Bunnell P.
Attributing nature with justifications
Cite as: Bunnell P. (2000) Attributing nature with justifications. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 17: 469–480. Available at https://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/archive/4236
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I claim that concepts such as competition, evolution of the fittest and regulation through hierarchical constructs are all attributions we make to nature based on our culture. I think these concepts, and others of like ilk, are the results of a particular manner of emotioning, sensing and acting that is now common to most of our modern cultures. Once attributed to nature, we use these concepts as grounding premises, or as justification, to continue the manner of emotioning, sensing and acting which gave rise to them. I see this as a disquieting circularity, a blindness, that results in a way of being that we do not want, but feel compelled to. However, since we have the ability to reflect on our beliefs and to consider whether we want the consequences of maintaining them, I also see the possibility of living in a manner that we find more ethical and more pleasurable.
Key words: Competition; culture; purpose; evolution; natural drift.
I think many, if not most, of us are unhappy with the environmental and social impasse that we see humanity blundering into, and we would like to see some changes. This is not a new concern, and what I want to present is not new, yet I would like to present a way of looking that I hope indicates how the system sciences may contribute to passing through this apparent impasse.
Although all I say is what I myself think, I find that I am forever now in the position of acknowledging the work of Dr Humberto Maturana more deeply than a citation of references could indicate. His work in the biology of cognition permeates all of my thinking in a way that I gratefully accept. I trust that I do not misrepresent his contribution.
I have noticed a disquieting circularity. It is not that I do not like circularities per se. Indeed, I think circularities are an abstraction, from a complex network of intersected systems, of a subset of connections that have a presence for the observer so that he or she has become aware of them. As a cognitive operation, this is no different that abstracting a subset of connections that comprise a linear causality – other than providing a different perspective, and perhaps evoking a broader understanding of dynamics. It is only if one insists on the logic of linear causality that one is forced to devalue an argument due to its circularity. However, the circularity I refer to is disquieting for a different reason. It is disquieting because it rests on a blindness, and at the same time directs what we humans do.
I often hear statements of the form ‘Nature teaches us that …’ or ‘According to nature’s laws we must …’ or even ‘We must model our … based on how nature works’. In general such statements are well intended and often represent an expansion of understanding of the dynamics of the situation, or of our inclusion in the biosphere. However, there is something we do not see. We do not see that the way we think nature is, or works, is based on how we look. We ground our observations, and base our analyses, on cultural premises that we are not aware of. We impute nature with the dynamics that are part of our current culture, and then when we see nature operating according to these dynamics we take it as a legitimization or justification for what we do. The disquieting part of this circularity is that we use our culture to justify our culture, with nature inserted as an argument. I could take this as an amusing commentary on what we humans do, except that I do not like many of the behaviours that we thus justify, and I am aware that many other people do not either. They submit to the argument that nature decrees it so, but are unhappy about it. Hence my disquiet. And hence my invitation to consider what I say as an evocation to reflection. And it is an invitation, not an appeal – if you do not choose to accept it there is no consequence to the implicit relationship of respect. Such is the nature of invitations (Maturana et al., 1999).
Cultural blindness
Cultures as manners of emotioning and seeing
I have claimed that we use our culture to justify our culture, by imputing the dynamics of this culture to nature. I have implied that this is a form of cultural blindness. But then, what do I mean by ‘culture’? When we describe a culture, or speak about conserving it, we usually envision culture as a conglomerate of language, custom, skills and artifacts. But I claim that a culture is not the artifacts associated with the culture, but the constellation of dynamics which generates those artifacts. Artifacts are created in a manner that is consistent with a way of being. Neither is a culture the skills for making the artifacts, nor the language, nor the songs. It is not even the particular doings that an anthropologist might document. Yes, these are all pertinent to the culture, but in a different way than we might have thought. What is central to a culture is a way of emotioning and sensing, hence a way of conversing, of thinking, of acting. A culture is a manner of being.
