An Ethical Journey into Deep Time

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Photo Credit: Grand Prismatic Springs. By Vivian Mallette.

Currently I am at work on a series of essays chronicling my own voyage of discovery in pursuit of a personal eco-ethical toolkit. I am searching for tools to help guide me as I interlace and articulate a resilient and organic personal moral fabric. The resulting toolkit will offer a framework to rest my head and heart upon as I stumble, skip, and waltz through life’s evolutionary interdependencies—interdependencies that permeate all of Earth’s temporal and spatial scales. That is my hope. And this is the first essay in that series.

I have a strong, steady feeling, bursts of intuition, and interwoven layers of rational understanding (revealed to me by others: Peter Kropotkin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mick Smith, and Fritjov Capra) that convey to me that the ability and necessity of life’s entities to navigate their becomings with Others are where the essence of ethics lies and why the capacity for all sorts of ethical processes, including ethical thinking and the social institution of ethics, evolved. My understanding of ethics from a meta-ethical perspective is not some set standards of good and bad or right and wrong, and is not limited to the human realm only. Therefore, for this series of essays, the term ethics will be used as follows: the activity of navigating interactions between autonomous entities so that the tendency toward mutual aid can exist and life’s essential processes are allowed to continue and flourish on Earth. This navigation requires—and facilitates in turn—the development of a diverse set of tools supporting the virtually infinite number of actions and reactions between autonomous being and Otherness. Ethics is the essential aspect of the possibility of relationships with Others. And all life is basically about relationships—about Otherness. Without the ability to form mutually beneficial relationships—between lipids, protocells, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and beyond, including the human-microbiome hologenome—there would be no life, certainly not in the way we know it or experience it.

The rational knowledge of this phenomenal evolutionary journey energizes me to more deeply reflect upon this wild ride, which began to transpire approximately 3.77 billion years ago, and possibly as early as 4.28 billion years ago on Earth.[1] It also drives me to find a place for my own moral outlook as a human in the midst of the ethical tensions that comprise all life.

My task is to weed out the assortment of ethical theories that have overgrown my intellectual garden over time and to examine where my understanding of ethics and morals has come from. Why undertake this meta-ethical journey? I feel and think it is necessary in order for me to identify what my moral self looks like on a rational level, allowing me to understand where it fits within the current human understandings of the moral domain and to unpack where I imagine ethics to have come from in the first place, in the evolutionary sense. And finally, it will enable me to share this process with Others who might be on a similar journey, hoping that they, too, might join in. In this essay I share the beginnings of this journey from an eco-atheist perspective and attempt to reimagine how an atheist’s eco-ethics worldview perspective might take shape.

And throughout this process I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, suggestions, and overall critiques of this and forthcoming articles—which you will be able to share via the online Disqus section at the end of each Minding Nature article in this series.

How I Got to This Point

This journey began officially with a two-week residency at the very special Mesa Refuge, a writer’s retreat in Point Reyes, California. It is during this time I began to interpret my jumbled thoughts and feelings in earnest. In honor of this first step I begin this article with a letter I wrote at the Mesa Refuge, which I shared with my fellow residents and hosts on my last night there:


I sit here in a magical space that is sadly one of the few remaining places where the human–nature connection is still something palpable and magical. It is a place where much effort has gone into creating community, organizations, and social structures that both feed as well as celebrate the idea of love and the feeling of love, for the whole community of life.

Point Reyes National Seashore comprises approximately seventy-one thousand acres of wild coastal beaches, estuaries, and uplands on the north/central coast of California. It was established in 1962, after a hard-won struggle of political pushing and prodding. In the end, this safe haven was created as a refuge for the many species of slippery water fowl, fuzzy faced bobcats, rocket-powered hummingbirds, and the massively soaring turkey vulture (who has impressed upon me its humble, majestic “dirtiness”). It is also a refuge for the few passionate human animals who live here in the communities of Point Reyes Point, Inverness, and Olema, as well as for the many human Others who come through this area to hike, bike, drive, walk, sit, and meditate in the open space within the enchanted and mysterious Pacific Ocean estuary, named Tomales Bay.

Point Reyes Station is creative and loving. It is the home to a wondrous small independent bookstore that is a sweet nook of creative passion. And it is home base to the amazing Geography of Hope conferences, where you can find passionate conversations on loving the lands, waters, and each other.

