concludes that this limited level of choice – the choice to actively self-reflect – is free, and therefore that conscious awareness does allow for some deliberation over how to weigh up certain interests. If, in the past, we have, as a species, failed to take into account interests beyond those of our immediate human ‘clans’ or communities, it is because we have not been in a position to realise, or wake up to an awareness of, this degree of choice. Many of the myths that have dominated our cultural thinking have been precisely those that have, by accident or by design, described a different kind of freedom, one that applied, first, only to human activities vis-a-vis other humans, and second, one that required more than any individual could possibly give in terms of autonomy, since no individual is autonomous to the degree required by the former myths.

This work is worth doing precisely because the research suggests a re-examination of who or what is taken into account when interests are being weighed up. If the range of systems that demand our response is much broader than we had previously realised, and yet our own voluntary activity is constrained to self-reflection, or reflection on the process of conscious activity, then it might be argued that we have no freedom to do what needs to be done. However, a little effort will show that this cannot be the right conclusion: all the freedom that we require is contained in the activity of realisation, of self-reflection, of awareness of the state that we are in. It is precisely this activity that loosens the inevitability of our reactions and gives space in which are created other possibilities. Both a recognition of our interconnected interdependence, and an acknowledgement of the role of conscious activity in shaping our responses, is required for us to open up to the altered potential that exists within a meditative awareness. This can then form a highly comprehensive basis for a strategy to tackle our ecological emergency.

1A second problem is that those of us prepared to take Evolutionary Theory seriously are not necessarily in a majority. Even if a reasonable case is made for a change of attitude, those whose beliefs are informed by their faith will still outnumber those who might be prepared to consider a shift in perspective.

2See for instance Robert Kane, who makes a slightly different but nevertheless related point in his Chapter in Gary Watson’s Free Will: ‘Yet if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, I think we can say that you did it and are responsible for doing it even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle to your solving the problem which you nevertheless overcame by your effort.’ (Kane: 308) And Susan Wolf, in the same volume, argues that all that is needed for responsible agency is that our ‘deep self’ be ‘sane’ (see Wolf in Watson, Free Will: 382)