All the observable aspects of the culture arise through this manner of being. Or, said in a poetic way, the culture resides in the spaces between the actions and within the openings of the conversations. It is an intangible domain that reciprocally shapes and is shaped by the tangible world. This is true of any culture, but the consequences of the reciprocal shaping of various manners of living and the arising worlds differ. One culture may distance us from our existence as a living being among living beings; another may regard the earth and all its beings as legitimate others. One culture may reveal connection to place; another may abstract us into a homosphere, or even a robosphere. And from such abstraction it is nearly impossible to grasp that there may be anything else. Such inability to grasp what is outside the emotioning and sensing of a culture comprises cultural blindness. This is not ‘bad’, it is indeed directly analogous to how any living system exists in its niche, but the very fact that we humans are capable of naming it ‘blindness’ by seeing something more changes everything. When we see, we may reorient.
Seeing through cultural understanding
In his books on Ishmael, and the Story of B, Daniel Quinn writes eloquently about such cultural blindness (Quinn, 1997). He explains how Mother Culture, our particular culture, is based in premises that most of us never even think to look at. But to show the operation of this dynamic of expansion that allows us to comment on blindness, I wish to begin with two relatively simple stories. We have now lived a decade or so with the public knowledge that some scientists are predicting global warming, or more accurately stated, climate change. As we encounter extreme events – floods, storms, cold spells, hot spells – we hear murmurs of ‘climate change’. Though it is the case that many attributes of climate are gradually changing, there is no statistical evidence that extreme events are becoming more frequent (World Meteorological Organization, 1995). For example El Niño events similar to the 1989–93 one occurred in 1911–14, and again in 1939–42. However, even a casual glance at the climate records shows that the period between the latter two El Niño episodes was an unusually stable period. We look at what is happening now with the eyes of someone who has lived through forty years of climate stability, and hence we see such stability as the norm, and the current variability as an aberration. It does not take long for us to accrue a particular way of looking.
My other story concerns our understanding of soil bacteria. For years we investigated soil bacteria through the practice of culturing them in Petri dishes, on various media. We discovered many bacteria in this manner. However, recently we have developed methods for looking at bacteria in the soil, directly. We discovered that there is a whole microbial ecosystem in the soil. The ones which we were able to culture were indeed the anomalous bacteria which were able to exist outside of their normal circumstances. By far the largest proportion of bacteria live in communities of interchange in many dimensions – indeed so interdependent that they could not be cultured on a Petri dish (Davis, 1997). We looked under the premise of independent existence of each bacterium, perhaps contributing to the overall function of soil, perhaps just living there as the physical conditions were adequate. In our blindness we thought that the physical conditions satisfied all the requirements, and did not see the network of interactions as integral.
As with all blindnesses, we only comprehend that there was a blindness after we see. Blindness is a commentary we can make after something is revealed: ‘I did not see, and now I do’ or ‘I see, but my friend does not.’ Now I am ready to point to a more subtle form of blindness that pervades modern cultures.
Survival and success
We live in a culture in which we implicitly believe in competition and survival of the fittest. We act according to this belief; indeed many of our human enterprises are designed in a way that encourages us to act this way. Privilege is gained through competitive success; the best succeed – whether in school, sports, romance, business or science. We operate our societies, our politics, our commerce and even our religions as hierarchies. As hierarchies have a top, a maximum, we implicitly believe in the value of extremes: the best, the most, the biggest. We are not content with simple adequacy. Where we institute cooperation we do this as a form of coordination within groups still engaged with other groups in the pervasive struggle for success and survival. But even cooperation is not consensuality; cooperation is that arrangement that we put on top of a premise of competition in order to accrue particular benefits. In consensuality we simply act in a manner in which our actions are coordinated, in whatever orientation we have, as a matter of trust.
Given a competitive culture we develop strategies for survival, and where success is seen it is assumed to be based on a successful strategy (or occasionally, luck). Thus success becomes the rationale for the strategy, and we find ourselves assuming that the effectiveness of accessing resources is a value. We legitimize our continuous expansion based on the success of those that benefit from this – in other words, the winners in the competition.