It’s wild, and it’s working—wild with nature’s tidal movements and other prominent cyclical patterns of life allowed to be and become as evolution intended, and working with agricultural landscapes, mostly ranching, that have been allowed to remain within this wild place.

It’s contentious and political, with a diversity of beliefs about what this landscape should look like. This diversity includes the land’s Native American history—thousands of years of Miwok communities residing along the coast in what we now refer to as California.

All the while, Point Reyes Station sits atop the powerhouse that is the Andreas Fault line.

This is an interwoven, historically complicated, and wondrous place.

Delicate geraniums seemingly beckon you to rub their leaves and smell the sweetness at your fingertips; the massive woody rosemary bushes, everywhere you look, burst with the pungent smell that goes so well with tasty lamb dishes. The sun, she has left us, and the fog, he has rolled in and sits heavy across the hills, while the rain drizzles on and off, and on and off, while a thick, honeyed, and invigorating smell of what air should really smell like sits around the house as heavy as the thick fog across the bay; and we are warm and cozy in this gracious shack with large windows facing the estuary and gifted with a cedar-burning stove warming our chilled and damp human bones. And as I sit in this place named Mesa Refuge—a writer’s retreat at the edge of Point Reyes Station, created by a generous, humble, and interconnected human creature—I am blessed with both nature’s miracles and our host’s loveliness.

I’ve come here to this wilding refuge from the fast-paced, pulsing, prodding, consumerist world of the Chicago megalopolis to safely unpack the timid atheist inside of me. She, or he, has been there for as long as I can remember; lying dormant, hiding somewhere behind my third-eye center, but always leading me in certain intellectual endeavors versus others.

And as I expose her to the outside world, I am handing her an ethical toolkit to help her/me legitimately articulate a love for nature and express a desire to help right the many wrongs we have inflicted upon our fellow humans, on all those non-human Others, and on Earth’s systems as a whole. Doing this will liberate her/me by giving her the ability to explicitly articulate an environmental ethics that is in no way beholden to institutional religious faiths and unfamiliar spiritual deities.

I am unpacking this atheist part of myself now because I’ve recognized more acutely my deep resistance to being labeled a spiritual person by friends and colleagues, which seems to occur ever more often these days. This conflict has nudged me to dive in and uncover where this intensity of connection to the more-than-human world comes from inside of me. To others it seems so clearly an expression of spirituality, but I do not believe this to be true in my case. It is something else.


Morals and Atheism

We are often faced with the deceptive, dichotomous choice between committing to particular deities and formal religions for one’s moral guidance or else having no access to any rich moral structure at all. Traditional moral thought of the “Western us” has tended to conclude that if one has no religious or spiritual inclinations, then one is unable to fully comprehend and live within a moral foundation. This view assumes that the atheist is amoral, and that if such people occasionally do some good, it is only by accident, or through the overriding power of a god. However, my sense is that the capacity to experience ethical feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that result in moral action has always been within all of us—from the beginnings of life on Earth. And the perception that one can lose this ability simply by not believing in the supernatural is based in the assumption that there was at some time a supernatural being who passed the foundation of morality as truths on to us.


Cartoon of Mitochondria

I believe that moral foundations are generated by us, as well as for us, through the process of evolution. A host of evolutionary attributes enables us to take action on how to relate with Others, affording life the ability to navigate the necessary interconnections with those outside of the unit of self, facilitating living entities to develop ever more intricate and sophisticated forms of negotiating with life’s living alongside the Other—an Other who exists within the same spatial and temporal reality. There is no avoiding this Other, ever; we are always bumping into someones at sometime.

There seems to be an evolutionary continuum through deep time where no earthly living entity has been created independently of the Other—there is always a common ancestor. We humans have evolved from a long line of life’s wondrous and intricate play on interdependencies. Our physical essence has come to be through the incessant stacking upon stacking of entities—protocells to prokaryotes to eukaryotes to fish to amphibians to mammals—to form who we are.

