Minding Nature, Minding Ourselves

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Strachan Donnelley, Center for Humans and Nature founder (1942–2008) 

An increasing number of citizens are becoming centrally concerned with long-term moral and civic responsibilities to both human communities and natural ecosystems and landscapes. Among several practitioners of this new and emerging ethics, a consensus is emerging. Determining and articulating the complex of new responsibilities to humans and nature will depend on a new fundamental worldview or worldviews that give us an overall understanding of who we are, the world we live in, and the significance of both. Whether or not philosophic worldviews are in academic fashion, they are morally, civically, and practically imperative. We need substantive, well articulated and argued moral guide posts. Moreover, given that this new ethic concerns nature, as well as humans, it must be centrally informed by evolutionary and ecological biology, our present best understanding of nature and its processes. In short, this philosophic worldview, or worldviews, must be fundamentally Darwinian in character.

Among many others, Ernst Mayr, the eminent evolutionary biologist and historian, would agree. Mayr claims that Darwin inaugurated the most profound revolution in the history of Western philosophy and science, challenging fundamental presuppositions of the Western tradition. Mayr explicitly points to the doctrines of cosmic teleology, Newtonian causal determinism, and essentialism, each of which we will presently discuss. Darwin ushers in the philosophic and scientific epoch of “population thinking,” which we will also discuss, and the recognition of the historical, dynamic, systemic interactions of biotic and abiotic entities. The whole landscape of philosophy, science, and moral and civic responsibility changes. Our task is vividly to understand and prepare ourselves for the changing philosophic landscape.

In approaching this task, it is important to note an obvious feature of philosophy and philosophic worldviews easily overlooked. Conceptions of nature and the human self or human nature co-vary and mutually influence, if not determine, one another. The same can be said for the philosophic theories of being (ontology), the universe or cosmos (cosmology), knowledge (epistemology) and values (axiology) of the worldviews. No doubt this is in part motivated by an aim for conceptual or philosophic coherence, a single over-arching vision of ourselves and the world.

Mayr emphasizes that Darwinism denies cosmic teleology, Newtonian determinism, and essentialism. Gone is God or Nature as an infinite substance with infinite attributes, freely acting out of the necessity of its eternal nature, the ground of all ontological, cosmological, and epistemological rationality and order. In Darwin’s universe, at least as concerns earthly life, all living individual entities and forms and capacities of life derive from a common natural and historical origin via an evolutionary two-step: genetic and behavioral variation and natural and sexual selection. Historical dynamism and interaction replace eternal rational and ontological activity as the cosmological bottom line. Moreover, for Darwinism it is only because of the enormous expanse or immensity of geological, evolutionary time (3.8 billion years or more) that the arational, non-goal-directed processes of nature, individual, and populational variation and selection, can engender the forms, capacities, and order of living nature (human and other) that in traditional cosmologies require the agency of a cosmic reason and designer.

Actually something more or less radically new and unknown to prior thinkers must be added to the cosmic mix for Darwinian philosophy to make adequate sense. Order dynamically and historically engendered in the natural organic realm needs to be preserved, more or less permanently, in order for life to be and to overcome utter random, arational chaos or disorder. Order here requires historical inheritance, which moreover requires a natural or material mode of inheritance. Darwin knew that there must be such a mechanism or process if organic adaptations to changing environments, including new species of life, were to come into being via variation and selection. He was ignorant of the mode of inheriting organic order, which remained a “black box” that he was forced to assume in his arguments. We now know inheritance, at least in large part, to be genomic. The “information matter” of DNA, which when interacting with cellular, somatic, and ecosystemic environments, engenders phenotypical organisms and their life histories, that is, the individual organisms interacting among themselves that we encounter in everyday experience. This, of course, includes our individual human selves and our human communities.

Given this newly interpreted natural or cosmological setting, what can we say concerning old perennial philosophic concerns—philosophic and scientific method; knowledge (epistemology); human nature and selfhood; civic and moral responsibilities; and the humanly good life?