I am not saying anything new in these comments. But there is something in them that I notice from the perspective of the biology of cognition. We do all these things thinking that this is the way the world naturally works. This is the way life is! Look at any ecosystem – those that outcompete the others are the ones who survive. Those that develop appropriate strategies are the ones who persist. Only the fittest survive the evolutionary process of natural selection. And look, don’t flocks of chickens, and herds of ungulates, and even groups of chimpanzees, have a hierarchical structure? So hierarchies must be the natural order. Indeed, isn’t the whole of existence organized in hierarchies – don’t atoms make molecules, and molecules cells, and cells living beings, and these populations and ecosystems, and then above that human civilization which, according to one or other belief, is governed by, or transcends to, an even higher level? Thus, we believe that how we are now is the natural order of things. We must accept it and live thus.
Here is the nub of what I want to say: I do not think living systems are organized as hierarchies, I do not think they operate in competition, nor do I think evolution happens through survival of the fittest. Of these three claims, in this paper I shall attempt to substantiate only the third, the one concerning evolution.
Operational adequacy of beliefs
Before considering the matter of evolution, I want to point out that we do not, and cannot, generate just any belief. Beliefs are not arbitrary images overlaid on a world in such a way that we are somehow, inexplicably, unaware that they do not fit. Our beliefs concerning nature are grounded in our experiences. What we experience when we look at nature under any coherent sets of beliefs yields a regularity in our experience which is adequate to our manner of living. We do not detect a misfit, for in the domain in which we look there is none.
How can this be? How can several alternative sets of beliefs yield an operationally adequate manner of living? A proper answer to this question would be an essay in itself. For now, I will continue with the informal tone of this paper, and give but a brief answer. Namely, it can happen in a richly intricate cosmos of structurally coupled processes happening in a continuous dynamic of structural changes in which various dynamic configurations are conserved – for a while. The result is not a chaos, nor is it a pattern, but there are adequate regularities such that living systems can remain structurally coupled with their medium. We humans are part of this, and operate in the particular form of structural coupling that a nervous system allows; namely in the detection of regularities within the nervous system that both arise in and become a source for the sensory–motor coordinations that maintain us in a flow of connections. Furthermore, we humans generate regularities of regularities, that is, in the operation of recursion that happens in languaging we generate premises, beliefs, facts, etc. As long as these do not disrupt the flow of adequate structural coupling, they appear to us as a more or less consistent set of percepts and concepts. We usually treat these consistent sets of concepts as ‘reality’. We can generate different sets of concepts that are adequate for our structural coupling. Though they are adequate in that respect, they are not the same, they generate different flows and thus shape both humans and the matrix we exist in. This is what is implicit in my motive for writing this paper.
I am aware that this is an extremely cursory treatment of how it can be that there are multiple adequate ways of explaining the same experiences. Perhaps an example will help. Consider the general notion that processes happen on various scales – from subatomic to global. This can be treated as a hierarchy; namely, the larger processes always form the context for the smaller ones to operate, and in that sense determine the outcome. We can function in this belief because it does not interfere with our connections to all these processes; indeed it is beneficial for it allows us to see the appropriate scale for our various doings. The same observations can also lead to a notion of containment and emergence; namely the larger processes contain the smaller, and the smaller generate emergent properties that constitute the larger. This view also guides our connections, perhaps a little more richly than the previous. An even more open view is that the world is ‘lumpy’ in its scales of operation. We can see such lumps as we construct Stommel diagrams (Peterson et al., 1998) of observed processes or systems that are plotted on the x–y coordinates of temporal and spatial scales. We find clusters along a line of increasing scales, from small and rapid to large and slow. Further, we may note that these lumps are not stringent, and that there are many cross-scale connections that vary as loose cycles of change happen to synchronize over several processes at several scales (Holling, 1992; Holling et al., 1998). In each case we have a different notion concerning the organization of processes, and each notion, until something causes us to question it, appears as an adequate explanation of our experiences. Thus, I ponder whether any observation of organization is a property of an external world, or whether it is a property of the observing system as it is modified through structural coupling with its medium – namely ourselves.
The premise of purpose
A reason to be
We are used to thinking of things in terms of the purpose or function they serve. Things have value, justification and even existence in terms of their purpose – everything from the mundane like windows and kettles, bridges and houses, to our various human systems such as health care, banking, education and commerce. When we look at our own bodies, we see in terms of purpose; our heart is for pumping blood, the melanin in our skin is for preventing sunburn, our right and left brain hemispheres are for different functions – why else would we have two halves? (I find it odd that based on a statistically barely detectable difference in the excitation of the two hemispheres during different tasks, we ascribe fundamentally different functions!). Similarly, when we regard the natural world we see it as orderly, with each element serving its appointed or evolved function: the predator keeps the prey population from expanding, plants provide food for animals, and photosynthesis provides food for the plant. Even the sun has a purpose in the scheme of things.