Russian Dolls
Russian Dolls

Human life’s trajectory would benefit and perhaps become sustainable if we always remembered this reality with every thought and with every action. If we did, would we perhaps avoid creating alienating, estranging concepts of Otherness—human Otherness, nationalist Otherness, and animal Otherness—and instead embrace Otherness and wholeness at the same time? It would certainly take generations to reimagine and reorganize our human selves and our resulting institutions and moral structures, but selves and institutions have been reimagined and reorganized before, and it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

We can look toward evolutionary theory as an alternative understanding to religious and spiritual beliefs to excavate a moral framework within ourselves—one that is in us and of us, between our neighbors and rising up from our relationship with place.

Evolutionary science is a standard go-to theoretical model for unpacking the diversity of life, even among religious and spiritual peoples. We have agreed that our physiological nature, our chemical and biological make-up, has evolved from a similar lineage with other creatures. When we also come to understand complex adaptive psychological and behavioral traits—our appetites for food and sex, our fear responses, our patterns of aggression, our parental care and bonding, and our patterns of cooperation and retribution—from an evolutionary perspective, then we see that these are all a part of humanity’s ethical toolkit, evolved over millions of years during our creaturely lineage. But when we measure ourselves against a spiritual or otherworldly benchmark—when we take ourselves out of time and place—even bodies of scientific knowledge like evolution or climate science are turned into ideologies and deceptions.

So let us take one more step toward embracing evolution as a theory on life and look to it for insight into life’s ethical dynamism.

We are coming to understand, through recent research in microbiology, that even our human bodies can no longer be viewed as autonomous entities, independent of Others and therefore somehow the “special” creatures on Earth. As Rosenberg and Zilber-Rosenberg put it, “Animals and plants can no longer be considered individuals. All are holobionts, consisting of a host and numerous symbiotic microbes.”[2] We are not however, merely hosts to these other creatures; we live in tandem with them. Even the genetic makeup found in the human body is part of a co-evolving hologenome evolving alongside—and, more importantly, as a result of—our microbiome’s genetic structure.[3] And we are not just talking about the nice bacteria lining our gut, gathering sustenance while helping us process ours, but about bacteria, fungi, and viruses effecting the very expressions of the human genome, perhaps affecting our moods and even directing genetic mutation (versus mutation by error or damage).[4]

Such a collaboration, or mutual aid, among taxonomic kingdoms and viruses (considered non-life entities) requires what I am calling ethics: a process of navigating interactions between autonomous entities, with the tendency toward mutual aid, allowing life’s essential processes to occur on Earth, which facilitates the development of a diverse set of tools supporting the infinite amounts of actions and reactions between Otherness. Therefore, we can perhaps come to an agreement that the existence of the animal, Homo sapiens, is not even possible without this ethical dynamism within the human-microbe holobiont community. (Just imagine the ethical dimensions of our present-day ingestion of a multitude of pesticides and antibiotics, our favorite microbiome killers.)

Our current understanding of where human morality rests is in our capacity to apply normative guidance for our dealings with one another and with planet Earth. We are motivated by societal norms that have been rationalized as oughts and ought nots to direct thoughts and actions in response to life’s variety of circumstances. These normative understandings often are attended to as truths that come to us from the supernatural realm or through the very special, god-given gift of reason. However, what if the human capacity for creating religious and spiritual forms of guidance is not grounded in the supernatural at all, but rather is based in a set of skills, including reason, which results from our biologically adaptive toolkits that bestow upon us all—humans and other-than-human entities alike—a variety of selective advantages for social cohesion and cooperation?

If we re-imagine and comprehend ethics from an evolutionary point of view, then a way of reconciling Otherness and mutual aid opens up. If the ability of employing moral judgment to govern human behavior is a result of evolution, then the capacity for morality is humanly universal, in that it represents a range of species-typical behavior. Each culture normalizes and moralizes a somewhat different set of behavioral possibilities from within that universal range; each society fills its ethical toolkit in somewhat different ways, but against a universal background. We humans all evolved with the ability to respond and take action in regards to the Other via our sensory, emotional, and intellectual adaptations. All animals and plants have done this, but their adaptations have been varied. In human beings, the rational thought tool supported the development of complex language, giving us the ability to gather and organize an immense amount of information with which to assess which behaviors are acceptable within a certain community and which are not. This provides a selective advantage for large groups of individuals to successfully live amongst one another. These adaptations seem to also influence the very content of our moral judgments. “Even where moral beliefs are heavily shaped by culture,” William FitzPatrick observes, “there might be evolutionary influences in the background: evolved psychological traits may have contributed to the shaping of cultural practices themselves, influencing, for example, the development of ‘family first’ cultural norms that inform our judgments.”[5]

In another sense, human morality is relative (to place and time) in that each cultural or social group has the freedom to apply these adaptations—which have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and have become amazingly intricate and complex—to organize and reorganize their specific cultural oughts and ought nots.