Let us first recall the fundamental philosophic shifts initiated by Darwin and carried forth by Mayr and others. Cosmic teleology or rational purposive design is denied.

However momentous, this philosophic move is relatively straight forward. Nature creates its own forms and order in passing, thanks to earthly, if not also other intracosmic, interactions.

Secondly, the strict casual determinism, the hegemony of efficient causes, that is so crucial to the philosophy and science of nature inaugurated by the conceptual revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is out. Rather, in nature there are multiple causes on multiple temporal and spatial scales in which chance and historical contingencies play a real role. Physicalist causation is replaced by what we may term “orchestral causation”: confluences of innumerable contributing factors leading to outcomes in principle unpredictable in traditional scientific, causal terms.

In particular, Mayr points to two modes of causation always at play in the life world: ultimate causation and proximate causation. Proximate causes are the physico-chemical causes or chains of reactions explored by Descartes and the Newtonians of traditional modern science. Ultimate causes are the contributions of the historically engendered genomes, with their informational instructions for bodily and behavioral capacities of individuals, the products of genotypical and phenotypical variation and natural selection. (Note Mayr’s new use of the term “ultimate,” formally reserved for cosmic rational agents or designers.) Between themselves, ultimate and proximate causation must foot the bill for whatever order is realized in the natural world, if not human communities as well.

Thirdly, essentialist or typological thinking is denied. This is a crucial blow to traditional modes of thinking, but an absolute requisite for evolutionary philosophy and science. There is no such thing as “dog,” “rose,” “human being,” conceived as a species essence or fundamental character, with only accidental differences among individual organisms of the same species. Rather, there are only individuals with their differences. Moreover, difference as a central feature of organic reality holds for all levels of life, from the genomic to the cellular to the individually organismic to the ecosystemic and beyond. Such individual differences are absolutely crucial to evolutionary, ecological life.

Without the variation provided by individual differences, natural selection would have nothing to select. There could be no evolutionary adaptations to new or changing environments. In fact, evolutionary life would not, and could not, have begun in the first place. All this is summed up in the crucial shift to “populational thinking.” There are only populations of differing individuals potentially interbreeding (the biological definition of a species) and/or living in wider communities of interacting lives, for example, ecosystems and “humans and nature”—cultural and natural—bioregions. Darwin and Darwinians can have no recourse to atemporal rational guarantees.

Methodologically, they can only form tentative or speculative hypotheses, garnered from human experience and the evidence of the world, and then check their hypotheses against further worldly evidence and rival philosophic and scientific interpretations. Let the most powerful and adequate interpretation win. There are no a priori or certain guarantees of truth. This is the method of The Origin of Species. For example, The Origin is “one long argument” for evolution, the common descent of all species life, and natural selection. Darwin gives various plausible explanations to bolster his main thesis—whether explanations be about the progressive evolution of the mathematical order and efficiency of beehives; or the paucity of the fossil record with respect to “intermediate species forms”; or the migration of species and/or the dispersal of seeds thanks to the geological events, periods of glaciation, or the hitchhiking of seeds on other organisms. In each case, explicitly or implicitly, Darwin claims that his theory can plausibly explain what “independent creation” or cosmic teleology cannot. One long argument indeed, and the stakes are very high. Darwin’s theoretical and scientific explanations reveal an earthly reality unknown to then contemporary natural theology. The doctrine of independent creation eclipses or hides the earth’s reality: the dynamic, historical, systemically complex evolution of earthly life from a temporally remote common origin.

How do conceptions of nature and human selves in Darwinian philosophy match or mirror one another? I want to be brief and only sketch speculative possibilities of a Darwinian conception of human individuality and selfhood. A fleshed out notion of human individuals and communities within Darwinian nature is a philosophic exploration and adventure yet to be fully realized. However, there are pregnant clues to be garnered from Mayr’s Darwinian conception of nature.