I do not dispute that all these things happen, but I marvel at the pervasiveness of the orientation that something must have a reason to be, and cannot just be as a happening – ‘There it is!’ What I think has taken place is that a particular emotional orientation has permeated our modern cultures as an almost invisible grounding that leads to a family of premises of which purpose, or function, is one.
The fundamental orientation, the omnipresent emotional ground, of our modern era is mistrust. I do not mean mistrust in the sense that we think we are being lied to, but rather in the sense that the world is not safe, that we must use our wits to survive. We must act as one of the fittest, or
we will not survive. I think living in mistrust, as a general mode or mood, arose at some time in human history, for animals do not live in a mode of mistrust or its more visible variant, fear. The herd of gazelles does not appear vexed by the proximity of the lion; they only run away, living a moment of fear, when the lion begins its hunt. Fear for animals is a fleeting emotion, not a way of life.
Whatever its origin, the mood of mistrust has consequences. If one mistrusts, it becomes important to alter the situation, that is, to attempt to control it so that the feared eventuality does not occur. Thus one begins to apply the notion of causality in order to achieve control; and through an expansion of the desire to control, the notion of causality takes on an increasing presence. Soon everything is seen to have cause, and the other end of that logic, purpose. The notions of resources (that which one desires in order to achieve a purpose), competition (that which someone else desires and thus threatens your ability to achieve that purpose) and hierarchy (degree of ability, or privilege, in the exercise of control) take on a meaning appropriate to the underlying mood of mistrust.
Need as an argument
But this discourse is only peripheral to what I want to say about evolution. Let us accept for the moment my claim that the notions of purpose and causality are pervasive. Associated with these is the notion of need. If something serves a purpose, then it is needed to perform that function. In other words, when we look from the perspective of having defined a purpose, then we see whatever participates in the dynamics relevant to generating the result that we have specified as a ‘need’.
What is usually not obvious to us in this argument is that the domain in which we distinguish the result, and hence the need, is not the same domain in which the generative mechanism from which the result arises takes place. In the notion of causality we have blurred these domains, and in doing so we limit our vision concerning the dimensionality of the generative process. But there is another twist in our thinking in terms of needs. In making the need central, we fail to notice that the need does not drive the process. ‘Need’ is merely our commentary on the conditions which enable the process, as we distinguish it, to operate. In making the need a force, we also implicitly assume that the need was what caused the process to arise as it now operates. We can see this readily when we look at something we now ‘need’ that we remember not even imagining some few decades ago, e.g. the network of interactions associated with microprocessors and the Internet. The Internet we now have, and in some sense need to do what we now do, was not invented because we needed it back then. Both need and purpose arose along with the development.
The assumptions of purpose and need particularly pervade the common understanding of the process of evolution. We tend to think in terms of ‘adaptations’ occurring to satisfy ‘needs’, such as the need to avoid the predator, or the need to compete for light, or the need to become intelligent and develop tools and strategies given a body that is inadequate for speed or power. And evolution, under the premise of purpose, is seen as a progress towards even higher forms and higher values – aimed at some final transcendental state that we humans are to enact as a grand purpose. In this view we are, of course, the pinnacle of evolution so far, and our technology only serves to prove that! We are attributing nature with needs and purposes that derive from our human practices, and then we are using this attribution to justify what we are doing in expanding and growing.
Natural drift
If evolution does not follow a path of responding to needs, or achieving a purpose, and if it does not operate through competition and survival of the fittest, then how does it work? What I will briefly describe is taken from Maturana and Mpodozis (1992, 2000) – and though I am not a geneticist I hear comments from various sources that the forefront of genetic thinking is following along avenues congruent with this.