Another dimension of morality’s universality and relativity is perhaps uncovered from recent debates about the essence of morality explained in the “mere rationalization hypothesis.” Many theorize that moral actions and decisions seem most often made via the perception of emotions and feelings, but are then rationalized, perhaps in order for us to share them with Others. William FitzPatrick, for example, maintains that:

Moral philosophers have long recognized that people have often been led rationalized their views, inventing justifications for positions held due to other causes. . . . The reason why philosophers tend to find a ‘mere rationalization hypothesis’ plausible for such beliefs as [that interracial marriage is morally wrong] and [homosexuality is morally wrong] is that (i) the justifications offered for them have consistently failed to stand up to critical reflection . . . and (ii) there are plausible alternative explanations for why people have really come to hold such beliefs, such as that they have misconstrued personal feelings of disgust as perceptions of objective moral wrongness, and projected those feelings onto the world as ‘moral impurity’. . . .Our giving of reasons for our moral beliefs in such cases is interpreted as mere post hoc rationalization. Rather than engaging in autonomous reflection and reasoning, and coming to believe certain moral propositions for the reasons that emerge from that reflection . . . what is happening instead according to this hypothesis is that (1) our moral beliefs are simply caused by emotions or ‘moral instincts’ we have largely due to our evolutionary background, and (2) we then invent rationalizations for these resulting beliefs in order to try to make sense of them to ourselves, unaware of their real causal origins.[6]

In the view I am suggesting here, moral beliefs are triggered by emotions and/or moral instincts that are a result of our evolutionary background and can therefore be understood as universal elements; whereas the rationalizations or justifications for these resulting beliefs occur on an individual and cultural level and can thus be considered relative.

The tool of reason, I can imagine, allowed us humans to collect and communicate the moral decisions agreed upon over time and space, permitting larger and larger groups of human societies to work as a whole, sharing life’s treasures with one another (food, drink, shelter, skill sets). It is truly a challenge to agree upon, share, and follow one’s emotional expressions of morality with the larger groups found in cities, in nations, and among nations. We thus depend on our skill of reason and our ability for complex language, which allows us to communicate a more intricate moral understanding with the larger cross-spatial and temporal group of humans. The human rational reflection simply supports, communicates, and solidifies our foray into evolution’s ethical realm. (This is quite a different form of understanding rules and communicating them than the creatures we know as ants have evolved, but with a similar evolutionary direction for group cohesion.)[7]

Although moral standards do change through time and through geography, these standards are not merely arbitrary constructs to be dismissed only because they are of a specific time and place. Each set of ethical standards has its emplaced function, and standards as such are necessary social structures required by a larger cohesive group of individuals who have decided to interact closely with one another with the intention to support and benefit the whole. Humans have the capacity via their evolutionarily crafted ethical tool box—emotions, feelings, reason—for developing a set of intricate, widely distributed written and oral rules regarding oughts and ought nots that have allowed for all this intermingling. And these intense interactions are prime drivers and results of evolution. Therefore, the process and results of ethics are not arbitrary at all. They are a necessity for and of life.

On the basis of seeing ethics from an eco-atheist—an evolutionary—point of view, I can now begin imagining an “ethics of being, in place” to counterbalance the tradition of religious and philosophical thinking that bases ethics in the supernatural. In my conception of place-based being, place—existing in geological space and evolutionary time—is the surrounding you interact with at all times: the ocean, the forest, the ecosystem, the city, the region, the nation, the planet, the solar system. It is the envelope that houses everyone and everything and all their interactions. And the ethics is the process and end result of how all these entities (on Earth) process their becoming with that of Others’ becomings.