Recall the main elements of this conception: the central role of populational thinking (differing individuals within populations and communities); the central fact of dynamic, systemic, and historically contingent interactions among and within biological entities from genomes to cells, individual organisms, communities, ecosystems, and more; the orchestratal causation (causation on many spatial and temporal scales, including ultimate and proximate causes) that underlies the systems-wide interaction. What can be gathered from all this?

Mayr and other biologists speak of the pervasiveness of “emergent properties” in the natural world: that systemic interactions among entities on one scalar level of nature yield new and in principle unpredictable properties or entities on the next hierarchal level of nature. Again, this holds for internally complex genomes, cells, systems of cells, individual organisms, communities of organisms, and so on. Descartes’ definition of a human self or individual as a res cogitans or thinking thing is gone. Spinoza’s definition or explanation of a human individual or self as an internally complex, finite conative mode or modification of God or Nature’s infinite, eternal activity is also gone, along with all other forms of substance philosophy—again, substance defined as that which requires nothing else in order to be or exist. What alternatives are left to us? Perhaps all individual organisms, including individual human selves, are “emergents” from nature’s historical, orchestral causation and are ongoingly so until they die.

Let me briefly explain. A human individual inherits a historically engendered genome from its parents. (No clones allowed here.) This genome includes the informational capacity for the development of all our humanly and individually characteristic traits. The genome, once naturally fashioned, enters the world’s historical, orchestral, interactive fray. Out of the fray emerges the phenotypical organism, the human individual or self at some stage or moment of its development and life cycle. This historically engendered human emergent thereupon becomes one causal strand (along with its inherited genome) in the orchestration of the next stage or moment of its individual self or being. Any form of identity or enduring individual character is at once a dynamic, active, organic achievement and an inheritance from a natural, cultural, and personal past. This conception of emergent selves or individuals fits will with characteristics of all organisms, human or other. All alike are dynamically active. All alike are finite, mortal, and vulnerable to worldly, earthly vicissitudes. They fit will into Darwin’s nature: minding nature, minding ourselves.

I do not want to go much further here, but only point out what must be adequately explained by such a conception of the human self as an ongoing emergent individual. We must be able to explain or interpret what capacities, powers, and talents we in fact have—capacities for rational thinking; circumscribed freedom and responsibility; artful creation; richly complex emotional and spiritual lives; physical, bodily dexterities; and the formation of diverse human communities and cultures. This list could go on. We are extraordinarily complex organic, social, cultural beings. But the question does come down to this. Can the advent of organic life and its natural evolutionary and ecological history suffice to undergird the reality of human life and history in all its glories and ignominy? Correlatively, can evolutionary biology and speculative philosophy, now or in the future, provide an adequate framework of thought for interpreting who we are, the nature of the world we live in, and the complex interactions and significances or worth of ourselves and the world?

Recall the historical, dynamic realm of interaction; the evolution of all organic forms and capacities via orchestral causation; variation, selection, and chance conspiring purposelessly and unconsciously to engender the history of life, including ourselves, and whatever directions that history might take. Correlatively, recall human individuals, communities, and cultures emerging out of and within the context of wider evolutionary and ecological nature. Whatever general natural capacities we humans have—mental, emotional, bodily—are woven into the fabric of our worldly, historically engendered genomes, hard-wired or soft-wired, that is, amenable to environmental, including humanly cultural, influences. Out of the interactions of earthly history and human cultural history have emerged we humans in all our individual and collective diversity, with capacities for circumscribed freedom of choice, action, and moral responsibility, among a wide array of other natively organic and cultural powers. Here is indeed something philosophically to ponder.

First note how Darwinian modes of thought transform not only our understanding of our human selves, but our moral lives and fundamental responsibilities. We can no longer be exclusively or centrally concerned with our human selves, communities, and their well-being or happiness. We have been woven out of, and remain inextricably within, a nature that has spawned an extraordinary array of interconnected life forms and capacities. Here we encounter the engendering of natural values and goodness, ontological and cosmological, if not strictly or directly moral. But, as noted, all life forms and capacities—genomic, individually organismic, ecosystemic, or biospheric—are also and alike finite, mortal, and vulnerable to harm.