Conservation and change
The history of living systems is a history of lineages. Occasionally a group of living beings commences a period of relatively rapid change, and the whole group may shift form or, more likely, a branching occurs and some shift form whereas others do not, or shift differently. The general result is an accumulation of diversity in life forms. But that does not mean that all forms persist. We are generally aware of dramatic extinctions, loss of life forms that were very common for a period, or the loss of many forms at once in great episodes – indeed we are aware of several such episodes in the paleological history. What we do not notice as easily is the continuous drift in diversification and loss that happens more or less in balance, with periods of increase and periods of decrease, with an accretion of forms when regarded over geological time. We think of evolution in the past, but it is continuous – it is happening now. Indeed, we are at the moment in a period of rapid loss of life forms that might be considered equivalent to one of the past waves of extinction. And we might even be in one of those dramatic periods where a very abundant life form[Note 1]Note 1. NOTETEXT-1 disappears.
As we consider these changes, we often lose track of something very fundamental. In each case of branching much more remains the same than changes. Conservation is fundamental to being able to trace a lineage; we must be able to say that such and such has been conserved in order to claim a connection. Indeed conservation is a fundamental dynamic in the origin and continued existence of any system, including a living system, or for that matter any particular living being.
Whenever in a collection of elements a configuration of relations begins to be conserved, a system arises defined as a unity by the configuration of relations conserved which henceforth becomes its organization. (Maturana in Maturana and Bunnell, 1999, p. 83)
When this happens an observer would say that the system has arisen spontaneously. Given our cultural bent for purpose and causality, as discussed above, we usually refer to this as selforganization, as that somehow let us look at this phenomenon as if there were an entity attaining the result of existence by organizing itself.
Spontaneous organization must have happened in the origin of living systems as discrete molecular groups began to be organized in a network of molecular productions that produced the same network of productions (autopoiesis). Such primitive living systems lasted only as long as the medium in which they existed was adequate to maintain the material and energy relationship that made these networks possible. That is, the living system only existed in a relationship with its medium (adaptation). As long as both autopoiesis and adaptation were conserved, the living system was conserved. This is an important point, because it means that as long as those dynamic conditions were maintained everything else could change. The structure of the living system could change, and it did. The medium could change, and it did. The particular manner in which the relationship between the living system and the medium was realized could change, and it did.
The dynamics of relationship
The possibilities of configuration of structure and relationship with the medium are endless, and indeed what we have, as a result of the realization of some of these possibilities, is an amazing diversification comprising an incredible array of life forms and their niches. These niches have become multiply and reciprocally connected, where each life form exists in a niche comprised in part by many other life forms. We have now a richly articulated biosphere which is a network of coherent relationships. This has been possible precisely because both autopoieses and adaptation have been consistently conserved.
Natural phylogenic drift occurs in the recursive interactions between living systems and medium as a process that necessarily flows in a continuous co-drifting that involves for each living system at every moment all the dimensions of its domain of existence while at the same time each living system operates as part of the medium of others. (Maturana and Mpodozis, 2000)
The emphasis on the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation in the above story gives a different perspective to what we generally understand about evolution. What is also inherent in this telling is something very fundamental, and quite surprising. The basic unit of evolutionary change is not the genome, or the organism, it is the relationship of adaptation between the organism and its medium, or in biological terms the ontogenetic phenotype/ontogenetic niche[Note 2]Note 2. NOTETEXT-2 relationship. Though I cannot substantiate this notion here, I invite you to turn to Maturana and Mpodozis (2000). They claim that it is the behaviour of the organisms, that is, the flow of their interactions in the realization of their individual life histories, and not their genetic constitution, or any kind of directional external pressure on the course of the realization of their living, that guides the course of structural drifts of living systems.
What is ‘behaviour’, then, that is so significant? Is it not the most flexible thing? Is this not the way that we, and other animals, make ourselves fit with the circumstances, always changing beyond our control? How could this flexible response determine what happens in evolution, or even in a life history? These questions arise from the perspective that we and other animals behave as we do to fulfil the general purpose of staying alive. As I have implied above, purpose exists in language; it is a particular manner of explaining and orienting human behaviour that requires the reflective capacity that arises in language. Thus, if we regard the notion of purpose as an attribution we make based on the consequences we observe, then we are free to look at behaviour in a different way.