Setting Atheism Free of Humanism

Both its critics and adherents tend to view atheism as inseparable from humanist ideals, ideals that are focused on the purely rational world with an emphasis on the agency of human beings. This linking however, need no longer be the case and from my particular position is a connection that is in need of severing. I instead imagine atheism—the absence of belief in the existence of deities—being freed from placing reason in the position of being the only true process of knowing the world (if the existence of something cannot be demonstrated by logic and empirical evidence, then it does not exist), as well as from the understanding that the human condition—the being of the human species—is independent or separate from all other-than-human existence. Atheism does not need to hold that human beings are the most ethically valuable or superior mode of being. The centrality of interdependence, symbiosis, and mutual aid in the account of ethics and evolution I am advancing actually precludes a human-centric understanding of ethical value. If humanism does place reason at the pinnacle of knowledge, humanity at the pinnacle of being, and the human good at the pinnacle of value, then it is necessary to my project to sever the connection between atheism and humanism.

To begin this discussion the definition of humanism must be addressed. There is some debate on the meaning of humanism, in part because the term’s use and definition has changed over time. For this essay I refer to the Wikipedia definition for a generally accepted understanding of the term:

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition.[8]

Humanism was part of an important trend of the modern world (beginning in the sixteenth century) toward secular ethics. It was essential in the cultural move towards liberating modernism from divine revelations and in helping to re-discover classical education and civic discourse. Concerns of the time were that universities focused far too much on producing skillful lawyers, physicians, and engineers, rather than educating capable and cultivated human beings—an important direction in re-imaging the moral ethos of the time (and perhaps a direction the citizens of the United States ought to keep an eye on as we re-create our educational institutions to churn out the next generation work force).However, humanism as a philosophy became corrupted by its hubris in distinguishing our own species from our animal self, which still lingers in the humanist movement today. “[9]The original renaissance philosophy about the importance of human initiative within divine and natural limits . . . mutated into an arrogant techno-humanism which now recognizes none.”[10] Humanists tend to theorize that moral values are relative to the human experience only and that humans are thus the measure of all things valuable: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”[11] The overarching goal of humanism remains to affirm “our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”[12] but with no deep reflection on our interconnection with and utter dependence on the whole community of life.

We can unpack this understanding to mean that everything, all of Earth, is only valuable insofar as the entity or system in question—the hummingbird, the bobcat, or the estuary, satisfies some human interest or desire. A humanistic value theorist might maintain that a river has instrumental value in furthering the human transport of coal or fracking sand, or for the pure, pleasurable experience of river cruises and jet skiing, but has no value in its own right or to Others, such as the diversity of species who experience that river as home. As soon as we find no need for these Others, they become valueless: ripe for resource extraction. And thus the humanist project continues the rationalization and instrumentalization of the moral field.[13] So in developing an eco-ethic, if we were to consider the humanist theory, which argues that only human interests and desires have so-called intrinsic value, we would find ourselves in the position of an anthropocentric worldview affording us a very narrow ethical space to ground life’s value in—a space that only contains human desires and interests.

Over time, what humanism has done is to move the source of value creation from the Gods above to the gods on Earth, the Homo sapiens. Humanism transformed itself into a secular theism. And in this respect, the change from a theist worldview to a humanist worldview has not changed the actual place of value production. It still resides within the human animal mind.

An additional concern with the humanist perspective is its hyper-focus on the rational component of our human skill sets. Our ability for rational thinking is a powerful skill that has allowed us to create an amazing array of complex tools, including everything from engines and computer chips, to structures that protect us from the elements and take us up thousands of feet into the sky. It has also allowed us to understand our universe in more depth with each passing year, month, and even day. And through this ability to comprehend and create our reality, we have become a highly successful species in terms of tool creation, habitat formation, food production, and population expansion. We have even been able to find the exact location where all this rational activity actually occurs in the human brain. (Amazingly fascinating, that a specific part of the human brain evolved in order to process environmental stimuli in this particular way. What a really neat skill set to put into our toolbox.)

But along with this discovery, we have also located the places in our brains where our emotions and intuitions— the other essential faculties that allow us to come to know the world—are processed. This very ancient part of animal life has stuck with us all this time, demonstrating how essential these emotions and feelings have been to animal survival through the ages. Research also indicates that all these brain activities—rational thinking, emotional passions, and intuitive feelings—are working together, intermingling all the time as we form our understanding of and reaction to the world around us. So to believe that we as humans can harness pure rational thinking and leave out our other evolutionary tools is naïve, as well as incorrect.

