Tag: reality

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.

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Thoughts towards chapter two


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“All conservation of wildness is self-defeating. For to cherish we must see and fondle and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Aldo Leopold

I don’t know if it was Aldo Leopold’s words that first inspired this debate for me: what basis could there possibly be for getting people to curb their actions when those actions were motivated by the urge to see beautiful places, or experience unusual or extreme situations? An image of a line of footprints, then tractors, trailers, concrete laid, spreading across tundra, slicing it into increasingly compressed squares. Perhaps Europeans see it more clearly because we have less room. Particularly those of us living on these islands flung into the Eastern Atlantic, knowing that the edge is very close, that there is not a huge stretch of prarie and beyond that, range upon range of snowcapped peaks.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is the human species, that connaisseur of beauty, that loses most. Most of us will never step on pristine shores that have never felt a human foot. Most of us will come to places that have been marked and emblazoned, even if only virtually, with brandnames, that have been photographed and pawed over in the minds and words of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of eager human others. Does this matter? Many people might say that it makes no difference to them at all. But if you were the first that ever burst into that silent scene, to shift Coleridge’s image marginally, can you even imagine how utterly, extraordinarily humbling and at the same time, stupendous and exhilarating, that would be? It would be like being the exploratory eye at the very forward edge of the wave of curiosity. It would be like going beyond anything anyone had ever been or done before and standing out alone, at the precipice. There would be a sense of loneliness, of course. One can never share these experiences, by definition (unless, of course, one goes in a team, but even then, each sensation is individually felt). Yet there would be a sense of collapsing boundaries, of opening into something utterly new.

Some places will never be fully explored. The heights of the Himalaya will no doubt remain mysterious, at least as long as the climate makes them an arduous adventure (though the climate, we cannot forget, is changing fast). The depths of the sea are hidden to all but a select few. Antarctica now has strictures on it. The Galapagos is expensive – and money is an effective ring-fence for many places that might otherwise attract more populous attention.

Secondly, although we are in an inevitably unsustainable relationship with the world around us (we will all, after all, die, and, in the end, so will the species) nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that we can do something about the kind of relationships we have, both with the world, and, indeed, with one another or even with ourselves. Just because we are going to die does not imply that we make no effort between birth and death to make the experience, whenever possible, marginally less painful for ourselves or, indeed, for those around us (even if most of us usually include in that later only our loved ones).

There might continue to be arguments about the truth or otherwise of climate change for some considerable time to come (make no mistake, I am of the strong opinion that climate change is a fact, and human-engendered), but there is no reasonable way around the notion that the human race is having an exponentially negative effect on biosystems and biodiversity and that a simple mathematical calculation will prove that, given the finite nature of the planet, and our reliance on it in every conceivable way for our survival, continued growth and consumption at increasing levels does not compute.

So, we, humans, are both all in this together, and all in something unsavory together. Can we do anything about it? Determinists or those who deny that we have any degree of freedom can legitimately jump ship at this point: if you don’t believe we have a choice in anything, then you might as well ditch the notion of voluntary action altogether. This is an argument for voluntary action, so it doesn’t apply to you. Everyone else can stay tuned in: we are agents, in a strange sense, but in a sense, nonetheless.

We are not agents in the sense that we conduct and control the flesh within which the mind resides. This is the fallacy that we fell for long ago but against which we must (metaphorically) beat our wings, because metaphors are tricky, dangerous illusions that manipulate and distort our relationship with reality. The best clue to our agency lies in our evolutionary roots. We evolved as survival systems, more or less successfully, along with all the other processes and systems, large and small, that we see either around us or in the fossil record.

We do not choose. We are propelled. Not towards. Away from. Paul Taylor suggests we build our characters and that this makes us virtuous. I think he’s got a point but it is not building – that’s too mechanistic and mechanistic metaphors (as I have said before, and will say again, no doubt) are misleading. Instead, it’s responding, at a very basic level. Our very cells respond to the feedback processes that allow us to watch how we breathe, and to breathe more deeply. This breathing more deeply is itself the result of a series of other strange coincidences and accidents of our personal history and physiology, but it brings about a new direction for us, where we can watch the process of past unfolding into present and into potential futures. So instead of building our characters, perhaps what we do is realise, more and more, and so bring into being a broader, but a looser, set of systematic dynamic connections and relationships, relationships that already exist but which require attention to come into focus. Brought into focus, even metaphorically, they begin to come into the realm, like conscious breathing, of awareness. Imagine an infinite number of infinitely fine threads linking each and every relationship and creating the woven fabric of our own existence. If we cease to think of ourselves as solid constructions in, and separate from, space, this image invites is to see ourselves as holograms through time, gathering and discarding connections as we move, and we are always moving.