We are the results of historical causes, evolutionary natural and humanly cultural. Natural evolution and human history go on unabated. But in the orchestration of the future, thanks mainly to historical cultural developments, we humans collectively have become a major player, a major causal factor, in earth’s history. We may remain only co-creators, along with nature, of the earth’s and our future, but thanks to our new corporate heft (technological, economic, populational) we have saddled ourselves with responsibilities perhaps unimaginable in pre-Darwinian times. We have responsibilities to the whole realm of earthly life, not only to our individual selves and human communities. Moreover, we must recognize, face, and discharge these responsibilities amidst much ignorance about evolutionary, ecological nature, not to speak of ourselves. All worldly situations may be unprecedented, but some are more unprecedented than others. Ours is one.

We have already seen major shifts in philosophic thought concerning our new situation in the world. Among several others, there are the evolutionary biological, philosophic, and ethical reflections of Ernst Mayr. There is A Sand County Almanac and the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold. There is The Imperative of Responsibility and other writings of Hans Jonas. With varying degrees of emphasis, all three would emphatically shift our moral gaze from an exclusive concern with human beings to wider historical nature and its evolutionary and ecological processes, both for our and nature’s own sake. The protection and promotion of the valuable and the good must now go decidedly beyond the human to what has been worthy of serious moral attention all along, that is, that natural world within which we are interactively embedded.

With this Darwinian re-minding of nature, ourselves, and our moral responsibilities, what becomes of our understanding of the human good? In ways yet to be fully envisioned, it is decidedly transformed. Our particular human uniqueness, our powers of knowing, creativity, love, and responsibility, are refocused on the fact that we are the only natural beings who can know, understand, appreciate, and morally respond to life’s evolution. So would claim Mayr, Leopold, and Jonas. Jonas would add that for the first time responsibility for the long-term future of humans and nature has moved to the center stage of morality and ethical concern. This weighty responsibility, with its many burdens, may add a new dignity and worth to human life and become a chief new ingredient of a newly conceived humanly good life.

Faced with the knowledge, fate, and future fortunes of earth’s evolutionary life, Leopold speaks of the keen sense of tragedy and loss, as well as natural exhilaration, love, and awe that accompanies the champions and practitioners of the Land Ethic, those who accept responsibility for the intertwined biotic and abiotic communities that engender and support life. Leopold thinks like a mountain. Peering into the fierce green fire of a dying she-wolf that his wildlife management team has just shot, he suddenly realizes that mountains know what he and his companions do not: the role of top predators—wolves, bears mountain lions, and more—in maintaining the health, the long-term evolutionary and ecological integrity, of natural ecosystems. Parochial human concerns—managing for deer hunting, cattle ranching, and now development communities—recede into the background. Similarly, in “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold ponders the beauty and wildness of Sandhill cranes and their role, reaching back into the Eocene and Pleistocene in creating and building up, along with their ecosystem co-species, marshland reality. Here is Leopold experientially returning to natural, cosmological origins, including his own. But Leopold’s reflections recognize the possibility, if not probability, of the demise of the cranes, and perhaps also of ourselves. Here would be the loss of time-deep wildness: denuded and less significant or meaning-laden marshlands and natural landscapes.

Leopold harbors analogous, authentic moments of “high blessedness,” but his conception of the humanly good life embodies richer, more complex, and darker hues. Again, this shift in understanding is perhaps a human gain rather than a loss. However that may be, it is the result of a much needed and morally imperative re-minding of nature and ourselves, in all their complex and subtle correlations and interconnections. This is a task that has only begun in the philosophic seriousness that it requires and deserves.

  • Strachan Donnelley

    The Center for Humans and Nature was founded in 2003 by Strachan Donnelley, a self-described "fly-fishing philosopher" who saw an urgent need for an organization dedicated to exploring humans and nature relationships. From formative early years hunting wild ducks on Illinois marshes, Donnelley dedicated his life to first experiencing, and then trying to understand, the natural world and the human place within it.

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