More importantly, to attempt to suppress and denigrate these faculties results in two forms of oppression: the oppression of those who are not engaging reason and the oppression of those who perhaps do not have the capacity for reason.

So if we want to remain true to the central insights of evolutionary theory and eco-atheism, we must break from this idea that we can fully understand the world in terms of rational thinking only. Since this seems to be the highlight of humanism, the eco-atheist must break free from humanism.

This breaking free from the humanist ideal doesn’t undermine eco-atheism any more than breaking free from religion and spirituality does. Beyond a human-centric and theocentric narrative, we can look to the method of science as a universal storyteller. We are now in a better position to embrace the sciences without privileging reason as the only faculty we have for knowing or valuing; imagination, emotion, intuition, and sensibility have their unique contributions to make as well. And we are not trapped, as humanism often is, by the species pride of believing that the world is strictly our resource to do with as we see fit. The eco-atheist can now instead begin to appreciate the process of science as one method for coming to understand both human and non-human Others, and, therefore, for understanding ourselves more truthfully. Science can be seen as a process of understanding the language and ways of life on Earth, outside and inside the human animal, as we search out our reality.

Setting Science Straight

To properly break free from the hubristic tendencies we find within humanism we must still stretch science’s imagination of itself. We seek a reconstituted science, “one based upon principles that are radically different from the reductionism and instrumentalism of the dominant tradition,” as Peter Hay so aptly put it.[14] For even though I am attempting to sever atheism’s tie to humanism, atheism’s foundational process of knowledge, science, is still prone to be misunderstood as necessarily immersed and enmeshed in an anthropocentric illusion and a Cartesian dualism.

Cartesian science has received an overwhelming critique of its approach to knowledge formation. Again in Hay’s summation, Cartesian science is:

variously labeled as ‘atomistic’ or ‘reductionist’ (because it ‘reduces’ reality to an understanding of smallest identifiable component parts), mechanistic (because it sees all existence, including animated existence, as behaving in the fashion of automata, according to varying laws and principles), and ‘instrumentalist’ (because knowledge is not sought for its own sake, nor even in the interest of the thing under investigation, but for the ultimate good that knowledge might prove to be for humans).[15]

This dominant approach of investigation in the physical as well as social sciences is termed positivism and is a philosophical stance that maintains that the only knowledge that is true, valid, or even worthwhile can only be accessed empirically. This modern epistemology is considered to have led to “a fragmented view of the world, with an understanding of aspects of reality being gained at the expense of the whole,” and it “lies at the heart of the ecological crisis confronting us today.”[16]

We can, however, move beyond the positivist understanding of science by deciding from a personal, institutional, and economic perspective that this vision is neither useful nor ideal for our contemporary process of knowledge production. This would involve rejecting the analytic scenario in which “scientist[s] seek to understand the parts and elements of reality, assuming that an understanding of the parts is all that essentially needs to be known about the whole, and that knowledge of the linkages between the parts is at a subordinate level to knowledge of the parts themselves.”[17] In its place, we can embrace a scenario in which science’s approach “seeks to maintain ties of meaning between researcher and phenomenon.”[18] In such a scenario, generalizations of phenomena surface through descriptive accounts of human experiencing; and reality comes to be known via “qualitative data assembled and described through experiential modes of explanation: as opposed to the stress positivism places on quantitative information, amassed and assessed in accordance with pre-existing laws and theories.”[19] By applying such a method in coming to know all the Others and ourselves, we avoid “forcing real-world processes and events into a set of imposed and arbitrary cerebral constructs.”[20] This way of knowing the world is the basis of phenomenology, which is considered a dissident epistemology although many disciplines, including anthropology, environmental psychology, environmental geography and philosophy, have embraced it.

Let us reimagine science then so it appreciates that all of Nature’s connections and life’s entities are to be viewed in relation to the whole and not merely broken down into the smallest component parts possible. Let us follow a science of life that is dynamically creative and not simply tiny machines following anthropomorphized rules that human beings find expedient; a science of life in which human being is to be understood not above, better, or more significant than the non-human reality that is outside our supposed autonomous selves. Let us embrace the scientific process of phenomenology expressly when it comes to understanding the whole community of life.