Simply, behaviour is whatever aspect of the relationship between the organism and the medium that we detect and attribute to the organism. Whatever the behaviour, it arises in sensory– motor correlations, that is, in the compositional domain of the organism (its physiology). However, behaviour exists as a phenomenon in the domain of the relationship between the living system and its medium, or specifically its niche. This is a specific instance of the general; the domain in which the processes that generate a phenomenon, and the domain in which the phenomenon takes place, are non-intersecting, and are not reducible to each other, nor is the relationship between the two causal. However, they do influence each other.
The organism and the medium are in structural coupling, that is, each is a structure-determined system in which changes in it are determined by its current structure, not by the encounter. The encounter merely triggers one or other of several potential changes. In this context, behaviour is an abstraction, made by the observer, that pertains to the flow of these encounters. Hence the flow of the encounters, as a phenomenal domain, does influence the structure of both the organism and the medium.
Thus when Maturana and Mpodozis claim that it is behaviour that guides the course of evolution, they are saying that it is the flow of encounters with the medium that determines what happens. What then is the role of the genome?
What about DNA?
The genome is part of the operational and structural background that modulates the field of possible epigenetic courses. Nothing can happen in the life history of a living system that is not permitted by its genome. And whatever does happen arises in an epigenetic manner. In other words whatever happens, happens on top of what has already happened.
For example, there is no such gene per se that says ‘Make an eye’, but there is a set of genes that, under specific circumstances, are triggered to provide the right modules to contribute to the formation of an eye. This triggering happens only when certain other events have already taken place in the embryonic development so that a particular part of the embryonic brain comes near a particular area of the embryonic skin. These two begin to interact with each other, as whole systems that include the chemical activity possible with their DNA, and in this particular configuration, such that each contributes a part to the developing eye. The eye arises in the molecular interplay of cells that are different because they have followed different lineages of development – minor differences in starting points leading to different consequences, one step at a time.
This is not at all random, nor is it unpredictable like the butterfly effect, as it always only happens in a very consistent medium – made consistent as part of the living system – that is, in the egg cell and its environment. Because all development occurs in this epigenetic fashion, it is not possible to properly claim that any feature that arises in the life history of an organism is genetically determined.
Metaphorically, the genome is like a set of templates for various functional modules in a fancy Lego set – and according to the circumstances these can be used to build various edifices. Most of the time the circumstances relevant to what gets built stay the same – and many very similar edifices result. As circumstances change, the same modules may give rise to different edifices. Since neighbouring edifices comprise a large part of the circumstances, any change ripples through the system, sometimes damping out, sometimes shifting everything. Moreover, in the course of the building, once in a while the circumstances effectively alter the template for the modules – and rapid change in the kind of edifices that may result takes place. This happens with DNA – various things can take place that alter it in a heritable fashion.
Thus the genome carries with it many, many more possibilities than are ever realized in any given living system. All the genetic variations that do not interfere with the realization of a particular kind of living being may remain as inconsequential variations of form, or may remain as an inherent background of new possibilities. All of this makes possible a rapid drift in the structures (forms of living systems) that are realized.
Natural selection
When we think of the genome dictating the structure, in essence being in control of the structure of the living system, then we are stuck with explaining how the genome changes. The old model, that which I learned in my schooling over a quarter century ago, postulated a series of random changes through recombination and mutation, which created a population of more or less fit individuals from which the best would be selected to carry on the species. The fittest survived. This was seen as a lottery which an individual entered by being born, with unknown but predetermined odds hidden in its constitution.
Maturana and Mpodozis turn this notion on its head by being clear about the cognitive nature of the notions of purpose and causality which I have been attempting to illuminate through the course of this paper. They say that natural selection is a consequence of the history of the constitution of the biosphere through natural drift, and not the mechanism that generates that history. The observer sees differential survival, and postulates a force that would result in this, and calls that force natural selection. Thus that which we can describe as natural selection occurs as the result of differential survival, and is not the cause of it. Differential survival in the realization of living (conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation) constitutes lineages of living systems in a process of phylogenic drift. Evolution is the history of diversification of living systems that takes place through natural phylogenic drift.