By taking such a position, we can influence and change what is fundable, what counts as evidence or data gathering, and how the agenda of research and what is considered important to know is set in the first place. We can decide that the why of science no longer be rooted in the goal of human domination of the natural world and instead demand that it be rooted in the goal of living fairly on planet Earth: breaking the ties with our worldview that humans are separate and above the rest of nature; that all else is inferior and thus a mere resource for us to exploit; and ultimately that non-human Others do not morally count, since these Others were not touched by the god above or the god of reason.

What, then, can we say about objectivity? Objective in the sense that scientific description is understood to be objective, independent of the human observer and the process of knowing. This dynamic and rigorous ideal is at the base of a relatively new way—in the evolutionary sense— of coming to know the happenings around us and to us. Striving towards objectivity services the rational mind very well by allowing this part of our toolkit to reduce the complexities of Nature. We need to come clean, though, and admit that everything our rational mind comes to know is the subjective apprehension of the world around us. Alwyn Jones maintains that “it is a presupposition of science . . . that the mind, as an independent entity, is able to experience and grasp objective reality.”[21] But, we know that the mind is not truly “independent” in the way required by Cartesian and positivistic science.

Linked to this ideal of objectivity is the value neutrality of scientific knowledge. However, it follows from what I have been asserting that science is not value free. Scientific insight is imbued with ethical decision making and consequences. It is laden with values that motivate certain lines of research versus others: research monies put toward genetically engineered crops and animals (which is profitable for agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations) versus research money put toward questions like what is a healthy soil and how can we re-establish healthy soil through Earth’s natural systems (such as the permaculture process, which is not profitable for the agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations and is very much a radical decentralization project). “All scientific paradigms bring with them subsidiary political and ethical interpretations. . . . Yet, a great many practitioners of mechanistic science seem blind to this simple and readily verifiable fact; hence their absurd claim that science is, uniquely, value-free.”[22]

The goal I seek is humble objectivity, not to take the process of science’s rigorous method completely out of the equation in coming to know ourselves and the whole community of life. True objectivity is not radically independent knowledge; it is interdependent knowledge and knowing. It is this tool that allows us to weed through the challenges of unraveling the universe, near and far. This form of knowledge production informs us with fairly accurate and timely interpretations of our reality. For example, ecology tells us how natural systems function, how they exist differently in different places, how they create the space for the many animal and plant creatures to be and become their evolutionary selves. Ecology can inform us as to the dysfunctions of these spaces, once major anthropocentric disturbances go against the evolutionary norm. Ecology can also provide hints on how we can resolve the pursuit of our desires while delicately maintaining the richness of Others’ needs and desires. The beauty of science is that is always searching and always correcting itself, building upon decades of information that bring increasing clarity to the object of its study.

Eukaryotic Cell

However, science must catch up with itself and “adopt a holistic framework . . . [that] is in agreement with the most advanced scientific theories of physical reality”[23]—a reality demonstrating that we are not separate from but utterly interconnected with, dependent on, and of Nature. In addition, science in the twentieth-first century must realize that life is not made up of a series of objects outside of the human subject that have been placed on Earth to satisfy our every whim. All of what we have come to know—especially through evolutionary biology, ecology, microbiology, chemistry, physiology, and archeology—establishes that we all came from the evolutionary soup approximately 3 to 4 billion years ago.

Science shows us what’s happening in the universe in a sophisticated way. But as a tool it does not tell us what is specifically good or bad. Looking to science as an anchor for our values is a very tricky business. “The fallacy is the attempt to use facts about what is natural to justify a particular ethic.”[24] Scientific information is not a static thing privileging us with access to an unchanging truth. Thus, there is no permanent anchor for our values as truths. What it can inform us of is where valuing, ethics, and morals come from in the meta-ethical sense. It can give us information about the biological processes and well-being of all those Others around us; it can inform us about whether these beings or systems are healthy; and, when we do decide that we value these Others as healthy, it tells us what we might do to assist them via the process of science.

This understanding frees us up to contemplate where else values might lie and to liberate them from within science’s facts or humans’ anthropocentric rational self. They might instead lie in the very process of getting to know and interact co-constituently with the Other—human or other-than-human. This opens the door for connecting an ethics of place within the eco-atheist framework, allowing us to develop an ethics that is not beholden to universal rights and wrongs. We can instead begin to imagine an “ethics of being, in place,” where place—existing in geological space and evolutionary time—is the surrounding you interact with at all times, and the ethics is the process of navigating interactions between autonomous entities all around, with the tendency toward cooperation, allowing life’s essential process to arise on planet Earth.

Conclusion

There seems to be an evolutionary impulse toward cooperation. As Peter Kropotkin—a contemporary of Darwin—so powerfully argued in the 1800s, Nature tends toward “mutual aid” rather than toward competition and “survival of the fittest.” Kropotkin saw this trend toward mutual aid in the harsh environment of the Siberian tundra.[25] Contemporary science shows us it as well, especially in the micro-macro cooperation within our own bodily ecosystems—where our human genome is utterly interdependent with that of the microbiome living on our skins and throughout our digestive tracts. This newly understood phenomenon is where I turn to help illuminate where the ethical realm might lie: in the places where mutual aid is necessary for life to flourish in the evolutionary sense, beginning with Earth’s proto-cellular beings and proceeding to the development of the first eukaryotic cells through to the very recent development of the mammal animal. In forthcoming installments of this series of essays, I will share writings from Peter Kropotkin and Mick Smith, a contemporary Canadian philosopher. Their work features an ethics of place that depends on mutual aid and care. I’ll also dive into microbiology’s recent push to unwrap the hologenome and its potential meta-ethical implications.

The premise of my project is to remain true to an eco-atheist understanding of the universe and articulate my vision of a rich, deep, loving ethics that expresses connection and passion toward the whole community of life. My disconnection from the framework of organized religion and my lack of personal connection with otherworldly spiritual practices has compelled me from a young age to understand the meta-ethical realm in other ways. I want to extract our moral foundation from some far-off, illusory entity and to humbly unearth an ethical framework from within ourselves and our understanding of the really real.

[1] M.S. Dodd, D. Papineau, T. Grenne; et al., “Evidence for Early Life in Earth’s Oldest Hydrothermal Vent Precipitates,” Nature 543 (2017): 60-64.

[2] E. Rosenberg and I. Zilber-Rosenberg, “Microbes Drive Evolution of Animals and Plants: The Hologenome Concept,” mBio 7, no. 2 (2016): e01395-15. https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.01395-15.

[3] S.R. Bordenstein and K.R. Theis, “Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes,” PLoS Biology 13, no. 8 (2015): e1002226. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002226.

[4] Ibid.

[5] W. FitzPatrick, “Morality and Evolutionary Biology,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/; accessed September, 14, 2017.

[6] FitzPatrick, “Morality and Evolutionary Biology.”

[7] B. Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, The Ants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990).

[8] From “Humanism,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism, accessed December 16, 2017.

[9] Read more on the critiques of humanism in D. Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

[10] P. Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), 36.

[11] American Humanist Association, “Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III, a Successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933,” at https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/, accessed November 3, 2017.

[12] Ibid.

[13] M. Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001).

[14] P. Hay, Main Currents of Western Environmental Thought(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 121.

[15] Ibid., 126, italics added.

[16] Ibid., 126.

[17] Ibid., 127.

[18] Ibid., 144.

[19] Ibid., 143.

[20] D. Seamon, “The Phenomenological Contribution to Environmental Psychology,” JEP Phenomenological Review (June 1982): 121.

[21] A. Jones, “From Fragmentation to Wholeness: A Green Approach to Science and Society (Part I),” Ecologist 17, no. 6 (1987): 236.

[22] Hay, Main Currents of Western Environmental Thought, 135.

[23] F. Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems(New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 71.

[24] Curry, Ecological Ethics, 32.

[25] P. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (London: Freedom Press, 1902).


Image Credits

“Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone” by Supercarwaar. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Endosymbiosis” by Signbrowser.

“Floral matryoshka set 2 smallest doll nested” by BrokenSphere. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

  • Anja Katina Claus

    As Senior Editor of the Center's journal Minding Nature, Anja guides strategy for content creation, art curation, and journal events, as well as manages the publication of both the online and print versions of the journal. Anja also writes and searches out stories that help us reimagine our relationship to each other, to planet Earth, and the larger Universe.

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