The diversification of lineages in living systems does not course in a competitive dynamics through the survival of the fittest, but it follows the course of the survival of the fit in the conservation of autopoiesis (living) and adaptation. (Maturana and Mpodozis, 2000).
Human Evolution And Reflection
Human animals
Many people are upset when I remark that we humans are animals, as if this were an insult. I do not wish to imply that we are like other animals in all respects, but in most, if not all, aspects of our biological constitution we are animals, mammals of the lineage of Homo sapiens. This is not a bad thing; everything that we now value as our human beingness arises from the exquisitely intricately constituted biological base of being an animal. And I do not mean just our bodies as some complex bio-machine that keeps us alive – our animalness is much, much richer than that! Our animalness is what makes our humanness possible, just as our humanness is what makes our most cherished spiritual experiences possible. We are fortunate to have inherited the consequences of billions of years of systemic evolution which has resulted in an intricate and fluid structural coupling with our medium, more than what we are consciously aware of. It is this biological historical dynamic that has resulted in our current medium, our human languaging niche, now! This history has not only brought us to where we now are, but it is structurally embodied in who we now are.
All the dynamics that influence the constitution, conservation and change of living systems also apply to us. We live in the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation, and we are in the process of natural drift in the formation and loss of various lineages determined by the flow of our relationship with our medium. Like other animals, our behaviour guides the course of our evolution. Just as for other animals, our genome is the ground for the possibilities of what we may become.
That we have already followed a particular path for some 5 million years has resulted in changes to our genome, which is now 2% different from some of our nearest hominid relatives, the chimpanzees. Still, this does not determine what we are or what we will become. The human genome is the ground for the epigenetic path of our individual and evolutionary ontogenies, and for the possible manners of conserving or not conserving our adaptation with the medium. We have lived in structural coupling with our medium all along, we and the medium have changed congruently all along, so our niche now fits the being we have become. And what is our niche?
Like all living things, the human niche arises in the dynamics of the relationship between the organism and the medium. Most of our interactions are with other humans, and most of those are in networks of conversation. Our niche is a languaging niche. It is as if we have followed that path of articulating a richly intricate surface of encounter that enables us to remain in intimate structural coupling with our medium, that is, each other, in an ever-expanding universe of possibilities.[Note 3]Note 3. NOTETEXT-3 Language expands the surface of our encounter with each other. Hence we live in a niche of our own creation. This has been the case along a long history of languaging, and the result has been the homosphere with all its technologies. And in this sense we are unique among living beings.
Intangible Modulates the Tangible
We normally consider a language to be intangible, as it has no presence as a touchable object in the material domain, yet it deeply influences what becomes in the material world. We can easily see this happening in our own lives, as we, our families, friends and even co-workers develop differently according to how we relate to each other. In the case of human evolution, it appears that the intangible domain of language, languaging behaviour, is that which most dramatically determines the course of our evolutionary drift.
Why should this matter? Do we not just create endlessly more complex worlds, with whatever configuration we like? I think it matters for two reasons. First, we may not like what we have inadvertently created and consider inevitable. That is the main gist of this paper. Second, there is something else, something that influences this drift. We humans do not live only in the languaging world of our own creation. We, as living beings, also live in the biosphere. We encounter it in many dimensions that we may be more or less aware of. As we encounter it, we change it – for we do remain in structural coupling with this as well.
Since we human beings think about ourselves, and about the world we live in, language has become part of the dynamic in which the systemic history of the biosphere occurs. Hence what we think, believe and say influences the whole flowing network of natural phylogenic drift that comprises the biosphere, moment after moment, in a continuously changing present. Both our vision and our blindness modulate the flow of biological evolution. This is why premises, beliefs and explanations (Bunnell, 1998) are not trivial. And this is why it is not trivial that we think that competition and natural selection are the way nature works. The world conforms to who we become. Do we want the world, both homosphere and biosphere, to be as we are now invoking it through our langauging?
Orienting our drift
Everything I have been saying implies more freedom – and more responsibility. Knowing that we are not stuck in a genetic determinism gives us freedom to choose a path according to our preference of how we wish to be. This does not mean that just any wish is available – what we become has to be contiguous with what we are. But even knowing, or even believing, that we are not stuck in a body that endows us with primitive, uncivilized urges that we can barely tame with our civilized rationality – even that changes everything. It changes the mood, the orientation, and the domains of our activities. It changes ourselves, and the biosphere (Bunnell, 1997).
Furthermore, knowing that our concepts of how nature works are grounded in our culture gives us greater freedom to look again, to see the constitutive dynamics of systems, and to see how we are present in them. In other words we may modulate the drift. I did not say control – I do not think we can control, or predict, or even create long-term plans that are effective. As Maturana has explained, plans never work (Maturana, 1998).
Kathleen Forsythe speaks of the current culture as a cancer (Forsythe, unpublished manuscript, 1998) that consists of a distortion of systemic dynamics in a way that results in massive proliferation of entities without concern for the ground of their existence. She speculates that the same dynamics is mirrored in the entities themselves; that is, the distortions of the culture trigger distortions in our bodies, and the rise in the incidence of cancer is a direct reflection of the nature of the homosphere we have created. Given the nature of coherent change in organism and medium implicated in natural drift, this notion is plausible, and it could happen in the behavioural domain without recourse to toxic chemicals. What if this were so?
If we accept that the way we think nature is, or works, is based on how we look, we will have to alter how we ‘learn’ from nature. We cannot turn to her as a transcendental source of lessons. We can turn to her for vision and for wisdom. We can turn to ourselves, as integral parts of nature, for vision, using our evolutionary gift for systemic thinking (Maturana and Bunnell, 1998). We can turn to ourselves for guidance, as languaging beings who uniquely have the gift of reflection and awareness, as these are indeed an integral part of the evolutionary dynamic.
The fundamental question is, what kind of being do we like to be, want to be, and hence want to become – for we will become according to how we are, not according to how we plan or attempt to control ourselves and our systems. The latter are the operating premises of what I call Homo sapiens arrogans (Sonntag and Bunnell, 1997). They do not necessarily result in what we arrogantly assume will happen, but they clearly result in a different path that living as Homo sapiens amans, the loving wise hominid. Indeed these names are intentionally chosen to highlight the circumstance that we are now, in the present, in the process of evolution. It did not all happen in the past, indeed we are at a unique branch point now (Gallopin et al., 1997) that is fundamentally grounded in our own understanding of ourselves and our doings. I have been concerned with making an invitation that will alter the path of human evolution before (Bunnell, 1998), but now I begin to see a way in which this can be made seriously. So I come back to my original motive. I, and many others, are unhappy with the environmental and social impasse that we see ourselves blundering into, and we would like to see some changes. I hope I have contributed a way of looking that is at least the beginning of a portal. Indeed, if I am right about the way language, beliefs and premises alter the human drift, then a serious consideration of what I have said has already evoked a shift, a change in orientation that, if conserved, will alter the direction of the evolution of the biosphere. Like in the Story of B (Quinn, 1997), once you understand something, you become the being who acts in that understanding. Or, as Maturana says ‘All knowing is acting, and all acting is knowing.’
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1 I am thinking of a life form that has been creating ripples, waves and even tsunamis of change throughout the biosphere: Homo sapiens – there is nothing that decrees that we will indeed survive as a species, proliferating and acting as we do.
2 Ontogenetic refers to the developmental path of an individual living system through its life history. The phenotype is its structure, and the niche is that aspect of its medium that it is in relationship with. I have used the terms ontogenetic phenotype/ontogenetic niche relationship, adaptation, and behaviour to refer to different looks or aspects of the dynamics of organism/medium relationship. The term ontogenetic phenotype/ontogenetic niche relationship brings the lifelong change of this relationship to the forefront, adaptation speaks of the appropriateness of that relationship from the perspective of the organism, and behaviour speaks of the observable dynamics of the organism that participate in the moment-by-moment dynamics of this relationship. Another related phrase, structural coupling, refers to the path of structural changes that happens to both organism and medium in the process of this same relational dynamics.
3 I am aware that through the pursuit of a particular set of possibilities, and developing a great intimacy (expertise, passion) in a particular domain, one can be, and often is, isolated from other domains. But the dynamic of pursuing the intense structural coupling of an expanding surface of encounter remains the same, regardless of the branch it pertains to.